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    Turning to Each Other and White Plum Blossoms

    By John Lewis–

    As I type, Stuart’s 95-year-old mom is approaching the end of life. 

    Stuart’s mom was always ahead of her time. She holds degrees from UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Marquette University, and was a professor of cross-cultural education and women’s studies at a time when teaching those subjects meant breaking down barriers. Stuart’s mom, who is Chinese American, and his dad, who is European American, were an interracial couple who married in the early 1950s when such marriages were illegal in much of the country.

    Stuart’s mom has long been a big supporter of LGBTIQ equality, from joining with us in the Pride Parade to campaigning against Prop 8. As she sensed that Stuart might be gay when he was a teenager in the 1980s, she coaxed him on more than one occasion to come out to her, offering: “If there’s anything you want to tell me, I just want to let you know I will be very open and understanding … .”

    Perhaps most strikingly, Stuart’s mom never really thought of herself as old. Several years ago, when I told my mother, who was a contemporary of Stuart’s mom, some of the things Stuart’s mom was doing, my mother was aghast. She exclaimed to me, “Doesn’t she understand that she’s old and should be preparing for the end of her life?” I can imagine Stuart’s mom responding, “Says who? And why?”

    In spending time with Stuart’s mom and in coming to terms with turning 60 this year myself, I realized that we really don’t have 95-year-old or 60-year-old moments—or 30-year-old or 3-year-old moments, for that matter. We all just have the present moment, which we share together with each other right here and right now. And then comes the next present moment immediately following, whether we like it or not. 

    In life, we often really want something to happen and try very hard to make it happen in a given moment, or the next moment or even the next year. But ultimately, we don’t know what will come next and may not be able to control it despite all of our efforts and wishes. This is especially true when a cherished loved one is ill and is also true in our lives as activists.

    Indeed, for all of us an ever-present process of change is taking place both in our external circumstances and in our subjective personal experience as we live our lives trying to make the world a better place.

    The 18th century Japanese haiku poet Buson evokes this notion in a final haiku he composed from his deathbed. It’s entitled “Early Spring.” The haiku describes the flowers in his garden the very moment the dawn light first illuminates them:

                  In the white plum blossoms
                  night to next day
                  just turning.

    Plum blossoms are the first flowers to bloom in the new year, actually coming out amidst the snow in the waning days of winter.  As such, they symbolize perseverance and beauty under adversity, as well as hope, renewal and transition. In Japanese, Buson’s words evoke the continuing nature of the process. Indeed, as the white plum blossoms give way to fresh green leaves, the early morning light will reveal continually changing images at slightly different times as the year unfolds and then repeats itself again and again. Importantly, how one attends to the garden can greatly influence what the dawn light unveils. 

    When a cherished loved one is in the final days of life, nothing is more valuable to all involved than the support of other loved ones near and far.

    A favorite haiku of mine, written by the most revered Japanese haiku master of all, Basho—who was also queer—evokes the value of our recognizing the commonality of our experience. Long ago, a person living in Kyoto had painted a self-portrait depicting themselves with their face turned away, and asked Basho to compose a haiku to accompany the painting. Basho wrote: 

                  You could turn this way,
                  I am also lonely
                  This autumn evening.

    Basho’s verse suggests a way to relate to each other in times of need, not only as we are in the final days of Stuart’s mom’s life, but also more generally and as a community as we face social and political adversity. Perhaps Basho’s words also speak of a way to undermine the ignorance, hatred and greed that engender discrimination and other unnecessary suffering in the first place.  Stuart’s mom devoted her life to ending such suffering.
    (English translations of the haikus come from Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku, Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa.)

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.