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From a Distance

I was talking to a friend the other day when the subject of ancient history came up. I’m not sure how we got there, but at some point I found myself describing the disorienting feelings that come from reading ancient mail. One minute you read a four-thousand-year-old letter from an exasperated king to his ne’er do well son, in which he laments that the prince doesn’t write and hasn’t accomplished anything, and you think, “Substitute a few words, and this could be any dad griping about any underperforming child.” Then you read a slave manumission from the same household, and the fragile connection is lost.

Utterly the same. Fundamentally different. Push. Pull.

As it happens, the distance over time can feel much the same as the distance across cultures. In some moments, my conversations with Alek, Agok, Nyawut, or the other Sudanese women I know reinforce the universal bonds of motherhood. One moment Alek is telling me about how hard it is to get anything done with a child underfoot and is explaining that the minute Agotich heads off to preschool, the race is on to cook, clean, and do laundry before she’s back home. All the while I’m nodding emphatically and saying, “I know! I know! We’ve had so many snow days that my house is a total wreck right now.” At that moment, Alek could be any of the friends or family with whom I compare parenting notes.

Moments later, when I least expect it, a verbal shot across the bow reminds me of the gulf between her culture and my own. Alek is expecting another baby this summer, and when I asked her about names, she told me that after the baby was born, Gabriel will be in contact with his family and they will choose a name from those on his side of the family. Her family gets to pick when/if she has baby number four, maybe three if concessions are made.

Can you imagine? Simon is named for my side of the family, and while the family was kind-of, sort-of consulted, Matt and I chose the name knowing full well that a few family members didn’t like it. (They’re over that now.) For that matter, the day I went into the hospital we had settled on a girl’s name that I knew for certain my Dad hated.

As my connections to the Sudanese community deepen, I’m sure to have more of these moments. In the meantime, these recent conversations led me to dig out a translated volume of Babylonian literature from my grad school days. I vaguely recalled a passage that demonstrated the cultural push-pull in salient fashion for this conversation: Translated by Farber and Foster:

Little one who dwelt in the dark chamber [womb],

You really did come out here, have you seen the sunlight?

Why are you crying? Why are you fretting?

Why did you not cry in there?

You have disturbed the household god,

The bison monster is astir, saying,

Who disturbed me? Who startled me?”

The little one disturbed you, the little one startled you.

Like wine-tipplers, like a barmaid’s child,

Let sleep fall upon him.

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