The other day I was talking on the phone with my friend Ethel, separated from her by nearly 800 miles. She’s no ordinary friend. I first met her and her husband Roy back in the 1980s, while I was participating under their leadership in a college study-service program in Belize. One day, early in the program, while we were high atop the ruins of a Mayan Indian temple, my feeble right knee popped out of joint and swelled up like a small melon. I couldn’t walk. Ethel and Roy, both in their sixties at the time, got on either side of me and hoisted me up, and together we started a very long, very hot hobble though the jungle, back to the dirt road and our rickety tour bus. Hours, it took us, my arms around their necks the entire way. As we all acknowledged in later years, those difficult hours bonded us for life.
|My friend Ethel (left), at 87 years.|
What Ethel did for me that day, she’s been doing ever since: she helps keep me going. She’s now 90 years old (Roy, bless him, is no longer with us), but you’d never guess her age. Her fingers are still sure on the piano keys, her feet still nimble on the organ pedals of her church. Everywhere in her modest apartment are stacks of books, being carefully digested. She has filled the years since Belize with various peace and justice efforts–laboring for right relations in Israel/Palestine; promoting intercultural understanding while teaching English in China; mentoring women who are in prison, and assisting them once released; working with Seniors for Peace; publicly reciting each week the names of Iraqis and Americans killed since the first days of “Shock and Awe”; demonstrating outside armament factories, and protesting the use of depleted uranium in American weaponry…. The list of her activities is endless, and despite the more frequent illnesses and debilitating falls that come with advanced age, they have scarcely slowed.
Every conversation I have with Ethel, every rare chance we have to visit in person, becomes, in my experience, a spiritual pep rally. We rally around our shared work of trying to make this world a little less insane, a little more humane. She picks me up. She urges me on. It’s not that Ethel fills the air with rhetoric–she’s actually a very quiet soul. But there’s something inside her so strong. So determined. So full of conviction. That “something” fills her words. It fills her misshapen 90-year-old feet, which are still willing to march for what she believes in. It fills her eyes, eyes that take in every part of the world, not just the easy and the pretty parts. It fills her heart, which is big enough to love those members of her family who openly disparage her commitment to nonviolence, to social change, to the sacred worth of every person and of the planet. Something fills her. But–
This past week, Ethel sounded tired, and despairing, for the first time I could remember. “Do you think,” she asked me in a weary voice, “that we can really make a difference? That people are ever really going to stand up and say, `Enough!‘?”
I felt it, then and there–our roles had shifted. Suddenly, after decades of friendship, it was my turn to step up and give the pep talk. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel ready. And I didn’t want to have to be ready. I didn’t want to admit that Ethel, my friend and mentor, was finally slowing down, and needing to lean on me as I’ve always leaned on her. I wanted to think that this was just a passing moment of frailty.
But here’s the fact of it: Whether you’re 90 years old like Ethel, or nearly 50 like I am, or generations younger, like so many of the Occupiers with whom I demonstrated last weekend in Wichita, KS, at Occupy Koch Town, we’re all gonna get tired. We’re gonna get frustrated. We’re even gonna get fed up sometimes, and maybe even feel like packing it in. The work of changing the world is hard work, and endless. Every success is precious, soon beset by new challenges. No matter who we are, or how old, or how long we’ve been fighting the good fight, we’re gonna feel sometimes that the world might be beyond anybody’s saving. But when we’re feeling that way, that’s exactly when we need one another most. That’s when we need people like Ethel. And people like Odetta.
Maybe you remember Odetta. I was just a little kid during the Civil Rights movement, of which she became (in the estimation of Martin Luther King, Jr.) “the Voice.” When she was most prominent, this singer-songwriter-activist, I didn’t even know that she was alive. Now, sadly, she’s gone, having died a few years ago. But during the last two years of her life, when she was so weakened by heart disease that she was confined to a wheelchair, she performed 60 concerts. Nearing 80 years of age, her presence was still powerful, her spirit indomitable. She had inside of her what Ethel has always had–that something strong that helps all of us keep going.
In the video below, Odetta performs during a concert in Italy, just a few months before her death. As she sings “Something Inside So Strong” (by Labi Siffre), you don’t even need to understand the lyrics to get their meaning. All you have to do is look at her. She’s a lioness. Look at her eyes. Look at her hands. Listen to her voice. Go with her to that place of soul, deep down, where her voice is issuing from. That voice is full of years, but it’s also ageless. It’s full of sickness, but it’s also full of incredible strength. It’s full of Odetta, but it’s also full of Martin, and everybody in the Civil Rights movement, and Ethel, and the Occupiers, and you, and me–all of us who sometimes need to be sung to, and sung for, and sung with, that we might remember who we are, and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Then, at the end of it all, my friends, look at her smile. Just look at Odessa smile.
Note: If for some reason you can’t see the viewer above, click here to watch the video.