I felt her spirit. Perhaps she chose to visit me because many of her more intimate friends did not believe in the concept of the soul, and would have dismissed the feeling as mere sentiment. Perhaps too, because this poet had surrounded herself by many “rational” people, my job was to understand that coincidence is fiction, and that God always has a plan. I could imagine her spirit, unbound from the lifelong frailty of her body, lifting itself to the highest peaks of Mother Earth, and celebrating the joy of freedom, of life, of womanhood.
At the funeral, her kin distributed copies of her poetry books. As I read her work, I realised that my friend, who had such a rich sense of humour and joy, had also spoken for the suffering of women. The poems of Hortensia Anderson contained images of stillborn children, of suicides, of surgeries and rape. I noted that she paid homage to women who had ascended to the heights of aesthetic prowess, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, the American painter, or Frida Kahlo. Each of these women, in their own way, had drawn attention to the triumph and suffering that were the birth pangs of the women’s freedom movement.
I still can’t believe it. My friend, dead at age 53. We all knew that the poet was frail, that God had infused a wild spirit and an enormous will to experience life in a body that was constantly on the verge of breaking down. She had been on dialysis for 31 years, overcame cancer, lived without the use of her kidneys, and suffered many physical setbacks.
But oh, how she lived! From her apartment in New York City, what heights she ascended in her words, in the people that she met, in her loves and even in her despair! In her own words, posted on Facebook about a month ago, she says,
“Sitting on the jetty,
I can feel the stillness as a wave, having risen, crests –
Then, falling, is silent, rolled back into itself.
How I yearn to roll back into myself,
To merge with the ocean as a wave.”
I spoke about bearing her pall, that coffin we hoist upon our shoulders and carry to its final resting place. Her body was slight, her life was light, and that extra measure of curiosity and compassion would not leave the world, as long as I understood my obligation to hoist an extra measure of joy upon my own shoulders to carry with me on her behalf.
The Bible speaks of Jesus’s first miracle, at the urging of his mother, of changing water into wine. A great miracle for a man, but I’ve known many women who, on a daily basis, perform just such a miracle. We men take these miracles for granted; the gift of motherhood, and the spirit of all that we consider feminine, at its best transforms the commonplace, into a joyful celebration. Water into wine — this is an unselfish miracle, centred around the concern that others are well attended. The danger is that in our expectations of women and their traditional roles, we fail to see that their own dreams and desires can easily wither on the vine.
On the bus trip to New York to attend the funeral, I read a book by Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist. The book talks about the fulfilment of one’s Personal History, and the necessity to follow the dreams and desires that God implants within us. Coelho posited that only in the pursuit of those dreams can we truly lift all of humanity. On the return bus trip, I reflected on my friend’s poetry. I was struck by how much more difficult a quest for meaning can be for a woman, especially when family culture binds the woman to traditional expectations.
Whatever your restrictions, life can be an adventure. It must be for those of us who believe that you only live once. We have one opportunity to ascend the peaks of our human potential, and take a stand in order to transform all of our fellow beings. Here in America, we measure our success by all that we are able to accomplish at home on our native soil. Not so in Bangladesh.
* * *
I’ve often said that Bangladesh’s greatest export is its people. Turns out that many of your accomplishments are achieved upon crossing those dangerous borders of yours. Having braved those frontiers, having dodged the bullets, you encounter a world where few speak your language. You face a global bigotry towards Islam, and marginalization of your workers even within the Islamic world. And yet, so many of you continue to pursue your life’s destiny. Your stride is higher than your obstacles, and from your crowded homeland, you reach into the wide world to find solutions to your domestic problems.
Like so many Bangladeshis, Wadfia Nazreen celebrated the independence of her nation by travelling to distant lands, and planting flags, not as a conqueror, but as a woman. My friend Hortensia Anderson would have been delighted to see that the celebration of her own life coincided with this remarkable woman’s summiting of Mount Everest.
“We got our independence but we women still are fighting for freedom,” Wasfia declared from the top of the world.
Here in the United States, and on the seven continents, from whose heights Wasfia will see the world – women still fight for freedom and the right to follow their dreams.
On Wasfia’s Facebook page, I noticed links to Independent World Report, which speaks of social justice and freedom of the press. She also included a link to Women’s Earth Alliance, which celebrates mothers and caregivers as the backbone of Earth’s communities. Clearly, George Mallory’s goal of climbing Everest “because it is there” isn’t Wasfia’s purpose. She has taken her personal journey and used it to elevate Bangladesh, and has promoted the awareness of the struggles of the oppressed. Her feat challenges us to think about the right of women to dream. A robust physical constitution and a determination born of idealism have allowed her to be successful.
In much the same way, my friend Hortensia Anderson accomplished with her words what Wasfia is doing with her body. They have both struggled to lift themselves, and in elevating themselves, all humankind is uplifted.
I like to imagine that my friend’s spirit was far from New York City the night of her funeral. I like to think it was dancing in the wind at the Summit of Everest. Swirling about a fellow traveller, I know her spirit rejoiced. Perhaps one day every woman, no matter where she is in the world, will be free to elevate herself from even the lowliest of conditions. As she pursues the path towards her miraculous summit of human accomplishment, she can thank women like Anderson and Wasfia Nazreen for bravely blazing a trail.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.