For most of us we rise to the challenge of compassion passively. We wait for the urgency; for the tragedy or terror of events to unfold before we realize our responsibility. We wait for the humane to be given priority and articulation on a socio-political agenda. And only then do we become “ambitious” agents of change. But, there are others who don’t wait with idleness to feel motivated; who don’t wait for a mission statement. There are others who move about the world with such courage and curiosity that they live with a continuity of conscience.
These people are always in touch, always ready for the good fight. These people have CSPAN, CNN, and the History Channel implanted in their unconscious. These people always have their snake-boots on. They are not called to duty, but they give duty its call. They are the ones who leave balloons at the end of the hall, a goal for little runners. They are the ones who do not talk loftily of utopia, but who create ‘reasonable utopia,’ with ease, making life livable and meaningful, as one would go about filling a child’s playhouse with stickers, plastic canned goods, and the essential imaginaries.
These people set their pulse by inquiring into the love, shortcomings, and awe of the world. And they exist, engaged and inquisitive, forever giving momentum to responsibility. And all they ask for at the end of the day is a simple flan.
I wrote the above nearly ten years ago as an ode to my grandmother, Helen Mills, whom we simply called “Amma.” As an anti-nuclear campaigner in the Deep South in the 70s she was often dismissed in the silencing rhetoric of the age as a “communist” or “Maoist” for taking a stand on environmental issues. But Amma wasn’t a grand revolutionary. She was a mother and wife who isolated many in her country club circles through her sense of calling and fight for justice.
She campaigned with the same intensity and conscientiousness that she applied to converting her apartment into a magical hideout for her grandchildren. She was adept at creating “minimum viable utopias,” blending idealism and pragmatism. She brought the present moment in greater connection with itself. And she maintained herself, almost exclusively during her lifetime, on a diet of flan, the French desert.
Amma was Alice – Alice in her ability to not eschew domestic responsibility at the cost of public service. She didn’t let her “save the world instincts” trump out the little wonder and awe of human experience. She was holistic. Committed without become hijacked by a messianic desire for change. She was able to play with my youngest brother for hours and hours, simply wheeling him and his stuffed snowman around his pram. She received similar contentment from engaging in American politics. These things weren’t exclusive.
Love was the animating force that grounded her sense of leadership. And love doesn’t know trade-offs.