The Return – Ward and Sophie

Ward Mailliard and Sophie Kamkar


The Return

Ward: I have to confess, I was feeling a little sad this morning realizing this was our last day together, and I was going you know we should hangout a little longer you know? (Laughter) I don’t have quite enough rooms in my house (Laughter). From the Call, the Journey, and we start that ark homeward, and the Return is actually the part of the journey that is often forgotten. Because that is the point where we need to be witnessed by our community, to be whole in the initiatory experience and I will only speak for myself, but for me this was a very initiatory experience. This is our 9th Chautauqua, but it feels like our first in some ways to me, and maybe that is about endings and beginnings. Actually I wanted to impose something on one of my students, that’s one of the liabilities of knowing me, for which I apologize…. but I don’t relent, but not really. (Laughter) But Sophie had a reading last night –  that I thought was interesting, and she doesn’t have it with her, so I am going to ask her to extemporize a little bit.

Sophie Kamkar:  Robben Island was our first day in South Africa, and I think it was actually one of my very favorite parts of the trip. We took a ferry out to Robben Island, and we had the opportunity to see Nelson Mandela’s cell, which was surreal, and to interview a former prisoner, Thulani. We went there not really knowing what to expect, but we gathered around in this room, and Thulani starts off the day by getting down on the floor and showing us different ways he was tortured, while telling us this heartbreaking story of what he endured the years that he spent in the prison, and just horrible things that brought tears to a lot of our eyes as we were listening.

As he was telling us his story, he was strong and he wasn’t getting emotional, and I was just in awe at how he could be telling us all of these things, and how brave he was – To return to the very same place where all this happened to him. This prison took up most of his life, and is a huge part of his life, and then he proceeded to take us through the cells, and he actually owns the key that was used to unlock all of the prison cells; and as he was taking us through the cells, he opened Nelson Mandela’s cell, and I am sure you all know of Nelson Mandela’s current condition. 

But he opens Nelson Mandela’s cell, and he stops talking all of a sudden, and he starts crying. We were all just standing there and watching this older man cry, and it was just so heartbreaking, because we could see all of the emotion flooding back as he looked back into the cell of his dear friend who is now in the hospital. I just didn’t know what to say, I was at a loss for words because I could not imagine returning to this place that holds such dark and horrible images for him, and he told us that the previous night that he was having nightmares about Robben Island, and everything that he had endured, and his wife was telling him: “Oh you shouldn’t go, that will be too hard for you.” But he didn’t want to break his commitment to our teacher and our class, so he came anyway.

He walked through the cells, and he kindly told us his stories, and he did it, and that meant a lot to me, because I don’t know if I would have the strength to even consider returning back to a place like that. I don’t think I would ever want to go back there again. And – But it made me realize that I think sometimes a return is what is necessary to heal from past experiences. Sometimes you have to face what it is that damaged you, in order to heal from it, and I think that that was a healing experience for him, even though it was clearly very difficult for him to return to that place that holds such dark memories for him, but it made me realize that this man, he could have given up a long time ago, and he said that while he was in the prison, he considered committing suicide many times, but he for some reason he didn’t, and he stayed strong, and I think it is because he had hope. If he didn’t have hope he wouldn’t be standing there with us that day telling us a bunch of American teenagers his story. I think it is amazing that returning to the prison was just – It is just outstanding that he could do that and he saw the importance of doing that.

Ward: Thank you Sophie.

Group: Thanks Sophie.

Ward: So I have a little coincidental reading, and I think that we can unpack that story for a long time. But in “Subversive Orthodoxy” Larry writes on page 71 “What critics like Roger Kimball don’t get about the beats in general, and Keroac in particular is that it is just as possible to be unhappy in a wonderful environment as it is to be hopeful in a difficult one. And that this capacity for unhappiness amidst great material plenty is not necessarily a symptom of ingratitude towards America’s socioeconomic gains, political liberties or modern technological miracles. Human beings are not just organisms in environments, or subjects within histories, but individual souls working out their own salvation amidst great worldly suffering and injustice.”

Now, the whole process of the return – What I have noticed personally is as I have sat in conversations, there is something about the people who are here in this room, where I find myself saying to myself: “Self did I just say that?” That there, is a level of invitation to vulnerability where I find myself unedited, which is slightly frightening, and hard to do in a community in which you are known, but in a way it is its own return to the things that are actually really and truly there and simmering, and maybe not expressed. So the “return” is a much more complex thing, but part of it is the return for whatever happened in this journey, but the “return” within this journey that we are in right now of coming back to self, and reaching down to the place where we are noticing what is there that we maybe we didn’t notice. I thought this story of Thulani was extremely poignant in that we get out of the prison, and yet we can still be in the prison, and we have to go back and work through it.