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The rocking chair is delicate and low to the ground, made of warm brown wood, twisted on a spindle. The “nursing rocker,” Dad and I call it.
My mother sat on this same rocker and nursed me, years ago, on humid Florida nights.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with his mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. – Psalm 131:2.
“Can you keep this for me until I can collect it?” I asked my friend Helen. In 2018, I journeyed from Chicago to Chattanooga, Tennessee, seeking out a new, lighter existence as a freelancer and full-time writer. I sold all my furniture – except the nursing rocker.
True to her word, Helen kept the rocker safe for me. Then she delivered it straight into my hands, on a special day this past October.
Helen and her friend Paula drove from Chicago to Chattanooga for the Bicentenary of the Bab’s Birth. The Bab, one of two divine messengers for this day, announced the coming of Baha’u’llah, both of whom changed the course of history through their sacrificial lives and life-giving teachings.
In 2017, Baha’is around the world celebrated the Bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth in Persia (now Iran). This year, Baha’is celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Bab’s birth, with community gatherings and creative expression, including Helen Butler’s “Quest for Light.”
With the hands of power I made thee, and with the fingers of strength I created thee, and within thee have I placed the essence of My light … – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words
A self-described “artist, actor, and advocate for change,” Helen has an electrifying and illuminating way of being in this world. She upends convention, challenges our way of seeing and encountering one another, and causes us to deepen our relationship with spirit and society. When we speak, I feel reassured and emboldened:
We are living in an historic moment. We are each called to take part in a great transformation. Our survival as a species is threatened by global warming, economic meltdown, and an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. Yet these threats offer an opportunity to awaken as an interconnected and beloved community. – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
The inspiring phrase “beloved community,” championed by Dr. King, bell hooks, and others, challenges us to grow it. Have you ever felt it? My friend Helen seeks to create his feeling of love-in-community through her collaborative artworks. Her materials are as rich and interwoven as her identity: Baha’i, African-American, mother, daughter, producer, pioneer. She uses textiles, quilting, poetry, music, storytelling and “engagement theater” to explore spiritual reality and human interconnection in public spaces.
Helen’s theater work in 1970s New York had a profound impact on her life as an artist and community-weaver. “There was a whole artistic movement happening in New York [in the] aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. What you had were all these [small] theater companies demonstrating back to the community, acting as a mirror, to say, ‘You have value.’”
You have value. Not only as a worker, consumer, or citizen – but as human beings with noble potential. We all go through pain and heartbreak, and rather than depleting our worth, those experiences can enrich and connect us with others. Helen explores this reality in her newest piece, “The Quest for Light.” Bringing together people of vastly diverse backgrounds – at the Chattanooga Public Library, as well as venues in Atlanta and Chicago – Helen shares stories of four heroes and heroines who shed their self-doubts and eradicated social taboos:
- Tahirih, a poet who removed her veil in 1800s Iran;
- Mullah Husayn, the first believer in the Bab’s message in the Muslim Persian Empire;
- Elizabeth Cheney, the first Baha’i in Paraguay who kept sharing her spirit, even after a serious accident;
- Jenabe Caldwell, a “street teacher” in many countries who learned that a heart on fire attracts even strangers.
I once asked Helen how the Baha’i Faith has influenced her art. She responded, “In graduate school, I read a book of poems called Words in the Mourning Time by Robert Hayden, who was an African-American Baha’i poet. [I wasn’t a Baha’i at the time] but I knew my heart was moved …”
Helen went on to speak about how justice shapes her art and community work: “When we read the Baha’i writings about justice, each of us has this capacity to know reality. So I know that the reality I create – whether it’s through fabric or movement or writing – is a true reality because it is coming through my sense of justice. Justice is like a muscle we still need to work on. I need to work on myself so that a year from now, my sense of what is just, true, and fair will continue to grow as I work on how my soul connects with the world.”
Helen’s insight is key: Justice will grow as our souls connect with this world. She and I speak about “the inner work of social justice,” which requires gentle care, daily kindness, stretching beyond our narrowness, and being profoundly accountable for our own thoughts and actions – the only way our world will ever heal and be sustainable again.
Protests make the news. Rallies show leaders we mean business. Social media is a vehicle for more voices to be heard. However, change will not last, and justice will not reach every level of society – from climate crisis, sex abuse and mass incarceration to housing and education reform – unless and until our souls connect daily with people who aren’t in our immediate circle and who don’t necessarily conform to our beliefs and appearances. How does this happen?
Well, first, we’ve got to stop pushing away the pain, fear, and shame. This begins by sitting still, alone and together, in our rawest, most tender moments. When Helen came to Tennessee to perform “The Quest for Light,” her mother had died just weeks before. My own mother died nine years ago, but her loss is still fresh. Our shared grief brings us closer, and reminds me to go deeper again.
So this morning, I pull the nursing rocker to the center of my apartment. I sit low to the ground, rocking, just as my mother once rocked me. I read a single poem, a few prayers. I wrestle with my feelings of dread, of not being “enough.” I speak with a friend, who helps me confront and release my inner turmoil. I help her with some articles she’s writing. Is this the work?
Alone, at home, with no one to buffer me against myself, I struggle to accept Helen’s message to us all: Yes, there is value in me too. This may sound obvious. But to put down the invisible measuring stick – to stop comparing and start sharing of myself – that is my daily, humbling quest for light.
Light means illumination yes, but also lightness of being. Every day, we can seek a new lightness that breaks into us with unexpected grace, when our minds are at ease and our bodies – flawed and flayed – are beautiful.