I’ve spent many years growing grapes whose variegated wines I may never taste. I’ve knowingly committed to working with others without trying to bind them to me or pledge them to follow my dictates. Instead, I often push them to go their own way. Or, at least, by not actively keeping in touch, I encourage them to live their lives without me at their center or even on their horizon.
I cut them loose not with any sense of remorse or regret, and without even a minute sense of self-pity because I’ve given so much to workshop members. My efforts were my choice, my gift. What they do with what they garnered from the experience is totally up to them.
Currently, I am happily engaged in reading a book entitled “No Thanks” by Keturah Kendrick, a member of Nommo Literary Society, the writing workshop I conducted for ten years before it was disrupted by hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since then Keturah has traveled, living and working in Africa and China for two and three years at a stretch. When she was visiting home recently, Keturah stopped by and shared her book with me.
If I were still teaching high school with the Students at the Center program, I would certainly make her book required reading. Why? Because with both humor and fierce intelligence Keturah responds to a question Duke Ellington immortalized in song: what am I here for?
Keturah interrogates what it means to be a woman. She challenges the dominant perspective that complete womanhood necessarily involves both marriage and motherhood. She proffers a truly radical perspective as she dissects what we mean when we identify a person as a “woman”.
In our society woman is a word that is loaded with limiting cultural precepts and, too often, being a woman is encased and restricted by religious philosophies most of us are not even aware we espouse.
No Thanks works for me on two levels. Much like her personality, Keturah’s writing is witty without eschewing a sense of seriousness. Her prose has a conversational tone that is refreshing and makes for inviting reading. One goes from sentence to sentence smiling as Keturah skewers common assumptions. But beyond her appealing writing style there is the deadly stealth of an assassin intent on dispatching the claims and chains of conformity. If you get No Thanks be prepared to laugh, to smile, to recognize intimate moments in your daily life, and, at the same time, do not be surprised to have your fundamental beliefs artfully challenged.
Martin Luther may have nailed to the door his thesis resisting church authority, but in her feminist approach Keturah is supplying her own life experiences as nails for her thesis on self-defined womanhood. Motherhood is often the only sacred cow that is celebrated worldwide. So what do we call a woman who decides to remain childless? How do we respond to a person who consciously chooses to remain unmarried?
Oh, sure there are people who “say” that marriage is a yoke, a joke, an anachronism of the past, but in most cases their views are but a cover for fear of commitment, or for the convenience of favoring a laissez-faire lifestyle. In truth, most of us who live alone suffer loneliness. Deep down we live solo not because we want to but rather because that is the hand that chance and circumstance have dealt us.
Far too many of us are unlucky in our love life. If we had our druthers we really would prefer to be hooked up, it’s just that for whatever reason, marriage has eluded us. Or worse yet, marriage has entrapped us in stifling relationships we put up with because. . . well, because… because we either don’t know how or else have not seized the opportunity to live any other way. Or perhaps because we love the people we are with, although we have never seriously asked ourselves are we living the lives we really want to live.
Reading Keturah’s book confronts not just our reductionist thinking, she boldly assaults our core beliefs. Through her example she encourages us to examine the essence of our social being: who we are and how we relate to others on an intimate level.
She is not asking us to be like her. She is Buddhist, most of us profess Christianity. She is female, nearly half of us are male. She has lived long stretches in Africa and Asia, except for the graduation cruise to the Bahamas or the long weekend in the Caribbean, most of us have never resided outside the United States. She does not hold up her travels and cross-cultural experiences for emulation, instead her example is rooted in the questions she asks herself as she moves through life: am I being true to myself?
No Thanks is subtitled “Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone”. Race, Gender, and life choices. There is room for all of us in the exalted state of unflinching self awareness.
* * * * *
CODA: As counter intuitive as this lesson might seem at first glance, as a human being facing the awesome fullness of the cosmos, which was here before me and will be here after any of us are born, struggle, and expire: the quality of life is about the human relationships we encounter and participate in along the way.
When you get right down to it, the meaning of each life–as much as any meaning that might actually be achieved–is found in the cliched but nonetheless simple truth: who we are is all about our relationships.
When and where we were born, who our mama and daddy was, what accolades or wealth we gathered along the way, none of that matters as much to ourselves, and ultimately to any other person, as does the shape and nature of our relationships with all the people with whom we share space and time. Or like the old folks used to say when judging a person: who they people is?