Human Entanglement.January 2023.Dispatch.1

I had a friend in Africa.

Words and stories are like maps— ways of finding our way back to ourselves. Songs are useless if we don’t sing them and stories don’t mean a thing unless we have someone to tell them to.

This dispatch is a story. As it is being published, I am traveling back to Africa. My story, from half a lifetime away, will tell why.

One of my African friends was Louis, a thin man who drove me around the eastern borderlands of Zaire, Africa in the 1990s. He and I didn’t share a language, but we didn’t need words to communicate. He was as much a part of my personal landscape as the roads themselves, the shoreline of Lake Kivu, or the looming volcanoes that were always in our peripheral vision.

I had other friends: Doctor Wembo; Joseph, an elder in the local church; Blaise, an architect whose ambition was to construct a church building and orphanage; and Joe Templeton, an American missionary.

And there was Banywesize “Thomas” Maheshe. Sometimes a person can happen to you. Thomas happened to me.

Thomas in the middle

The movie Grand Canyon explores some interesting themes and one of them is serendipity. The plot line includes several brief, seemingly chance, encounters that change everything for the characters. In one scene, Claire says to her husband, Mack, “Something has happened. You can’t go back and have it not happen. Some kind of connection has been made. It has to be played out.”

This dispatch is about that type of connection—how people get entangled with each other.


East Africa 1994-1996

Rwanda is a small country in Eastern Africa where the physical beauty of the landscape belies the turbulent history of its people. It has been called the “Switzerland of Africa” and is known by Rwandans as the “Land of a Thousand Hills.”

A thousand, at least. Verdant, undulating hillsides appear as green waves, one upon another, like an emerald ocean, their slopes swathed in terraces carved by hand into the fertile soil and draped with lush coffee and tea plantations. The valleys are cut by the rushing torrents that arise from the rainforests of higher elevations. Volcanos flank the country’s western perimeter as part of the Ruwenzori Range, the fabled “Mountains of the Moon.” That’s where the mountain gorillas live.

Most of the population survives on subsistence agriculture, so the Rwandan landscape is speckled with small farms where families live in thatched or mud-brick, chimniless shambas, with smoke from charcoal fires seeping out though the walls and roof. It’s easy to see why a constant dry cough is so prevalent— a person living in those quarters might as well be smoking a cigarette with a paper bag over his head. The shambas are connected by a lattice of footpaths, trod by women dressed in traditional garments consisting of wrap-around skirts made from cloth in iridescent colors. Viewed from across the valley, they create the effect of a terrestrial tableau of prisms refracting the sunlight— like little rainbows coursing through the green foliage.

My first visit to Rwanda was in 1992. My sister Laura and her husband Roger were there working with an organization that was continuing the work of Diane Fossey, the naturalist who was selected by the anthropologist Louis Leaky to do for mountain gorillas what Jane Goodall had done for chimpanzees. On that earlier visit, I saw gorillas and met some Rwandan people, and it left an indelible mark.

Two years later, in 1994, I watched the news reports of the genocide in Rwanda and was reawakened to the land and its people. I wanted to go back and help in some way but had no clear idea of how. As it turned out, through a series of circumstances, I found myself in the first wave of missionaries sent to East Africa to deal with the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding.

Historians and social scientists say there is no significant biological or historical distinction between the tribes of Rwanda. Unfortunately, humans are all too adept at drawing a distinction between themselves and others even when there is none—a trait that Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” So it seems with current events in this country, and it has long been true of the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. Perceived differences between those groups of people have been exploited and exaggerated by previous ruling governments and have remained ingrained in the collective consciousness long after the end of colonialism. The Hutu refugees around Goma had been the majority group in Rwanda, but they had been replaced by Tutsis, who previously had themselves been exiled across the northern border with Uganda. The history of it was very cyclical and tragic.

The Rwandan genocide was followed by a massive influx of refugees into neighboring countries. The rest of the world watched from the sidelines until relief organizations eventually went into eastern Zaire, where much of the population of Rwanda fled as their country’s civil war raged behind them. Many of the relief organizations sent missionaries to Goma, where most of the refugee exodus was concentrated.

Goma-town is nestled on the shore of Lake Kivu, one of the bodies of water created when the tectonic shifts of the Horn of Africa formed the Great Rift Valley. It was a beautiful setting, but no longer was Goma a resort destination.

We had to look past the crumbling hotels and shuttered storefronts to imagine better days, when there were tourists strolling the sidewalks rather than bands of teenagers brandishing hand-me-down assault rifles. Goma had gone from what was once a tropical resort to something more like a crime scene—from Bora Bora to Tora Bora. The roving gangs were “soldiers” only by way of being heavily armed, not because of any training or discipline; it was best to avoid encounters with them. It was like an African version of the Wild West, without the black and white cowboy hats or anyone assigned to keep the peace.

Downtown Goma

I happened to phone the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries on the day that they began to assemble a team, and before I knew it, I was thrust into the middle of the relief effort. I had never been a missionary and didn’t know what I was supposed to do when I got there, but when they offered to send me, I didn’t say no. Then the original leader of the mission team (who was an actual missionary) dropped out and they asked me to be the new leader—which only shows they had few other options.

I said yes to that, too.

I had some friends in Missouri who took a leap of faith in me and signed up to go along, so it was our small group that became the first team sent to Goma by the Methodist church. We were tasked with helping to staff a make-shift hospital and orphanage that was caring for children who had been displaced from their families in the flight from Rwanda. The hope was that most of them could eventually be reunited with their loved ones, although some of the children were the only ones in the family left alive. It was a lot for us who had never done anything like that before. With equal parts courage and naïveté, we dealt with it as best we could and tried to make it up as we went along —as if playing a musical instrumented while at the same time constructing it.


That was my first trip to eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, “DRC”). There were two more. In 1996 I was in Goma for the third time, and conditions had improved only a little. The refugee camps were still there, and when I walked down the muddy footpaths of the sprawling shantytowns on the outskirts of the city, it was among more than a million people sheltered in squalid huts made of plastic tarps, sticks, and grass. The humid air lay over the valley like a wet blanket. The soot from the numberless open fires refused to rise and dissipate, infecting everyone’s mood like a persistent toothache.

It seemed that nobody had gone home, and they all had a story and a reason why not. The refugees themselves were not all created equally; all of them were survivors; many of them were victims of circumstance; and a few of them had participated in the genocide that started it all. There was no way for us to tell the difference, and a United Nations official once warned me to…”never trust a survivor until you know what he has done to survive.”

This time I was living with Joe and Lydia Templeton, two career missionaries with the Methodist Church. Joe and I liked to take morning walks and typically started at first light, the most pleasant and safest time to be out of our walled compound. We passed under the mango tree in our front yard and noticed the aroma of baking bread wafting from a kitchen across the street. The outline of the volcanoes became visible, and the tranquil surface of the lake would shimmer with amber flecks of sunrise. It was the quietest period of day, when the streets were nearly empty and the only people out were a few merchants unloading their wares for market or an occasional “mamma” tending a charcoal fire or sweeping her front doorstep.

Goma was perfectly flat except for a strange promontory right in the center of town. Mount Goma (its actual name) seemed out of place in the natural landscape. It must have been formed by some long-ago geologic event and, over time, had eroded into an ugly mound of volcanic rock that created an obstacle to anyone who traveled across town. If we wanted a good view of the sunrise and a little more exercise, Joe and I would follow the narrow road that led up a steep climb to the summit, where we had a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside.

One morning, while it was still dark, Joe and I started up the dirt path that spiraled around the hill. We were halfway up Mt. Goma when we passed a small military outpost consisting of a few tents, a fire pit, and a cannon— which seemed weird. A cannon? The makeshift uniforms on most of the soldiers were in tatters, so how did they manage artillery?

The troops were still asleep in their tents, so Joe and I passed by silently and trekked to the top to watch the sunrise. By the time we came down, the sun was up and so were the soldiers. They were agitated to see us coming down instead of up the hill and immediately began to question and reproach us like we were a couple of wedding crashers. One guy in camo pants and a dirty t-shirt, rifle in hand, seemed especially perturbed, as if he had apprehended a pair of enemy commandos in their midst.

He pointed his gun and gestured for us to step off the road and into one of the tents. That didn’t seem like a good idea to us, so Joe and I put our arms in the air, showed the soldier our United Nations I.D. name badge, and started backing away.

Having a gun pointed at you quickly brings things into focus. Joe and I were lost in conversation just minutes before, then all my senses became suddenly on high alert. My perception of events unfolded as if everything had first slowed and then happened all at once.

Joe and I were more afraid of what might happen if we did as we were told than if we tried to call the guy’s bluff, so we kept moving away and hoped he wouldn’t shoot us. He really was just a kid, and it was anybody’s guess who was more nervous—him or us. Like any teenage boy, he could play the tough guy, but we hoped he might think he was in over his his head if he tried to do that with two Americans. We weren’t sure how seriously to take him, but the weapon he was brandishing said pretty seriously.

I asked Joe, “Do you think he’ll shoot us?”

Joe replied, “I don’t think so, do you?”

“I don’t know, probably not, do you?”

He didn’t shoot. Joe and I took a deep breath, turned our back on the gun-toting teen, and walked away. He kept shouting, but the sound of his voice faded as we rounded a bend. When we were out of his sight and range, we started to breathe again and scurried home.

View from Mt Goma on a different morning

I decided to stay in Africa longer than planned because we were making progress on the construction project and every day made a difference. That’s what I told myself at the time, but to be honest, I just wasn’t ready to leave yet. Blaise, the architect, gave me more credit than I deserved when it came to my part in the construction. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it would all happen (or not happen) with or without me being there, yet still felt a part of things. Extending my stay was not a popular decision, and it involved a lot of explaining to the people who were expecting me to come home on time.

Joe and Lydia went home before I did. Before they left, we talked about my previous visit to Rwanda and my desire to go back. They were against it for several reasons. They argued that there was no reason for me to be there— no useful purpose —and it had nothing to do with my mission to Africa. When we parted, they left me with one last piece of advice—don’t go.

Me, Blaise, Lydia Templeton. Louis in front, in pink cap.

I went anyway. I could see Rwanda when I stood by the lake in Goma and I wanted to return. I had my reasons—it’s just that my reasons didn’t seem like very good ones to anyone else. Mostly, I wanted to see where this part of my story began. The idea came into my head and it never went out again. A whim can be a powerful thing.

The Americans in Goma told me that without a visa I shouldn’t even consider going to Rwanda. It was still technically a war zone and the U. S. had not reestablished diplomatic relations. With no presence there, the church said they couldn’t protect me. The Africans said “no problem,” but they said that about everything. Joe and Lydia were definitely against me going, but they weren’t there anymore.

Thomas

I asked my closest friend, Thomas Maheshe. Thomas was a schoolteacher who worked as a translator and facilitator for the NGOs in the area. I met him the first day I was in Goma in 1994 and he became my constant companion. He thought I could go to Rwanda and even asked to come along.

I took Thomas’s advice with a grain of salt. I trusted him, but he wasn’t someone I would choose to go with me into battle. He was a good soldier in the mold of Radar O’Riley, not Rambo. When he asked if he could come with me, it wasn’t because he was looking for adventure. It was the schoolteacher in him who wanted to purchase school supplies in the market in Gisenyi, the Rwandan town across the border.

Thomas and I walked into the border station and were confronted by three grim officials wearing expressions like professional pallbearers. They took our passports and started asking questions. Why didn’t we speak French? (Thomas did). Why did my passport say I was born in Germany? (It was at a US military base). They seemed determined to find a reason to refuse us entry, and admittedly, they had good reason. We did not have visas for Rwanda; we had no contacts or in-country address; and there was no valid purpose in us going there in the first place. Thomas was doing his best to talk us through but getting nowhere, and it was starting to look like our journey would end before it began. Suddenly and inexplicably, the guards lost all interest in us and the tension dissipated. Before we knew it, we were walking into Rwanda.

We stood on the outskirts of Gisenyi, and it was eerily quiet. As the epicenter of the mass migration of refugees, the whole area appeared plundered, still in shock, as if a place, instead of a person, could have PTSD. The only person in sight was a man who looked beset by strife, like a character out of a Grahme Green novel. He was standing next to a world-weary Suzuki hatchback that, after a brief negotiation, became our taxi for the day.

Virunga Range and Lake Kivu
A pirogue on Lake Kivu

The lush Rwandan landscape was what I remembered. I had returned to the Africa that I yearned to see again— Africa as it was meant to be. This was not the scarred and deforested terrain of Eastern Zaire. In this part of Rwanda, vegetation carpeted the hillsides and extended to Lake Kivu’s shoreline. The rain forest’s green mansions were laced with mist that was truly mist, arising from moisture rather than the smoke of a hundred trash fires. The streets of Gisenyi were clean and calm, not like the confused and aimless tangle of traffic in Goma. The hotels were vacant but could have welcomed tourists if there had been any but Thomas and me. Pedestrians were mostly women and children walking along the roadside, cooking over an open fire or tending their gardens. Absent were the huddled masses of refugees or the marauding gangs of young men riding in the back of pickup trucks.


Departure and Return

“Water has a perfect memory, and is forever trying to get back to where it came from.” Toni Morrison

Departure and return is something that inevitably creates an emotional response in us. Longing is one of the strongest human emotions. Poems are written about leaving home and not being able to find our way back, and the best songs are not about being in love but about love lost. Great music happens when something gets broken. As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem A Dream of Trees, ……”No one makes music of a mild day.”

We sense that the ending of every story is when it returns to the beginning. The great epics of literature tell it that way—the hero leaves home on a quest but longs to return. Some of our favorite songs tell a similar story; Simon and Garfunkel are “Homeward Bound,” and John Denver is “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.” Even without the lyrics, a song’s melody alone can create a subliminal tension as it starts with a note in its key signature, explores variations on a theme, and then returns to the note that it started with. We sense, subconsciously, that the song will not end until it gets back to the place where it started. We all just long to go home.

I felt drawn back to Rwanda and have been told that, on some level, Africa has that effect on every human. I was in the part of the African continent—the Great Rift Valley—where humankind began. More than once, when I have met a native African in Africa, they have said, “Welcome home!”

Somewhere deep inside all creatures there is an innate connection, a genetic memory, that draws us back. The salmon swim upstream; the swallows go back to Capistrano; and Man returns to Africa.


An African market, this one in Nairobi

We stopped at the Gisenyi central market. While Thomas shopped, I wandered among the stalls. I tried to recede into the shadows and remain inconspicuous, but that was difficult since I didn’t look like anyone else. I didn’t exactly blend in with the crowd, like the time I went to an Indigo Girls concert.

I noticed how few people were out and figured they must all be next door in Zaire. I tried to avoid making eye contact with the numerous Rwandan soldiers who patrolled the market and streets. They looked different than the makeshift militia I was used to in Zaire. They had clean uniforms and guns that looked like they came from somewhere other than a pawn shop.

We left the market and drove into the town center. I had visited Gisenyi from the Rwandan side the first time I was in Africa and I remembered the location of a souvenir shop overlooking Lake Kivu well enough to find it again. When we got there it was closed so we asked around and learned where the owner lived. When we drove there, she was gone. We decided to go look for her until I asked the obvious question of whether any of us knew what she looked like and would recognize her if we saw her. We recruited the shopkeeper’s teenage son to go with us and drove off to find her, but never did.

Our driver reluctantly told us about another shop on the top of the hill above town. That didn’t work out either. Our vehicle was as likely to drive us back to Missouri as to the top of that steep incline in Rwanda. We made it halfway up before the car sputtered and died. Thomas and I got out and walked to the top of the hill where the shop was located but, when we got there, it was closed, too. Nobody answered the door when we knocked but it was open so we went in and looked around before we left to walk back to the car. We jump-started it several times by rolling it backwards down the hill until our disgruntled driver, a man seemingly exhausted by the human condition, used my Swiss Army knife to make enough repairs to get us back to town.

“No hurry in Africa” is what they say and, like most everything else, we arrived late. Crossing the border was less arduous when leaving Rwanda than it was in coming (nobody really seemed to care who came into Zaire). It helped when a little money changed hands (made me wish I had thought to do that on the way in).

Louis was still standing just where we left him. He was a thin man—like a stick drawing of a person-and wore the oversized t-shirt with a Memorial Community Hospital logo that I had given him. A small man with a big heart, Louis could have passed for the brother of Sammy Davis Jr.. He was worried, and wore an expression of a parent waiting up late for his teenager to return home from a night out. Louis never took his eyes off me, as if the power of his gaze could draw me back to him.

Louis is kneeling in front, wearing cap

A few other church members waited with Louis, and we all drove back to the guest house together. I watched some women taking an English lesson until their class broke up and they started to cook beans and rice for supper. One of the women’s first name was Perseverence.

Some of the “mammas” praying

After we ate I rode with Thomas and Blaise, the architect, in a pickup truck with the women riding in the back. We took them home, then the three of us stopped by the church construction site. Blaise wanted me to see what they had accomplished on the day that I was away. Many bricks had been laid and the walls were noticeably higher. Lake Kivu stretched out before us and Mt Nyiragongo loomed above, steam rising from its smoldering caldron as an ominous threat that it might explode at any time (two years later it did erupt for real). A volcanic eruption was all they needed in Goma- lava on top of everything else that had been heaped on that sorry city.

And yet, volcanic eruptions were taken in stride, like thunderstorms in the American Midwest. Blaise and I were sitting on volcanic ash that was commonplace in Goma. It was the “topsoil” that was mixed by the masons into mortar that, when packed between bricks, dried harder than woodpecker lips.

We looked out at the water as the sun set over Lake Kivu, one of the pearls in the necklace of “great lakes” that lie along the cleft in the continent of Africa. Tangential sunbeams shimmered on the windswept surface of the water, creating more twinkles than a Christmas tree. For some reason that is the image I remember most vividly. There were so many sparkles that we could have been characters in a fairy tale instead of a true-life human dystopia.

The sun descended and the day folded over itself. The shades of night closed in, and a soft breeze caressed my sunburned face. The sound the wind made as it sifted though the leaves was as soothing as someone singing a French lullaby. Silence enveloped us and we savored it together. After awhile Blaise spoke softly, almost a whisper, and said, “You are my savior!”

That is what he said, but I knew it wasn’t true, I was not his savior. I had been away too long. It was time for me to go home. I told Blaise that I would miss him and he replied, “Can you stay another week?”

Many people told me it might not be safe to go to Rwanda. My friends could see that, despite my reservations, I was determined to go. Joseph, who wrote my name Njef (the beginning “N” is silent in Swahili) said, “Njef, don’t you know? We are watching you and won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

I thought that I was supposed to be helping them. In their minds, however, they were watching over me.

Joseph(of the local church), Thomas, Blaise

Outwardly, I had little in common with my African friends, and I have lost contact with all of them except Thomas. Yet, even now, so many years later, they seem close; they still feel like friends.

I am on my way to meet my sister in the mountains of Uganda, the same range and just north of the Rwandan mountains where I was before. Laura is an educator, and her specialty is teaching teachers. She will be working with children in the rural western part of the country, and she recruited my brother-in-law and me to help her.

I am going to Africa for Laura—and also for myself. Thomas Maheshe left Goma with his family years ago —they are the refugees now—and they live in a settlement outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda. My plan is to find him.

Thomas and family, 1996

Sometimes a person happens to you, and Thomas happened to me. We have managed to communicate over the past twenty-five years, and when I sent him an email to tell him I was coming to Uganda he wrote back, “…it will be a joyous day when I see you again after so long.”

Yes it will.

My most recent photo of Thomas

For The Time Beings. Dispatch. Autumn 2022


“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.”

Henry David Thoreau


Nebraska: Late Winter, 2022

“You know you’re getting old when you start bird-watching.” That’s what Caroline said as we huddled in the cold on the banks of the Platte River in central Nebraska. Sandhill cranes spend the winter in Mexico, and their summer breeding grounds are in Canada. Their migration flight pattern forms an hourglass over a map of the U.S. with the narrow isthmus directly over Kearney, where the birds pause to rest and refuel on their journey north in the spring. At night the cranes roost in the braided waters of the river where they are safe from predators, and during the day they fly to the surrounding fields to feast on grain left over from fall harvest.

The Sandhill Crane migration brings people from all over to watch the spectacular takeoffs and landings that happen on the river every sunrise and sunset. Eighty percent of the world population funnels through central Nebraska, so it’s a lot of birds in one place.

It was an evening in late winter on the Great Plains, cold and clear, as if the air had been polished. There was a bottle of wine and some binoculars in my backpack. We wanted to stay warm and figured a beverage might help. Another group of people brought shots of whiskey to stave off the cold.

There was a general air of anticipation as we waited. Some people chatted, while others made ready their cameras, some with lenses the size of tree trunks. The late winter sun, along with the temperature, slowly descended and when it touched the western edge of the earth, we all went quiet. It was like the moment before a church service or concert begins, when somebody backstage dims the lights and silence comes over the audience.

Like any good performance, it started softly and gradually built up to a crescendo. We knew the cranes were coming when we heard their distant squawking, as faint as your breath on a cold day. The sounds grew louder until the first line of birds appeared above the horizon. Soon there were hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousand, of birds, waves upon waves of them, like when the ocean approaches the shore.

Caroline was partly right about the demographics. Most of the people were our age, but not everyone. I spotted a brooding teenager with orange hair, wearing black clothes and a black attitude. I felt bad for her and could imagine what else she would rather being doing on a Friday night instead of spending it bird-watching with her parents.

When we are young, it’s all about building up and creating. We are busy learning and growing and don’t have as much time to notice and savor—skills we cultivate as we mature. But nature is a great equalizer, and when I saw that family later as the cranes receded into the darkness, I noticed that the daughter looked as transfixed as the rest of us, gazing at the sky with a half smile on her face and wonderment in her eyes.

We walked back to our cars in silence as the evening star led the way and a rising full moon reflected over the surface of the Platte.


Time and the River

I have been thinking about time. I wonder what it is like to be a Sandhill Crane and wedded to the timing of the seasons, swayed by the rhythm of the earth. As I observe the turning of my personal seasons, the rhythms of my own lifecycle become clearer.

Humans, like all creatures, are “time” beings. Time is a river that we are dropped into, and it sweeps us downstream whether we paddle with or against the current.

I am of two minds about my place on a river of time; it flows so much swifter than the meandering Platte. I know I should move with time’s current, but sometimes I don’t. I want to keep up, but am amazed at the amount of popular culture that is common knowledge to other people, yet I know nothing about. I resist being bullied by society into spending a lot of time on social media, yet don’t want to miss out or feel left behind.

There is a story about Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia. He once said that most of his friends were now emailing each other and he was being “excluded.” To the suggestion that he learn to email he replied, “It’s too late.”

I don’t want it to be too late for me, so I recently decided that I should learn some new music and stop listening to the familiar favorites from my past. However, in another unfortunate instance of me overthinking something, I went so far as to almost sell our tickets to see Elton John in concert, telling myself that if I am going to a concert, the artist should at least be younger than me. Canceling on the concert would have been taking it too far (and a monumental mistake), but I did ask my children and grandchildren to help me connect with newer artists. They have tried, but I always drift back to the upstream music, the singers and melodies from my youth. Going back to them can feel like going home.


Time and Entropy

We are creatures of time while not really knowing what time is. We think we know, until we are asked to explain it. Time is as hard for physicists to define as life is for biologists. Many have tried without coming up with an entirely satisfying explanation. Aristotle thought time is simply a measure of change, while Isaac Newton said it is something more fundamental than that. Saint Augustine said this, “What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it…plainly I do not know.”

The nature of time (along with the nature of consciousness) is one of our most enduring mysteries. What is hard about it is that time is not an actual thing. There is really no such thing as wasting or saving time, it doesn’t fly and we don’t actually run out of it. When we try to examine it—to look closely at time—it melts away, like trying to hold a snowflake.

Time, for those who have tried to define it, seems to be intimately involved with entropy. Entropy—being the progression from order to disorder, structure to dissolution—is when the waves erode and reshape a beach or the house paint fades and cracks with the seasons. In the movie Out of Africa, Karin speaks of the difficulty in cultivating a coffee plantation in the African bush. She says, “Every time I turn my back, it wants to go wild.” She is describing entropy. Entropy is the shape shifting of a towering cumulous cloud on a summer afternoon. It appears static, but, when we look away for a few seconds and then back again, it has changed form; its entropy has increased slightly and in proportion to the amount of time that has passed.

Entropy is a quantifiable and measurable quantity that can increase or stay the same but never decrease, so it seems to contain the directionality that we associate with time. Yet in the flow of time, what, exactly, is flowing? That’s a good question, but we do know that every time there’s a difference between the past and future, entropy is involved.


Time and Memory

We also can’t think about time without thinking what it’s like to be concretely human, to be one’s self. No concept lies nearer to the core of our consciousness than our awareness of the passage of time, and we are marked by the imprinted memories that become a part of who we are. They make us feel connected to a certain time and place, so that, fifty years later, the lyrics to “our” songs arise from out of the basement of our subconscious.

Our minds are not tape recorders, so the firmness of the past is an illusion, and our memories a kaleidoscope pattern of images rather than one that is fixed. The world of our shifting past is like shapes in clouds, and our memories become a river without banks (like the Platte, come to think of it ), where everything is moving, drifting, and mixing together. As we accumulate memories, our brains winnow through them, weighing consequence, burying pain, and holding contentment.

Why is the future different than the past? We fully expect it to be. What has been called the arrow of time seems to point in only one direction. If time moved in any other direction, it would be hard to make sense of it, and a world that didn’t change at all would be exceedingly boring. The physicist Alan Lightman points out that, “…without the ability to imagine the future …each parting of friends is a death….each loneliness is final…each laugh is the last laugh….and people (would) cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.”


Time and the Journey

What youth has going for it is energy and possibility. We will never be more resilient than when we are young — so small that falling down doesn’t even hurt that much. Even though I don’t want to go back, I remember the thrill of youth and the idea that you can be anyone.

As we age our bodies encounter our own version of entropy, and we exchange the vigor and potentiality of youth for hard-fought wisdom. As it turns out, wisdom and good judgment come from experience, while experience often comes from poor judgment. Some of my elderly patients who are farmers know that all too well; not all of them have ten fingers. The best we can do is learn from our mistakes and try to get better. Hopefully, we find that success isn’t something you can measure, and life isn’t a race you can win.

Life does nothing if not humble us. As we age we realize how much energy we have wasted on nonsense. I look around and see that I have acquired all this “stuff” without knowing how many things there are in the world that I don’t need. I’ve also seen the fallacy of giving too much weight to what other people think of me. It’s like how Winston Churchill put it, “When you are twenty, you care about what everyone thinks about you. When you are forty, you stop caring what others think about you. When you are sixty, you realize they were never thinking of you in the first place.” He was not only stating a truth but also warning us that it takes a long time to learn it.

In a “On Being” podcast, the Irish poet David Whyte said that one of the gifts of getting older is a form of youthfulness that has nothing to do with the body. It involves a sense of discovery which is tied to an awareness and acceptance of our mortality. He also said that a sign of maturity is not that we know we are going to die—that happens in your 40s—but the realization that the rest of creation might be just fine when we do, even “a little relieved to see us go.” He put it this way, “We have to make way for something else, for what, or who, we have broken trail for.”

The world will keep turning without me, and fear of death is like being afraid of reality itself, like being afraid of the sun. Before we know it, all of this will be “20 years ago,” so it is best to not put things off too long. “Someday” can be a dangerous word.

At this point I’m just happy that I can dance at all, whether anyone is watching or not. I read that Frederick the Great of Prussia, at the height of his power and influence, took lessons and learned how to play the flute. My first thought was how much better the world might be if all political and military leaders were required to play the flute. I also thought about how wise it was that Frederick wanted to play the flute at all, and that he didn’t put it off until he was finished doing all the things that made him so great.

Life is like eating an avocado; it’s all in the timing. Sometimes things happen exactly when they need to; they lodge in our memory and steer our trajectory. Some things are valuable only because of their position in time: a birth in the family, a first kiss, a love late in life. For other things, their transient nature is one of the things we value: breathing in the air on a cold winter evening, a lover’s smile or a child’s laugh, the taste of fine wine or a special dessert. If they lasted forever, we would not appreciate them as much as we do.

I don’t want to last forever, either. To me, immortality would lead to indifference, and even eternal bliss seems overrated. That my days are numbered is the cost of making them count. That there is no turning back in time is what makes my life precious.


Wintering

Nothing is as responsible for the “good old days” as a bad memory. Still, our memories are enduring artifacts of the past, and we draw on our memory of events, experiences, and emotions in order to imagine and anticipate future events.

We don’t have memories of the future, so time certainly appears to us to be linear. Katherine May, in her book, Wintering, suggests that we can reset our very notion of time. She writes that we can try to look at time as something that is not only linear, but also circular, bending back on itself, like the seasons of the year do. When things look cold and dark, we don’t have to think it is the way our life has turned out—it’s just winter. We all know from experience that although winter can be bleak, it’s not going to last forever.

May writes, “We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical…we grow gradually older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and bad, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become our past and our future will be our present. We know that because it’s happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will one day be past history. Every time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time, we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made.”

Adam Sanders photo

Many things we consider essential in youth prove with time that they are not. The thing that an old person might tell a young one about the fears and fractures of life is that life teaches us through our mistakes. All things change and life goes on. It goes on until it doesn’t. And then, when it doesn’t, it is another way of coming home. After all, the sea refuses no river.

To See or Not To See…Dispatch.Spring.2022


Africa, 1992

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.


Virunga Range
Lake Kivu

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.


Laura and Roger Arndt

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).

Rosamond Carr


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.

Me with COVID
With COVID, leaving for bike ride on Katy
Grandchildren in nature

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.


Blue Moments

“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.

Two trees hugging each other with their roots

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

Love in the Time of COVID. Autumn 2021. Dispatch

The Law of Karma

“Everyone over forty is responsible for their own face.

If we smile a lot, we have smile lines.

If we frown a lot, we have frown lines.”

(Author unknown)

India, 1997

It is a sultry afternoon; the air is as hot as the local curry sauce, and the land as parched as the lips of a thirsty camel. There is no moisture anywhere; it must have evaporated along with any motivation on my part. All I feel like doing is doing nothing at all, so I am idling in a patch of shade on the terrace, waiting for a breeze to appear. It’s wishful thinking. A gust of wind is as likely to come along as the popsicle man driving his musical truck. The others are reclining on bunks in their rooms in a general show of lassitude; no one in India goes out in mid afternoon.

In the distance I can see a reluctant windmill, spinning languidly, assuming the attitude a young boy tasked with some unpleasant chore. The street is quiet but for a single bullock, not looking very god-like, strolling aimlessly down the center lane. A few unfortunate fieldworkers are tending their crops, while most people have sought shelter from the unrelenting sun.

This morning dawn traced a pink line over the horizon and I watched an egg-yolk sun rise over a parched scrubland. The terrain here is flat as a thin crust pizza, but in the distance there is an earthen escarpment that was the destination for my morning run. When I reached it, I climbed to the top and traversed its spine until I could go no further. I could see for miles. Below me, there were people walking and pushing bicycles laden with goods to be sold at market. The townspeople see few westerners here. To them, I didn’t belong and they weren’t sure what to do with me. I could feel them watching me when we passed on the dusty road, yet they wouldn’t engage. If we made eye contact at all, they looked away, as if I had caught them eavesdropping. One man returned my smile, an older gentleman. He was dressed in traditional dhoti pants and had eyebrows like caterpillars. He sported a mustache that would put the actor Sam Eliot to shame.

I came across a group of schoolchildren sitting on the ground outside their classroom, eating breakfast. Their teacher stacked peas and other vegetables onto piles of rice in their wooden bowls. Everyone ate with their fingers, tipping the bowl to get the last few morsels into their mouths. I had met this teacher before. She was young and friendlier than most of the women, who won’t talk to a man they don’t know if they are by themselves. She must have been Brahmin; she was well dressed in a green sari, golden chandeliers hanging from her earlobes and bangles on her wrists. I sat down on the ground with the children and took some pictures. They offered me a bowl of their food, and I ate it, throwing caution to the wind. More than once when in Asia and Africa my stomach has paid the price for eating street food.

This is the dry season in one of those places where the rhythm of the seasons is determined not by warm and cold, but by wet or dry. The weather patterns are binary, divided into either one extreme or another, with no in-between. It’s as if a day consisted of only midnight or high noon, with no dawn or dusk. During monsoon, the rain is torrential and incessant. The deluge arrives abruptly, but after a few months it stops as suddenly as it began. What follows is a drought that lasts longer than anyone could have wished for during the wet season. Like some houseguests, the monsoon outstays its welcome yet is missed once it has gone. The people anxiously anticipate its return, like a sailor’s wife does as she stands on shore, waiting for a ship to reappear on the horizon.

If you live in rural India, water stays on your mind; there is always either a flood or a drought in progress. Water is vital to the planet, like breath is to a human being, but too much oxygen is toxic, and too much water is as much of a problem as too little (as we have seen in opposite parts of our country this year).

Humans will go to great lengths to get the water they need, and I see that here. It’s a long way to the well and back every day for some villagers.

Still, it could be worse. The driest place on earth is the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, yet indigenous people have managed to live there. They know there is moisture in the sea mist that drifts ashore from the coast, so they weave and erect large nets and place them on the arid hillsides. When the fog touches the tall nets, it forms drops of moisture. The water rolls down along the plastic strands and moves through small gutters, collecting at the bottom of the net, where the trickle is funneled into a pipe that leads to a cistern.

Too much or too little. Seems like there are two sides to water.

I am in Jamkhed, a small town in the countryside of south-central India. I was invited to come here with a small group of career missionaries. I’m not one of them (career missionary), so I’m not sure why they asked me, but they did, and here I am.

In 1970 doctors Mabelle Arole and Rajanikant Arole were asked to come to this small town in one of the poorest parts of India to provide health care to the people of Jamkhed and the surrounding villages. In doing so they created the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP), which treats illness and also has served as a catalyst for social change. Poor, low caste women have been provided a basic education about proper public health practice, and with that knowledge, they have become community leaders. The process of improving the health of the residents has transformed the social fabric of the entire community. The Methodist Church Board of Global Ministries is trying to learn about this program and how to create something similar for its mission projects in Africa.

Dalit woman, Village Health Worker and mayor of her village
Raj Arole

The Aroles are local celebrities, but not in a rock star sort of way. They are revered for their kindness and wisdom, yet they don’t inspire the kind of excitement that we might have felt if we had seen Elvis Presley in the flesh. Instead, it is more like how we would feel if we got to meet Mr. Rogers. When we walk though a village, many people recognize Raj, and they pause to greet and acknowledge us. Most just smile and watch from a distance, and a few approach to kneel in front of him and touch his feet, the ultimate gesture of respect.


Night Scene

One night, at dusk, I walked with Raj through a crowd of revelers who had gathered for a college graduation ceremony in a nearby town. Raj was invited to attend ,and he asked Charles, a church official, and me to come along.

We exited our vehicle and walked into a grassy clearing encircled by the silhouettes of tall trees against a dimming sky. The leafy branches of a huge Peepal tree cradled a rising, torchlight moon. The meadow was thick with families dressed up for the occasion, the women in colorful saris or pajama-like salwar kameez. Loudspeakers blared a playlist of traditional sitar selections mixed with Bollywood favorites that beckoned us to dance along with the teenagers, frolicking to the infectious beat of the music. Cookfires filled the air with the aroma of curry and the sweet, earthy smell of saffron, and vendors strolled around selling samosas as if they were boxes of Cracker Jacks.

We were led past the chairs that were set up for the audience, escorted up onto the stage, and invited to sit cross-legged on king-size pillows that were so enormous and squishy that they threatened to swallow us whole. The pillows were a patchwork of vibrant shades of red, blue, and gold and the entire stage was enveloped by a backdrop of garish colored tapestries. Garlands of marigolds were draped over everything, even the microphone in center stage. Spotlights were directed into our faces, so we couldn’t see the gathering assemblage, but we heard the chattering of anticipation as the formalities began.

It started with singing, then a dance performance by students wearing traditional costumes, followed by a long speech that we couldn’t understand. Next, a parade of students marched across the stage to receive diplomas from the school president until he unexpectedly asked Raj to come up and hand out the certificates. Then Raj coaxed Charles to take over, and then, before I knew what was happening, it was me congratulating the graduates and presenting them with college diplomas.

At the time, it seemed like a very peculiar situation, and still does. I could see why they asked Raj to be there—he was like their favorite uncle—but I was a complete stranger, appearing out of nowhere to participate in one of the most important occasions of their lives. I was like the Forrest Gump of India.


From Absurdity to Astonishment

That night in India was so bizarre and long ago that it’s like I traveled there only in my imagination. It’s all written down in my journals but still seems, in a word, absurd.

The philosophers known as Existentialists proposed that absurdity is an intrinsic part of the world. They argued that there is irrationality built into everything.

In everything? That sounds extreme, but I get their point. Doesn’t everyone, at one time or another, sense that life is a riddle that is not quite solvable? We all have our moments—the crazy situations that don’t make sense, yet stand out in our memories. Then consider the more ordinary and commonplace events of daily life. Based on appearances alone, they also can seem pretty weird. Imagine someone who, for some reason, has no knowledge or interest in something that humans do instinctively and without contemplation— like eating, talking on a telephone, or having sex—and try to explain how to do that (or why). They would be like, “You want me to do what?!” Unless you’re actually doing it, from the outside it can look pretty absurd.

I have been thinking about this because, to me, there have been a lot of absurd things happening lately. If this past year of strange and disturbing events was a movie, the screenplay might have been co-written by Edgar Allan Poe and Monty Python, both sinister and ridiculous at the same time.

Jean-Paul Sarte, and others before him, said that we are “thrown” into this world, forced to perform roles for which we never auditioned, tasked with the project of creating ourselves. The “thrownness” is in arriving in a world we did not ask for and the absurdity is in our seeking meaning or purpose in situations where there is none and from being faced with a dizzying array of decisions to make without really understanding what’s going on. Albert Camus thought that part of the human condition is our intuitive awareness of the absurdity of life, and to illustrate his point, he used the Greek myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a heavy bolder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again and have to start all over.

These past two years have made each of us into a Sisyphus, laboring away, thinking things are better, until they are not.

We can’t change most of the external events that unsettle us; that kind of control is as impossible as trying to smoke a cigar and play the trumpet at the same time. All we can do is focus on what is up to us and accept the things that are not, while holding that the good and bad in life are not entirely dependent on the external circumstances we have been thrown into but rather on how we react to them. Camus said we can imagine Sisyphus as happy, and that in the face of absurdity, we create meaning in life by living it.

It is not just about the song. It is that the song is being sung.



“There are only two ways of living your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

“If the stars came out only once a century, humans would stay up all night long marveling at their beauty.” Immanuel Kant

How we see the world depends radically on our state of mind. That is easy for me to say, since I’m not in a COVID ward, or a refugee camp, or an unemployment line. But anyone can try to see the world as amazing rather than absurd, and doing that can be an antidote to despair.

Sure, the world is absurd, but that’s not all it is. That night in India was both weird and wonderful.

“Awesome” is an overworked word these days (by teenagers and generals alike) and some of the things people describe as awesome really aren’t so much. On the other hand, it is good to be awestruck, and we can be open to astonishment. I was on a road trip recently, and I came across what is now my favorite roadside placard. It was on a turnout overlooking a vast expanse of the Sonoran Desert in Southern California. The sign said to look out at the scenery and “let it fill your eye and mind.” It said that previous travelers have searched for adequate descriptive words—“spectacular,” “breathtaking,” “immense.” Then it challenged the reader by saying, “Why not form your own description?” The park ranger who wrote that must have really liked his job. I think he was a little awestruck himself.

Mary Oliver wrote poems about the forests and shorelines of Cape Cod and was able to capture the intrinsic magic in a tree, or a bird, or in a wave.

She described herself as “a bride married to amazement” and believed that we can hold in wonder even the things to which we have grown accustomed. It’s like the flip side of seeing absurdity in everything. We can be astonished that a bird can sing, that a giraffe can be shaped that way, or that the Milky Way exists. I can be amazed at the dahlias in my garden blooming again after spending the winter as dried up, seemingly inert, clumps; I can be called to the hospital in the middle of a moonless night and look up at a sky so dark I could count every star if I had enough time; I can marvel at the fact that I woke up this morning, because there are many who did not; and there is nothing more astonishing than watching my children being born or grandchildren growing up.

I am becoming more aware and astonished of how quickly life goes by and how soon it will be over. Whether the world is absurd or astonishing to us, if we are always looking for logical sense, we are missing the point. The earth will always have many mysteries; we don’t need to solve them all.

Despite recent evidence to the contrary, there is much here that is good and this curious ride we call life does not require an explanation, just occupants.


Complementary

“Haste makes waste”

“ A rolling stone gathers no moss”


“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

“Home is where the heart is.”


“Opposites attract.”

“Birds of a feather flock together.”


“Don’t cross that bridge till you come to it”

“Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”


It seems that two viewpoints can appear incompatible, but actually are not. They both can be valid.

Complementarity is the concept that one single thing, when considered from different perspectives, can seem to have different, even contradictory, properties but is still the one thing. (like water, from earlier).

The most fundamental examples of complementarity come from the realm of quantum physics, which attempts to describe the most elemental aspects of reality. Is light a particle or a wave? Turns out, it’s both, depending on how you look at it.

That question was an area of intense debate among the theoretical physicists of the last century as they worked out the equations and models of quantum theory. A famous and intense argument took place between Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein about what we can know, and what we cannot, when it comes to how things work at the subatomic level. The two of them were good friends, but did not agree on the basic idea of whether or not the world is deterministic. Einstein thought that it is —things are either one way or another—and that what we do not understand we just have not figured out yet, but will someday. Bohr thought that reality, at least on the subatomic level, is not deterministic and consists of probabilities, not certainties. Einstein famously said that, “God does not play dice with the universe!” After hearing that one too many times, Bohr quipped, “Albert, stop telling God what to do!”


“The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” Neils Bohr

One thing we know is that the world is wrapped in dualities. It can seem both simple and complex, organized and chaotic, understandable and mysterious. And yet, what appears to be a duality can, in actuality, be two things being true at once. Facts don’t always falsify other facts, they might just represent different ways of processing reality.

Take music, for example. We don’t ask which is the truth about music, the melody or the harmony. Each is a meaningful aspect of music, but we can’t sing both at once, and it’s not like one is better, or more musical, than the other. There is really only the one song.

We experience a pandemic by separating ourselves from each other, yet we still crave and seek relationship and care for each other by keeping our distance. We smile with our eyes, not our mouths, and show affection without touching each other. The COVID pandemic is not one thing; it’s both isolation and interaction, sequestration and connection, solitude and community.

People can also be viewed as a blend of opposites. We, too, contain dualities. Humans are enormous in relation to the individual cells of our bodies or the viruses that inhabit them, yet tiny compared to a mountain or an ocean, the planet, or the universe. We are like a Cubist figure portrait that portrays different perceptions simultaneously, one on top of another.

It is clear that we are not all of the same opinion—on some things not even the same species. I have opinions, too, and, of course, I think I am right about some of them. Maybe I am, but it doesn’t mean that the others are completely wrong. And anymore it’s not about being right or wrong, anyway, but about what group we want to belong to.

I do know what doesn’t work. That is to point out to someone that they are wrong, to argue with them, or try to convince them to change. All we can change is ourselves. If we try to understand and acknowledge different ways of thinking, it doesn’t mean we have to agree or adopt them, but it might help us to get along and not be as angry.

Caroline photo

This idea of Complementarity, when I can summon it, helps me to recenter myself and find hope that things aren’t as absurd as they seem

It’s that we need each other that gives life meaning, and the world could use a little love right now. We all can agree on that.

Carly Sanders photo

——-



“What matters therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a persons life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion ” Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of ones opponent. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl

“When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver https://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=477


Complemetarity

“Complementarity is an invitation to consider different perspectives. It can be a tool for smoothing out our current public discourse.” Physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilzeck

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-mind-expanding-power-of-complementarity/


Absurdism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism


Thrownness

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrownness


“Keep in mind that opinion is one of the lowest forms of human knowledge, …..empathy the highest.” Bill Bullard

Caroline’s photo

Crossroads.Spring.2012.Dispatch

Like a meteor shower, it arose out of the darkness without warning, invaded the beam of our headlights, and engulfed the view though the windshield of our Land Rover. It was a Yak.

Caroline was the first to see it from where she sat with me in the back seat. I saw nothing—too busy reading or writing in my journal and not fully awake yet. We had a long drive ahead of us, so we had risen hours before the sun did. On the sidewalk and under a streetlight, we ate a quick breakfast of veggie mo-mos and milk-tea, then started driving south.

We were returning to Nepal from Tibet. Kathmandu was only 80km (50 miles) away, but we were told to start early because the road in Nepal was in bad shape and it would take us all day to get there. No surprise in that. We had never seen a road in Nepal that wasn’t in bad shape, but still we thought that the gloomy projections must be an exaggeration—it just wasn’t that far. As it turned out, however, they were right.

Before we even crossed the China-Nepal border, we had to get over Guntang La pass, with an elevation of more than 17,000 feet. The mountain pass was on the Chinese side, so that portion of highway was better maintained than in Nepal, where the very idea of pavement was usually an exercise in wishful thinking. The road itself was smooth, but it undulated like a coiled snake, folding back and forth on itself in a cartoonish fashion, like we were characters driving through a picture book by Dr Seuss. We played chicken with huge trucks laboring up or careening down the steep inclines, competing for space on the thin ribbon of asphalt that separated the vertical mountain face on one side from the dark void on the other. The fog parted enough for us to see that the road had no shoulder and only an occasional token guardrail to protect us from the abyss. Into all that mix of obstacles were added free-range, wandering yaks.

Kelsang La buying mushrooms for supper

Yaks are a common road hazard in Tibet. Our guide, Lobsang, tried to protect his eyes by constantly wearing sunglasses (even at meals or in the darkest monasteries) because of an injury to them he suffered as a child. What had happened was had run his motorcycle into a yak.

When the yak materialized in front of us, like an apparition, the only thing about Kelsang La that mattered were his reflexes. Carol cried, “Watch Out!”, and he immediately veered left just in time for us to pass between two large beasts as they casually lumbered across the highway, oblivious to how close they had come to annihilation. It was over almost before it started—like an avalanche—and we drove on in stunned silence.

Crossroads: Each of Us

There are moments in life when everything can pivot one direction or another. In truth, many points in life are that way, but few of mine (or the yak’s) have been as stark and dramatic as that near miss on a faraway mountainside.

Our lives are created out of these pivots, these crossroads. They are moments of truth—times when it all turns on a dime—and they determine our destiny. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere and seem beyond our control; sometimes it’s a decision point of our own making. Either way, they are branch-points where the one life we do have takes leave of all the lives we could have had. We’ll never know the exact misfortunes we’ve avoided by going down this street and not that one, nor the unbidden graces of our mistakes and brokenness. If we remember that every event, forced or chosen, make us who we are, then our lived lives don’t have to become a protracted regret for the lives we will never live.

We rarely anticipate our moments of truth and don’t plan for them. One of mine appeared out of nowhere in the form of a yak. Kelsang La steered away without ever stepping on the brake pedal—he didn’t have time. In so doing, he chose our future for us. Our location was so remote and inaccessible that any of the other potential futures could only have been catastrophic. Sometimes we see disaster looming but are helpless to do anything to stop it—like the initial moments of a bicycle wreck—and then other times, like that one, are when we are out of danger before we even knew we were in it.


Road Trip

The remainder of the drive was no less eventful, but in a different way. Once we crossed into Nepal, we joined a new driver and two other passengers and drove on a rickety import that matched the degraded condition of the new highway. The rugged topography and rough terrain were something out of a different era, as if we were pioneers slogging across inhospitable terrain in a covered wagon. We left any paved surface behind us in China, and in some places the earthen roadbed was canyoned with ruts so deep that it became a miniature version of the surrounding landscape of mountain ridges and gorges. It was as if we had entered a monster truck rally driving a decrepit import.

The Himalayan rain shadow happens when the monsoon weather systems from the south ride the tectonic uplift of the mountains to reach the higher elevations. The thinner atmosphere causes them to deplete themselves of moisture and dump torrential rains on the south slopes while leaving the Tibetan plateau to the north arid and devoid of vegetation.

From the Chinese border station we descended into a verdant river valley lined by towering cliffs and thick pine forests with a lush understory of ferns and flowers. The vertical, green slopes were laced with spectacular waterfalls that plunged into a raging torrent of whitewater that would have been packed with kayakers had it been in the States. Small villages clung to ridiculous locations on the terraced walls of the canyon and the leafy overgrowth was so dense and tangled that we might have been on a location for an episode of LOST.

In places the valley took on a magical, Shangri-la quality, like it was enchanted. There was mist threading through the trees and a rainbow on every corner, and the gorge was also said to be haunted by the spirit of Milarepa, a Buddhist yogi and sorcerer, whose meditation cave rested in a narrow cleft in a side canyon.

It takes a long time to cross the Himalayas in a world-weary hatchback so we had plenty of opportunity to take it all in as we watched outside the window of our vehicle. We missed Lobsang and our wide-ranging conversations. While driving in Tibet, our talks included his explanations of the sites along the way or Tibetan history, observations of the land and the creatures we encountered, discussions of current events and politics, and inquiries of the deeper meaning beneath it all. Lobsang once told us, “I don’t like all this karma stuff. It’s so harsh and lonely, with nobody to appeal to.” Lobsang was both a teacher and a student, eager for information about the world, but with little access to it from inside a repressive regime. He once told us, “It would be helpful if you would share some of your knowledge and wisdom with me”.

But I think he was the wise one. Lobsang, a nomad from the windswept steppes of the high plateau, who grew up in a tent and learned to ride a horse at the same age as he learned to walk, once said that the many monasteries in Tibet were built in places that were beautiful, but that, in truth, humans are unable to add anything to what nature and God have already created.


After ten hours and fifty grueling miles, darkness closed in and it began to rain. The lights of Kathmandu came into view and the traffic picked up exponentially. That was when our driver really came into his own.

Driving the busy streets of Nepal can be a combination of extreme sport and art form, where success and survival require great skill and raw courage. To pass or not to pass was always the burning question, and when we did, it might have been on either side—left or right—of the vehicle in front of us. Passing lanes were as make-believe as Neverland and timing was everything. We passed with abandon, our driver not deterred by curves in the highway where we couldn’t see the oncoming traffic. From a total blindspot, he abruptly darted into the other lane where, miraculously, another car was not barreling toward us. Other times, utilizing some type of sixth sense, he chose not to go for it and suddenly retreated back into position just in time to avoid a head-on collision. I never saw the truck coming towards us, but somehow he knew it was there.

We did not run out of gas. On fumes and a prayer—and against all odds—we arrived at the Yak and Yeti Hotel.

    The Nepalis don’t customarily shake hands unless it’s to placate westerners. Neither do they typically say thank you, holding the belief that it’s better to express thanks through their actions and do something in return. By that time, Caroline and I were numb; any residual emotion from the grueling day had been left behind us on the road. Yet we felt genuine gratitude for our safe arrival and thanked our driver profusely. Privately, Caroline said she couldn’t decide if he deserved a medal or a traffic ticket.


Crossroads: All of Us

Crossroads are places where “what-is” and “what-might-have-been” forever part ways. Branch points happen to each of us at various times in our lives, and sometimes they occur to all of us at the same time—like during a pandemic. Last year, the whole world collided with a virus. Nothing is the same; some things never will be.

It’s too early to tell, but 2020 might rival 1941 as a year that will live in infamy.  In the arenas of public health and politics, it’s as if we have crossed a threshold and there is no turning back.

We can’t always control what happens, but when change and choice converge—for both people or nations—it’s what we choose to do next that matters.


Q. How are we to treat others?

A. There are no others.

        Ramana Maharashi

There’s a Hopi saying that “One finger cannot lift a pebble.”  Usually we accomplish more if we work together. In the movie Independence Day, the nations of the world finally came together when threatened by aliens from outer space. People can unite when they are faced with a common enemy and it could have been that way for us if we had set our differences aside confront the shared threat of a rampant virus.  We have seen glimpses of that, but not enough of them, I think. 

Still, as I stand at this crossroad, I’m grateful for those who have put their fear and anger aside long enough to acknowledge that we’ve got a problem and that we truly are in it together, for all those who have worked hard to deal with the gravity of the situation, and for those who have stood up for science in the face of uninformed opposition.


Living with the Earth, not just on it


The serenade of the oriole or plaintive lament of the mourning dove; the discs of ice jockeying  down the river like bumper cars; the Jack-in-the-Pulpit that returns each spring to the same spot that only I know; the sun’s seasonal traverse back and forth along the skyline at sunrise, like a celestial metronome; the mature oak and sycamore trees along the trail I frequent, grandparents to the other forest creatures; the blue butterflies, called azures, flitting up from their secret places, floating past me in their denim dresses, not recognizing me as anything different from the leaves on the trees, as if I belong. 

With deep and deliberate attention, and from a state of wonder, I notice what is below the horizon of my usual perception and feel more rooted in the deeper reality and what is true and enduring.



Journeys We Take By Ourselves.Autumn.2020.Dispatch



Dahlia photos by Caroline

“I meant to do my work today, but a brown bird sang in the apple tree, a butterfly flitted across the field, and all the golden leaves were calling me.”


Memory

“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on,or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”

Karen Blixen

The Ngong Hills


I cant form a memory of my mother without there being flowers in the background. Some of my earliest memories are of looking for wildflowers in the spring as we wandered together in the woods behind out house. She died recently, wearing a favorite blouse with a bright floral pattern, listening to a recording of the songs of humpback whales.

Mom typically favored white and blue flowers in her gardens, and daffodils were always one of her favorites. In her last days, she developed a special fondness for sunflowers, saying they were “optimistic.” All that cheery yellow, I suppose. She found joy in whatever was blooming and once told me, “I don’t have an unfavorite flower.”

My mom’s granddaughter with daffodils

There was a tree in my mother’s yard that she loved. It was a particular variety of magnolia that is not commonly planted this far north. There were many seasons when a late freeze would keep the tree from blooming, but when it did bloom, it was magnificent.

   When my mom died, I received a gift from some friends. They knew nothing of my mom’s old tree, but as a memorial to my mother, coincidentally chose the same type of magnolia. When I arrived home, I saw the tree and immediately recognized it.  It was as if my mom had given it to me herself. 

Some people say that coincidences don’t exist. I’m not one of those people. I think they do, but I also think there are times when there is more going on than just random chance. I hope there is.

Thanks for the tree, Mom



The Transit

   In a dark corner of the mind of each of us is a voice. The voice says, “One day, I am going to die.” We rarely listen to that voice, but there are times it speaks to us clearly and emphatically, and we have to listen. We hear the voice when we are sick, when we narrowly escape harm, or when a loved one dies. I’ve been hearing that voice lately. 

   As we age and our bodies fail, we hear the voice more clearly, reminding us that we are like everyone else who has ever lived— mortal. How we react to the voice determines how we live. 

______

   In our country we don’t like to think or talk about death. We find ways to talk around it or call it something else. Try to find a sympathy card that uses the word “death” in any part of the message. You won’t. 

    When we do think about death, most people think, “It’s something bad and I don’t want it to happen to me.”  That’s a natural way to look at it—the fear of death being the flip side of the will to live—and some see nobility in fighting death for as long as possible.  As the poet Dylan Thomas pleaded to his father to do, they “rage against the dying of the light.”

______

  My mother didn’t exactly rage, but she had her moments. Not long ago she read something about ways to stave off dementia, like reading books and magazines, working on puzzles, watching the birds in her feeders, or eating certain foods. She told  me the article said she should eat walnuts.  

   I said, “Okay, do you want me to buy some walnuts the next time I go to the store for you?” 

   She said, “Get me some pistachios.”

   “Pistachios? I thought you said you’re supposed to eat walnuts?” 

   “I don’t like walnuts.”


Caroline photo

Death is our life’s final portal to enter and threshold to cross. It is our last and greatest journey; a journey we must take by ourselves, but if we do it right, not alone.

Caroline photo

A Story About My Mom

Mom graduated from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas before it became famous as a center of racial integration in the 1950s.

In high school she made the controversial decision to join a sorority. Mom was a shy child. She saw herself as lacking in self-confidence and hoped the sorority would help her develop social skills and make friends. Unfortunately, the school administrators saw the sorority as elitist and divisive to the student body and actively discouraged her participation. They told her that if she joined, they would not help her with college admission or financial aid.

My mom’s mom agreed with the school administration. My grandmother didn’t want her to join the sorority either yet never told Mom that she couldn’t, preferring to allow her to make her own decision and live with the consequences. Against everyone’s advice, Mom joined the sorority and was its president her senior year.

So began in her the curious blend of traditional values mixed with nonconformity. She was a strange confluence of compliance and rebelliousness, as if Lawrence Welk and Janis Joplin had birthed a child together.

Mom was taught to be that way. She was raised to respect authority and the dictates of propriety, but she also had a rebellious streak and a lifetime commitment to independent thought. As a child, she never missed church on Sunday, but once a month my grandma took her to attend services at one of the black churches in town. Sometimes they would visit inmates at the prison near their house. Grandma was trying to open Mom’s eyes to other people’s life situation.

Mom was expected to wear white gloves to church and in all things to keep standards high. She made her bed every morning of her life (until she was physically unable to make it, and then she made sure I did). On the other hand, she didn’t allow herself to be confined by tradition or propriety. She was eighty-three when she got a tattoo on her arm, and she sported a bright blue streak in her crown of white hair.

My grandma’s dream for Mom was that she go to Barnard College. How she came up with Barnard is not clear. Grandma had no personal experience with the Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools but had read about Barnard and knew it was one of the best girls’ schools in the country. Mom was a good student in high school and Grandma believed in shooting for the stars, so why not?

The high school administrators were true to their word and did not help Mom apply to college or seek financial aid. Without it, Barnard was out of reach, but Grandma told Mom that Washington University in St Louis was a good school and offered to somehow find a way to pay for her to go there. That’s what they eventually did, but not without a lot of effort and hardship.

Grandma told Mom she should go Wash U, so that’s what she did. She applied, interviewed with an alumnus in Little Rock, and was accepted. Until she arrived for classes, she never visited the university nor set eyes on the campus, which at that time consisted mostly of the quadrangle and fraternity row. Mom boarded a train in Little Rock and got off at Union Station in St Louis without knowing anyone. She didn’t recall exactly how she got from the train to her room at the women’s dorm, but somehow she arrived on campus and got a college education. She was homesick at first, but loved college and went home seldom after that.

She enjoyed all of her classes in the liberal arts, but not surprisingly, majored in Botany. She considered medical school, but women weren’t really doing that back then. When she met and fell in love with my dad, home and family became her focus. Occasionally, she would ponder the “what -ifs”, but not very often. She was wise enough to not second-guess herself.

______

I sometimes wonder how my mother and father got together in the first place. They had some similarities, but in many ways were very different from each other. Opposites often attract, I guess, and people are complicated—nobody is only one way or another. I’m the by-product of each of them, of course. From my mother I received a love for plants and poetry. From my father I learned to hear the call to adventure. From both of them I inherited an innate curiosity and a desire to follow the road less traveled.

Mom liked to collect and send greeting cards. Her children and grandchildren would receive them for all occasions, sometimes when there was no occasion at all. One of her favorites showed a little guy walking down a path in the woods and facing a sign placed at the fork in the road. The sign had an arrow pointing one direction that read “Your life” and another arrow pointing the opposite direction that read “No Longer An Option.”


My Mother’s kitchen sink

Memories

My mother died at eighty-nine, not of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. She died of being eighty-nine. It turns out that being old is just as much a disease as the rest of them. She stopped eating and she stopped moving, and her body shriveled, like when a grape becomes a raisin. She kept getting smaller and smaller until, eventually, she just faded away.

Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes it is, but I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it clouds a truer one. Beneath it is a deeper, more complex image made from my memories. I see a shy little girl, walking though a garden with her mother or favorite uncle; a cerebral college student, ahead of her time, dreaming of both career and family and having to choose only one; a smiling young mother, pushing her children out the door, even though her heart was breaking as they left; a learned woman, always reading a book or teaching a class; a beloved grandma, looking for seashells with her grandchildren or teaching them the wonders of a feather or caterpillar.

I can see, for a moment, all that at once, the spirit shining though all the years. The author Ursula le Guin said, “That must be what the great artists see and paint.” She thought that Rembrandt’s portraits are admired because he painted more than just the tired, aged faces of his subjects. Using paint on canvas, he captured that inner spirit and showed us that “beauty is not skin-deep, but life deep.”


Saying Good bye

Mom’s parting was gentle and I’m grateful for that. Even so, I feel the loss every day. Her absence is like the sky, it covers everything.

Many of the cards my sisters and I received mention her smile, but Mom wasn’t always smiling on the inside. There was more to her than flowers and my relationship with her was not coated in sugar. Still, it is hard to say good bye and I miss her, maybe more than I thought I would.

That’s how it works. We must gaze into the heart of loss and know the preciousness of what we are losing, and not look away. Saying goodbye is an opportunity for kindness, for forgiveness, for intimacy, and ultimately for acceptance of life as it is instead of what we may have wanted it to be.

_____

Mom was a traveler and an explorer. Some of her adventures were in person and she had many others while sitting in a chair in her living room. She loved to read about women who went out on exploits alongside the men, or sometimes in front of them: women like Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Carr. Karin Blixen, whose pen name was Isaak Denison, was one of her favorites.

Nepal 1960s

There is a scene in the movie Out of Africa where Karin leads a caravan from Nairobi into the bush in order to bring supplies to her husband and others who are fighting for the British in World War One. Each day, her faithful Somali headman, Farah, goes ahead of the main group in order to find and prepare a place to stop for the night. As the days fold in and darkness gathers, Farah builds a large bonfire that signals to the caravan how to reach the campsite and a safe spot to rest for the night.

Virunga Mountains of East Africa

Later in the movie, Karin has to leave Africa for good. Saying farewell to Farah is one of the hardest things she ever does. They say good bye with these words:

Farah asks, “Msabu, how can it be now.”

Karin replies, “With me or yourself? You will have money. Enough, I think.”

“I do not speak of money,” says Farah.

Karin, “Do you remember how it was on safari? In the afternoons I’d send you ahead to look for a camp and you would wait for me.”

“And you could see the fire and come to this place.”

“Yes. Well, it will be like that. Only this time, I will go ahead and wait for you.”

“Is it far, where you are going?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must make a very big fire, so I can find you.”

——-

Mystery

After a long journey, my mother has arrived at last.

I don’t know what happens after we die; nobody does for sure. Mystery is an integral part it. About death, there are two fundamental truths. That it will happen. That we don’t know when. In the television series “Game of Thrones”, the master swordsman Syrio Fotel says to his pupil Arya, “There is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today.'”

I like to think that my mom, after she reached a peaceful place (like Farah’s campsite), set off again to some territory ahead. I like to think that my mom is out there somewhere, making a very big fire, waiting for me to join her someday.

“Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from,

Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done,

But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me,

I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

     Iris Dement


The Summer of Our Discontent.2020.Dispatch

I am in the desert of Southern California, on a vision quest that culminates with four days of fasting and a three-day solo. I gazed up at this mountainside yesterday, enticed by a mysterious energy, a feeling that I didn’t understand but could not dismiss. I listened in the way that I had been taught, with my whole body and all my senses. I employed the rituals passed down to us from those who came before. There is a ritual for finding a solo spot, as there is for most everything on this quest. Ceremony, the elders say, is a way “to remember to remember” and that makes me wonder if there is some primal part of me that was attracted to this spot because, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a great place to spend three days alone.

My thinking mind would have chosen a tranquil, streamside location like the one I spotted yesterday as I wandered the land. Some other part of me allowed myself to be led to this remote place high on the side of a mountain south of our base camp.

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To get to here, I bushwhacked through a dry wash, climbing over boulders the size of pickup trucks when I could find no way around them. There are no trails to follow, except the faint lines etched in the sand by the other-than-human creatures who wander these slopes. The saguaro cacti look like a troupe of court jesters loitering about, their arms outstretched as if frantically trying to point me in the right direction. One tall cactus gestures in a way that reminds me of one of those crazy, blowup characters the car dealerships use to draw attention to their latest sale.  I take a side canyon and then veer left to ascend the mountain’s eastern slope, thinking it might provide more protection from the relentless winds. It appears less battered than the valley’s sun-baked western side. These higher reaches are steeper than the slopes below, but I come across an improbably level platform halfway up the mountain.

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Level spot on the mountainside

It is the perfect size for my tent, but there is something that doesn’t feel right about it so I move higher and make my camp in a jagged niche cut into the mountain’s face.

My pack is too heavy. I carry no food, only the bare essentials that I need to make camp, but I am also hauling three gallons of water. The creek where I draw my drinking water is in the valley far below me now, but I need to stay well hydrated at this elevation and in this arid environment.

View from my solo spot

It’s a good thing that I didn’t settle for one of the other campsites. The spots lower down were easier to get to but more exposed to the weather systems that roll through the canyon. The first night of solo there is an epic storm that puts my tent stakes to the test. My tent and I are like Dorothy and her little house when the tornado comes. If I had camped at one of the places that were closer but more exposed, I might have awakened in Oz myself. As it turned out, we held fast and I stayed dry.

My tent is my hero.

The weather system passes and the final night of the solo is calm. It’s cold, but there is no wind at all. I get up several times, including at the stroke of midnight, to go outside, do my ceremonies and have a conversation with the darkness. The night is completely calm, no wind at all, as quiet as a tomb and as still as midnight on Christmas Eve. Not a creature, nor anything else, is stirring. The stars above are magnificent, as if someone had spilled a box of white glitter across the inky dome of the sky. The new moon wears a wry smile above the ridge across from me. I stand up and turn to the east. In a cloak of darkness I speak out, full voice, to my people back home, thanking them for being here with me. It feels as though they are.

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Living with germ

How is it that I could be so far away from the people I love and at the same time so close? The location of my solo spot was as remote as any that I could ever create for myself. Yet, I felt very close to friends and family that night. I was alone, but not lonely.

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Can something be both far away and close by at the same time? Separate and connected? The questions I was asking myself that night we are all asking ourselves lately. These truths wrapped in contradiction—are they real? The pandemic is giving us a chance to find out. It’s a strange time. People say that nothing like this has ever happened before, but historians tell us that it actually has. But it’s never happened to us before. Everyone’s trying to figure it out. Nobody has, yet.

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I was in Moab, Utah recently. Like everyone else, we had to change our travel plans when the pandemic hit. We had the week off from work anyway, so we decided to drive somewhere. The virus is contracted not by being outside your house but by being around other people, and we figured we could manage to keep our distance on the road as well as we do at the local grocery store.

In Moab there is a great independent bookstore named Back of Beyond. The best thing about bookstores is the time spent browsing, but at this one they were asking customers to come no further than the front door, stand behind a table, and remain six feet distant from anyone inside.  I talked to the salesperson and thanked him for being open. He said they were doing it like this for now and would decide what to do next based on what happens. So true for all of us.

There were periods on the vision quest when we followed strict silence. When the lockdowns happened, the whole world went quiet. It has been a time to slow down and think about what is happening and what to do next. 

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It’s a time of uncertainty, when the world as we know it has been deconstructed. A wave of change is moving through the world, and we are caught up in it. We feel deconstructed and rearranged, ourselves. Many things are out of our control so we have little choice other than to accept, let go, and move on.

Not my photo

We are a nation of doers but are told that the best thing we can do is stay home. The recommendations about what precautions to follow are out there, but they frequently change and are followed inconsistently, and not at all by some people. Unfortunately, whether or not we a wear a mask correlates better with what cable news channel we watch (CNN – “I wear a mask, and if you don’t you’re irresponsible” vs FOX-“I don’t wear a mask, and if you do you’re an alarmist”) rather than with the science. Too often, our conversations gravitate to the “Us vs Them” framework that defines everything we talk about these days. We want to see ourselves as united, but too often we stay locked in our echo chambers and find reasons to divide ourselves into groups on one side or another.

We don’t start out that way, we are taught, which is too bad. We also learned that Frog and Toad are friends, and that we should try to be.

Hopefully, we can awake from this delusion of our separateness to the reality of a shared experience. The virus leaves no one behind. People say that we are in this together, so let it be an opportunity to understand our connectedness and move beyond our usual boundaries of separation. This is just too big for any of us to hold alone.


The world-wide medical crisis has become the backdrop to a long overdue reexamination of this nation’s race relations. For whatever reason, it seems different this time. A lot of people are hoping so. I’ve heard the word “crossroads” used a lot. “Threshold” might be the better, more hopeful, way of describing it, as if we have finally reached a critical mass of people who are paying attention. White people, that is.

The currents of change are running strong, so what are we to do? The only things we can control in our rapidly changing world are our own thoughts and behavior. To effect the change that we want to see in the world we must first look within and ask the right questions. Can I live with a degree of uncertainty and remain optimistic? Can I be courageous in difficult times? How can I use my voice, my gifts, in a way that creates positive impact? Is what I am doing today taking us closer to where we want to be tomorrow? For me, looking within starts by simply admitting that I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color. I don’t, but I do know it’s different than being white.

I hope we find a path that everyone can fit though.


Silver Linings

The air is cleaner than it has been in decades. Overworked tourist destinations are getting a much needed time. People deprived of physical contact are finding new ways to connect with others, and with themselves. 

These times are hard, but there are moments of beauty and grace, too. My mother is in a care facility. They have been on lockdown for weeks, but we have arranged window visits with family. She sits inside and looks out through a closed window, talking on the cell speaker phone to family sitting outside. As a medical provider, I am allowed into the facility, so I am able to sit next to her and help out with the communication.

I saw my mother put her hand up to the window with the hand of her six-month- old great-granddaughter on the other side of glass. That kind of summed it up for me —the connection and the separation. It was a hand-off between the generations, a beginning and an ending, captured in a moment. Not so long ago my mother was a little girl, and for my granddaughter, it’s all in front of her, all possibility. It’s both bittersweet and beautiful, what Kahlil Gibran called, “Life longing for itself,” and it all happens too fast.

I like the desert. I’m beginning to think it’s my favorite ecosystem. The desert is a place where life can’t go unnoticed. When it appears, we can’t not see it. Terry Tempest Williams wrote about the red rock country of Utah that, “…every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide and so we are found.” Grief and loss are a part of the desert experience, like they are of ours, but so is resilience and rebirth. In nature, it all just keeps moving steadily forward, despite everything. Behind my house we can watch the the Missouri River. It just keeps flowing, as it always has, whatever messes we humans make of things. The natural world proceeds at its own pace. Lao-Tsu said “Nature does not hurry, yet everything gets accomplished.”

In Utah’s canyon lands there are a lot of rocks. There is so much geology going on there, and it can serve to put things into perspective. I was reminded that a geologic time frame is much longer than the biologic one, and longer still when compared to a human life. There were times, though, when I could see patterns carved into the surfaces of stone that made me think everything was in motion right there in front of me, like when I watch clouds drifting by. The numerous layers of the canyon sidewalls looked like a giant slice of baklava and the spiral patterns in the slickrock could have been taking place on the surface of water instead of stone, like a freeze frame in a filmed life story of a turbulent stream. Huge boulders littered the sandy ground and chasm ledges as if a fairy tale giant had casually tossed them there in the same way a child might toss pebbles. Monoliths teetered on pencil-thin pillars as if the hand of God reached down yesterday to balance them there, just to see if he could. It’s hard to imagine they will still be there tomorrow. In geologic time, they won’t be.

The beloved poet Mary Oliver died recently. Her most popular work, “Wild Geese,” speaks to the same theme about the natural world being steadfast and how we can find solace in it.The poem is being shared and recited frequently these days. I think the reason is itsmessage of constancy and perspective that we can derive from our encounters with nature. That must be something we need to hear these days. She says,

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

  Meanwhile, the  world goes on…

  Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

  are heading home again….”

  Regardless of what is happening in our lives, time will not stop. The world keeps on turning and everything in nature continues just as it is, waiting for no one. While we are experiencing all these difficulties, the wild geese are flying back to their home, just as they alway have. They have endured, as we can. 

  There is no need to feel lonely, ever. All you need to do is walk outside and the world will “offer itself to your imagination” and announce “your place in the order of things.”  The poem reminds us that there is an order in the world and that things are as they should be. 

“Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Tibet.2019.Dispatch.5

Caroline and Lobsang
The beginning of the kora

——-

The Kora

Waterfalls cascading from impossible heights into rivers of crystal-clear water. Reflections from the water’s surface like thousands of dancing Tinkerbells.

Little nomad girls wearing pigtails or dirty taffeta skirts, the front stoop of their mother’s tea house their only playground.

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Tibet.2019.Dispatch.4

We are on the backside of the Potala Palace, the one thousand room edifice that sits atop a huge natural rock pedestal in the middle of otherwise perfectly level Lhasa, Tibet. It makes for dramatic scenery, as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.

It is dark. Lhasa is on Beijing time even though it is located far to the west of it so everything seems off; sunrise and sunset happen later than we expect. We got up for a morning walk at the usual time but it might as well be midnight. The few Tibetan pilgrims walking with us are mere shadows moving through the night. We pass one who is slowly prostrating his way down the stone walkway. Another is working the long line of prayer wheels, a clockwise spin to each one, softly murmuring a mantra to himself.

We are circambulating (a Kora) the Potala Palace and it is immense; begun in the 7th century and consisting of two main sections, the lower white section that was used for government and the upper white section that was the Dalai Lama’s residence. The white palace is an imposing expanse spanning our entire range of view. Off to the left I see the morning star, all alone, glimmering in the dark sky, and on the opposite side the last sliver of crescent moon, like a Tibetan singing bowl suspended from above by invisible strings.

I see another solitary light shining from a window of the white palace, a small but conspicuous illumination against the otherwise dim wall of stone, like a searchlight on a distant hilltop. Somebody probably forgot to turn off a light after the tours yesterday were complete, but I like to imagine a monk who had trouble sleeping sitting by the window reading.

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Tibet.2019.Dispatch.3

—-

Rubi’s Story

Rubi at preschool, 2009

Rubi and Nissa first encounter

Reading “The Hungry Caterpillar”

In 2008 Caroline and I stepped out of the relative tranquility of the Kathmandu Guest House and into the pandemonium of Thamel, the famous expatriate neighborhood that is the traditional haunt of mountain climbers, trekkers, hippies, and counterculturists of all stripes.

Thamel in early morning, before it all begins

As soon as we hit the pavement, we encountered Rubi, a four-year-old wearing a red dress and an attitude that belied her small size. She was little, but her energy level was a fair match for her environs. Rubi was in constant motion, darting about like a mosquito, seemingly everywhere at once. Just by noticing her we attracted her attention and she latched onto us. We fell into a conversation, or what might pass for one between two people who spoke only English and a three year old who didn’t. Despite the language barrier, Rubi talked incessantly and led us to her mother, Nissa, who made a living selling souvenirs to tourists. Nissa’s place of business was the sidewalk and her wares were spread out on the ground, just out of the way of the street traffic. One thing led to another and we soon established a routine of spending a little time with Rubi and Nissa before we left Thamel for the day and when we returned in the afternoon.

Anyone who wanders through Thamel can’t help but notice that there are a lot of unaccompanied children. At that time, only half the children of Nepal went to school, the rest were left to their own devices and the expectation of future life of poverty and hardship.

One day I was working at the hospital and got a call from Caroline. She had decided to approach Nissa and offer some money so that Rubi could start preschool. As it turned out, Nissa had already enrolled her daughter in school and was spending half her monthly income to pay for it.

Caroline went with Nissa to Everest School, spoke with the principal, and arranged for us to sponsor Rubi’s schooling for that year. We have stayed in touch with Nissa ever since that day have sponsored Rubi’s education.

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