When I was a young girl in pigtails and dirty jodhpurs sprouting horsehair, someone gave me one of those little autograph books that were all the rage. I dutifully went around collecting the autographs of anyone I could think of, whether we’d been friends or not. Quantity over quality, the more, the merrier. Much like Facebook today, the term ‘friends’ took on a suddenly loose and creative interpretation. Some kids just scribbled their name, some added short salutations, and some waxed poetic about friendship and the eternal nature of our BFF friendship.
When I grew bored with the exercise and the increasingly impersonal nature of the autographs (as I’d run out of friends and acquaintances and had all but moved onto harassing near strangers) I put the book away until I realized my mother had yet to sign it. Perhaps I was in need of a morale booster that day, for I waited with baited breath as she thought for a long moment, wrote carefully and signed with a flourish. I imagined words of adoration, warming at the thought of the affection she was about to shower on me, her favorite (if only) daughter.
Whatever I had imagined, disappointment was imminent. In my little red autograph book she had written simply, in her best Danglish…
Count Your Blessings,
I was too young then to understand the wisdom of that little tidbit. I put the book away with the sense that I had been reprimanded and lectured, as if I didn’t appreciate the quality of my life, as if quite possibly I deserved no more than what I’d received. As if!
Actually, I didn’t appreciate my good fortune to be born a little Danish girl into a society bent upon the autonomy and freedom of women from the shackles imposed upon them by previous eras and other, current cultures. It was years before that point made it home, and I began to count not only that blessing, but many others, till I saw they were as many as the stars, and my eyes ran over with tears of gratitude. They have run over many times since with profound appreciation, for no matter the challenges of this life, they are the privileged problems of a first world existence. In a life assured of basic necessities, the nature of my problems is essentially - a luxury.
My mother did not live to see me break through to the other side, but with her passing came the first great hammerblow to the false bottom self upon which I had depended. There were many more blows to come, gut wrenching punches to the ego that taught me the value of all those gifts that were handed to me at birth without asking. Gifts I had squandered, taken for granted and neglected to put to good use, until depression and the slow inner death of unspent gifts and unlived dreams took their toll and left my soul gasping for air, and fighting for a life in which I could again count my blessings freely.
The great gift of travel is the manner in which it reminds me daily of these good fortunes. Traveling to third world countries, I cannot but realize the blessing inherent in my heritage and the culture of my birth country. No religion has oppressed me, no culture has deemed me of significantly lesser value. My choices were mine to make. Whatever issues have been fought in my lifetime and on my behalf as a woman in a first world country, whatever issues I have tackled myself, however noteworthy, pale in comparison to those faced every day by the women of other countries and cultures around the globe.
At a remote Zambian construction site, I found men and women working cheerfully side by side while off a ways, a woman sat hunched over a bucket, gazing at a distant horizon with eyes full of despair, her face a frozen mask of grief. If only whatever pained her could be as easily discarded as her construction helmet, for a sense of tragedy was palpable and heavy in the air like an oppressive perfume. I’ll never know the cause of her anguish, and though hesitating to intrude, the scene cried out for capture. I discreetly clicked a frame just as she turned to gaze at me from a place much further away than the few feet between us. In the glare of her pain and defiance I retreated, counting my blessings all the way.