Monday, May 17, 2010

beloved daughters

Twenty-two years and two days ago, I awoke to sunny, blue skies and looked forward to seeing my sister -- wrinkly, pink, and sweet-smelling --  for the first time.

Two days ago, I awoke to sunny, blue skies and looked forward to wishing my sister -- pajama-clad and beautiful -- a very happy birthday.

My sister graduates from college soon, and she knows exactly what she wants to do: change the world for the better. A semester spent working with AIDS-affected women and children in Tanzania fueled her desire to explore a career in public health.

So how did we celebrate this sister of mine? Two viewings: the Beloved Daughters photography exhibit at Brown University and the documentary Babies showing at the Avon Theatre.

How jarring to follow Fazal Sheikh's photographs of Indian women and children -- achingly, nearly ferociously beautiful -- with a film that documents the wonder expressed by squirmy, wide-eyed babies. Really, really jarring.

Comprised of several series, the Sheikh exhibit recounted many women's and children's stories in visual and textual form. Stories of women who are either forced or called to leave everything behind and move to the city of Vrindavan, which has harbored women (made widows and thus social outcasts) for five centuries. Stories of women who have escaped attempts on their lives -- known as dowery deaths -- but who still bear the scars, both visible and invisible. Heartbreaking. (For copyright reasons, I won't post the images here, but I encourage you to take a look.)

As I walked through the gallery, I wept quietly. Typically, I'd try to hold in that kind of thing, but I'm working toward allowing myself to express emotions more visibly now. So I wept. As I did, I considered the recent progress that has been made toward remedying this situation: legislations enacted in order to protect women, and awareness raised by organizations dedicated to domestic abuse relief and the like. 

Distraught upon leaving the gallery, I then watched a delicious movie about babies, and felt more hopeful. For in some ways, the babies tell us, aren't we all so similar? Isn't this world so very small, after all? Babies smile and scream and bring joy to their family in Japan, the U.S., Mongolia, and Namibia. And I felt this, too, this common humanity that we share. It lifted my heart.

But I can't forget the women in Fazal Sheikh's photographs. They remind me that I've been focusing inwardly for a very long time. As I re-evaluate the kind of work to which I'd like to devote my life, I realize ever increasingly that I want to assist in some small way with bettering women's lives. My dissertation asks how we might re-envision the kind of legacy put forth by early New England women -- white women, Native women, Black women -- whose voices were silenced or forgotten. But what does the next chapter of my life hold? How can I support and work toward creating a society which values and appreciates women -- and where women value and appreciate themselves? I don't have the answers yet. Perhaps I can only send out a prayer that the way will be presented to me. I send a prayer to the women in the photographs, too -- and to their mothers and daughters and sisters. Their strength in telling their stories, for the sake of their daughters and other women's children, is an absolute miracle. 

Meri shakhti, meri beti. My strength, my daughter.


  1. This is extremely moving. I, too, am trying to figure out how, in some way, the next chapter of my life can offer more to the rest of the world. Your sensitivity to the exhibit is important: you shared with us, and now it is something weighing on my heart, also. I suspect this is exactly one of the goals of Sheikh's work. Thanks, e.

  2. Thanks for this perspective, K. I do think it's important to remember how we affect people on a smaller scale, too. Just by being you, your beautiful, kind, warm self, you're effecting a change for the better: I feel supported because you consider me a friend and inspired just knowing that someone like you exists. And I know I'm not the only one. This kind of thinking makes me want to try harder to be loving at every level in my life.

  3. This seems to come in perfect timing with your searching for the thing you love- with how you can gift your great gladness to the world's greatest need (as I crib Bechner). Perhaps putting that out there lead to the exhibit, to the emotions you felt, to this reflection. Follow the trail. It always leads to the right place.

  4. I hadn't thought of the fact that I may already BE on the path! Thank you for this insight.

  5. I'm having a cup of tea and visiting with you at the moment. Shall we talk soon?

  6. But of course. Let's make a date.