Saturday, January 30, 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Skiing offers many hours for discussion; if you include the rides to and from the resort in addition to hours on the lift and minutes perched procrastinating at the top of steep runs you can accumulate several valuable hours of talk therapy. We spent some of this time last Sunday discussing roads not traveled in life, or roads we traveled that had unexpected twists and turns which defied our expectations. The ultimate question being: through making imperfect choices and spending time in so-called ‘dead ends’ did we waste precious years of life and somehow miss the speedy quad chair to the point we want to be in life?
To answer that question one must first define the goal. Where do I want to be in life? I still cannot answer that question, despite several decades of wondering. I do feel that I have not arrived yet, that I am still a work in progress and have yet to help all the people I can help while using my uncertain abilities as best as possible. I get the sense, though, that we are all hurrying to get “there,” which recalls the anxious feeling of madly scribbling away in blue books for college exams. As if life is somehow like a blue book exam in which we race to finish in the time allotted, finally looking up triumphantly at all the poor bums still madly scribbling as if to say “I made it! (so sad for you).
I don’t know much, but I know that life is not a college blue-book exam. Life is an infinite number of questions to ask and answer, no grade (though there is a time limit), and more about what we feel than what we know. The journey does not seem to be linear – more circular or spiral – and the further we go the more we learn about ourselves. (For me personally this internal trajectory often feels like Conrad’s into the ‘heart of darkness’). If I am honest, my mistakes (and wow – they are many) have taught me much more about myself and what I do and don’t want out of life than the “good” decisions I have made. I struggle to be grateful for these mistakes, to recognize them for blessings and not roadblocks.
I read a story yesterday that really brought home the lesson of patience. Greg Mortenson tells the story of Nasreen Baig in his new book Stones Into Schools (http://www.ikat.org/). Nasreen was a gifted student at one of the first coeducational schools in the north of Pakistan. She had to leave school in 1992 at the age of 13 to care for her father and four siblings when her mother died. Later on her father remarried and she had to study at night because her stepmother’s did not approve of education for girls. After earning a high school certificate, Nasreen was offered a scholarship to attend a two-year course and obtain a rural medical assistant degree – her dream. Unfortunately, the council of elders in her village forbade her to accept the scholarship and she married instead. Let me quote: “During the ten years that followed this decision, Nasreen toiled twelve- to sixteen- hour days tending goats and sheep in the mountains, tilling her family’s potato fields, hauling water in metal jerricans, and gathering up eighty-pound bags of firewood and moist patties of yak dung. . . During this time she also gave birth to three babies and suffered two miscarriages, all without the assistance of a maternal health-care worker.” In 2008 she finally was allowed to take up her scholarship. Mortenson notes, “As for her ‘lost years’ Nasreen harbors no bitterness whatsoever, mainly because she is convinced that her experiences imparted some essential insights. ‘Allah taught me the lesson of patience while also giving me the tools to truly understand what it means to live in poverty,’ she says. ‘I do not regret the wait.’”
Ten years of waiting in poverty and servitude – no bitterness. I have a lot to learn from this persistent woman in Pakistan, though if our journeys are into the heart of ourselves they are - each one - entirely original. We cannot compare our course to that of anyone else. No need to compare, no need to race, just a requirement to be careful to notice our lives and be grateful for the places they take us.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
“How could a just God permit great misery? The Haitian peasants answered with a proverb: ‘Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe,’ in literal transaltion, “God gives but doesn’t share’. This meant, as Farmer would later explain it, “God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he’s not the one who’s supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid upon us.” (Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, 79).
The tragedy in Haiti has just broken my heart this week, as it has broken many others’, and the strength of my emotions has startled me given that I usually only cry during hormonal episodes. Each morning as I read the paper in silence the tears come, crossing the sleep lines still engraved on my face and dotting the newsprint. This emotional upheaval makes it difficult for me to handle the breakfast routine and school departure with equanimity, particularly when my three-year-old throws a temper tantrum over his cereal choices. Though I know it is absolutely ridiculous to expect him to be on good behavior because people suffer in Haiti, I still resent his ‘neediness’,’ ungratefulness’, and demands on my time when I should be in mourning, prayer, or searching the web for a good charity.
My daughter joined me at the breakfast table on Thursday, and I let her read the article on Haiti as I had already checked for traumatic photos. She asked difficult questions: “are there children alive whose parents both died? What are ‘corpses’? Do they have any food?” I answered her as directly as I could, feeling rightly or wrongly that if children in Haiti could endure their situation my daughter could probably stand to hear about it. She donated three weeks’ worth of allowance to the Red Cross and my son joined her efforts under some duress. I did some research about donating through some of our favorite organizations that work in Haiti: The United Methodist Church (www.umcor.com) the adoption agency who worked with us on my youngest child’s adoption (www.holtinternational.org) and Partners In Health, Paul Farmer’s organization that works extensively in Haiti (www.pih.org ) or (http://www.standwithhaiti.org/haiti).
The tragedy strikes so hard because 80% of the people in Haiti have no material goods, no long-term security, little healthcare, and daily instability. They struggle for everything in their daily lives, working to reap some food crops from the devastated earth, hoping for governmental stability and a stop to violence in their country. Haiti has a proud history; it’s people defeated Napoleon’s armies to become the first independent nation in Latin America. “In the hemisphere, only the United States is older. This point is overshadowed, however, by the overriding singularity of Haiti’s birth: there exists outside Haiti no other case of an enslaved people breaking its own chains and using military might to defeat a powerful colonial power.” (The Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer, 63).
Haiti became independent through a violent revolution against the French (and their European allies) which ended in 1804. The French asked for reparations for the war, and the burden of paying the debt and the resulting interest crippled Haiti in the 19th century (see again The Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer). Again burdened by debt in modern times, $1.2 billion in international debt was just forgiven last July (http://omiusajpic.org/2009/07/01/haitian-debt-cancellation/) after requiring funds for payment of US $1 million per week. The long and tortured relationship between Haiti and the West has not helped to stabilize regimes or an agricultural economy.
At times like these we all ask “where is God?” I don’t believe that God interferes with the events of humankind – after seeing this tragedy how could one believe that – but I do not understand the extent of tragedy that some people have to endure while others simply, do not. I do believe that we have to help; we need to offer any financial assistance that we can along with our prayers, and pay attention to developments in our neighboring country. I also believe what Jim Wallis said in his Sojourners email this week:
“My God does not cause evil. God is not a vengeful and retributive being, waiting to strike us down; instead, God is in the very midst of this tragedy, suffering with those who are suffering. When evil strikes, it’s easy to ask, where is God? The answer is simple: God is suffering with those who are suffering.” (http://blog.sojo.net/2010/01/14/god-is-suffering-with-those-who-are-suffering-in-haiti/).
They are in good company, then, and waiting for us to help divvy up the loot.
Monday, January 11, 2010
I forayed up to Breckenridge yesterday with a friend and three children, all requisite ski equipment , food and beverages necessary for their pleasure, and cell phone( inserted like a pacemaker in my inner jacket pocket) for their first day of ski lessons. Though the temperature read 6 degrees Fahrenheit after we disembarked in the Gondola parking lot all spirits were high and feelings generally positive as the kiddos met their ski instructors, deposited their sack lunches in the collective backpack and prepared to meet the mountain – all by 8:40 am. Glorious sunshine and good snow conditions blessed us as I prepared for my first adult day of skiing in a decade.
With a stomach made queasy by worries over the children and fear for my own life and limbs, I wedged myself into my own gear (let us not question why ski gear always seems too tight) and we took a bus to the top of the mountain. It was a crystal-champagne glass kind of a day, even viewed through a forest of skis and dingy bus windows. After a great first run and successful mount of the lift I was feeling better . . . until the cell phone rang. I nearly lost a glove and knocked a neighbor off the lift in my efforts to reach the phone, still not managing to open it until the message was left by my children’s ski instructor.
“Um, Mrs. Dravenstott, Dave here, I’m your kids teacher, and I just, well, it’s not an emergency by any means, but your kids are skiing at really different levels and I know that you requested they be together so I’m not sure what to do. One is ready to go up the mountain with the class and the other is definitely not, I’d like to move him down but had to check in with you first.”
Terrific. My stomach pitched to a new level of unease as I madly attempted to find and redial the ski instructor’s East Coast cell phone number while hanging on to my glove and keeping an eye on the lift to make sure I did not have to dismount mid-phone call. I reached the instructor on my third attempt and we both rapidly talked over each other trying to resolve our mutual dilemma.
“Dave, hi, it’s Mrs. Dravenstott. I got your message, and I think it is fine to split them up.”
“Mrs. Dravenstott, it’s Dave. Just wanted to make sure that it was OK to split them up since you specifically requested they stay together.”
“Dave, it’s OK, I just wanted them to start that way – it’s been a whole 90 minutes so I’m sure they’re fine now.”
“Not sure how you feel but they don’t seem overly attached and I don’t want to hold the older one back. I know you wanted them together but your daughter would never get on the mountain if she moved down and she’s ready . . .”
“Dave, I know what I wrote, it’s fine – just split them up! I’m sure my son will behave much better for you than he would for me.” My voice reached toward the octave of hysteria as we neared the end of the lift.
“OK, great. I’ll catch up with you at the end of the day.”
As I juggled equipment and nearly lost the phone to the mountain I envisioned my younger child weeping and bemoaning the loss of his sisterly support and original teacher in addition to loss of pride. I crossed all of the fingers and toes that were not crushed by ski regalia and prayed for a safe and happy conclusion to the day.
Despite repeated perusal of the cell phone – which I generally loathe – no further messages appeared and I relaxed and had a great day. I felt like I was dancing down the mountain though probably looked like a drunk trying to waltz across a tilted floor. The sun was glorious, and though my view was impeded by the disintegration of my 20-year-old ski goggles, the mountain vistas were clear. The ability to use our bodies in the outdoors and the freedom from immediate responsibilities combined in a heady elixir. We swooped and flew to our heart’s content and regretfully returned to the parking lot early to make sure we were ready for the return of the instructees.
My friend’s son – the best skier of the group – returned first with happy face and all equipment intact. He staunchly stood in the meeting area to look for my son, who was (of course) the last child on the mountain to return. In the meantime, my daughter returned with glowing cheeks and eyes and a heady excitement over her achievements of the day. Her teacher assured me of her progress and took me aside to praise her for helping her brother make the transition to a new class. Apparently he dissolved upon hearing of his demotion and she accompanied him to the new class and stayed with him until lunch, until he was ready to separate. Dave said, “she is really a mature kid, I was impressed.” After bestowing extra kisses on my oldest we finally caught up with the little black sheep, who returned covered in the glory of learning to start and stop on command. Though emotionally and physically drained from the events of the day he ended on a high note (what blessings!) and proceeded to giggle (almost) the whole way home.
All of us are looking forward to next week, to new improvements, fresh vistas and safe enjoyment of the slopes. I’ll still take my cell phone but can’t wait for the day when I can drop it in a crevasse, assured of my kids’ safety and enjoyment in the high-altitude heaven of the mountains.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
A friend (fellow scribbler and long-ago English major) told me recently that she occasionally writes down her dreams to give the writing process a jump-start. Strangely, I rarely dream and when I do it takes an act of Nature to help me remember what has occurred overnight. My doctor told me in the spring that my lack of dreaming relates to a lack of serotonin or other related chemical in the brain – no surprise there – just one of the brain functions that I lack after 8 years of motherhood and three children. I did have a dream the other night that registered a 6.0 on the strange subconscious scale so I thought I would share. If anyone has a clue as to what this means, please let me know . . .
In the dream I was preparing for a triathlon, stretching out my towel and supplies in the transition area next to my bike. People came and went around me, taking no notice of my individual preparations, until I suddenly went into labor. Looking down, I realized that I was nine months pregnant and apparently the baby wanted out immediately. After a blurred transition to the hospital I was joined by my husband and other friends and family who encouraged me through the process as I quickly gave birth to a . . . large, perfectly browned and basted turkey! Apparently no one thought this was strange, or if they did they hid their emotions well and even congratulated me on bringing a new daughter into the world (it was a female turkey).
My only concern was rejoining the triathlon. Another blurry dream sequence later I found myself back at the transition area sans baby turkey, friends and relatives. Unfortunately I had missed the swim portion of the race and nearly the entire field had taken to their bikes already. I hastened to my transition spot, only to realize that riding a bike competitively moments after giving birth represented a painful feat of near-impossible proportions. The dream ended thusly with the disappointment of not being able to compete.
A few thoughts: a TURKEY? Am I secretly distressed beyond comprehension over my inability to cook? The triathlon I understand, having recently made training plans and tentative racing plans for 2010. But giving birth in general is not on my mind these days so caught me off guard, and though I was greatly relieved to wake up to my normal shape and lack of pregnancy belly, I have to admit to a moment of wistfulness about that dream-baby daughter. Anyone, a little help?