The Four Solstice Miracles
The last year I sent Christmas cards was 1968: a plain, black-bordered card, mourning the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations and the ongoing Vietnam War, urging friends to donate to movement groups instead of buying gifts. I never sent Christmas cards again, not even UNICEF cards, nor, when options became available, a veritable glut of commercialism masquerading as diversity: Hanukkah cards, Kwanzaa cards, Devali, Ramadan, and Winter Solstice cards (this last sensible, at least, since all year-end holidays are clones of solstice festivals). A secularist, I’m happy not participating in a ritual that devours forests for paper, earns millions for Hallmark and its corporate brothers, and feeds the seasonal-obligations frenzy. But.
I do send four special . . . well, messages during this season, so I can hardly pretend they’re not holiday greetings. But these particular recipients deserve far more than my humble communications, written on personal notepaper, manger- and menorah-free, unsequined by santas, kente cloth, dreydls, or overworked non-unionized elves. This is not because these four people—all highly unusual Christians—send me annual messages, or because their stories are the sort not reported in world media. It’s because the imperative of their extraordinary lives inspires a loving, respectful response. Their names are partially changed here, to protect their privacy. But all four are real.
I met Esperanza Santos while in Brazil at a feminist conference, in 1987: a tiny, birdlike woman with bright blue-black skin, a sardonic smile, and a gaze ready to puncture any hypocrisy. She’d agreed to meet me in one of the favelas (vertical slums that rise along the hills ringing Rio) because I came “recommended” by one of the favela women organizers—who spoke English and kindly came along to translate. Esperanza started off laughing about her last name: “Whenever you meet someone called ‘Santos,’ it’s because they’re born out of wedlock. In Brazil, having no father automatically makes you a saint.”
Eperanza Santos is one hell of an anti-religious saint. By then, 20 years ago, she’d already been working with prostituted Afro-Brazilian women in Rio’s back streets for more than 20 years, and talking about HIV/AIDS since the early 1980s. No officials would listen.
“One day they’ll find me murdered,” she shrugged. “It might be pimps, sex traffickers, porno guys, drug dealers, cops, johns, government men—they all know while I’m alive, I’ll never quit. But I know safe places in the favelas no guys dare go. The women trust me. That’s what matters—my work. Getting the girls off drugs, out of the life. Getting kids, most not even menstruating yet, out of the life, into school. It’s hard enough being black, and poor, but being black, poor, and a woman—that’s a ticket to hell. Sex for sale is usually where poor black women start out here, and mostly where we end up. We try to survive. Some girls give me money to help others, like I helped them. I don’t take Church donations, ever! The Church is just another john—always wanting something for its money. If any god existed, its first miracle would be to destroy the Church.” When I offered to help raise money for her work, Esperanza shook her head fiercely. Then she smiled. “Look,” she said, “nobody ever listens to what somebody like me says. Men don’t listen to what women say, anyway. And black women, poor, living on the street—we exist as a statistic, or a blowjob. Sometimes I want to scream, ‘Look at me! I’m human here inside of me!’ She tells me,” gesturing at our translating go-between friend, “that you write books. So—if anybody listens to you—you tell our story. That’s what you can do.”
So here is her story. I’ve told Esperanza’s story all over the world, both on and off the page. I fear the December when I might not hear back from her. But we touch base so far, every year.
Mary Amiri lives in the Gaza Strip, where I met her during my first journey into the region, in the early 1980s. She’s a self-acknowledged feminist, a peace activist, an educator and expert on child development, and a Christian Palestinian. This great combo means she gets targeted by all sides.
She works trying to detoxify Palestinian children in Gaza’s refugee camps from what has become, after over a half-century of violence, a culture saturated by it, addicted to it. She grieves at the “rhinocerization” of these children (the term deriving from Ionesco’s play about ideological contamination), who parrot their fathers—boys chanting their lust to become martyrs, girls sing-songing their desire to become the mothers of martyrs. Gently, repeatedly, stubbornly, Mary reminds them how they once dreamed of becoming teachers, doctors, artists. She feels rewarded by even their faintest glimmers of recognition. A survivor of breast cancer and double mastectomy, Mary regularly endures a devastating harassment reserved for Palestinian women at border crossings with Israel. Since she frequently travels abroad to and from scholarly conferences, the Israeli airport security teams know her well—an academic now in her seventies, short, grey-haired, affable. But every time they insist that she strip naked from the waist up, so they can hand-search her breast prostheses while she stands and waits. The younger guards like to put the rubber prostheses up against their own chests and prance around, giggling. If she surrendered her work and her travel, the guards say openly, they wouldn’t “be forced” to commit this humiliation. She replies softly that the humiliation is theirs.
Each December Mary sends me a Christmas card and I write to her. Nothing much changes. Her news about Hamas’s rule in Gaza is awful; her health is worse. But her passion—for children she tries to save from all sides in the ongoing agony of Palestine-Israel—endures. Sister Serena is decidedly Christian: a Sisters of Charity nun, she’s an openly lesbian feminist activist in perpetual hot water with her superiors. I’ve known her since I was seventeen—but that’s another story. She spent three decades in Latin America, a real liberation-theology practitioner who never omitted women from the freedom equation. She was imprisoned and tortured in El Salvador and again later in Guatemala, where her lover, another nun, was murdered. Now in her eighties, living “out of the habit” as she wryly puts it, in a small New England women’s collective, she quietly does abortion referrals (to pregnancy-termination clinics, not adoption agencies), and retains a crisp sense of humor. When I wrote her about having been moved at a concert of Gregorian chant by all-female voices, she replied: “Yes, I used to love that, in my youth, when I was mistress of novices. Watching the late afternoon light prisms through the convent chapel windows, hearing those pure, high voices. Profound. (Better be damned profound, in fact, or else I sure have tossed my life away!)”
The fourth is a woman I’ve met only once. Her face is hard and lined. She is poor, not young, not educated. She works as a doorkeeper at an old house in a side street in Catania, in Sicily. I was there in the mid-1990s, during an Italian book tour with Maria Nadotti (real name), friend and journalist who’s also my Italian editor/translator/interpreter. On our last day, as Maria and I rushed to the airport, this woman recognized us from a TV interview we’d done on violence against women (in Sicily, yet). She called out. Maria translated rapidly.
“Is it really true?” the woman asked, clutching Maria with one hand and me with the other. “What you said? That women in many places are fighting back, against the violence? Against being beaten?”
“Yes,” we said, sophisticated writers trying hard to swallow the emotion rising in our throats, “It’s true. Women are fighting back. Many, many places. Far beyond Sicily. All over the world.”
“And one day they will make it stop? The pain? They—we—will make this happen?” Her eyes shone.
“Yes,” we cried, openly now, clinging to each other and her, “One day. Women everywhere. Trying. Yes.”
She nodded, blessing us with a radiant, gap-toothed smile.
“That is very good,” she sighed. Then added, with great dignity, “Because then I am not all alone in my fight.”
The following year I dedicated the Italian edition of The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism to this woman, whose name I’d learned was Adriana Russo, and I’ve told this story, too, in many countries since that day. Hearing it, women spontaneously cry out, in answer to a Sicilian woman they’ll never meet, “You are not alone.” Yet wherever she stands, she herself recreates all possibility. She is indeed The Doorkeeper, who opens the portal and shows the way. Her card—replete with angels and magi, you bet—arrives every December. And so does my greeting, in fractured Italian.
These are the people to whom I send my four “Christmas cards.” None of us are young, and each year I worry one of us will fail to make contact. That day will come, of course. But for now, these women embody, to me, the spirit of miracle celebrated not through myth but solidly, in the scientific calendar of our planet: the Solstice. A dear friend of mine was born on the Summer Solstice, another friend on the Winter Solstice—the same day, depending on whether one is in the northern or southern hemisphere. Our seasonal realities shimmer between such instantaneous, singular duality.
But wherever we are, the Winter Solstice celebrates the returning of the light, as the days grow longer and night shrinks back. And who could be better avatars of light than these four old women, my secular saints?
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