I keep thinking about the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. I find it increasingly difficult to trust international news, but last month roughly 200 girls were taken, one way or another, as pawns in some complicated political drama, and as I write they have not been returned. From far away, I try not to worry, which is useless; I try to hold them in the light.
Right now, I am following the Quaker practice called “holding in the light” for a number of people. My interpretation of holding in the light may well vary from that of Quakers you know (or from your own practice.) As it works out for me, the practice involves holding hope, but keeping that hope faithful to the situation, open to what I don’t know yet, and wise about the ways all of us must accept natural change.
With no belief in magical dimensions, I still send my spirit, send whatever strength I know. Ultimately, to hold someone in the light involves staying attentive to challenging realities–not shrinking away from people just because what they’re experiencing is hard and I don’t know their answers.
The Nigerian girls are in life-threatening trouble, and they are strangers to me, strangers in layer after layer of life’s realities. But for various reasons, like so many others around the world, I feel called to their trouble.
Most of the people I’m holding in the light these days are people I know.
I’m thinking of past students who are making big transitions, graduating from Touchstone, high school, or college. Some are in the process of moving from schools supportive of special needs into other schools that can’t afford to be, within their current structuring. I hold all these journeying students in the light and wish for them awareness of promise, no matter what. I wish them both courage and the joy of discovery; both thoughtful care and exhilarating flight.
Oddly enough, that’s what I wished for them every day, when I spent every day with them.
Some of the people I’m thinking of have recently experienced a loss, and now face a huge absence in their lives. Some are struggling with long-term illness, and some are just surprised, again and again, to have become old, surprised that their reward involves working so hard–physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually–to navigate all the changes that come with having survived (and thrived!) so long. I hold all these travelers in the light, and wish them both self-possession and continued openness to whatever communities support them and need them. I wish them the energy to make their journeys with dignity and grace.
I’m also holding in the light some people I know who are learning to navigate new relationships and responsibilities, parenting for the first time, or parenting two kids for the first time, living in a committed couple and feeling all those mixed blessings, or moving into a new community. I watch them practice new skills of listening, of risking, of embracing, and I wish them energy for all that.
There, too, it’s much like what I was doing when I went through the alphabet of my class. That was my first task when I was given a finally-for-sure new class list. I memorized it–using first names, after the year I first taught twins. I asked myself many questions, child by child, in that recurring ritual of going through the list in my mind, while driving, while doing dishes, while standing on the playground for recess duty. Two of the most important questions always seemed to be: how can I help this child belong to herself? How can I help each child belong to the group and collaborate to create and nurture the group? Name by name, I held them in the light, as travelers moving forward together.
For some people, what I’m describing would be a prayer list. In fact, it is what I do when I find myself in a church (as a singer, generally, or as a mourner.) Maybe it’s some form of shamanism I practice, some very decentralized life of the spirit. For example, crossing the Connecticut River several times each week, I reach out to its power, and send some to the people I know who need energy to let go and swim in the rivers and brooks of their lives.
Or energy to hold onto whatever sapling they are holding in a flood.
Always, some are strangers, these people to whom I send whatever I am sending. Right now, some are in terrible peril, in places I cannot visualize, across an ocean, on a continent and in a country that has always fascinated me, but where I have never set foot. Those Nigerian schoolgirls have been rendered powerless to a degree I’ve never known. Their identities appear to have been reduced to their physical, sexual bodies, by people for whom they are something colder than strangers; they are tools.
In the face of all my ignorance about them, in the face of my own wave of fear and rage when I think of them, I hold them in the light.
The girls’ kidnappers say that they kidnapped them from their school because education for girls is wrong. (The same group appears to be resisting one of Nigeria’s biggest oil companies, and that’s part of what makes me a little wary of taking the story at face value.)
It’s true that education for girls threatens traditional roles for women, because those roles have so often required unthinking submission to rules that did them harm. I get into a snarl every time I start to ponder this, because I value many things about traditional cultures, and mistrust many of the forces that seek to undermine them. Reading Kirkpatrick Hill’s novels about girls in Alaskan tribal groups, thinking about their struggles with the rules for their behavior–and especially with the ways they were defined as danger to the hunt or to the harvest–I also respect Hill’s portrayal of the ways those rules were softened and mediated by relationships, by mutual knowledge, by family and community.
I wind up wondering whether traditional ideologies aren’t most dangerous when the family and community relationships that mediated them have been disrupted. I don’t expect all my readers to agree with me, but I see traditional culture, as well as family and community coherence, under siege by mindless giant corporate profit motive, by blind greed that gives itself no way to see or listen, everywhere in the world. I wonder: could it be easy to think that fighting against the corporate monoliths requires a return to the worst aspects of tradition, the most brutal patriarchy? Or maybe thugs are just thugs, wherever and however.
Here’s what I know for sure. Supporting education for girls–supporting authentic education for anyone–requires the courage to let go of traditional arrangements, and a commitment to a change process that listens to everyone’s needs, values everyone’s possibilities, and moves forward by mutual consent. But that takes skills, practical skills, that many people have had little chance to practice. And there are always interests which don’t value teaching people to think independently, and to act together.
At this point, most of the ways I support education for girls, and authentic education for all, do feel like prayer–simultaneously remote and heartfelt. For one thing, week after week I write this blog with no idea where it will travel. I continue to support Planned Parenthood, working for full, rich, empowered lives for both women and men all over the world. I support and applaud A Mighty Girl, helping my granddaughter see herself as Super Julia.
I don’t have much money with which to support these organizations; I support them chiefly by passing on their perspective in whatever ways I can.
Planned Parenthood recently posted on Facebook their hopes for the “world we want”, in which all those girls are restored to their families. In my own hope, I wish those girls courage to take action for themselves, to grab the chance to flee however they can. I wish their captors courage to see the evil of what they are doing, to release those girls to their families and their teachers.
I add a hope that if and when they are returned, the girls do not become victims who are blamed for their own suffering, as victims are so often blamed out of the shame and cynicism of those who’ve harmed them.
I hold those far away girls in the light, and wish them some way to sing with gladness, soon.
[For illustrations in this post, I rummaged in my boxes and binders to find some talismans I kept near my desk in my classroom: a paper candle saved from those we put up around the room when Dana was in her coma–since real candles would have set off the smoke alarms; an anonymous watercolor I fished out of the trash, of a girl swimming with a red kick-board; another watercolor, similarly rescued, of a boat near an evergreen-lined shore; a baby learning to swim, with a hopeful face and carrot red hair; and finally, here, since turned into a house, the tiny one room school in which my grandmother taught, on the shoulder of Mt. Blue in Maine.]