I write this posting while visiting Madeline Island on Lake Superior. My parents once owned the house I’m in and the land on which it sits. It was their home for ten years, establishing what was for them a place of beauty, rest, inspiration and spirituality beyond their imaginations. Returning to this spot after an absence of almost thirty years has yielded an entire range of emotions: excitement at the return itself, to re-visit the place my mother and father regarded as home; curiosity in seeing how things have changed over the course of a generation; wonderment at the still-pristine forests and cliffs which constitute the Island; a sense of awe at how changeless the land has remained, even after decades of pounding from the lake and sky; wistfulness in recalling the Island as the honeymoon destination for my wife and me, some forty years ago; sadness in recalling my parents’ decision to leave the property with the advancement of age; joy in reliving the memories of the site I always regarded as my favorite place on earth.
Reflecting on these things, I have discovered a new dimension to them, a new feeling about both their meaning and their importance. I have always understood the natural beauty of the surroundings and the value of stealing away to such a place of retreat. I have felt the spiritual renewal inherent in the forest and lakeside. But what I have begun to recognize is my connectedness to this place that extends well beyond its physical dimensions. There is a sanctity about it, something that reaches far beyond immediate senses, a sacredness which doesn’t simply please or soothe the soul, but actually becomes part of it. Sciences may posit that cohesion between place and person exists in poetry alone, but experiences teach a very different conclusion. In a real and physical way, I find that I am actually part of this place, and it is a part of me. Portions of my life are here. Portions of my lineage are here. I have taken from this place and I have given to it. Neither the land nor I can ever be quite the same after we once connected.
It occurs to me that this is also the foundation for the centuries-old claims of disenfranchisement by Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua and throughout the entire world. Losses of language or land constitute egregious diminishment whenever they may occur; it is no less profound a loss than the extinction of an entire species of life, evolution which we often fight with tenacious resolve. But for the Indigenous, the resistance is not simply about loss of land, but the loss of an entire identity, of connectedness, of culture, of the soul itself.
In our own ways, and often without conscious effort, we all seek to discover access to the wholeness of life, that part of our existence which ties us into the fabric of the universe, a place where we belong, where our presence makes sense of our being. We share a deep longing for such connectedness, to help make sense of a world that often feels very disconnected and senseless. Loss of a people’s sacred places destroys such ties. The injustices suffered by the Indigenous extend far beyond the value of lands; their more important claims articulate the unjust destruction of their essential values and patrimony.
It is likely an unfair comparison to make between a small parcel of woods that once belonged to my family and ancestral Indigenous lands; one relationship was forged over a mere forty years, while the other has been developed since the dawn of Indigenous existence. But the importance of walking where my father walked, of knowing the places that my mother held as precious, and retracing my own footsteps as a young man- all within the context of this inland sea and its grounded blemishes- has clarified something elementally important to me. We are part of the whole, each with our own linkages to this cosmos we inhabit. And those links are our lifelines, our context for living, a portion of what defines us and makes us both importantly unique and universally the same. Removing the links weakens the chain of all of our lives.
Yesterday I worked on the wood perimeter fence that my father built. I split wood from trees that my mother may have planted. In the evening we sat quietly in the room where my entire family gathered decades ago. At night I heard the gentle lapping of the lake water against the foot of the cliffs and I gave thanks for the sacred places in my life….
I heard a news report the other day about a Good Samaritan who had stopped at an accident scene to help one of the victims to safety. The story was an interesting and moving one, the kind of “everyman” story which tends to fill us with hope that, confronted with the same circumstances, maybe we could act heroically, too. Better yet, the story had a happy outcome, as the accident victim survived in part due to the rescuer’s efforts. When he was interviewed after the rescue, the man was asked what had motivated him to intervene and thus endanger himself in the process. He replied that he had acted “by instinct,” and that it was something that anyone might have done.
I’ve thought about those comments quite a lot since I heard them, because I’m not sure that I understand them. Never having faced such dire circumstances before, I can’t really say for certain what my instinctive reactions would be. I’d like to think that they would be brave and selfless, but I can’t know that they would be. None of us can. It made me wonder about where such instinct comes from, and what that may say about us (or raise questions about us) as a species.
If imminent danger triggers some sort of selfless response in us, then there must be some intrinsic force within our psyches that testifies to the importance, the sanctity, of human life. That force might come from a religious source in some, but certainly not all heroes are religious people. So there is some other inherent belief that we hold which affirms the idea that a human life is worth the ultimate risk of our own lives, some standard of importance that drives our behaviors. Psychologists can likely expound upon the sources for such human altruism; I’m just glad and amazed that it’s apparently somewhere deep within us.
My acceptance of altruism as a motive posed another, perhaps more difficult question: if such motives come from somewhere deep within us, why do some circumstances lead us to act and others do not? The quick actions of the man in the news story likely saved a life. Yet I’d be shocked to learn that he has spent his life performing such acts of rescue, or even that he had experienced one other such feat of heroism. Since the world is filled with cultures and peoples who exist at the very precipice of their demise, it begs the question as to why most of us are dulled to action when it might matter so deeply and to so many. Perhaps it’s the distance between us, the fact that we are in the one instance “on the scene” and in the other case so seemingly removed from the victims’ predicament. Next door versus Nicaragua or Bangladesh. Yet, our assistance is available in both cases. What is there within us that ignites us to action for the one but fails to charge the adrenaline for the other? More perplexing, what is there in some of us which denies any feelings of empathy or respect for life? Our instincts would appear to be uneven, inconsistent.
Social scientists can explain all of this readily, I’m sure. But for the everyday man or woman who confronts life in all of its mysteries and inconsistencies each day, the puzzle is a confounding one. We are driven by motives that are often conflicting and indiscernible. We are incredibly bold and loving, while cold and detached. We appear to be willing to risk our very lives to rush a burning building for the sake of a child trapped there, but rather indifferent at the plight of literally millions of children trapped in the consuming flames of poverty, injustice and disease. I wonder how it is that we are able to draw the psychological line between the necessity of the former and the optionality of the latter. How do you?
If it’s true, as the news story rescuer suggests, that we often operate by instinct when it comes to life and death decisions, I need to know for myself which instinct I’m most likely to hear when circumstances come calling….
The truth. It has become a suspect commodity these days, I’m afraid. In today’s news alone, I have heard these events presented in national media reports: a prominent U.S. congressional representative claims, without any known foundation in fact, that one of her colleagues, a Muslim, has ties with a radical political group in the Middles East; a well-known television commentator, latching onto the assertion, characterizes the Muslim Congressman as “the Mafia hit man;” a deranged graduate student in Colorado enters a movie theater and shoots scores of patrons; the statue of a long-revered university sports coach is removed from its central place of honor on campus following allegations of impropriety and deliberate cover-up; Norway observes the one-year anniversary of an attack by a man claiming that multiculturalism in that country warranted the deaths of 77 innocent people. The list could go on, endless in its length as well as its variety. And what all of these topics share in common is that the central tenet in each of these cases is “truth.” Each primary actor in the stories mentioned above acted according to his/her version of the truth. It’s a scary realization.
Each of us is a product of the genetics, experiences, education, socialization and myths of our own lives. Our makeup is determined by that with which we were born and that which we have encountered along the way of life. And since no two people can be said to be precisely alike as related to both their genetics and experiences, it should be no surprise that we all experience the world in different ways. Our perspectives are necessarily different, even if only in seemingly slight ways, because the combination of elements which inform us is different.
These differences are gifts, making up the incredibly rich and magnificent diversity of the human experience. They drive our curiosity, fuel an insatiable need to understand our existence at both a molecular and an existential level, prompt our visions of what the future can be. But they’re also a burden, as when one truth conflicts with another truth, and the respective believers cannot be reconciled. Ironically, all too often such an impasse leads to conflict wherein “truth,” or someone’s version of it, becomes used as a weapon. Truth can move from being a virtue to a destructive force, tearing at the fabric of someone else’s truth. It does not have to be in the context of headline-generating issues, but can be found in the every-day matters of our lives.
By definition, then, we can never capture an absolute truth. No one has a monopoly on the truth, or even an absolute advantage in discerning it. Not the United States. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Not Nicaragua. Not Christians nor Muslims nor Jews. Not the wealthy, not the poor. We are all subject to the evolution of what we perceive as the truth, and that process is as dynamic as the forces which shape our realities. The best that we can do is to continually strive to sharpen the perceptions and understandings which make up our truth, within the context of what others experience as true. It’s our calling as human beings. And when our respective truths collide, that collision is a signal that neither view is completely accurate and there is good reason to go looking for yet another iteration. In that evolutionary process, anyone claiming to own the absolute truth is devoid of the strength, persistence and credibility needed for discovery of what is true.
None of this is to suggest that the purported “truths” of mudslinging politicians, self-serving pundits, crazed murderers or egomaniacal sports figures bear any likeness to reality or that such pontificants have any basis to be excused. Each represents an egregious lack of decency in hijacking and distorting any semblance of truth; sometimes truth is deliberately warped for personal aggrandizement. But even as we condemn the actions of such distorters of the truth, we need to perform our own self-examination of the poisons, misrepresentations, biases and hatreds that drive our personal versions of the truth. It’s nothing less than what we do in examining our physical selves for signs of disease, in search of healing and wholeness. None of us can ever be as well as we can be, as long as others are not well. Likewise, none of us will ever know the whole truth and nothing but the truth, without trying to know the truths of others….
Our work in Nicaragua has been made up of wins and losses over the years, just like in any enterprise. I cheer the groups which seem to embrace the principles of transparency and participation and holistic well-being and I mourn the groups that at first step up to that difficult model and then back away, whether through habit or urgency or seduction. It’s hard for me to remember that the organizations with whom we work are not U.S. businesses, and that I can’t really look at them through the same lens that I might use to consider the workings of a company here. But there is one need that seems to apply to developing organizations no matter what structure they may have and wherever they may be located. That essential component is the ability to envision a future.
It’s important for you to note that I did not say the future, but a future. The future implies whatever is destined to be, something beyond both our control and our ability to foresee. A future suggests a point in time to come which is subject to our influence if not complete control. An organization is subject to all of the laws of Nature which will shape the future, but it maintains a hold on many of the cultural, social and relationship elements of a future. Good-to-great organizations around the world have come to recognize and embrace that difference. A future is made up of elements beyond our control, but many are of our own making.
That truth applies equally to any of the four priority initiatives undertaken by Winds of Peace. In order for women of Nicaragua to achieve an equal status with equal rights, they must first be able to envision a future where gender issues are not a hindrance to personal development, but rather an awareness of the enormous untapped resources within the country. If Indigenous communities seek to regain their ancient cultural and property rights as the original inhabitants of their lands, they must first be able to envision a future where they are willing to truly speak from the ancestral voice, as one, in bridging past and future generations within the framework of cultural stewardship. If the rural agricultural poor ever escape from the factors which isolate and oppress them, it may be a result of their ability to recognize their collaborative strengths and a future view of broad engagement and participation from peasants who are able to separate short-term relief from long-term transformation. In order for education to lead Nicaragua into a future instead of the future, leaders throughout the country will need to see education not as a problem with few solutions, but as the solution to a great many problems facing the entire nation. Those changes in perspective alone reshape a future in ways beyond measure.
But in each case, the change comes first from envisioning a future that is wanted and then from committing to that vision. The visioning is more than unstructured dreaming; it consists of objective components that are refined to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Only if the resulting vision is compelling enough, will it have the strength to garner the commitment from others that will be required, because that dedication forms the essential energy needed to swim against a tide of status quo. Creating a future is neither automatic nor easy, but few worthwhile outcomes ever are. Just ask the members of countless enterprises that go out of business every year.
Whenever faced with a faltering initiative in Nicaragua, I ask myself whether there was a future in mind at its inception, or whether the request for partnership was born of short-term, immediate need. I wonder whether an initial vision became somehow corrupted by circumstance or self. It’s often difficult to discern where a group is in its thinking, and some folks have become very accomplished at telling a compelling story without a compelling vision behind it. Our evaluations will never be perfect. But the ones who stand to lose the most are not the members of Winds of Peace or the countless other funders who work in Nicaragua. It’s the organizations themselves, and the individuals within, who run the risk of having to face the future, whatever unknowns that may bring….
It seems as though most of us spend much of our lives looking for some special key to happiness. In the choices we make about education, spouses/partners, career, where we live, what we buy, how we recreate, there is a relentless search for experiences that will somehow validate and reward us to peace and contentment. It’s the universal search, really, and there is an entire industry that has been built around helping us to identify the keys and unlock the doors. Man’s search for meaning and happiness is as much a part of our makeup as DNA.
But like many puzzles that we encounter in life, the answers may be a lot less complex than we make them out to be. Sometimes the solutions are right in front of us and we simply need someone or something to lift the veil which prevents us from seeing clearly. The lyrics from a song by The Eagles have always underscored this truth for me:
Just remember this my girl when you look up in the sky, You can see the stars and still not see the light.
So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains, That we never even know we have the key. (“Already Gone” by The Eagles)
So when I received a translation of comments made by Father Fernando Cardenal, I was confronted again with this puzzling reality. Father Cardenal is a revered figure by nearly all who know him, and each time that I have been privileged to hear or read his words, I have been moved to both reflection and action. (I have referenced and quoted him here previously.) In these newest comments, he addressed his words to “the youth of North America,” a frequent audience of his in Nicaragua whenever they travel there. Within his words, I was reminded once again about a universal truth which remains agonizingly difficult for most of us to embrace. It conflicts with the pursuits of our daily lives, it is counter-intuitive to our inclination toward self-protection, and it carries an irony almost too frustrating to contemplate. The truth that Father Cardenal presents so gently yet profoundly is that what we seek for meaning and fulfillment- happiness- in our lives is absolutely, positively within our reach. It is found in acts of giving.
I offer Father Cardenal’s words here for your own consideration and reflection. Like any words spoken or written, they can be absorbed or rejected, embraced or ignored. But they are offered here from a man who, over eight decades of life, has experienced as many dimensions of life as possible by one man. Sometimes the sheer weight of experience and wisdom commands our attention, despite whatever message we may prefer hearing:
Message to the young people of North American
For 30 years I have been giving talks to young university students here in Nicaragua and in the United States. Because of that, I know you very well, but above all I have a lot of love for you, and that is why I want you to be very happy.
Reality teaches us that in your youth you freely choose to lead either a joyful life or a miserly life. You surely know examples of both cases. This is the dramatic reality about human freedom, and is one of the great attributes inherent to the human person. But it is also a dangerous attribute. We always have to make decisions about our lives.
The distinguished Greek philosopher Aristotle, before the time of Christ, in the first book that was written in humanity about Ethics, said that the purpose of ethics was happiness. In other words, that an honest life leads as a consequence to a happy life.
Jesus of Nazareth said one day that “there is more happiness in giving than receiving”. He did not say that it was bad to receive, in no way, because receiving is something that is very good: receiving appreciation, understanding, love, a Christmas gift, all this is very good. What Jesus said is better, is that giving produces more happiness than receiving. In the act of giving to others, be it support, understanding, love, solidarity we will always find more happiness than in just receiving.
The great Indian poet and mystic Rabindranat Tagore wrote this poem: “I was asleep, and dreamt that life was happiness. I woke up, and I saw that life was service. I served, and saw that service was joy. “
After reflecting on these three statements of very wise people, you need to be very intelligent, to choose very well the path of your life, to build into your existence a great, authentic and profound happiness. In your life you have before you two paths: a happy life or a ruined life, lost forever. You have to choose.
If I use my watch to hammer a nail, I will completely destroy the watch. The watch is not made to do the work of a hammer. If I live in a selfish fashion, I will destroy myself just as the watch is destroyed. The human being is not created to be selfish, centered only in consumption, in the purely superficial pleasures that do not reach the soul. Only in love are we able to fully fulfill ourselves as human persons, simply because we are created for love.
In Boston College they told me that cats have nine lives. If we were cats, we could use the first lives to do stupid things, even to get involved in drugs and alcohol, it would not matter that these lives were destroyed, because other lives would come afterwards that I could live intelligently. But we are not cats. We only have one life. Let us live it with a lot of intensity, because it goes by quickly, and above all let us live it intelligently, in order to us build ourselves a life of happiness all the way to the end.
When I was studying in Mexico preparing for my ordination as a Jesuit priest, a classmate told me that he had visited a friend of his in the hospital who was seriously ill. The youth in the bed was looking at his hands and was rubbing them. His mother told him, “they are clean, don’t worry, we just cleaned them for you.” So the young sick man said to his mom, “that isn’t what I am concerned about. What really concerns me is seeing that I’m dying with empty hands, I haven’t done anything important in my life.” How sad it must be to die like that! You are young, but whatever day death comes for you, I hope it doesn’t find you with your hands empty. You have time to be filling your hands with very beautiful, important works, to the benefit of your families, your communities, your country, and also why not consider the entire world. Remember that joy is found in service. But never forget to serve the poorest, those excluded from society, those who have no future and their permanent state is hunger, pain and sadness without hope. Remember that the test on the last day of life, the great exam, the only subject matter it will have will be what we have done for the poor (Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 25:31 and following).
In the Gospels the Greek word “ochlos” is used, which means: “poor or the poor multitude”. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke this term appears 126 times. This shows us the intensity of the work of Jesus with these people. We never see Jesus conversing with the high priests and priests of the Jewish religion, nor is he seen talking with the large landowners, he never appears in the cities of Sepphoris or Caesarea, the largest and most important of Galilee. He is only found walking through the towns of the poor peasants of Galilee, receiving the “Ochlos”, the poorest, those excluded from society, those who no one cared about, but Jesus taught them with his word and with his life that they were important for God, that he is merciful, compassionate and a forgiver of sins. He taught them that the best friends of God are the poor and the sinners. Jesus called this message “Good News”. The translation of the Greek word for this is “gospel”. This God incarnate in Jesus said, as a synthesis of his conception of life: “I have not come to be served, but to serve.” And he also said: “I tell you these things so that my joy might be in you, and that this joy might reach its fullness in you.” We will always find service united with joy, with happiness.
There is an experience that could happen to you in more or less 15 or 20 years from now. An adolescent son or daughter might come up to you and ask, “dad, mom, where were you in January of 2015?” “Where were you in May of 2017?” How sad it would be for you that if on that day you would have to say to your son or daughter, “I was not there!” And how sad that you would then hear from that son, that daughter, “what a shame dad, mom, it makes me sad to hear you. Were you not aware of anything, when on those dates there were thousands of young people struggling to build a more just, more human, more beautiful world?” In contrast, how marvelous it would be if that day you can tell them, “I was there with all those young people working for a better world” And how beautiful and nice for you it would be to then hear your son or daughter say to you, “wow, I feel very proud of you! How I admire you!” This marvelous moment that could occur in a few years you need to be preparing for now.
Three years ago while presenting the book of my memoirs in Spain, that had also been edited in Madrid, I was asked this question by a person in the auditorium in the city of Granada: “how can you be a man of hope after all the political disappointments that you have had in this last stage of your life?” I told him that my hope was not based on theories, but it was based on the youth. I have worked with them for 45 years, and I know very well all the enormous interior strength and great wealth that exists inside a young person. What I have to say comes from real life experiences, not stories, I have been there with them for years, and I have shared with them the marvelous works that they have done, on many occasions, even heroic works, for the transformation of society, in seeking a more just and caring world. And I told him this phrase, “My hope is that the youth will take to the streets again to make history.”
This phrase was published in a newspaper in the city of Granada, Spain. Later El Nuevo Diario published it in Managua. Later on the Jean Paul Genie Avenue in Managua a billboard was being prepared for commercial publicity – the frame was up with a sheet of flat zinc on it – and someone with black spray paint wrote on it, “my hope is that the youth would take to the streets again to make history. Fernando Cardenal.” It remained there for a year and a half. That is a very busy avenue and so thousands and thousands of Nicaraguans were able to see it. A friend of mine took a picture of the sign, framed it and brought it to my office. A young Canadian painter from Toronto, who left his steady job with Greater Toronto Painters, worked for two years as a volunteer in the University of the Jesuits in Managua saw the picture, returned to Madrid and some months ago wrote me an email that said, “I am in the streets of Madrid with the “indignados” making history”. We know that in many cities of Spain and in many cities of Europe and in many cities of the United States there are young people in the streets protesting over what the bankers are doing, making themselves even wealthier millionaires while the poor are losing their jobs and their homes. It is in youth like these that I have placed my hope.
Given that in a year and a half I will turn 80, I want to tell you that these things that I have been talking about are not highly worked theories from my brain, they come from pure living, it is my own life that I have placed before you, and I testify that in these 60 years I have of being at the service to others as a Jesuit, and in the 42 years I have of being at the service of the poorest of society, the “Ochlos”, I have found pure happiness. This has not been something passing, occasional, but for many, many years, it has been an ongoing experience! I want you to be very happy, with a profound and ongoing happiness, just as I have been happy. The issue at the heart of all my words in this message is happiness, this is the testament that I want to leave you: “my happiness”, that you might be very happy.
I say good by with a strong embrace full of respect and love, as well as a lot of hope.
Fernando Cardenal, S.J.
As is true in many aspects of our lives, the difficulties of the truth lie not in the knowing, but in the doing….
I spent much of the past week sawing and splitting wood. I visited the pile of tree trunks and limbs, earlier culled from the forest, in whatever free time I could muster, first hand-sawing the logs to appropriate fireplace length and then splitting them by hand until the woodpile stood some four feet high and ten feet wide. I’m proud of the output. So often, work that I do of an administrative or development sort is hard to measure on a daily or weekly basis. But for this past week I had something very tangible, indeed, to show for my efforts.
Unfortunately, “effort” is absolutely the right word to use. Many years have passed since I last wielded an axe and I’m afraid that whatever woodcutting techniques or prowess I may have once had were long gone as I began. So I started the week with little more than a desire to produce fireplace logs. I did not recall the proper selection and use of handsaws. I had no one to remind me about the physics of swinging an axe. I was completely unfamiliar with the different densities and other properties of the varieties of wood encountered. I had no previous experience with jigs and fixtures to aid in holding and positioning the logs. Despite my great enthusiasm, I began the week grossly uneducated about the task at hand and too inexperienced to realistically expect much of a positive result. After a couple of very sweaty but low-yield days, I realized that strength and determination would have little to do with my success with the woodpile. I had to learn.
As it turns out, I found a short article that talked about, of all things, the use of timber saws! I absorbed everything it had to say, and it fueled an appetite for more. I searched the Internet for topics like hand saws and wood splitting, body mechanics, tools to complement a wood axe, how to stabilize logs for splitting, and more. I watched and listened to videos featuring experts with decades of experiences. I soaked it up and found myself practicing such techniques almost immediately. And within a few days, my output had improved to the point where my problem became wood storage instead of production. As basic as the process of wood cutting and splitting may be, there is some sort of primal satisfaction in really learning about and then manually building a woodpile, in efficiently cutting a beautiful length of birch log without the din of a chainsaw, and in splitting a stout section of hardwood with a single blow from the axe. You can read electric chainsaw reviews until you are blue in the face, go out there with your beast machinery and do a lot of work but you will not get the primal satisfaction that manual wood chopping will release in you.
Having thus rekindled my enjoyment of this ancient rite, I thought about the process involved in getting good at almost anything. It requires opportunity, learning, practice and the desire to excel. Without all four elements, success is unlikely or at least greatly restricted. While there are undoubtedly prodigies and savants who are gifted with abilities that are inexplicable, most of us reach a stage of competence and then success through assimilation of knowledge, however it might be acquired. There are other ways for me to feed a fireplace: I can pay someone to deliver firewood to my home, I can use a chainsaw and an automated wood splitter, I can hire people to cut timber-living or dead- on my property as necessary, or I could even elect to use boxed logs purchased in a grocery store. But to supply my needs by myself, I need to know how it can best be done. Whether in person or from a book or online, the teaching and the learning is the key.
The formula is really no different anywhere in the world. The rural peasants in Nicaragua understand a great deal about the crops they raise, the techniques that are particular to their lands and geography. They often possess that deeply-held dedication to persevere in the face of long odds. But if they are to succeed with consistency, they require all of the same elements for achievement that I needed for chopping wood: opportunity, learning, practice and the desire to excel. What about understanding the markets? How about comparing experiences with producers in other communities? Might there be value in understanding the entire value chain in their endeavors? Education at whatever level encountered drives the human spirit and imagination, it fuels the hunger to create everything from woodpiles to crops to healthy communities. It is the ignition for quality of life that is universal in its attraction.
We have the capacity to both teach and to learn, if we will. When we do, we develop dimensions to our lives and our world that we might never have previously dreamed. Not unlike starting with a few logs and ending up with a season’s worth of wood for staying warm….
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….
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….