Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
On July 9, 2011, two armed men shot Facundo Cabral in Guatemala City. I had been in Colombia for just under a month and I didn’t yet know who the Argentinian musician was, but at our team retreat, colleagues sang his songs with tears in their eyes. The remembrance of his life, and the tragedy of his passing, was an opening into another way of seeing the world. This was a world filled with music and poetry and art, yet inextricable from acts of horror. I witnessed the art of daily living, of sancocho at the arroyo, and sang songs for marching and listened to decimas for memory; acts of mundane power in a context of death and of life. Those moments of marking Facundo Cabral’s death were the start of a love story with a continent defined by uncertainty.
Every day before I start work, I listen to Facundo Cabral’s “Este es un nuevo dia.” This is a new day to begin again, he reminds us, that paradise is not lost, simply forgotten, that time is a human invention. In eternity, there is always space to start again, to sing, to laugh, to return to happiness.
His words are a call to possibility and to revolution. It’s the same melody in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. The protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, is a young black woman with the unique ability to feel the pain and pleasure of those around her. She is living in a time of familiar apocalypse: a changing climate and economic system have devastated cities and, outside of few gated communities, anarchy rules and people kill to survive. When a fire destroys Lauren’s home, she is forced into a leadership role in her quest for survival. She uses her sensitivity to create a new community of faith, Earthseed, based on the principle that change is the only power that cannot be defied by anyone or anything.
“Change is ongoing. Everything changes in some way- size, position, composition, frequency, velocity, thinking, whatever. Every living thing, every bit of matter, all the energy in the universe changes in some way. I don’t claim that everything changes in every way, but everything changes in some way.” Lauren tells her small group of followers. To the group of survivors, it is a call of hope. They, together, can be a part of creating something different amid devastation.
In Facundo’s song, I also hear echoes of my childhood church congregation collectively singing “This is the day.” On certain Sundays, people would share testimonies about the changes in their lives after inviting Jesus into their hearts. The world glowed. The same grungy streets and practices had all been transformed in the light of new possibilities. Habits could be broken. Community could be formed. Redemption of one’s presence in the world had been found in a new form of immortality. An later introduction to liberation theology and communities of care have served to simply refocus my beliefs in possibility and the beauty of the world that have formed a part of my life since before I can remember. Today, and everything in today, is holy.
Almost a decade since Facundo’s death, I am learning to draw. Among the picture frames and cookbooks my neighbours had placed to give away on the curb in a burst of summer cleaning was a sketchbook, a pencil, an eraser, and a book about drawing. Without giving myself time for second guesses and self-doubt, I picked them up. In the months that followed, I have found myself- pencil in hand, lines emerging on paper- engaging in something I had always imagined as impossible. I, who cannot draw, am drawing.
A month before I started drawing, I was diagnosed with a rare form of deep skin tissue cancer. After a terrifying week of virtual conversations with doctors and tearful phone calls to loved ones far away, I had a rapid surgery to remove my tumor and attempted to return to regular life in a pandemic, now dotted with future doctor’s appointments, scans and an increased sense of uncertainty and aloneness.
Things are looking good, my oncologist tells me in our first meeting. It’s a quick phone call to confirm that the surgery appears to have removed enough healthy tissue along with the tumor to achieve a narrow clear margin. I will still be scanned and tested to see if anything has spread- timing dependent on a backlog of procedures due to COVID-19’s impact on the health system- but he appears confident enough in the path forward that he starts telling me how cancer cells reproduce without knowing how to ever stop. Unlimited growth is deadly. With growing enthusiasm, he talks about Henrietta Lacks and her unknowing contribution to scientific research. Her unethically gathered cancer cells continue to live and reproduce, decades after her death. I interrupt with matching enthusiasm to ask if any possible remaining cells in my own body also long for eternity. Unable to see my face, the doctor mistakes my inquiries for panic and shuts down the conversation, yet the question lingers.
As I walk by the river, day after day, I mentally place my fingers over the scar on my side. With all the gentleness I can muster, I direct my thoughts to any cells with desires of greatness. “I know, I know. We all want to live forever.” I croon, a lullaby to soothe my inner dreams of immorality. “That doesn’t mean we can, but we do have today.”
Facing the sun,
I will walk.
With the moon,
I will fly.
De cara al sol
y con la luna
While Facundo Cabral sings, I am drawing. Everything looks different. This is not only cancer and changing seasons. I see shapes and shadows. I trace the ways lines intersect with my fingers and squint to more clearly observe values of light and dark. I am learning to draw, but to capture perspective and understand angles in a matter of weeks is a miracle only possible due to millennia of drawing and a growing collective body of knowledge. Thanks to the first people who drew on a cave wall, I have the ability to translate these new elements of seeing onto paper. If we can learn to vision shadows into drawing, what else is possible?
Early in May, I dreamt I was in Bogota, walking the path to Monserrate. I turned a corner to find a group of old friends that I had known throughout my time in Colombia, welcoming me to a giant party. There was a table filled with delicious looking but ultimately disappointing desserts. We shared hugs, laughter and back massages.
I woke up aching for a hug and to be outside encircled by a group of people I love. It wasn’t until I was halfway done with my morning coffee that I realized that the dream was a way of saying good-by to the residency I lost due to travel restrictions. It was an ongoing reminder that my own beliefs in possibilities are shaped by a collective that taught me to practice the art of being alive through caring for one another. Latin America illuminated the political and collective social side of working for equality and justice in a context of uncertainty. As murders of social leaders and massacres increase in my second home, the dream also reminds me that proclaiming that each day is a new day to start again is deeply political. That belief resulted in Facundo Cabral’s death, but his voice still sings to me every morning.
Despite our errant cells’ best efforts, none of us will live forever. Yet even death is not the end. As we decompose, our bodies provide life and nutrients to the soil. Henrietta Lacks still saves lives. “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds,” a new generation of changemakers proclaim as our collective community of practice grows and shifts. We are drawing, through shadow and light and dancing and pandemic, another way of seeing of the world. Este es un nuevo día.