Life stretches us all. Sometimes to the breaking point.
Needing a story (with an infusion of hope), my mind gratefully retreats to an unseasonably cool night at Vashon’s Red Bike Restaurant. It is packed with patrons, for a local fundraiser auctioning creative and bizarrely decorated Wellies. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Wellington boots are considered formal wear.
I expected good island entertainment.
I did not expect to have my heart tugged.
Sporting their wellies, a group of island fourth graders (including my son Zach) brought the house down with a Gumboot Dance.
Fourth graders as storytellers. This is as it should be. You see, a long time ago, the Gumboot Dance was born, deep in the gold mines of South Africa. There, under the weight of an unjust and oppressive migrant labor system, workers lived as little more than slaves. Each morning the men were taken in chains, down into the mines and shackled at their workstations—facing long, hard, repetitive labor—in almost total darkness. Talking was forbidden.
This is not a story for the faint of heart, for physical abuse was common, and over the years, hundreds of workers were killed in “accidents.” Sadly, it continues, in part, to this day.
The floors of the dark mines were often flooded, with poor or non-existent drainage, leaving the miners knee-deep in infected waters, resulting in skin ulcers, foot problems and consequent lost work time. Instead of draining the mine (costly), the mine owners provided each worker with gumboots (Wellington boots). This created what became the miners uniform, consisting of heavy black Wellington boots, jeans, bare chest (due to stifling heat) and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat.
Gumboot dancing was born out of adversity, and blood and sweat and tears. Though forbidden to speak, by slapping their gumboots and rattling their ankle chains, the enslaved workers sent messages to each other in the darkness, creating a means of connection and communication; essentially their own unique form of Morse Code.
Can you imagine what that must have sounded like?
In the rattling of chains and the slapping of rubber boots, is born the music of hope.
The music of angels.
The music of freedom.
The music of camaraderie and Grace.
Their communication evolved into a sort of entertainment, and the miners developed their percussive sounds and movements into a unique dance form—sung in Xhosa, Sothu or Zulu—which they used to entertain one other during their free time. (There’s a video below.)
I do not even pretend to comprehend the miner’s suffering.
However. I can learn from them. Gratefully.
Let me rephrase: We all can learn. Especially now.
Yes. Life stretches us all. Sometimes to the breaking point. Life is difficult, and sometimes, unjust. I have talked about my own battles with anxiety and depression in my life. And I’m grateful for supportive and understanding email messages.
Here’s the deal: watching fourth graders, I came to the realization that in the midst of uncertainty, it’s time to put on your Wellies, and do a dance.
But in a world where we are already stretched Terry, why write about human suffering? Because kindness requires the truth.
And the truth is this: our capacity to give and to care is born in those times we have come face to face with our own vulnerability and intrinsic powerlessness and brokenness. Let us never forget. These are not undesirable traits. No; they reveal the full measure of our humanness and are a testament to a remarkable internal reservoir which includes generosity, courage and compassion. A reservoir too easily buried.
The gift of the wellies? Our focus changes; from our internal noise to the underlying narrative of dignity and internal wellbeing. The dance is the voice of primary truth.
I need this reminder in a world where anger and violence target the vulnerable and the powerless. I may want to turn away. Instead, I am invited to put on my wellies.
I am invited to see. And to give, to heal and to dance.
We learn two important lessons from the miners.
One, You never know the impact of a simple gesture. You have no idea the power of compassion and camaraderie that will allow us to not only get through, but to thrive.
Two. In the words of William Kittridge, We need stories that tell us the reason why compassion and the humane treatment of our fellows is more important–and interesting–than feathering our own nests as we go on accumulating property and power.
The Gumboot Dance is about telling a story. To help us remember. It is reminiscent of an Old Testament tradition. When the People of Israel wandered the desert and began to lose their way or find their morale flagging, they would build an Ebenezer, a 12 stone altar, one for each tribe. (Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”) And then, around the altar, they would tell stories.
For the miners, their music became their story. Their source of strength.
I see chains. They hear music.
I see injustice. They see an opportunity to dance.
I see suffering. They see the light of grace.
This is not a matter of positive thinking or denial or extraordinary faith. It is about embracing the sacrament of the present and messy moment.
There is no doubt that we tend to over-think courage. Or compassion. Or resiliency. As if we can create a box or acceptable container. As if it is a task. You know, “tell me what they had, and let’s duplicate it.” There is no doubt that our circumstances can drown or overwhelm the music.
When we look for what should be, we miss the music in the chaos of what is. When we expect or demand explanation, we miss the miracle that happens in ordinary gumboot dancing.
Okay. You want a list?
Today, tell someone you love them and that they matter.
Today, share a kind word.
Today, do a dance, and slap out a message on your Wellies.
Make a difference in someone’s life today.
This week our hearts go out to all impacted by hurricane Delta.
Readers of Sabbath Moment know that I’m a big West Wing fan, so this week I’m looking forward this week’s reunion, A West Wing Special “When We All Vote”.
It’s raining heavy here in the PNW, so this week, I’ll be putting on my wellies to go cast my vote.
And today is National Coming Out Day. “When you’re ready, start living your truth. That’s when the magic happens,” ABC News correspondent Gio Benitez wrote. And I’m so proud of LGBTQ friends and family who have been able to live their truth. Let us be a world where grace wins.
Quotes for your week…
The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places. Ernest Hemingway
I’m grateful for those who have joined us for the NEW Sabbath Moment Daily Dose. Tuesday through Friday. A quote, a paragraph and a prayer to refuel us. Daily nourishment. This is in addition to Monday’s Sabbath Moment.
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This Is The Life
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In the mailbag… because your letters affirm us all…
–Terry, Thank you for this and for all your daily postings. They really help as we struggle and wander through these very odd days. My adult son keeps saying “But Mum, you lived through WWII as a child, that must have been like this.” As I thought about it, I realized that during that war there was always the sense of pulling together, of “the war effort” and any sacrifice or loss being worth it. I don’t mean there weren’t dreadful things going on like the holocaust but for a child at least I did not see the despair in my parents or neighbors and friends I see now. Anyway, you are a huge help, in case you don’t know it! My best to you, Anne
–Just looking at this picture of your sheep congregation brought my blood pressure down. Thank you. Yvonne
POEMS AND PRAYERS
We dance for laughter, we dance for tears, we dance for madness, we dance for fears, we dance for hopes, we dance for screams, we are the dancers, we create the dreams.
When the light around lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,
When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,
When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,
Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.
Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,
Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.
Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.
Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.
A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!
Collect for Pandemic Sanctuaries
Creator God, you remind us over and over that we are not our own, but part of the human congregation, and where we are gathered in the world, in your sanctuaries, in our towns and cities, across mountains and oceans, physically distanced in space, we are still a part of each other, even when we are apart from each other. Keep reminding us, keep loving through us across our distances. In the name of Christ, love incarnate, Amen.
(Cara Ellen Modisett)