06 December 2013

Goodbye Nelson

When I heard (read on Facebook) the news that Nelson was dead, my first thought was "The King is dead." His was an undeniably gigantic life.

The weather here turned crazy last night:  rain, rain and more rain, cold, lightning and thunder. I couldn't sleep. Sat up until almost 5 a.m. reading about Mandela. This article from the New York Times, Nelson Mandela, South Africa's Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95, is comprehensive and full of things I didn't know about the man.

Born and raised as royalty. Given the name Rolihlahla -- which translates to "the trouble maker." The son of an African chief who was stripped of his authority by the British occupiers for "insubordination." There were strong clues from the very beginning that Rolihlahla's life would be large. I wondered as I read the bio, what does that kind of life feel like? It must surely include bouts with a bad cold and misplaced keys and all the rest of the mundane markers that define any life; but underpinned with royal beginnings and an unshakeable commitment to securing the freedom of your fellow citizens, maybe even bad colds are a different kind of experience.

He was a man. Married three times. I think about the wives. I think about the courtships and the first sexual explorations with each of those women. I wonder "What did he like? What turned him on? What kind of a lover was he?" Did his identities as royal progeny and "trouble maker" define his sexual appetites as significantly as they did his political and professional life?

The "shadow side" of Mandela's life:  the breakups with wives, the conflicts within the ANC and elsewhere in the political arena, the phase of violent militancy...documented but hardly seem to have mattered to the millions who revered him. Because they/we didn't know about the shadow or because they were insignificant when compared to the great accomplishments? Most of the shadow revealed in the NY Times obit was new for me. I always assume the imperfection of every human, great or small; and, short of meeting a celebrated human like Nelson Mandela face-to-face and hanging out with him for a season, I accept as fact that I do not know them. I cannot see them clearly; their greatness and shadow are offered to me through the distorted lens of reports by "the media." I don't for a moment take these reports to be "the truth."

As always, coordination of the funeral, memorials, tributes, etc. now become the focus of those who survive Mr. Mandela. From the top levels of government where issues of security, protocol, transportation and staging are paramount, to the crowded mid-tier where family and friends will wrestle with who gets what and who sits where -- we move now into Act Three (Act One being his journey into the limelight and Act Two the work and fruition of themes and missions introduced in Act One), which will be of only slightly less historical significance.

My preoccupation, as ever, is with the nitty-gritty realities of the players in Act Three:  President Zuma, Winnie, the clarinetists in the military band, the maintenance workers who will clean-up after the final post-death event. I want to hear the story of the 9-year-old daughter of the undertaker who finds a battered signed copy of Long Walk to Freedom on her father's desk a week after the Mandela funeral; or the maid who cleans Oprah Winfrey's hotel room the morning she returns to the U.S. Or the rest of the Nelson Mandela story that will never be written in history books.