Friday, December 06, 2013


Yesterday Nelson Mandela died, and the world lost one of its greatest ever agents of peace. Meanwhile, more locally, during the past few weeks several people very close to me have dealt with the deaths of too many loved ones to count: a father, a mother, and so, so many friends (one covered with once-soft black fur). It's been a very rough month, and I don't believe I've handled it as well as I might have. I don't think I've been as present as I could have been; I think I've been too self-absorbed. I've been sleepwalking, but I feel as though I'm coming awake.

Yesterday my HON 479 students put on their long-awaited workshop on diversity, inclusion, and equity, focusing on the ways in which these manifest in religion, race, and gender. They worked with a small audience comprising about ten faculty and staff and a couple of their fellow students. The group was small, but it was engaged. The conversations we had were rich, heartfelt, authentic. The event was enlightening, meaningful, and moving. Working with wonderful visuals (Like the Cooper Center's "Racial Dot Map" and It's Pronounced Metrosexual's "Genderbread Person v. 2.0") and excellent activities ("The Cold Wind Blows," religious insensitivity role-plays, and a few rounds of reflective writing on our own gender and racial identities), the students' workshop was substantially better than the awful diversity and inclusion workshop I took part in earlier this year.

At some point late in yesterday's workshop's proceedings, while one of my students was talking about her intellectual journey as a devout Christian completing an academic degree in religious studies, I had a sudden feeling of self-awareness. It was a feeling of being and becoming all at once. It was also a feeling of oneness, of unity with the people I'd just shared the past two hours with. Though our group was small, we represented several races and ethnicities, several religious traditions, several gender and sexual identities. We offered a substantial cross-section of our society, and we were having civil...nay, collegial, even cordial...conversation on some of the most difficult topics for anyone to talk about.

On the way home from campus, NPR told me that Mandela had died, and I teared up in the car. I thought of South Africa's Madiba, and his friends and colleagues in struggle. I thought in particular of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for whom I have more respect than nearly anyone else. In his incredible book No Future Without Forgiveness Tutu speaks of the concept of ubuntu, a Bantu term referring to our human interconnectedness, which Mandela once described as follows:

"A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food and attend him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?"

In the short time I had before I had to leave again to meet with my writing group I sliced onions for the simple meal of lentils and rice I would make when I came home again, and I read the first lines of the end-of-semester reflection one of my HON 479 students had handed to me just before helping to host that afternoon's workshop. "Dear Patrick, I hope you don't find this format too informal," it begins. "I tailored my response with you in mind, so I thought I might address you directly." In tandem with her humble letter (which brought me to tears by the time I was done reading it) was a hand-made jigsaw puzzle the student had crafted.

I had no time to assemble more than the frame of the puzzle before leaving, but completing the puzzle was the second thing (after starting dinner) I did on my return home.

"You may start to notice (or maybe you have finished) that the puzzle is a tree. I chose a tree because I think it represents various aspects of the IHAD program."

"Now, I'm sorry to deprive you of the satisfaction of putting that last piece in the puzzle, but I did not lose it and neither did you. How frustrating is it to complete a process yet still feel as though you are missing something?...Thank you for going through this puzzling process with me today."

I've recently taken to origami, more seriously than my halfhearted efforts in the past. I am struck in particular by the beauty and meaning of the kusudama, or "medicine ball," a form that's meant to ward off evil and encourage health and strength. I made a kusudama a week ago for a grieving loved one, and I'm making more now, for friends, for family, for people I love. I fear I'll never stop, for right now I feel a sort of universal love which I hope I'll never lose.

It's a new day. As this day begins, please take a moment to love yourself, to love each other, to find peace and joy in all that you do. Enjoy being, but keep becoming.


JM (Dr. Jinx) said...

This is beautifully written and put together.

Jack said...


My excitement and slight apprehension for 479 next year is growing. I hope the safe, respectful environment of your course remains so next year. Some personal struggles of someone very close to me have made it much more difficult for me to talk about these tough issues without stripping my heart bare of defenses. I hope to heal that anxiety!

Be well!