I’ve learned a lot from Albie Sachs over the years.
The South African freedom fighter and classical music lover whose taking the other as a Supreme Court Justice elicited a tear from then-President Nelson Mandela endured solitary confinement and a car bomb in Mozambique that cost him much of his right arm and part of his vision.
I first saw him at a conference in New Haven, Connecticut that Marc Skvirsky and I attended with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. Among many important things he said that day was that although Mandela had near-perfect pitch with the people he led, one should not mistake the leader for the source of the victory he and so many others had dedicated their lives to winning.
Speaking in his mellifluous baritone voice, his left arm moving animatedly, Sachs also cautioned against moral relativism.
Apartheid was evil, he said. We were better. And we won.
A few years later, he spoke at a community event for Facing History and Ourselves around his book, The Free Diary of Albie Sachs, a work that chronicled his six-week journey with then-partner, now wife, Vanessa September, to London and other European capitals.
In his opening comments Sachs talked about the dreams that he had had as a younger man of living as a free man in a country that was being transformed from a site of intense evil to a thoroughgoing democracy with many official languages, one of the world’s most far-reaching and inclusive constitutions and open debate of the questions of the day.
He also talked about living with a woman with whom he wanted to spend his life.
These dreams, he explained, had all come true.
Although I understood the meaning of Sachs’ words, I didn’t feel them the way he seemed to.
Now, I do.
There are moments, and I’ve been blessed to have a number of them recently, where I literally cannot believe the abundance of gifts and love I’m privileged to experience.
Where I wake up wondering not so much what I’m going to do, but which delicious set of options we’re going to explore together.
The past few weeks, which have seen Jon come here for a couple of weeks so that we can work on a project about Chile’s past, present and future.
A week later, Dad and Lee, whom we had seen in Argentina and Uruguay, were in for a week after their glorious two weeks plus tour that took through Argentina and down to the southernmost part of the continent before heading to the spectacular views of Torres del Paine, up into Chiloe and meeting us again in Santiago.
There are the gains that the students in my Data Journalism class have made, the pair of conversations in the next couple of weeks sponsored by the Fulbright Commission in which I’ll share preliminary results about my research into the nation’s 2009 Transparency Law, the news we’ve heard about the memorial event in Essen led by the indefatigable Gabriele Thimm that she told us was the best ever and the plans we’re formulating to advance the project, the events that we are planning in Wellesley and Cambridge and Arica or Punta Arenas.
All that is beautiful, and one of the most meaningful parts for me and for us is that Aidan got here on Sunday for what will be a month together in Santiago, in Northern and Southern Chile and in Peru’s fabled Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.
He’s just returned from a semester in which he traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and the United States before he set foot here. It’s a treat to spend any time with him, let alone such a concentrated dose, and, in parts at least, Internet-free zone.
Underneath all of these experiences is a sense of possibility and flow, of the great fortune of being in a space it feels deeply possible to successfully integrate family and friends and language and investigation and teaching and writing and networking and traveling and food and drink and discussion and applying for new opportunities and converting those that arise and working more and more to do what we all need to do in life, which is to steer the ship of our lives.
This is not to say that we live in a perfect world.
Far from it.
Indeed, some initial discussions with Aidan have only reminded us how deeply flawed the world is that we will leave to his generation.
Nor is it to say that I’ve always felt this way.
That, too, has not been the case.
Indeed, my appreciation of this moment is deepened not only because I am more aware than before of life’s finitude, but because this more profound sense of possibility and authority comes after years of having a different gut-level conviction.
So, as Hannukah begins, after we’ve had one Thanksgiving meal and before we’ve had another, with a series of Chilean adventures behind us and more ahead, with family having departed and our son here, the sun shining in a cloudless sky, the breeze rustling the curtains of the room where Dunreith and I are next to each other, I am immensely grateful for my life’s abundant gifts.
I imagine that wherever he is, Albie Sachs is giving thanks, too.