The lilies of forgiveness
I am sitting in a plane 12 km above the face of the earth and I get this strong feeling of deja vú. 23 years ago I travelled the same route with a strange mix of deep longing and trepidation. I was going from Sweden to South Africa, the country that more than any other had stirred my feelings with its heroic struggle, its people poor in all means except those that really mattered; the desire to reach their freedom, come what may. And they did it singing, together, side by side, creating pockets in time and space of harmony and unity in that diabolic world of separation called apartheid that made us all realize without any doubt the truth of the songs we were singing; “Freedom is coming”, indeed, it had already arrived in that moment we raised our voices.
But on that specific flight, 23 years ago, there was another and new element to my trepidation. I was going to meet a song of another key, of another genre. The waiting was over, my frozen fields had finally thawed. I was going down to meet …. Love.
I had waited a long time. I was in my late 30’s and something had prevented me to engage myself in a loving and lasting relationship up until then, something heinous and unfathomable that took me long to identify and even longer to conquer. But now I was on my way, on a journey without any option to return. In my rucksack I had a small note with a quote scribbled by hand by a friend. It read: “Those you do not forgive, you fear - and no one comes to love with fear beside him.”
It was written and given me by Kay Pollak, the film-maker, as we were working on the film “As it is in heaven”. We spent a lot of time talking about the power of forgiveness as we wanted that to be a leading theme of the movie. I spoke a lot about my experiences in South Africa and all the grand lessons of forgiveness that I had been given by a people with an enormous and seemingly inherent gift of forgiving. That was the real reason why I kept coming back to South Africa time and time again. I was so received and forgiven by a people that I felt would have all the reason not to forgive me by mere virtue of what I represented; white, western, male. I was learning about forgiveness as a quality of a whole nation as I was struggling to implement it in my own private life.
At one point I told Kay how my anger against my child-molester had overpowered me – because a rape in my childhood was the real reason for why I could not make lasting bonds with women. I told him how I one day had found an old deflated football in the garden and how I took an iron pick from the toolshed and ran it furiously through the ball, the balls of my imagined perpetrator, until I was panting of exhaustion next to it on the grass. Then I took the ball and kicked it as far over the fence into the forest as I could. After I told the story, Kay looked at me in silence and then said:
- But in my thinking, that ball is still out there in the forest.
I realized he was right. It was still out there and a grey autumn day I went over the fence into the forest to look for it, found it and brought it back into my garden again. I took it to the most beautiful part of the garden, buried it gently and with a prayer pleading to grant me a forgiving heart, I put bulbs of daffodils in its empty shell and covered it with mulch.
About the same time Jennifer appeared in my life. That story is a long and lovely one best told by both of us but as I have heard her version many times, still chuckling every time I hear it, I feel I can be excused for trying to give small bits of her perspective as well.
Jennifer was doing an intense tour through Sweden in her dual capacity as politician and singer, meeting politicians in the days and giving concerts in the nights. Quite often she was accompanied on the concerts by enthusiastic Swedish choirs who sang South African freedom songs. Equally frequently she was asked if she knew this Anders Nyberg who had brought the songs to Sweden. She did not, but she got more and more eager to do so.
I, on my side, received a special invitation to a Stockholm concert where cultural workers for the South-African cause had been invited to the feast of Jennifer’s farewell-concert. The invitation-card had a picture of this beautiful but enigmatic face smiling at you with eyes closed. I wanted to see what lay behind those eyelids. “What's making her tick?” I checked the date and saw to my dismay that I had a meeting the same afternoon in another part of the country and threw the invitation in the dustbin.
On her last stop before her final Stockholm concert, Jennifer was in Luleå and stayed with my good friend and choir-leader colleague Monika Åslund. The subject came up again and this time it was also accompanied with some of my music from the forests of Sweden that I call home, music that deeply affected and haunted Jennifer. She called the organizer of the Stockholm concert and asked; “Do you know if this Anders Nyberg is coming?” and the reply was; “Well, he has not accepted the invitation but you never know with these musicians.”
A few days after I had thrown my invitation in the dustbin, I received another identical one for some strange reason. Now I felt I just had to try to get there and I rearranged my meeting so that I could take a train that would allow me at least to catch the end of the concert.
As me and my friend were rushing through the Swedish forest to the small train stop with two heavy suitcases it started snowing. I realized it was a lot farther than I had thought, that we had miscalculated the time and we were going to miss the train. In my desperation I told my friend, “I’ll take the bags, you run ahead and stop the train with whatever it takes, if you so have to jump in front of it.”
He disappeared in a jet of snow-smoke in front of me and I kept on running as fast as I could - which was not very much with these two enormous suitcases in tow.
When I finally came up to the station, a good few minutes after regular departure-time, I saw the train still standing there with my friend physically holding on to it while intensely arguing with the conductor and the driver through his window.
I slid in completely drenched in sweat.
A couple of hours later, still reeking, I entered this eloquent concert hall with the concert-cum-paneldiscussion still in full flow in front of an enthralled and engaged audience. At one point Swedish dance icon Birgit Cullberg, 86 years old at the time, couldn’t contain herself longer and jumped up on the stage, and gracefully spun elegant circles around Jennifer at the piano with her long white shawl. Afterwards she had to be helped off the stage.
After the concert I found a table in the catering area where I sat down, all on my own, and dug in on the leftovers of the snacks from the interval that I had missed. Suddenly Jennifer appeared with one of the arrangers, a friend of mine, and they sat down at the same table just a seat away. She leaned over to him and said:
- Do you know if Anders Nyberg is here?
Without replying he pointed discreetly in my direction and I, who had heard their whole conversation, looked up and got a chance to look into those eyes and we chuckled.
We stood up, bursting out laughing, a laugh from the bottom of our guts, from a time immemorial, that just did not want to stop. When it finally abated Jennifer asked:
- Where do you come from?
And I hear myself answering:
- I don’t know where I come from or where I am going, but I know I am here now.
And we laugh some more.
Jennifer had just a couple of days in Stockholm left before her departure and they were intense days. She had a concert in the Afro-Viking Club the night after, attended by the Swedish Prime minister Ingvar Carlsson, who got a chat with her afterwards with me anxiously waiting in the wings for my turn, and with Jennifer intensely scanning the audience in the smoky club over the shoulder of the PM to see if I was there. The night after there was a performance in one Stockholm church of my Swedish folkmass "Himmelen Inom" - "Heaven within”, the music Jennifer had listened to in Luleå, and I asked her if she was interested to go, which she gladly accepted. It was performed as a liturgical mass with a holy communion as part of it. Jennifer and I walked up to the altar together and knelt side by side as we received the communion.
It was a moment of utter serenity and beauty which importance was not lost to either of us. But whereas I was mainly confused, on a high level, Jennifer, in her heart of hearts saw this as her actual wedding moment. She had decided and committed. In the evening we got close in her hotel room and she expressed her love to me. I was very honest and told her the truth; I was unable to commit, I carried the burden of a rape-experience that had shattered my trust in the feminine, as it was my deeply loved mother who had handed me over to the care of the perpetrator and thanked him in my presence afterwards not aware of what had happened. And no closure was ever made, the deep scar was entombed only to make itself utterly present in my heart now as I again was unable to commit. But what I did commit to, and that with a resolution and fervour never felt before, was to dedicate all I could muster to my release from the shackles of the past. And I knew that the only way forward was through forgiveness, that no one would come to love with fear beside him. And that the prize waiting for me in the deepest abysses of my ocean's bed was a pearl of unimaginable beauty. If only I could catch it.
The winter came and with it an intense time of soul search, of deep prayer and meditation. I lived alone in a small cottage on the brim of the old meteor crater overlooking the stunning winter landscape of lake Siljan. The correspondence with South Africa got more and more scarce as the winter progressed but the bond remained.
Suddenly, at Easter, as the daffodils in my garden burst out of the old mulch and opened their lovely chalices towards the sun, I had a grand opening.
I was granted an inner vision of my adversary, but he was as transformed as a lily is to a piece of dirt. I could see the true face of a son of man; a son of God radiating with divine light. I could see my former enemy turned to my Saviour, saving me from my own delusions, as I saw his true Self. I could finally forgive and in that light I was also graced to see myself in a new way, created as I am in the image of my Maker.
Overnight my whole life changed. I was physically and emotionally healed, my vision extended to see the world and its people in a totally new light. A few days after this overwhelming experience I sat down at bedtime and tried to formulate a letter to Jennifer. “Jennifer, my dear”, I started but got overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to put into words everything that had happened. I fell asleep only to wake up a few hours later grabbing the paper and starting writing automatically, following an inner dictation.
I respelled the last word on my abandoned letter and continued:
“Jennifer, my deer, my doe,
my near, my oh,
where could I find her likeness?"
Five pages later of an intricately rhymed poem I land in a line that I never had been able to utter before:
I love you.”
A few days later I sat on the plane to a new chapter in my life, trembling – and longing.
And now I find myself on that same plane again. A new chapter is waiting to be written, but in my heart there is a song I recall, a song of overwhelming beauty, a song of freedom gained, as forgiveness ushers in a new time and restores relations and nations.
A new chapter, yes maybe even a new book as humankind is facing the grand challenge of rebuilding gender parity. South Africa showed the world a new path, as reconciliation in word and deed became the guiding light to build the new post-apartheid nation. Now there is another, global and age-old challenge awaiting us all. Me too and you too. We too.
South-Africa, as the rest of the world, has a long way to go. May the beacon of reconciliation still guide us.