I want to give you some backstory to this post because it probably is more fun in context. Honestly the end point relating to “free” doesn’t really need a whole lot of backstory. I just like the backstory so I’m going to tell it to you anyway. But you might be thinking, “Crap I don’t have time to read a whole long @ss post.” So in case you just want to get to the point, I’ve separated this post into two parts: the backstory and the point. So you can read the prelude if you want to…or you can just get right to the point.The Prelude: A Train to Munich, or How Jade Met German Alex
The twenty-fourth year of my life was probably one of the hardest ones. Huge emotional turmoil plus I had just started the first year of my grad program, which in and of itself was intense. Going into my twenty-fifth birthday I had an urgent desire to do something big for myself. So I booked a flight to Germany. I had never traveled by myself before, but I had a deep need to prove to myself that I was strong and independent enough to travel to a foreign country, and you know, not get into trouble of the very bad sort.
Right before I left, as a soon-to-be-second-year in the grad program, I was asked to mentor an incoming first year and just happened to be assigned to a German student named Alex. So I sent him an email introducing myself and saying if he had any questions about the program, feel free to ask, etc. Oh and by the way, I’ll be in Germany soon too! And after a flurry of emails, we agreed to meet in Munich and that I would stay with him for four days out of my 2-week trip.
It wasn’t until I was about to board the train to Munich that I started to panic. What the hell was I getting myself into, traveling to meet a man I had never before seen in my life, all by myself, and staying with him? He could be a murderer! Or a rapist! Or any number of skeezy-type things. I turned to my German step-mother-in-law (who wasn’t an in-law at the time at all, but that’s a whole other long story) in my panic and she said, “It’s okay. Let me talk to him.” I gave her his phone number and she called him and grilled him on where I was to stay and who we’d be with and after about a 20-minute interview in which he was interrogated by a complete stranger, she hung up and said, “Ya, he’s fine.”
So I got on the train, got to Munich, and found myself face-to-face with a tall German man with a gruff, scruffy face and a warm, wounded teddy-bear heart (grumpy softies are my favorite kind of person, really). He had gotten a female friend of his to open her place up to a complete stranger and he introduced me to other friends and they took me around the city and we had a fabulous grand old time. And I was really thankful I hadn’t freaked out so much that I had bailed and missed out on all these wonderful people.
Alex soon come to the States and even stayed with me a little while until he got an apartment. Then he met Manouchka (which I know probably sounds Russian or something, but she’s actually from the African nation of Gabon). And after a year together here, Alex and Manouchka left for Gabon and got married there, and have been living there and in Cape Town (South Africa) since (they were even there during the World Cup!). Living in Cape Town has not been so fun for them, since he is white and she is black. Their marriage was met with a great deal of hostility.
So we haven’t seen them in four years, but they are back in L.A. now, and last night we had a mini reunion, wherein we swapped stories…and here I come to my point.The Point of the Post: Freedom from Tradition, and the Tradition of Freedom
Manouchka was telling us of the funeral of her uncle. Apparently, funerals in Gabonese tradition are quite drawn out, lengthy and heady affairs. It’s not just a service that lasts a few hours, followed by a meal, a few words, and then everyone goes their own way to tend to their grief privately. Funerals in Gabon last a solid week. When it became clear that her uncle, who by her account was not a good man (he was not a really bad man either, but not a good man), was going to pass away, the entire house was prepared. There was a room where his body lay in death, and then there was a room where all the women retreated in to cry (theirs is a matrilineal society). The women stayed there for days, crying and wailing together, trying to cry out everything they could. They emphasized their mourning so that his spirit would not linger. They wore traditional makeup and did not shower. When they emerged, they looked quite wild. They slept outside, anywhere they could find, even on the ground with the mosquitoes. Eventually his body was moved to the village where he was born, for they believe the body must return to its source. The women again retreated into the Crying Room, while Alex waited with the men outside. He did not know what the women were doing; he just sensed he could not follow where the women went. Drummers beat traditional music, and for days they could not really sleep because of the constant drumming and the discomfort of sleeping outside, so that soon they all began to feel as if they were in a trance. The women began to dance to the drum beat, and as they did, they shook their limbs and bodies, to encourage his spirit to go, to free himself from the world, and to not take anyone with him. The dancing and the crying went on through the night culminating just at the break of dawn on the last day. Dawn is believed to be the time when spirits move, and at dawn they shook the last remnants of his spirit free. And then it all stopped. The sun rose with the new day, and they were cleansed and free.
Manouchka said she felt that, in his death, he had more meaning than he had had in his life.
In western cultures we pride ourselves on our freedoms: our freedoms to choose our own paths and forge our own ways. But there is a price for our freedom. We lose the richness of deeply embedded traditions, where every action has a meaning and a symbolism. Many people feel it is only the couple who marry, instead of entire families and communities joining together (and are often quite glad for that for they are estranged from their families). And when we grieve, we grieve alone. And when we die, we die alone. This loss of meaning has an impact. I think that’s why we see so many stories like Eat, Pray, Love where people wander the world in search of meaning. The risk of having complete freedom of direction is that you can become lost along the way. I am not saying this freedom is a bad thing. I too am striving for it in many ways. But while there may be no scientific basis for the need to shake a spirit free, there is no denying the power of a community coming together. And there is no denying the power of such intense grief giving way to catharsis. After that week, there is no more sense of depression, there is no mourning. They are free.
This week’s challenge: Free
You can take that any way you like. Write up something, then just link it up in the comments below!
Next week’s challenge: Origins
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Join in this week’s Bigger Picture Moment here.