On an unseasonably cool night the Red Bike Restaurant 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 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. And support. 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.
I do not even pretend to comprehend the miner’s suffering.
However. I can learn from them.
I do know this: life stretches us all. Sometimes to the breaking point. Life is difficult, and sometimes, unjust. In recent writings I have talked about anxiety and depression in my own life. I received emails from people, supportive and understanding. Thank you. I am grateful.
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.
In the season of good cheer, why write about human suffering? Let us never forget that 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. These are not undesirable traits. No… they reveal the full measure of our humanness, and point to an internal reservoir of generosity and courage and compassion that is too easily buried.
This week the pictures from Aleppo haunt me. Anger and violence against the very people who mirror the purity of vulnerability and powerlessness.
I want to turn away. Instead I am invited to put on my wellies.
I am invited to see. 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.
(In this season when we are reminded that two thousand years ago a young couple far away from their home and from safety, in an uncertain and often violent world, was offered lodging and safety and refuge.)
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.
I see a dirty stable. They see a manger for a child of hope.
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?
Tell someone you love them today.
Or share a kind word.
Buy a card if you like. Make a card if you need to.
Do a dance, and slap out a message on your Wellies.
It’ll do your heart good. And unleash love into the world around you.
Who knows, you may even make a difference in someone’s life today.
It’s been in the 20s here. In the PNW, we’re not allowed to complain about cold weather when it’s sub-zero in the Midwest. And Arizona friends slip on a sweater when the thermometer reads 69. It’s all relative.
The garden is asleep and Bubba (our resident deer) munches on apples we toss into the yard. Christmas is only a week away. And the lighting of Menorah candles for Hanukkah begins on the 24th.
During this season, I wish you all good will and peace.
Quotes for your week…
The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places. Ernest Hemingway
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The Book of Isaiah
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.
POEMS AND PRAYERS
We’re told to color
in the lines, as if
will define us as
less worthy of praise.
limit us that way;
of our boundaries
is good for the soul.
A better way I’d say
is fill the empty spaces
with color and then,
and only then,
add the lines.
(Thank you Terry. A SM reader, Terry wrote this poem after reading last week’s SM A different way to measure)
I never feel more given to
than when you take from me –
when you understand the joy I feel
giving to you.
And you know my giving isn’t done
to put you in my debt,
but because I want to live the love
I feel for you.
To receive with grace
may be the greatest giving.
There’s no way I can separate
When you give to me,
I give you my receiving.
When you take from me, I feel so given to.
Ruth Bebermeyer (from her album, Given To)