Nelson Mandela died today. As I always do when I’m heartbroken, I write.
I find myself tongue-tied and not sure what to say, so I’ll just start at the beginning.
When I was 15 years old, I pasted this in my journal:
I felt connected to South Africa and South Africans, for absolutely no reason. I had never been there. I didn’t even know anyone who had ever been there. My love was completely illogical. And it was so deeply rooted that my toenails ached for a place I had never seen.
I auditioned for The Power of One and when they didn’t hire me, I cried. Not because I didn’t get the role, but because it seemed like my best chance to get to South Africa. No such luck. My love affair would have to remain long distance.
When I quit acting and moved to Virginia in search of myself, I got my GED and at the age of 28, I started college. In 2008 I had the chance to study abroad. I finally had my chance to go to South Africa. I was ecstatic as I took my antimalarials and set foot on the land that felt as much like home as any place I had ever been. I studied environmental science and anthropology for four weeks. We traveled around the country. Johannesburg, Venda, Kruger, Bushbuck Ridge, Blyde River Canyon.
I found myself in South Africa.
I stepped out of my old self – the former actor, exhausted from an 18-year career in the film industry, feeling lost and ill-prepared for real life. I learned how to be brave there. How to connect with people. How to live from my heart with an authenticity and an honesty that had always terrified me. I was stripped down there. For the month-long trip, I had one small duffle-bag that contained four T-shirts and two pairs of jeans. I had no room to carry my fear and insecurity.
And I got to walk in the footsteps of Mandela, the man who had changed the world. A man who reinvented himself, time and time again. Who admitted his weaknesses and believed that we can only be strong together. His feelings on community and justice and truth burrowed into my soul and made a home there. His tireless efforts for peace and compassion became my inspiration.
When I got home from South Africa, my only regret was that my husband hadn’t been with me. Within 7 months we were back on a plane to Cape Town. I wanted to see Robben Island, the prison where Mandela had spent 18 years of his life. I stood there and wept. Not because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed by his enduring faith in humanity. I cried because I was overwhelmed by the beauty of his existence.
I remain overwhelmed that I got to live in the world at the same time as this great man. I got to breathe the same air and see the same sky. We are all connected through Ubuntu, Mandela’s guiding philosophy: I am because we are.
I am because he was.
I am able to pursue my dreams because he demonstrated astonishing bravery. I’m able to forgive, because he forgave on the deepest level. I’m able to contribute to the world, because he demonstrated that one person can make a difference. I’m able to cause a little trouble with the unacceptable status quo, because he was a total badass.
I strive to move through the world with a tiny fraction of his presence.
And now he is gone and I’m heartbroken.
I always found it so reassuring to know that he was in the world.
But someone like him can never really die. The impact Mandela had will live forever. And although I keep crying, I know that most of those tears are in gratitude for the fact that there ever was a Mandela to miss.
Go well, Madiba.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”
– Nelson Mandela
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