My Father’s Words

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In January 1998, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to be with my husband while he completed his PhD. I was there for almost a year, and during that time, my primary means of communication with my family and friends back home in Jamaica was by regular mail (aka snail mail) or email. It was before the time of Facebook, Whatsapp and voip phones. The following is an excerpt from an email exchange between me and my father (edited only to insert paragraph breaks, and correct spelling errors, as apparently neither my father nor I paid attention to these features when typing up email). Although the words were written 20 years ago, the truth of what he says transcends time, and still applies to the new technology that has made it possible for me to share his words with a wider audience. By way of explanation, “thathi” is Sinhalese for father

Me on my little soapbox on December 12 1998:

Dear Thathi,

Thanks for the email, and I am sorry that I didn’t reply sooner. As I lie in bed, before falling asleep, I outline in my head all the things I want to do the next day. Then I end up turning off the alarm in the morning and not waking up till 11am, and half if not more of the plans get shelved…some days I log in to read mail and all I have is silly jokes from friends and it gets me very annoyed. I would much prefer if these so called friends would not send email if they can’t spare the few minutes to write a line or two about what they are up to. I mean I don’t mind the jokes, but they shouldn’t be a substitute for keeping in real touch. Electronic mail is impersonal enough without one making it even more so. And now I will get off my soapbox on that topic.

My father replies from his somewhat bigger, and definitely wiser soapbox :

Dear Kanchi,

Thank you for your letter. I agree with your soap box piece about sending people jokes on e mail, but a joke now and again I suppose is ok, especially since it is so easy to share something you received as an email by forwarding it, and I suspect many persons think that merely to send off something like that is a way of keeping in touch, like sending a shop bought Christmas card at Christmas, and they use email that way. While that is better than keeping a deafening silence, I like to think that each person must have his/her own individual way of handling these new technologies, and must not give up his/her right to think and decide individually the style, the pattern and the purpose for which these new avenues of communication are to be used.

A long time ago, Dr Mulchansingh told me something which was in respect of particpation at meetings. He said, when you are at a meeting if you have nothing to say, you had better say it in silence. And I think I like to apply that policy to email and other types of communication. If everyone did that then we will have much more comfortable and shorter meetings, and just think of the time the US Congress’s Judiciary Committee would have saved last week for themselves and for others.

But, on the other hand the present day consumer society seems to consider that communication too is a consumer item that needs to be consumed in great abundance if the economy is to grow, hence the Judiciary Committee’s long speeches would have been welcomed by the news networks for purposes of broadcasting and journalism as a big opportunity to attain higher levels of productivity! This is where the current fads and fashions try to influence us to an extent that our own preferences and personalities tend to get forgotten, and we get immersed in a stream of “type” persons of our time, products of our times, if you like, and lose our individuality.

In my mind, what Christians call soul and what adherents of other religions call by other names is the individuality of each of us which is unique, and keeps on growing in a unique way, in the way we choose our styles and patterns and purposes in the words we speak, thoughts we think and actions we perform. Modern day consumerism tries to choose our styles and patterns and purposes in the words we speak, thoughts we think and actions we perform. Modern day consumerism tries to throttle that growth and to make individuals into typical products of the mass/global market.

So when people like you try to get up on what you call your soapbox and show your annoyance about how people use the new technologies it is a good sign that your soul is trying to grow in its unique way, and you are still your own person not having and not willing to sell your soul. So you must be happy about these outbursts as your father is on your behalf, but by the same token you must be prepared to grant others their own individuality in using the technologies at their disposal in keeping with the choices they want to make. After all as much as you have the potential of a growing soul and the right to have it grow others too have a right to do just that or make sure (consciously or unconsciously) that it does not grow. For those who do so consciously there is nothing anyone can do. But for those who are unconscious of what they are doing to themselves, outbursts like the one you made in your message would be of some use.

I no longer have access to the email account I used in those days. So I only happen to have these words to re-read, 20 years after he wrote them, because this particular exchange had been printed by my father at work, probably to take home to my mother as in those days they did not have reliable email access at home. I found the printouts amongst his papers after he died, and saved them because I knew there were no more to come. If he had remained on this earth, he would have been 74 years today. Though not here in the flesh, his spirit lives on not only in my mother’s heart, and the DNA passed down to his daughters and granddaughters, but also in the words that he took the time to commit to paper, or rather the screen. Anyone who knew my father would recognize the above essay (which was only the introduction of his email to me on that day) as classic Mr. B.

I wonder what he would have thought of the “technologies” enabling even faster communication today. I can only imagine what he would have to say about the fact that 20 years later there continues to be such a vast amount of fodder for the news networks thanks to the various arms of the US government not to mention the US president. I wonder what he would have had to say about the increasing tendency of the world, these days, to separate people into “us” and “them”, and deny others the freedom we want to exercise when it comes to personal choice.

I wonder what words of wisdom he would have shared with a grand-daughter looking to pursue a career in journalism. I can imagine his amusement if he were to read the detailed emails ( now I am reminded where she gets it from) his other grand-daughter sends me, when I am away from home. Most of all I wish he was here to engage in these long discussions with his grand-daughters both of whom are now old enough and sufficiently developed in their unique styles of communication, to appreciate such discourse. Then I realise that in fact he is still here, because I have his actual words to share with them. As I read his words again today, I recognise his influence in the way I express myself, and encourage my daughters to think and speak in their own authentic voices. Perhaps best of all is that, with even greater advancements in “avenues of communication”, I can in fact share his words and his wisdom with far more than the audience of one that he had anticipated when he patiently typed up that email long ago in response to an impatient daughter waiting for real mail in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today he would have been 74, and today I am again grateful beyond words to have had the good fortune to be his daughter.

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