Tag Archives: Stewardship

‘Tis a Gift

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,

‘Tis a gift to come ’round where we ought to be.

And when we have found the place that’s just right,

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

You may remember that little song from childhood or perhaps singing it to your own children, but it always struck me as a comforting little tune that told of a special place in our lives, a spot that was made just for us, one that would ultimately be the definition of “home.”  Even if many of us never reached the elusive place, the song gave us hope that such a spot did exist and that it was simply a matter of time before we would encounter it.  And that was reason enough to make a bad day become more hopeful.

The other message contained in the rhyme, of course, is that the place we seek so diligently is probably a lot closer than we may think, that the simpler elements of our lives are where we will discover the real gifts of peace and contentment.  I met a guy in Nicaragua last month who has done just that, at an age that I’m guessing is still shy of 30.  His name is Wilmer, and he says, “I was born here and I want to die here.” And he says it not from a sense of resignation, but from a posture of gratitude and good fortune.

Mark and I had taken a break from the workshop we were attending as the cooperative participants took some time to work on innovations specific to their own needs.  Once again, the workshop setting was the awe-inspiring setting of Peñas Blancas, the “white cliffs” area surrounded by deep forest and reborn ancient habitat.  We decided to walk the narrow road which leads into the forest and beyond, but after a short distance we noticed the unfinished wet mill for coffee processing, owned by the cooperative GARBO.  As both participants in and hosts for the workshop, members of GARBO had referenced the  unfinished mill and their need for its completion.  So Mark and I looked it over, trying to discern the eventual flow of the coffee beans and residue water.  We had circled around the back of the mill to complete the vista when a young man wielding a healthy-sized machete emerged from the tall grass of the hillside.  I suppose two unescorted gringos nosing around the mill raised more than a little curiosity and maybe even suspicion.  But Mark explained our purpose and presence with the workshop to allay any concerns.  The young fellow introduced himself as Wilmer.

It turns out that Wilmer had his own coffee plat just down the hill from the wet mill, so we discussed how important its completion would be for him and others in the cooperative.  He explained all the mill nuances that Mark and I couldn’t discern for ourselves and we gained some pretty good insights into the process from a first-hand source.  Eventually, Wilmer asked whether we might like to see his coffee area.  Naturally, we were curious to do so.  We hiked a short way, weaving ourselves deeper into the feel of the forest but not yet immersed in it.  Very soon, we emerged in a clearing, surrounded by a sea of white coffee blossoms.  It was the first time I had seen the plants in bloom, and the effect was stunning.

The coffee plants hung heavy with blooms, weighted by these white promises of harvest.  Between the pristine visual effect and the sweetness in the air, I might have been in some modern day Eden.  Wilmer gestured with a wide sweep of his arm to present the extent of his land and coffee; as much as we delighted at the sight, I think Wilmer did more so.  This was his land, his work, his life.  He didn’t need to say very much, as the landscape spoke volumes.

But he did mention bees.  We were talking about the pollination process in the coffee fields and he reported that he kept bees, small indian bees which did not sting.  Upon seeing our interest, he asked whether we might like to see some hives, so we were off on a new fact-finding leg of our hike.

The hives were small boxes that hung under the eaves of Wilmer’s simple home.  He carefully pried open the side of one and let us examine the busy spaces inside.  Hundreds of tiny bees, no larger than some voracious Minnesota mosquitoes, buzzed around us without anger, just waiting for whatever interruption this was to pass.  Before they could return to work, Wilmer offered for us to scoop out some of the purest honey either of us will ever taste.  He carefully reconstructed the side of the hive and then hung it outside the door to his home, along with the four other hives circling the house.

Our fascination with the bees led Wilmer to invite us to see the other hives, made up of “other bees.”  He was quick to state that these bees were a little bigger than the others, but that they did not sting, either.  Mark and I felt as though we were on a tourist roll, so we readily accepted. Away from the house, near the edge of the woods, a larger hive was tapped and opened.  Now, it so happens that as Wilmer opened the hive, he referred to the producers as “angry bees.”  That, in turn, prompted an immediate inquiry from us as to whether these little guys were of the stinging variety, to which Wilmer replied, “Oh, yes.”  To this day we’re not sure whether he was taking an opportunity to prank a couple of visitors or whether he had misspoken, but it didn’t really matter.  We moved away from the hive quickly, shooing bees away as well as we could, while Wilmer walked with us, covered in tiny bees and oblivious to their bites.  A collected and contented man.

A generous man, too.  Wilmer asked whether we might want to see hives on another family member’s dwelling, but by now our afternoon encounter had eclipsed 45 minutes.  We needed to return to the workshop, where the participants would have been spending the time constructing plans and finding ways to “think outside the box.”  Organizations need to do such work to anticipate and manage the complexities of multiple demands and interests; maybe individuals need to, as well.   But on this one afternoon, I was refreshed to meet a man who possessed absolute clarity about his place, his calling, his life.  His past and his future had already been written in his certainty about birth and death and the days between.

And be a simple kind of man,

Oh, be something you love and understand.

 Be a simple kind of man,

 Oh, won’t you do this for me son, if you can….        “Simple Man”  by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Sometimes the gifts we strive so hard to find, to “earn” for ourselves, are to be found in entirely different forms and places, and are there simply for the claiming….



How Do You Help A Blind Person To See Someone Who Is Invisible?

During our drive last night on the way to meet some friends for dinner, my wife Katie described a book that she has been reading as part of her volunteer work with Decorah Reads!  It’s a program that connects middle school students with reading mentors and Katie has enjoyed being a volunteer for several years.  Her current book is entitled, Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements, the story of a boy who literally becomes invisible, and the blind girl who befriends him.  As Katie described the unlikely story line, I was immediately struck by a conundrum that became my title above: how would you connect someone who is blind with someone who is invisible?  Physics and biology aside, it’s a fascinating puzzle.

Over the years I’ve known enough blind people to recognize the cultivation of other senses they exhibit in navigating daily life with efficiency and grace.  For many, the enhanced senses of touch and hearing, especially, cultivate an awareness of the world that sighted individuals can only dream about.  This was made clear to me years ago during a time when I was recording programming for the Minnesota Blind Radio network.  My weekly shows were broadcast around the state of Minnesota on a closed blind radio channel.  Nonetheless, I was shocked one day when, walking and talking with Katie on the St. Olaf College campus, a young man with a white cane approached me and asked, “Is that Steve Sheppard?   I’d know that voice anywhere!  I listen to your programs every week!”  His audio acuity as evidenced in a chance pass-by on the sidewalk demonstrated a remarkable ability to “see” me, in some ways better than sighted individuals might have.  (For one thing, he didn’t have to contend with my face.)

I confess that I’ve never personally known anyone who is physically invisible; I suppose that I may have met such an individual and simply not seen him/her.  But I imagine that similar compensations must develop in anyone who cannot be seen by others.  Initially, it must be downright exciting to go anywhere, to do anything, without being seen.  The condition could certainly open doors closed to everyone else, and the fun one could have is nearly beyond imagination!

But for the blind person, I doubt that there is often a feeling of preference for blindness over sightedness.  Heightened other senses notwithstanding, sight is a gift, to be treasured, to be strengthened, to be used with every other faculty we may have in order to discover the truth of our lives.  It’s not that blind people cannot do this, but that they have one less tool to use in pursuing it.  And for the invisible man or woman,  I think eventually it must become frustrating to realize that no one will ever really know you’re “there,” that your very existence is unrecognized by anyone else.  The anonymity in moving about covertly, privately, becomes overshadowed by the sense of an unseen and unfelt existence.  In the end, blindness and invisibility are both conditions with which we all must contend in pursuit of the truth.  Blindness is not always about physical sight.  Invisibility is not always about defying physics.

The characters in Katie’s book eventually must discover each other through touch, and likely that’s the remedy for the rest of us, as well.  We must come to know and touch the “other.”  Only when those of us who are blind have taken the opportunity to reach out and discover the invisible can we begin to understand their existence and the realities of their hidden lives, to meet the needs for which they have desperately searched  in an opaque world.  When we do that, those apparitions begin to materialize for us, to become real, to be human.  And when their invisibility starts to fall away, an interesting thing happens to the rest of us.  We begin to see.  Only vaguely, perhaps, at the start, but the shapes and forms and intents in our lives begin to hold some very different meanings.  That which we have previously beheld through touch and sound or fear and surmise can become vision, and lead us to a very different way than the way from which we have come.

As I jockey myself between the often radically different cultures in the United States and Nicaragua, I find some important truths within the worlds of the blind and the invisible….