Rosamond Carr was a young fashion illustrator in New York City in the 1940s when she followed her husband to Africa and began what she later said was “a love affair between a woman and a country.” At that time, the country was known as the Belgian Congo. Now it is Rwanda.
The marriage did not last, but what did endure was her determination to stay on and live in the African bush as the manger of a flower plantation. From her home at the foot of Mt Karisimbi, she witnessed half a century of tumultuous events in a deeply troubled country, including the wars for independence, the relentless clashes between the Hutus and Tutsis, and the horrific 1994 genocide.
She also saw some of the best and most beautiful parts of Africa. The mountains of Rwanda, known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” are green and lush; the ranges are cloaked with dense rainforests; and deep valleys are cut by the watershed of the Nyaborongo River, the true source of the Nile. Rwanda could be Switzerland if that country was encased in a giant greenhouse.
Roz was a friend of Diane Fossey, the researcher who was hand picked by the paleontologist Louis Leaky to study mountain gorillas in the forests of the Virunga Mountains. Diane would come down from her research station to stay with Roz at the farm, and I have wondered what they talked about as they strolled among the flowers. Diane was young and passionate about protecting the gorillas and their habitat, but she suffered from various physical ailments and struggled with emotional instability. Roz was the more stable one; her passion was more in the mold of Jane GoodalI, and I think Diane must have been drawn to that. Roz befriended Diane when few others did, and Diane sought her out when she felt troubled and lonely.
I met Rosamond Car myself. In 1992 I visited her farm near Gisenyi, a town near the shore of Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes in the continent’s Rift Valley. I was there with my sister and brother-in-law who were working in the schools and helping with conservation efforts related to the mountain gorillas. We were living in the village of Ruengheri, which on a map appeared close to Gisenyi but really was not when conditions on the ground were factored in. The roads in Rwanda were trafficked by more people on foot than in motor vehicles, so when we drove to the farm it was slow going. The narrow roadways undulated over emerald hills and into valleys where we fell in line behind processions of pedestrians. There were women dressed in bright iridescent, fabrics, balancing loads of fruit or sugar cane on their heads; barefoot youths pushing carts or bicycles laden with market produce; and old men herding a cow or some goats. On one stretch we were delayed by a Tepoi, or African “ambulance,” which is a stretcher hoisted on the shoulders of four men and used to carry someone to or from the hospital.
The farm itself was so idyllic it might have emerged from central casting for a movie set in the Garden of Eden. The cash crop was flowers that Roz sold to hotels and shops in Kigali, the capital city. There were acres of blossoms in every direction. We strolled the grounds, took pictures of the flowers, watched children kicking a hand-made soccer ball, and chatted with local people as they gathered to watch the dancing that took place there every week.
When the dancing was over, we had tea in the parlor of Roz’s house, where I was intrigued by her bookshelf. She had many classic novels, histories, and field guides. There was one title I didn’t know but thought was entirely appropriate—I Married Adventure, by Osa Johnson.
Roz Carr was a force. In the movie Gorillas in the Mist she was portrayed by the actress Julie Harris. Rogas, our driver and interpreter, had met her before and told us that everyone who knew her was impressed. He said that with women like her, it was easy to see why the U.S. always wins at war (at the time, we did win at wars).
There is something about Africa. Earnest Hemingway said it was where he went to “…work the fat off my soul.” Human beings feel the continent’s tug of origin and return in the same way the salmon do when they swim upstream or the swallows when they fly back to Capistrano. The immensity of Africa can swallow you whole but it’s more often the human connections that affect us most.
I think that was true for Roz Carr, and it was for me, too. Some of the friendships I have made in Africa endure to this day. On that trip, I watched a troop of mountain gorillas lounging in a nest of nettles and witnessed steam rising from an active volcano, but what really stays with me is the memory of hordes of children standing in the rain, waving at us as we drove away from their school. At the farm, I noticed one little boy as he watched the dancers. I don’t know what it was about him that drew me in but something did, perhaps his ears or a facial expression that begged the question of what he might be thinking. I was taking pictures of the dancers, the flowers, and the other children when my camera lens lighted on him and I didn’t want to move it away.
We vowed to leave Roz’s farm in time to get off the road by dark, but it was late before we could pull ourselves away, and it didn’t work out the way we had planned. We might have just made it but for another roadblock that brought traffic on the main road to a standstill, prompting us to take a detour over backroads that were even more remote and rugged. As the sun went down, we saw the flicker of cook fires in the doorways of the thatched-roof shambas and a few lights in the distance that indicated an approaching village in the valley below.
The sights and sounds of the Rwandan countryside during the day were innocent enough, but at night it was a whole different story. What we heard at night included gunfire and hand grenades exploding. The country was in a lull between what seemed like a perpetual civil war, so a drive to anywhere was interrupted by military roadblocks every few miles. During the day, the roadblocks were a nuisance. At night they could be outright scary, manned by teenage militia with machine guns, who were often drunk on banana beer. The detour did not go well. As night fell the road conditions worsened until we were barely creeping along. Our forward progress slowed to a crawl and then stopped completely on the outskirts of a small village.
Did you ever have the feeling that you were somewhere that you just did not belong? Most of the villagers we met on our travels were friendly enough, but this time our vehicle was surrounded by a mob of young men who did not seem happy to see us. Who knows what they were really thinking, and I’m sure that we were in less danger than it seemed at the time, but it was pretty intimidating, nonetheless. Rogas got out and somehow talked our way through, and eventually we made it home safely.
It was all a harbinger of what was soon to come. We were unaware of the current of unrest flowing though the countryside. Little did we know that the the smoldering conflict between Hutu and Tutsis was soon to erupt into an all out war culminating in one of history’s worst genocides.
The contrast between the dire situation we thought we were in on the drive home compared to the one earlier at the farm—so bright and hopeful—was jarring.
It’s that way sometimes. The things of the world are interlocked, braided together such that nothing is ever just one way or another. We are living in a patchwork of the good irreversibly intertwined with the bad.
Take the pandemic. It happened— which is bad, of course—but most people can come up with a few blessings in disguise that came with it. For me, when I travelled less, I spent more time walking in nature close to home and rediscovered bike riding on the Katy Trail.
Many people have had times in this pandemic when they have found inspiration and hope, if they managed to look at it a certain way. The first days of the lockdown were a weird, uncharted time with an air of impending doom draped over everything. I remember driving downtown one Saturday night to pick up some takeout for dinner. A line of cars crept along High Street at Christmas-parade pace, and sacks of food were being delivered from the restaurants to customers sitting behind the half-open windows of their vehicles. We were all trying to figure out what was going on and stay safe even though the ever evolving CDC guidelines had us scratching our heads— we might as well have been trying to interpret the lyrics to “American Pie.” Yet, in the midst of all the fear, angst, and confusion it was a strangely festive occasion. Everyone was in a good mood and more courteous than usual. I have rarely seen a stronger display of common cause and community.
Darkness and light. Awe and despair. Life and death. They are always part of the same story; never one without the other.
The civil war in Rwanda erupted after we left and a few years later, in its aftermath, I returned to Africa as part of a relief effort for the many Rwandan refugees who had fled across the border into Eastern Zaire. I have a photograph from then. Actually, it’s two photos I took from the same vantage. One of them looks down on a sprawling refugee camp where hundreds of thousands of people huddled in small huts made from sticks and the blue tarps provided by the United Nations relief agencies. The other photo is of the view up the hill from where I was standing, where someone had erected a giant cross. It was a stark juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, the cross serving as a beacon of hope across the desolation in the valley below.
Even a small kernel of light can change everything, the way a single candle can change a darkened room.
All the Light We Do Not See
The story goes that in 1869, when Charles Darwin was trying to get his new book published, the editor of the respected journal Quarterly Review was sent an advanced copy of The Origin of Species. He thought it was good but that its subject matter was too narrow to attract a wide audience. Instead, he urged Darwin to write a book about pigeons. “Everyone is interested in pigeons,” he observed helpfully. I’m sure he meant well but as it turns out, that was bad advice.
There is another story of when Joseph II, the Austrian emperor, first listened to to the music of Mozart. He was not impressed. His only remark was, “That was an enormous number of notes.”
I think the editor and the emperor were both missing something. Everyone does. Clueless is the default position for most people and we all see like through a glass, darkly. For example, Mozart spent his whole life trying to get a job that paid a living wage, and Van Gogh sold only one painting while he was alive. Nobody saw the greatness that was there.
What is true and real eludes us— like if we would try to catch the wind or reach the end of a rainbow. And appearances can be deceiving. We see the evening star as the brightest object on a moonless night, and we wake up to the morning star on the opposite horizon. Yet the evening and morning star are actually the same thing. Both are the planet Venus.
What seems obvious at one moment can turn out to be completely wrong the next, even in the most mundane situations. Once while in the public library in Iowa City, Iowa, I went into the restroom and wondered why there were no urinals. I was perplexed, but it didn’t stop me. I figured it must be how they did things in Iowa. I did my business, and as I left a mom and her two young daughters passed me as they walked in. I was in the women’s restroom the whole time.
I can be one of the worst at paying attention and noticing things. I miss a lot—too much, really. I don’t always get what is really going on with people. It’s the same as when I’m watching an episode of Survivor, where I never quite understand what any of the contestants are really thinking and doing.
Those who know me would say that I can be distracted and absent minded. They could provide examples, but I didn’t ask them to. A charitable description would be “absent minded professor,” but there are others less charitable. It has been a problem for me. I come off as aloof and uninterested, when mostly it’s me being oblivious.
It’s funny how the words we say never seem to live up to the ones inside our head, and the things considered essential in our youth prove with time that they are not. As a result of my cluelessness, I have made mistakes, and I have accumulated my share of regrets. I am sometimes amazed at how wrong I have been about some things. At least I know that now. Besides an apology, all I have to offer in reparation is my self-awareness.
A full life comes paired with apologies, and having begun to suffer the small humiliations that come with age, I have seen that mistakes need not be fatal; and I know that if we have no regrets it just means we haven’t learned anything. I figure my brain has already made most of the neurologic connections it is ever going to make, but I would like to keep evolving enough that my future will amount to more than just my past with less hair.
“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” Jonathan Swift
We are born. We grow up. We try our best. We die. As the basic framework, it’s that simple, really. We can only understand life backwards, but we have to live it forwards, and understanding can only take us so far. Still, in the time we have, there are moments of beauty and grace, the rare moments that seem to transcend our daily affairs.
A commencement speaker once told the graduates in his audience something that, at first, sounded backwards. He said, “Some of your worst days lie ahead.” That was not a very uplifting sentiment for the occasion, but for those young adults just starting out, it was a true statement. That being said, he went on to point out that it is hard to tell the worst days from the best or the ones that, in retrospect, were the most important.
How do we know which days are the best days? What makes them so? Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist, writes that we all have our list of life experiences where we felt something shift in the way that we see the world. At those moments our world expands, and we are pointed to a more genuine reality that we have lost sight of but that sends us hints that it exists. Greene offers the example of a great work of art, particularly music, as something that can burrow into the core of our life, and the world‘s life, and connect us to something deeper. What do people do art for, anyway, but to locate within themselves the essential thing that breathes significance into existence and then to share it?
The wonderful purity of nature also offers ample reminders of that hidden, but more genuine, reality. I go snorkeling in the ocean and find a beautiful complexity below the water’s surface. I see a leafless tree in winter and think nothing of it, but then return in summer to find it covered in apples and think, “Huh, you were a fruit tree all along.” In the natural world, what Aldo Leopold called the “vast pulsating harmony” is hiding in plain sight; we need only to go outside and get quiet. I don’t think there has ever been a boring sunset, and no star wears a veil.
These moments of clarity are experienced privately and are felt deeply, filling us with wonder and gratitude. There are no adequate words to describe them. How would we explain the experience of falling in love, hoping when all seems hopeless, hugging a friend after an absence, grieving a loss, being overwhelmed by nature, the way it feels to hold a new grandchild, the ache of loneliness or lament, or what it’s like to go deeply inside a prayer or meditation. Such experiences happen to us in the very basement of our consciousness.
The author Kent Nerburn, in a letter to his son, calls these experiences a “blue moment,” a moment “when you are truly alive to the world around you.” They are the unexpected moments of grace that come unannounced. They don’t happen if we seek them, and not all blue moments are reserved for starry nights aboard ship—some might happen at the most ordinary times. We must only notice them and not try to force or create them. If we abandon expectations, they will come on their own volition and reside in our memory. If we seize and hold them, they string together like the pearls of our life.
Back to that little boy at Roz Carr’s farm—I saw him again.
It was when I was in Goma a few years later, after the war, and that time on the Zaire side of the border with Rwanda. He was a refugee, one of multitudes, and I saw him walking through a market. There was the same face from a few years earlier except he was older— a teenager. He was dressed similarly in a tan school uniform which he had outgrown. I was sure it was he, his face imprinted in the back of my mind as it was. I smiled at him, and we met each other’s gaze for an instant, but we did not share a language, and he would not have recognized me; so we both just kept walking.
I did not tell anyone about it, and I haven’t since then —until now. Yet, somehow it has remained one of my most vivid memories. It just seemed so unlikely that the two of us, coming from such different starting points, would find each other the way we did—twice.
The farm in Rwanda was an idyllic setting; Goma was not— just the opposite, actually. That part of Africa, at that moment in history, was one of the most wretched and frightening places on the planet. It’s a thin line between the sordid and the sublime, and that little boy and I were together on both sides of it. It was a scene out of the core of my life story, and helped me to realize that I am a part of something greater than myself. For me, it was a blue moment.
Think of things you have seen and tried to understand but never did. It might be that some things are beyond understanding. Some things of the world are like a soprano—we can’t not hear them. Other things are more like the rhythm section—not what we were listening to and thinking about, but what we were dancing to all along. I heard an art teacher suggest that to paint water it helps to be in a different state of consciousness; consider having a cocktail before pulling out the brushes. He said that to paint water, don’t actually paint the water. To see water, don’t see it; see past it. Maybe it’s like that—watching for the blue moments.
When I spent time in the desert a few years ago, I was taught that thinking is only one of the ways of knowing. There are other ways. I want to see and hear with the eyes and ears of my heart, not just my brain. I want to slow down and not allow the frantic concerns of life to make me miss out on my blue moments.
The world is not a bed of roses, but neither is it a field of thistles. Both terrible and beautiful things are going to happen. I could easily have missed that boy in the market in Africa, but for once I had the clarity to see with my heart and caught a glimpse of something beyond good or bad, something wonderfully inexplicable.
We live in troubled times, and I know many people are more troubled than I. I know the silver linings are few and far between. How does noticing the blue moments or silver linings help the people in Ukraine?
It doesn’t, not tangibly. I am just saying that there is something to be said for finding joy, savoring beauty, and noticing mystery whenever and wherever we find it. It is possible to be in wonder that kindness and gentleness reside in the midst of brutality, and we can always add our small good to the sum of goodness in the world, hoping that it might change things in ways we cannot imagine.
Carr, Rosamond Halsey, with Ann Howard Halsey. (1999). Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda. New York,NY: Penguin Group.
Johnson, Osa. (1947).I Married Adventure: The lives of Martin and Osa Johnson. New York, NY: J.B. Lippencott.
Greene, Brian. (2020). Until The End Of Time: Mind, Matter, and our Search for Meaning in and Evolving Universe. New York, NY. Vintage Books.
Nerburn, Kent. (1994). Letters To My Son: A Fathers Wisdom on Manhood, Women, Life and Love. San Rafael, CA. New World Library.
Caroline Sanders took some of these photos