Tatiana is a well known commenter around the Bloggernacle. In real life, she lives in Alabama and is an engineer working in the nuclear power industry. In her words, “after meeting lots of awesome Latter-day Saints online and asking them questions for a year or two,” she called her local elders in 2001 and left a message on their machine: “I’m ready to take the lessons and be baptized.” They told her that they played her message at a Zone Conference (if that had happened to me as a missionary, I might have bought time on a radio station to broadcast it).
Tatiana says she is “getting a crash course in motherhood” after adopting a teenage son last year, whose chronic medical conditions are improving now that Tatiana is able to provide him the medical care he needs. She mentions some of her activities in the following post, and says that her interests range “from astronomy and cosmology to quantum physics to evolutionary biology to epidemiology and public health, disaster relief, poverty in the developing world, and averting human extinction.” She didn’t tell me what she does in the time left over from all that.
My friend Juki (as nicknamed by my cat Mouse who frequently types messages to him) was born in the U.S. to Sikh parents who raised him in material comfort and with a strong work ethic. As is Sikh tradition, Juki never had his hair cut growing up. He wore a turban with his knee-length hair wrapped up inside. Some time during his freshman year in college, though, he realized he wasn’t religious, and that hair was a bother to keep long, and also that it was only hair after all, and so he cut it off.
It’s interesting to me to think about the importance people place on hair. Despite the fact that many of his cousins in the U.S. and even his older brother kept theirs short, Juki’s parents and extended family were apparently pretty shocked and saddened by the loss of his hair.
Why does hair seem so important to people? My mother was after me my whole life to cut my hair shorter, though I preferred it long. She used to tell me I looked like Yoko Ono, or Charles Manson, or Cousin It from the Addams family in an effort to convince me to wear it shorter. Having long hair was good if it was extremely straight, I gathered, but if it was wavy it was anathema, and invited maternal putdowns. Another friend of ours was nicknamed Antonio Banderas by his parents for his shoulder-length wavy locks. They were always trying to get him to cut his short.
The Taliban, of course, made it against the law in Afghanistan for men to shave their faces. In the Mormon church, as we all know, it’s considered rather racy to wear facial hair of any sort now, despite the fact that our prophets of old sported weird and bushy fashions of various types.
Long, short, shaven, grown out, it’s strange to me that how someone wears their hair is anything but a personal choice. Why is it so important to our various societies how we wear our hair? Why do people feel like they read important messages in it?
Juki’s grandmother, who grew up in India, and whom he sees about once a year, looked at him with his newly shorn locks and said, “You’re a ghost now.” That pronouncement has puzzled me for a while. Why a ghost? Did she mean he looked like a white person, and she thinks of Caucasians as ghosts? It was eerie that she said that. I asked Juki what she was saying and he apparently didn’t know either (or maybe just didn‘t want to discuss it).
Just now, though, I read one of the kiva fellows’ blog posts that used that same word “ghost” to describe a widow in Uganda named Specioza who was cast out from her husband’s family and had all her property taken away. For those who haven‘t heard yet, kiva is a microfinance organization that lets us lend directly to the working poor in developing countries. The kiva fellows blog is a place where kiva fellows post, people who spend a year or two traveling to kiva’s field partners to help set up systems and train microfinance agents in the use of kiva‘s tools. The posts are nearly all glimpses into other cultures and other ways of human life on the planet.
The blog is something like a communal mission journal. I’m totally addicted to it now. It’s so fascinating and amazing. It’s doing more to make me into a citizen of the planet than anything else I’ve found. (The church should set up something similar for missionaries, I think, but that’s the subject for another post.) (If you’re interested in loaning through kiva, by the way, please consider joining the fMh kiva team. Bloggernacle, represent!)
Apparently it’s the custom in Specioza’s culture in Uganda that when a husband dies, his widow becomes a nonexistent person as far as the family’s concerned, and loses her place and property, and even her children if she doesn’t run away in time. It seems a cruel and ugly custom to me. Now I wonder if Juki’s grandmother could have meant that about him as well, that he was not recognized as part of the family anymore, that he was a non-person, or would have been in her time and place. Juki’s family certainly didn’t cast him out. But how horrifying to think that may have been what she meant, our dear kind and thoughtful Juki, by whom any family would be graced?
Thinking about how cruel and ugly such a custom seems set me thinking and praying about what customs in my own society are cruel and ugly that I can’t see. Our own cultures and customs always seem to us humans to be natural law, as normal and right as breathing. It’s only from the outside looking in that they can possibly be recognized as appalling.
So that’s the topic of this post, though it took me a while getting around to it. What features of our own cultures could be honored more in the breach than the observance? What customs and traditions do we need to take a hard look at and give up forever?
While I was pondering and praying about that just now, my beloved cat Grace walked into the room. I realized that I see her as an honored individual and family member. I’m happy to spend time with her, and I’m pleased that she’s healthy with glossy fur, and that she’s contented and at peace in our home. I feel a mother’s pride in those things, that all is right with Grace’s world, that she‘s thriving. Then it jumped into my mind that there was my answer (one potential answer). Though I love Grace and treat her with respect and honor, nevertheless her (our) cousins the cows and pigs I treat as ghosts, nonbeings, whose pain or terror means nothing to me, and whom I relegate to slaughter in order to fill our table. For me, that’s the cruel and ugly custom I want most to change. As hard as it can be to stop, I don’t really want to eat mammals anymore. That’s one step I can take to reincarnate some of my ghosts.
Who are our other ghosts? Please enlarge my soul by helping me see their reality.