I looked at my rooibus latte and it had a phoenix in it.
I was at a coffee shop doing some contract work and had walked there in the rain on a drizzly gray New England day. I was making a diligent effort to cheer up my own little portion of the chilly morning by getting out of the house, carrying a red duck umbrella, zipping up in a bright red puffy jacket, and wearing deep red nail polish. A red tea latte had seemed a fitting thing to add to the mix but somehow this one brought up so much more.
I thought about how as a girl I sat talking on the phone with my Grandad. He had decided to take over my education and prepare me for a better future. I listened with rapt attention as he told me about his favorite mythological creature, the phoenix, which he said was a bird like none other. It would spontaneously combust when old and be born anew in its own ashes. This regeneration, this thriving in adversity is the exact quality I needed, he said. “You should strive to be like the phoenix, Heather. You will need to let all this foolishness you’ve been living in fall into ashes around you, because it will, and then you will be bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready for life.”
Now here I am a grown woman, with my latte and a peach scone, reading qualitative data on a laptop at this little cafe table, writing a report on the political perspectives and living situations of people in a rural district in Afghanistan. I am scrolling through transcripts of interviews with women who straightforwardly answer questions by saying “I don’t know. I am uneducated.” They are purdah-observing, meaning most women never leave home unless there’s a wedding or a doctor’s visit, and many are so isolated they don’t hardly know about the war except to say that the men are worried and they’d all like schools nearby and nicer clothes for their children.
To me and my rich imagination, Afghanistan appears like some combination of King Arthur’s court, medieval witch trials and ordeals, ultra-Puritanical ideas of propriety, Beowulf’s marriage rituals and feasting halls, southern hospitality, hillsides filled with the old-time shepherds of the bible, and the gunslingers of the Wild West.
I think about my parents. They looked at the relative riches of America and felt that it was set up in a way that did not really include them, did not meet their needs. If their disaffection and discontent was the first step in them getting pulled into an extreme religious movement, then how easy is it for young people in a country where honor is everything and who grow up knowing they have few prospects to go down an even more extreme route?
It has not escaped me that the religious fanaticism I was raised in is often described in terms of radical Islam, compared to it. Calling fundamentalist homeschoolers “Christian madrassas,” requiring the women to wear “burquinis” if they go swimming, describing men with theocratic aims as wishing to create the Christian version of Iran in America. The difference is I was raised in the closed world of a small and escapable fringe group. It was not a whole society where this stuff often makes up the frame, the bones, where you have to exit a nation to see an outside perspective.
I see the intellectual comparisons, and sometimes I feel the residual emotional ones. I’ve found that while visiting and eating parathas and dal (and sharing recipes for oatmeal cookies and apple pancakes) with my neighbors, a house full of friendly Pakistani students, they have become some of my best friends. I am at home in certain unspoken ways I never could be with white middle-class New Englanders. “You could pass for Pashto” one of their guests laughingly told me recently. The girls had dressed me up in a glittering black sari, conservative but highlighting a feminine shape. Yeah, there are certain commonalities. I love these people.
Maybe that’s why I find this work so fascinating and believe that those striving in the face of unmet human need and hard choices will be able to persevere and overcome if given the right opportunity. After all, I have done so, so I know there is potential. Information and knowledge is power. If we care we can fix it.
I could go off on how horrible it is that we get into this toxic Christians vs. Muslims perspective where we decide some people supposedly have lives and souls of value and others do not. It is outright disgusting to me that some people actually feel proud to drive around with redneck bumper stickers saying “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” That is the exact harsh and vengeful mindset we need to throw away. Without love, compassion, and a willingness to help others we are weak and have nothing.
Somehow this brings me back to Grandad. So many things bring me back to him, are connected to him somehow, that even if I had not had the outline of this mysterious mythical creature depicted in my morning beverage, I’d be thinking of him. I remember him ranting when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. “Look at her, a beautiful, educated, brilliant woman and look what they did! The people who did this are idiotic, just ignorant fools.”
Sometimes it surprises me that I trace so many thoughts back to Grandad that I didn’t realize were so formative. I reflect on what I’ve learned from this freewheeling retired Navy man, my Dad’s Dad, a three-war veteran who believed in daily martinis, rejected the idea of God, and idolized higher education. I was supposed to pray for him to get “saved” when I was a little kid in church but he was the one who’d ended up saving me. He had been an iron-fisted parent to his own kids but recognition had become regret and regret had turned into a quest for redemption. The world is full of paradoxes and my Grandad was not a simple guy. He knew a bit about phoenixes and what it was like to be one.
He took me from a backwards existence in a family of religious fanatics plagued by poverty and illiteracy, and he remade my world. He watched like a hawk as I learned and thrived, barking cryptic military-style orders when I struggled, regularly wanting to hear updates and give feedback, giving me big hugs that made me feel awkward yet loved, that made me forever associate the smell of Old Spice and Heineken with him.
He’d see me procrastinating or worrying about details and yell “hey, get your ass in gear young lady!” or “the world needs lerts, so be alert!” He expected I would find a way to make a project or plan come together once spurred into action, that I wouldn’t “know my place” in the world but rather build my life to reach the kind of potential he envisioned.
It was often difficult having him push me like he did, his expectations so much higher, so different than others’ around me, but what was really hard was when he started to step back in recent years, saying he expected that my own intuition would be more applicable than his to navigating the world as a young woman today.
It was rough watching him try to hold onto independence and simplify his own life as it got more complicated. “Being old old is a bitch,” he said. The lymphoma had filled him with egg-size lumps. The chemo had made him feel like he had a fire in his extremities, a hive of bees in his legs. He missed my Grammy and hoped he could be with her again although he harbored no illusions of heaven or a rebirth for himself. He said “I figure death is the last grand adventure. ‘Pop,’ that’s it. No more.” His final words to me had been almost like something out of a movie. “Well, I know you have the education and experience to handle anything that comes your way and the inclination to do so. You have good morals and that counts for a lot. I am very proud of you and I love you very very much.”
He’s now been gone since last February. One whole year, the second Valentine’s Day. I held his hand at the end, when the only thing recognizable about him were his bushy eyebrows and his tattoos. Cancer does that I guess. I looked at pictures of him as a baby and ones taken weeks before his death, as an 85 year old man. Unlike the phoenix we don’t have 500 years to make a transformation.
Missing him often feels less like mourning and more like we are simply overdue for a long catch-up phone call.
I wish I could tell him I was researching and writing about Afghanistan. I wish I could tell him that I recently learned how to make Pakistani milk tea from a former human rights lawyer that I’m sure he would find just as fascinating as Benazir Bhutto herself.
I thumb through a beautifully illustrated copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Grandad had sent me as a gift, lingering on the lines in one poem:
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
I was at his apartment when the hospice nurse left and the young men from the funeral home arrived. They were dressed in suits but the soot underneath their fingernails gave away their profession. Grandad’s body was due for cremation.
In the face of death even modern American life can feel pretty medieval, raw, close to the ground. I figure it’s when we forget that and think we are better, somehow removed from others who are born and die and struggle to find hope and meaning that we lose our way.
I do not know if there is a rebirth, a life after this one, but my Grandad taught me that you can have many endings and many beginnings in even a short human lifespan, that there are daily opportunities for revision and reform, for assisting others, and no matter how dark or dire it seems, it is empowering to imagine rising from the ashes anew.