The clerk at the District Court gave me the look, that particular expression that is a mixture of suspicion and indifference. I had come for my divorce papers. Sadly, I had grown accustomed to this look – a stare that bores right through me, reminding me that I am merely one among the tens of thousands of women who have passed through these chambers. I had learned to tell my story again and again, asking for the form – that piece of paper, that document that will finally unravel the endless entanglement that it takes to obtain a civil divorce in a country that doesn’t allow civil marriage.
Waiting in line and walking up and down those Kafkaesque corridors had become a part of my daily routine. I was a number; I was just another woman encountering the inevitable frustration that bubbles up when you face the men who have the power to help you to exercise your own rights.
But on that day, I snapped. The cashier who was supposed to collect the payment for “providing personal information that belongs to the citizen” was chatting on phone, making a point of ignoring me. When he finally put down the receiver, he looked right through me and engaged in a lively conversation with another clerk, who had also caught that virus that causes you to view other people as if they were transparent.
I stood there, humiliated, drained of the last ounce of my energy.
In helpless rage and deep pain, I started to cry.
Then they both looked at me, a crazy woman crying and demanding to see their supervisor. It worked. I paid and stepped outside, into the bright light of the outdoor air. On the way home, all I could think about were all those other women who have been trapped in that abusive maze of institutionalized bureaucracy.
I am not quite sure what wore me out more – the rage or the pain. I fiercely held on to both. They nurtured my sense of purpose. I realized that I was experiencing a peculiar form of power relations. The burden of proof was on me, not on the system that was supposed to respond to my plight.
I held on to the rage and the pain; I felt as if I were holding on to a sense of righteousness that would fuel my sense of purpose. I held on to the rage and the pain as they dug trenches of warfare consciousness in my soul.
Yes, I was fighting a monster. The kind that threatened to break my spirit, that sent me back on a journey to the saddest, most vulnerable places.
But at that very moment, right there and then, I met my fairy godmother, the little girl I once was – innocent and funny, sad and dangerously curious, trusting and compassionate. I embraced her and she taught me to look for all the fairy godmothers in my life, she showed me how to ask them for help and she helped me realize that I didn’t have to face the fear alone.
Sometimes, the little girl I once was merges with the little girl I gave birth to and together they teach me a lesson about the importance of imagination and compassion.
Drawing by Daniel Gouri De Lima
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ― Albert Einstein
I used to day dream. A lot. It was my favorite pastime when my parents would take their afternoon nap and we were supposed to keep quiet. Imagination has always been and still is a good friend in times of trouble, those times when I simply must imagine a better world, a better reality, a place where I will fit in.
The capacity to imagine a better world is crucial. It is a life force. It is my antidote for the rage, the pain and the frustration that are part and parcel of working for social change. Imagining a better world enhances our hopes and dreams, but it also exacerbates our greatest fears and anxieties.
It was Daniel, my first born, with his rich imagination and keen sense of justice, who first introduced me to the world of super heroes and she-roes. If not for him, I would never have explored the deep, mythical layers of super heroic stories. Today, he gave me this drawing of Superman – the ultimate super hero who carries the weight of the world on his eternal shoulders. In the eyes of his arch enemies, his longing for home is his weakness. But that longing is precisely what makes him such a great character.
He is the Knight of Compassion, able to hear a cry for help from the distant ends of the world and to fly there in a split second and even able to turn back time. Yet every now and then he, too, needs a helping hand. He, too, needs a close human connection. He, too, yearns for compassion.
Sometimes, resistance means creating a different language. Resistance requires that we unlearn some of the things that we have been taught – such as that only the strong survive or that only the strong have the right to survive.
Sometimes, to resist is to redefine the sources of human strength and resilience.
To resist is to insist on holding on to assets that have no financial or material value.
Compassion is a form of resistance. It is a challenge to those who would rob us of our right to hold on to memory, identity, home.
Compassion is the ability to free ourselves – and others – from being ashamed of our vulnerability.
Compassion means holding ourselves to the highest standards; it means showing up and being present with the full power of our humanity.
To show compassion is a political act of caring. It means that we have recognized that passion and emotion are vital components of the work for social change.
I returned home after eight intensive days with the amazing trainers and participants in the Rockwood Art of Leadership. Eight days of learning, reflecting and connecting. Eight days of time out, away from the demanding daily routine, an opportunity to ponder the raw materials of inspirational leadership for social change.
Then I came home. The dogs and the cat were the first to greet me.
And then, one by one, my family gathered. My two heroes and one she-roe; my loved ones, who kept the fort when I was away, who understand my urge to wander sometimes, who agree to share me with my labor of love.
I am grateful for them and to them.
To my man who gave me that soft, exhausted look, who is with me all the way, even when he winds up absorbing the rage I fail to contain.
To my son, the young man who has taught me what true courage really means.
To my little girl, whose wise, sassy, playful eyes are my Gemini Cricket.