Back to the Higher Thought Game
Whether or not you believe in God or a Goddess, describe the qualities of a perfect deity.
When I was a community college English teacher in Berkeley, CA in the 1990s, I assigned the book The Spirit of Intimacy by Sobonfu Some in my English classes. Sobonfu Some was a spiritual teacher from Africa (who passed away in 2017), and The Spirit of Intimacy, which was her first book (she ultimately wrote three), described the lifestyle and customs and beliefs of her native Nagara tribe.
The Spirit of Intimacy is a short, beautiful, thought-provoking book. It provided lots of rich raw material for class discussion and a fantastic wealth of ideas for student essays. One of the tribal customs described in the book is that, when a married couple is having relational difficulty, the entire community of friends and family gets involved, and periodically even convenes a ritual to support the partnership, because it is understood that the health or sickness of any marriage has a significant impact on the whole tribe. Therefore, it is everyone’s concern when a couple is fighting, not a private matter.
We enjoyed chewing over this in class. Did we like this notion? Yes, for the most part. It seemed caring, connective, deeply sane in a radical way. Could it conceivably work in our own society? Perhaps, in some places, though it might not fit like a glove. We’d have to figure out own ways to bring a similar approach, but it was a good role model for us. That was the class’s general consensus, and I concurred with it.
The very next day I was driving in my car with my fiancé, and we were having a mild argument about something. Not yelling or being mean or anything, but there was some friction. A friend was in the backseat, and attempted at one point to interject a helpful observation (or maybe it was just a thought), which really annoyed the hell out of me. I reflexively snapped, “Hey, I know you can’t help hearing us, and I regret that, but please – it’s really none of your business and your input isn’t welcome, thank you.” (Or something like that. Maybe not quite so rude.)
I thought afterward that this was a funny story. The irony of it. Having an interaction like that the very day after facilitating class discussion about Some’s book and the Dagara tribe’s community-centered orientation to marriage. I shared this story in various contexts several times over the next few years. But I’m pretty sure it was at least ten years before I got to share it with Sobonfu herself.
She was in town, in the Bay Area, near where I was living at the time, and I don’t remember what the occasion was. The details are vague! But I know I encountered her on College Avenue in Oakland, and it was either in Diesel Bookstore or very close to it. But I know she was not simply giving a reading. She had led a program or something. And I hadn’t participated in it (for some reason – maybe it was the timing – or maybe it was an all-women thing), but I was at a restaurant across the street, and aware of the Sobonfu Some event, and I wasn’t even sure I could enter, but I knew it must be ending as I was finishing my dinner, and I walked across the street and opened the door and I recall a warm, subtly lit room, and maybe 15 or so people milling about, collecting things, clearly getting ready to leave, but not in a hurry. There was a deeply mellow vibe in the room. And though I had not paid to get in, and though I may have been the only man there (not sure), nobody minded or perhaps even noticed my entrance.
I saw Sobonfu. I knew it was her, maybe by the unusual way she was dressed, or the way other people approached her, or maybe she was either the only black person in the room or one of the very few black people there. Anyway, she was seated somewhere, extremely relaxed, exuding a benign glow, and I walked up to her. I said hello, and she smiled in a welcoming way and said hello back and held out her hand for me to briefly touch (if not exactly shake). I asked, very politely and shyly, if I could tell her a little story.
She seemed immediately intrigued; her eyes lit up and she leaned forward a bit as she nodded yes. So, taking about a minute or so, I explained that I had once been a community college English teacher, and we had discussed her book in my classes, and one time we’d had this discussion about the Dagara view of marriage and the role of community in maintaining a marriage’s health, and then the very next day I was in my car with my fiancé and another friend and … etc.
When I got to the “punchline” about my irritated reaction to our friend’s “interference,” Sobonfu’s eyes lit up even brighter and she broke into the sweetest, most gentle laughter I’ve ever heard. She just laughed, or maybe giggled would be a more accurate term. And that was all the comment she needed to make. We understood each other perfectly, and I was thrilled.
She was clearly really tickled by my story. Maybe she’d never heard anything quite like it, in all her interactions with various Americans.
Her laugh was so spontaneous, so innocent, so purely delighted with no affectation, almost like a baby’s laugh, but with so much compassionate wonder behind it, such happy and accepting surprise in it.
And I felt loved! I know that sounds a little starstruck, but there it is. I felt seen, accepted, and loved. And a little melted.
What a remarkable being she was!
I would want my perfect deity to have a laugh similar to Sobonfu’s. Or maybe even exactly the same laugh.