Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Would Harriet Tubman Do?

Today, Harriet Tubman died in 1913 and Sojourner Truth in died 1883. Think about that for a minute. Think about how much change Harriet Tubman saw. She was born around 1820 and spent her early years as a slave in Maryland. The next part of the story is probably most familiar, the part where she makes her escape to freedom, and she goes back to rescue others, not once, but at least 13 times. Harriet Tubman has been one of my heroes since I was a little girl and first read about her. My school library had a biography section, with that series about notable Americans, each book bound in orange. I read my way through the whole series and returned to ones I loved. Did I learn about Harriet Tubman there or elsewhere? No matter.

I've written about Tubman before, most notably about my view of her as a model for managers here and in some of the ways that Tubman and Southern history haunt my poems here. But today, as I read about her at The Writer's Almanac site, I learned about the ways that she avoided capture: "She used ingenious diversions to avoid being caught, like carrying two live chickens with her so that she appeared to be going on an errand. She worked coded messages into spirituals and hymns, and the singing of them spread her instructions from slave to slave. Once she evaded capture by simply pretending to read a newspaper — since it was well known that Harriet Tubman was illiterate. She traveled in winter, when folks who had homes were usually inclined to stay in them, and she scheduled departures for Friday nights because "escaped slave" notices couldn't be published until the following Monday."

What creativity! It makes me think about our own time, about our own approaches.

I hesitate to move in this direction, since I don't want anyone to accuse me of trivializing slavery. But this morning, as I'm reading about Harriet Tubman and her can-do attitude, I'm thinking about conversations that I've had over the past several weeks. It's an interesting time to be working in the field of education, and as you can imagine, many of us have been talking about the future of education. Some people I've talked to have become completely demoralized and defeated and just hope to hold on until retirement. I've talked to some people who are energized by recent developments in technology and can hardly wait to see what the future brings--and if there are some scoffers and doubters who would like to strip us all of our paychecks and benefits, these enthusiastic types just dismiss them by reminding us that there have always been scoffers. I've talked to several people who say, "Well, what else is there to do? How shall we get our health insurance?"

It reminds me of the split I saw at the AWP conference last month, where some people were enthusiastic about all the ways that technology makes it possible for us to have readers and outlets we never could have had a few decades ago, while others were convinced that the end was near.

I want to get back to thinking about the future in these terms: what would I do, if I believed that anything was possible? What do I enjoy doing? To put it in theological terms I want to structure my future in the way that Frederick Buechner would advise in his book Wishful Thinking: "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

What is the world's deep hunger? What are my deep gladnessess? Blogging brings me deep gladness these days. So does the writing of poetry. What are the world's deep hungers that my blogging and poems could meet?

The cynic would now sneer, "Yeah, this is all very well and good, but back to that issue of health insurance--how will you pay for all the insurances you require as a woman at mid-life, not to mention how you'll put bread on the table."

To which, on this Spring morning when the air smells so fresh, I would say, "Shut up, cynic." My life has taught me that there are more pathways out there than I can comprehend. I've had nice, comfortable jobs, and I've had times in my life where I relied on synchronicity and good luck and a benevolent universe (and to return to theology, on God). And guess what? I didn't go bankrupt and I didn't lose my house. I got to have marvelous adventures when I was in the synchronicity period that I wouldn't have had if I had remained shackled to my decent job with a good retirement package and health insurance.

It is probably time to dream of the future. Here's another quote for your day, from theologian
Barbara Brown Taylor: "From [Buechner] I've learned that the only limit to the revelation going on all around me is my willingness to turn aside and look."

Let me have the spirit of Sojourner Truth, who worked tirelessly for social justice, even when she envisioned a better world that many of her contemporaries couldn't see as possible. Let me have the courage of Harriet Tubman, who led so many to freedom. Let me look up from my safe life to see the revelations that are all around me.

3 comments:

Kathleen said...

"What is the world's deep hunger? What are my deep gladnesses?"

Wonderful questions! Great post!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Wonderful and inspiring post, thanks!

Kristin said...

Thanks, Sandy and Kathleen, for reading!