Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, May 7, 2010

To Zayda from her Shangazi - burning passion

Child & Family
Letter to Zayda born April 30, 2010

Man who carry straw cannot fool with fire.(Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

You will find that family members have such different views about their elders and about each other that you will wonder if each person I tell you about both angel and monster. Yesterday I mentioned to two of our relatives that I had written about the love Aunt Lyn and I shared. One who is senior to me said, “I am not sure how you could say those things. As far as I was aware, she just made trouble and mischief.” The other relative, my junior, said, “Hmmm, you could get into trouble with some family members for talking about Aunt Lyn like that.”

So how will you know the truth about Aunt Lyn, or about anyone else? All I can say, Zayda, is to listen with ears of love, ask questions with words of love, and judge very very very slowly. And most of all I will ask you to remember that people have strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes their strengths are also their weaknesses. I need you also to remember that people sometimes see others through veils of fear, mistrust, self-interest, or inability to let go of a past that might never have happened except in the imagination. In addition, some people lie.

To come close to the truth, my grand-niece, you will need to realize that all the stories you hear will contain bias, because we all see our world differently for complex reasons. You can try to test the stories by using logic and reason, but you will be limited by what people do not or cannot say. You can also take the stories at face value and learn from them the conflicting ways in which humans think and behave.

Aunt Lyn loved fiercely. Her passion was a fire that could warm as easily as it could burn. If someone messed up, she would give you a piece of her mind and the story would end there for her. No carry-over. She would then give you all the support you need even if that meant offending other family members who were on the other side of some family quarrel. Some people were prepared to love her when she opened her arms to them, but not when she told them bluntly what she thought they needed to do to shape up. She was therefore an aberration among those family members who could smile even while delivering lethal back stabs.

Aunt Lyn didn’t smile just to bare her teeth; she smiled because she meant it. She didn’t tell stories behind people’s backs; she told you what she was thinking to your face. Unlike many in our family and in our world, she would never pronounce people guilty without giving them a chance to present their side of a conflict.

We have to understand, Zayda, that not all people like fire. As the proverb says, those with straw need to stay away from fire. So Aunt Lyn’s desire to protect her loved ones singed some people, and perhaps left others with blisters or burns that may remain unhealed even today. Such persons may have so feared the fire that they didn’t experience the warmth.

Passion is such a risk that many choose indifference instead. Feelings get locked up in a freezer for so long that they can no longer thaw out; or we thaw them out to find nothing solid is left. Passion needs warmth and light to keep it alive. Passion brings change in our world – passion frees us, preserves our lives, renews our spirits, saves our universe, and connects us spiritually with those who have gone before. Passion also creates discomfort in those who fear to dare, and label as “trouble-makers” those who step outside lines drawn by those who prefer to feel safe rather than risk giving and receiving happiness.

For better or for worse, Zayda, you have a legacy of passion. You also have a legacy of resistance to passion. I will support you with the fierce love I learned from Aunt Lyn, no matter your choice.


Your shangazi

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at