I recently reread Stephen Wright’s post ‘On not being able to care’ from March 2010 – and was once again moved by his direct view of things and the original way he thinks about the world.
And then I read a comment below his blog: ‘I think there has to be a direct discourse of kindness unearthed somewhere. Kindness has become a kind of granny-virtue, if I can say that and be understood without offending grannies. It isn’t deemed to have any power or weight to it.’ The use of ‘granny-virtue’ to denote things powerless and weightless got me thinking.
As we continue to discover – with Louis Nowra’s dismissal of Germaine Greer by saying she’s like his demented grandmother, John Birmingham’s dismissal of Greer as a feral hag, AA Gill and Samantha Brick’s dismissal of classics scholar Mary Beard as a tv presenter because of her physical appearance – we don’t respect ageing women. We have way more time for ageing men: Nelson Mandela, Richard Dawkins, Cormac McCarthy, Clint Eastwood, Mick Jagger, Simon Schama, JM Coetzee. The list is endless.
I first discovered the power of old women from my father’s mother. Not at her knee – there was nothing clichéd about her – but hanging out with her in her flat in Sydney’s Kings Cross when she was in her 90s. I lived around the corner and visited her most weeks. We’d drink sherry and smoke cigarettes. I’d cut her hair and she’d tell me labyrinthine stories, mostly about all the dead people she missed, including her beloved husband and her two lost daughters, one who died aged 10 when they were crossing a London street hand-in-hand, run down by a truck.
I felt my grandmother’s kindness in all its awesome power. There was nothing insipid or weightless about it. Her 90 odd years had taught her that her life was about ‘service, sacrifice and suffering’. When she first gave me those three words I was shocked and appalled – because they seemed so passive and so bleak, and she lived so energetically, joyfully, making friends of strangers, always on the verge of ‘bursting into song’, writing over 100 Christmas cards every year to friends in Asia, Africa, Europe, America, flirting with boys in the bank queue (I know because once one of them was my boyfriend).
There was nothing half-hearted about her life, her passions, her kindness, even at 97. Conveyed physically through her hugs, her kindness was fierce as a vice – as only the hold of a woman will be who has lost a child through not holding enough.
I have grown past hate and bitterness
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.
All men at God’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.
And her kindness was powerful. It felt like something that could change the world. Which is what economist Muhammad Yunus has discovered through his microfinance movement: granny power can change the world. Lending small amounts of money to women has improved the material existence of thousands of impoverished families around the world.
The vast majority of successful loans made by microfinance organisations such as Yumus’s Grameen (‘Village’) Bank in Bangladesh and Pro Mujer in Bolivia are to women. It turns out that contrary to conventional financial wisdom these women are better at managing money than their husbands and sons.
Changing the world is also what thirteen grandmothers were called to do in 2004. In that year a Cherokee woman, Jyoti, had a vision of a circle of Indigenous grandmothers and as a result in October 2004 thirteen spiritual leaders from across the planet, grandmothers all, got together to do planetary business.
Their ancestral prophecies had told them they’d be called together at a critical time in history when their ancient knowledge would be needed for the survival of the planet. These thirteen grandmothers are now teaching that urgent change is needed if the next seven generations of human beings are to survive on earth. Here is their Mission Statement:
We, the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come. We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. We believe the teachings of our ancestors will light the way through an uncertain future. We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.
So as we head to the consumer horror fest that is Mothers Day, I’ll be drinking sherry and saluting the grandmothers of this earth, including my two grandmothers and my own mother, who’s now a grandmother.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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