I was a kid and I was sick. I don’t remember what I had. But my brother, three years older than me, brought me some books to look at while I lay in bed. One was THE FAMILY OF MAN. If you are familiar with this book–it is all photographs by Edward Steichen from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York–that then circulated around the world. The beloved Chicago poet, Carl Sandburg, wrote an introduction:
THERE IS ONLY ONE MAN IN THE WORLD and his name is ALL MEN. THERE IS ONLY ONE WOMAN IN THE WORLD and her name is ALL WOMEN. THERE IS ONLY ONE CHILD IN THE WOLRD and the child’s name is ALL CHILDREN.
But I wasn’t reading that. I’m a kid, probably seven or eight. (And if I watched TV, it was cartoons and Disney.) So I’m opening the book and being shocked. Why? The photographs are amazing, photos of people naked and kissing; a baby being born; a mother nursing a baby with all exposed. Keep turning the pages and I am in countries where people don’t dress like Americans, don’t look like them–they are dancing, singing, eating, crying and dying.
I closed the book. Was I really supposed to see these things? YES. A few years later it would be a pornographic magazine found on a street corner. (Nudity can be art and not art.) I was learning about the world. No parent can keep a child from reality. But there are wonderful ways and sordid ways for children to become worldly. We learn to evaluate and to understand.
RIGHT THERE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Every family decides how they will handle nudity, where babies come from and the details of sex. Yes, in some ways I was sheltered. There was the time a loving aunt took me to a public pool to swim. After that day, I didn’t like public pools very much. I was shy. I liked running under the hose in my backyard. That day when we walked into the shower room in our bathing suits, an older woman totally nude was showering, revealing parts of the human body I had never seen. Now where was that book that my brother gave me when I was sick?
Another time, my mother drove us to the Highway Theatre for a movie. We purchased our tickets, waited for the doors to open. A woman and a preteen girl were at the ticket window. I was watching them, but then wanted to turn away–the clerk indicated that they didn’t have enough money. The mother began to argue, raise her voice. The girl pulled at her mother saying, MA LET’s GO. The woman kept it up. The girl pulled harder and harder her voice cracking until finally she was able to escape this terrible scene. I didn’t enjoy the film. I thought about that girl for days.
Because I grew up with no father, he died when I was three, it took me years to feel comfortable around men, to understand what they were all about. On trips to a lake house with my close friend’s family, I loved the weekdays–no men. They came up on weekends. They were all loving fathers, but I hung back.
WAKING UP EVERY DAY
The crazy thing about these episodes that occurred in my life years ago, is that they are still happening. Yes, I navigated and embraced my life, survived learning about men and women, sex and marriage, pain and death, and came to the conclusion that life is amazing and wonderful and I want to hug it and be in it and share it with others.
Books, like THE FAMLY OF MAN, opened doors for me. I read, I learned, I could not get enough of life’s vibrancy. Or its sadness (Jesus cold in a manger, men and women dying in wars.) Because there comes a point in everyone’s life when you no longer want to look out a curtained window at YOUR LIFE. You want to BE IN IT.
Even though I have some years on me, I don’t want to watch a room of jaded older men and women, who are not AWAKENING like I am, deciding how my children and grandchildren will live in this, our beloved America. I want to shout out: YOU HAVE HAD YOUR TIME, ARE SET IN YOUR WAYS! Others are awakening, LISTEN TO THEM.
FOLLOW THE VOICES, LOOK AT THE FACES
There is a word in our language: jaded. It means, made dull, apathetic, or cynical by experience or by having or seeing too much of something.
You can’t see too much of your fellow humans who smile and weep; who work hard and love to sleep or listen to music or dance.
You can’t read too much about the good things in people–the hard work they encounter, the diseases they fight (patient and doctor and scientist) the things they create–music and art and poetry and drama, and the world of nature that is powerful some days and tame the next.
MAYBE TOMORROW YOU COULD:
- Say hello to a stranger
- Turn off your electronic device and listen to the wind, rain, or if you are lucky hear birdsong.
- Call a friend who you’ve been angry with. Make up.
- Hug your family members like you really, truly can’t live without them. Because if you do lose them–that will be your sad reality.
- Find it in your heart to break down some barrier–it could be a prejudice, an anger or a blaming. Sometimes we even blame ourselves when forgiveness is the BREATH OF LIFE.
I would also recommend finding a copy of THE FAMILY OF MAN. Or reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER. Or teaching yourself about THE TAX PLAN. Or reading literature, which is about THE OTHER, and introduces you to SOMEONE ELSE’S POINT OF VIEW.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
White Girls by Hilton Als
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Photo: ABC NEWS.go.com