What Keeps Us Alive

geezBy Lydia Wylie-Kellermann. Published in Geez Magazine’s Spring issue.

If each hour brings death
If time is a den of thieves
The breezes carry a scent of evil
And life is just a moving target
you will ask why we sing…

We sing because the river is humming
And when the river hums
The river hums
We sing because cruelty has no name
But we can name its destiny
We sing because the child because everything
Because the future because the people
We sing because the survivors
And our dead want us to sing

(Excerpt from Mario Benedetti’s Por Que Cantamos)

As folks with a host of privileges in a world crushed by oppression, we are sold options for how to see the times we live in. Avoidance. We are in a position that gives us the option to turn it off and hide the injustice and hardness that surround us. In closing the window to reality, we are ultimately left numb to pain. Or guilt. The stories fill our inboxes and sound waves leaving us feeling crushed by the sheer weight of the world and immobilized by all there is to do. We feel alone and insufficient and aching with guilt. In the end either option leaves us exhausted and reaching to the system itself for an answer or for some brief moment of happiness. In our first world confusion, we equate happiness for comfort which can be bought and sold and is not accessible to folks on the margin. We empty our pockets clinging to the chance to find some relief.

At twelve, I learned these options weren’t enough. They didn’t give room for the grief and wonder pulsating in my veins. My mom was diagnosed with brain cancer and as I moved through my teenage years, we lived with the constant uncertainty of whether my mom was living or dying. There is something about living in the midst of death that reminds you what is really important allowing the rest of the nonsense to fall away. Every day was a chance to say I love you, to turn off the noise and sing in harmony, to honor each changing season, to hold the ordinary sacred, and to not waste a second. In her dying, she taught me something so important that my gratitude aches deep in my gut. I watched my mom find within her the peace to die with her eyes open and spirit willing. She looked death in the face and found a freedom to die denying its power and fear over her. This freedom also gave way to a freedom to live embracing life in its fullest joy and deepest laughter.

In our own Christian scriptures, we know a Jesus who was no stranger to pain as he walked the margins of empire, but he also knew how to throw a damn good party! From the loaves and fishes to water into wine, there was always a group gathered and a wedding party parable to share. He lived a truth in word and action for which one can be executed. In the face of that knowing, he broke bread with friends again and again resisting the control of the shadow of death.

Six years ago, while my partner and I were in the West Bank, I found some of my greatest teachers in the faces of children. We joined folks at a nonviolent protest at a road block dumped by the Israeli army. As I looked around, I realized that at twenty-two, I was an elder in this group. With two hundred people marching the great majority were between the ages of five and fifteen. Children began climbing the massive pile of dirt and took shovels to it symbolically hacking away. Within a minute, eight military vehicles arrived, snipers climbed the hills, and they began shooting tear gas and sound bombs. A stampede erupted with everyone running for safety. The chaos, the inability to breathe or see, left me feeling hopeless.

Yet, as the dust settled, the children turned around and went back. With negotiation, the soldiers announced that they had seven minutes and after that they would begin open firing. Everything in me said, “Quick let’s get out of here!” But then four eight year old boys climbed the road block in beautiful traditional Palestinian clothing. And they began to dance the Dabka. Everyone around began to clap and sing and smile. It was a deep and contagious joy. Across the road, I caught a hint of a smile as the soldier let his gun fall to his side. Disarmament even if just for a few minutes.

These children were not naïve to the power of death or to the risks their actions involved, but they stood right in the face of it and with their bodies, their history, their culture, offered these forces an alternative- one of joy, liberation, and jubilee. Perhaps it is a harder sort of resistance than anything, to know death and find the freedom to sing, to dance, to live in its midst.

Today in my own neighborhood, joy happens slowly and sometimes without me even noticing. The cranky old neighbor teaches us how to grow tomatoes. The mother across the street laughs loudly with her children a month after her husband was deported. The post-industrial city gives way to chickens, bees, and vegetable farms. Jokes told on the way to jail wearing handcuffs and an anti-war shirt. Pizza devoured after an afternoon with neighbors cleaning up condoms and bullets from the alley. My partner and I standing at the altar choosing joy and love over fear and judgment. Handpicked cherries passed over the fence in exchange for steaming hot tamales. The constant companion of an 18 month old reminding me to laugh hourly. I give thanks for the everyday ordinary moments, for a long history and wide community of folks practicing joy as resistance, and for knowing that joy is the one thing they can’t take from us.

It is also one thing they can’t give us and we will not let them try. We refuse to buy into their cleverly crafted, limited, profit making choices laid before us. We are not looking for the ready-made packaged happiness that the powers-that-be sell us daily through a commercial assault, but real joy that comes from touching suffering, getting your hands dirty, and struggling in community. We choose joy. We hand over our unjustly obtained comfort for a discomfort that leaves us vulnerable and open to being touched by the hands of another. In so doing, we open our hearts to grief and anger. We listen to stories, feel the tears on our cheeks, and honor the silence. We go to the places of suffering and make a home on the margins. We build community in spite of the knowledge of the messy humanness that is to come.

It is in these moments, when that deep, gut-wrenching, belly aching joy emerges and it is inescapable. Grief in its long, hip breaking contractions give birth to hope, gratitude and delight. In welcoming it, we begin to remove our own shackles and addiction to privilege. This joy is not selfish, exclusive or in any way a perpetuation of injustice. Rather it is the yearning to be human in a world that is making it hard to live humanly. It is a matter of survival or in other words it is what keeps us alive.

Listen for joy. She is calling your name. Slow down. Lie down and put your ear to the dirt. Feel her in the wind and the rising moon. She is there in the green sprout pushed through last Autumn’s death and decay. You can see her smile when you tell the ancestors’ stories or make the toddling toddler laugh. You can hear her voice in the truth songs sung before the towers of power or the chants sung in the candlelit sanctuary. She is in good food, great jokes, and the gifts of neighbors. She is in the final breath and the first. She lives in the womb and the fire and the pouring rain. She is longing for you to see her standing there and invite her in to laugh a while.

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