Light for Those in Darkness

Different kinds of darkness and light

Isaiah spoke about spiritual darkness in the famous passage that Christians interpret

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

as pointing to Jesus. But 67% of Africans live in physical darkness, beyond the reach of national power grids.

According to USAID and the Power Africa Initiative, many Africans will never get national electrical service. What is life like for them? Not romantic, like going “off grid”here in the US! Imagine your children sick in the night, and you groping in the darkness to respond. Imagine the cattle in the enclosure next door       becom

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

ing restless. You go out in the dark to see what’s attacking them—a hyena? A snake? Imagine carrying your cooking, washing and bathing water up steep hillsides, five gallons at a time—40 pounds—because there’s no power for a pump. One power expert titled a Time Magazine article:

Why Energy Poverty is the Worst Kind of Poverty. He wrote, “As long as people remain in the dark they will remain poor.”

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

“Will you help us?”

Church elders in Maji, Ethiopia, where I grew up, met with me last year and asked “Can you bring us a solar panel for our clinic? Our women who come to deliver are suffering.” If the women went into labor at night, they told me, the nurse held a flashlight for the midwife. If both the mother and child needed help, the birth assistants held the flashlights in their mouths.

Solar Lights for Maji Health Center 

I went to Ethiopia in September 2016 to follow up on that request. I met with the solar provider


Notice the chair on the box . . . simple technology can work.

the first afternoon after arriving in Addis Ababa, paid the downpayment on our vehicle rental, and made arrangements for transport.

I took with me a technician from the solar company. He not only installed the clinic unit, but came back to the guest house and voluntarily put a switch in one room, ran a line and a light and switch to the new latrine, and installed a porch light for security in the guest house.

Four women waiting in the clinic guest dormitory watched the Health Center installation. Everyone on staff, both from the Presbytery and from the Health Center participated. Four lights were hooked up—one each in the delivery room, the examining room, the office, and the women’s dormitory. I was later told that the women were thrilled, and were asking,

“Can this be put on grass roofs? If I had this, I could have light in my

The women didn't miss a minute of the installation process!

The women didn’t miss a minute of the installation process!

house and light in my cattle bier!”

Interestingly, I had a flood of Facebook friend-requests from Ethiopia as a result of posting pictures of this process. I thought I was updating US Facebook friends, and what I received was not only thanks from them, but thanks from Ethiopians.

The Maji Story

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

I’ve written about Maji before. Just to reorient you–Maji lies on the southwestern edge of the Ethiopian highlands, 8500 feet high, near the Sudan border. It was once the most remote outpost of the Presbyterian mission. The beauty of Maji’s mountain views,waterfalls, and eye-popping sunsets gave me endless joy as a child growing up in Maji.

The Ethiopian power grid ends 80 miles away. The cost to bring diesel the three day drive from the capital makes generator power unsustainable. Development has stalled. 

For decades, the tiny church in Maji also floundered for lack of leadership. Dad almost left mission work, he was so discouraged. But he had obeyed his call to plant the seeds.

Maji is beautiful, but dark.

In time, as local leadership matured, the church began to grow. It is now strong enough to step forward and serve the community effectively. “Your father brought us the light of the gospel,” the leaders say to me. “Please help us bring the light of electricity to our people!”

I leave on Friday to talk to the women of Maji, to see if they would be interested in starting a co-op to distribute solar home systems (SHS) to families in the county. I have registered a non-for-profit organization to support them. If they are willing to do the work on the ground, I will promise to be a channel for their support from the USA.

I’ll let you know what they say! Stay well!

Having an Agenda

“What is your agenda for Ethiopia this time?” a friend asked me. “Or do you have an agenda?”

I laughed. As my dad would have said, boy-howdy, do I have an agenda! Several agendas, in fact. A friend has invited me to think about how to be more strategic and organized in the work in Ethiopia that keeps coming my way. That will be one of my agendas.

In my suitcase, as I fly out of Portland, I’m carrying a bag of dried apples. I’m taking them

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

to Maji to show the agriculturalist, Ato Markos, who coordinates the Maji apple orchard what a dried apple looks and tastes like. The 1000 apple trees he’s planted aren’t yet bearing more than he can sell locally, but they will! I need to talk with his leadership team about their marketing plan. And if the grid does get to Maji, might they start a fruit-drying endeavor? Why truck the water in the apples all the way, 500 miles, to Addis Ababa?

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic.

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic. Photo by Maureen Evans

Another major goal for my time in Maji is to get a solar unit installed on the town’s clinic. This came as a request from church leaders, and took me over a year to organize. The clinic is delivering up to thirty babies a month. Night deliveries take place in the dark—the electric grid hasn’t reached Maji yet—and the midwife and nurse sometimes have to hold flashlights in their teeth to have hands free. A simple solar unit will allow for night lighting and charging cell phones. I’ve found a solar supplier in Addis Ababa and he is sending the unit and an installer with me in the vehicle I’ve rented for the trip.

While in Maji, I will also meet with the

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government.

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government. Photo by Maureen Evans

translation team for the Dizi language, the language of the people of Maji. Dizi has been reduced to written form—that’s the technical term for developing a writing system that covers all the sounds of the language. Now the New Testament translation is almost finished. The translation team is meeting with expert linguists in Addis Ababa several times a year to check for consistency (is the same word in Hebrew, Greek or English translated by the same word in Dizi, for example). They are also holding community checking events, reading passages and listening to discussions to see whether the intended meaning of the translation is what was actually communicated.

Try reading Dizi!

Try reading Dizi! Photo by Maureen Evans

I don’t know the Dizi language, but I’ve been supporting the translation team for several years. I  meet with them and listen (in Amharic) as they talk about their progress, frustrations and concerns. I’ll take a report back to donors, and go over the budget for next year’s work. This trip I’ll start to ask questions about a literacy program. We don’t think about this, having so many centuries of written language of our own—but once there is an alphabet and written materials, the next problem is that no one knows how to read!

And then, speaking of literacy, when I get back to Addis I’ll meet with people who helped Janie and me last January as we began creating stories and art for early-reader books for Ethiopian children. Again, we have such a thriving publishing industry in the US, it’s hard to imagine that almost no books are published in Ethiopia, and there is nothing at all for beginning readers. They drill their 241-letter alphabet, and then start the sink-or-swim process of reading text books.

Children, parents, teachers and librarians in Ethiopia and the US have created the

We'd love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties!

We’d love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties! Photo by Jeri Candor

beginnings of about twenty simple, illustrated stories appropriate to Ethiopian culture. Now we’re looking for help in the translation and design stage. (We haven’t even addressed production yet!) The enthusiasm, the creativity, the goodwill of volunteers is keeping us going in spite of the steep learning curve for this cutting-edge cross-cultural effort.

In Addis Ababa I’ll be following up with young artists and writers to move from the inspiration stage to the revision stage of creating art. I’ll be looking for someone who has design skills and knows Amharic. I’ll meet with some people who have tried their hands at translation—that’s a creative endeavor as well, because our subject-verb sentences trot along using words like building blocks, each in its own place, but Amharic encrusts the verb with not only prefixes and suffixes, but infixes! We wouldn’t know an infix if we heard one!

So that’s my agenda! I’m writing on the plane to Minneapolis, the first of three legs of my journey. I’ve been crazy-busy getting ready for all this. Now wish me well! My jet lag, the possibilities of picking up intestinal bugs, and political unrest in parts of Ethiopia may be greater problems than the inherent challenges of the work. But that’s the way it always is. Our contexts are part of the work.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for creativity, spiritual and relational growth as I do this work that keeps coming to me from God. Thanks to all of you who have contributed encouragement, prayer and resource to be my partners!

The Adventures of Oolibee

Literacy was another feature of this complex animal we called Odyssey II. That passion, my sister Janie brought to the Odyssey, of course. But she kept saying to me, “You’re essential part of this! You’re the bridge between the languages! Especially if you learn to read Amharic like you say you’re going to!”

The plan was, when we returned to Addis Ababa, the artists and writers would collaborate in a workshop to create the raw materials (texts and art) for some early readers in languages of Ethiopia. It was an ambitious goal, but Janie soothed her anxieties by repeating her mantra: Process, not Perfection. Production was even further down the road, and we refused to let our spirits be dampened by worries about production costs.

Ethiopia has 88 separate languages, in four language families (For those who like to know these kinds of details: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan.)

Once the main language groups are accounted for, almost 12% of Ethiopians speak “other”. The Dizi (dee-zee) people of Maji area are one of the small tribes, about 40,000, with their own distinct Omotic language. Some years ago, Bible translators, under the Wycliff spin-off SIL, developed an alphabet for writing the Dizi language. At first, the three translators were the only people who could read and write Dizi.

The Dizi alphabet--there are sounds we don't have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.

The Dizi alphabet–there are sounds we don’t have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.


When I visited the county government headquarters in Maji this trip, I was pleased to see a Dizi alphabet poster on the lobby wall—the equivalent of A is for Apple, B is for Baby. Because it uses the Latin alphabet, I read some of the words. People burst out laughing to hear Dizi coming from a white woman, even though I only knew what the words meant by “reading” the pictures. I was delighted to see that the local government in Maji has embraced the SIL work on Dizi literacy. Ethiopia has taken seriously the research showing that if children learn to read first in their heart-language, they are more successful for rest of their school careers.

And since I was last in Maji, some boys have taken Dizi literacy classes. Passages from the book of Mark, which was written in simple Greek and is full of stories, are being printed and used for these literacy lessons: the Bible is the only written material that exists in Dizi.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia. Henrietta the bird (bottom right) visits Ethiopia and searches for a nesting place.

Here’s another piece of the literacy stream that flowed together in Odyssey II: back in Illinois, at team member Jeri’s college and Janie’s and my alma mater, an art student was floundering for inspiration as she faced her senior project. When she heard that the Dizi language has no easy readers, she created one. It’s a simple story: a bird visits Ethiopia and searches for a nest. So one of our mini-projects in Maji was to get that simple book translated.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to  translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Jeri and I sat down with Mehakl, a boy who graduated from Maji high school’s tenth grade and now teaches in a remote elementary school. As happens everywhere in Ethiopia, it didn’t take five minutes for eight more boys to gather around the foreigners to see what we were up to now. I orally translated the English text into Amharic for Mehakl and his friends, and asked him to write it in both Amharic and Dizi.

Ethiopian schools teach using the rote method, so the boys struggled with the concept of not producing a word-for-word translation. I kept repeating that we wanted a concept-based translation in good Dizi. (Of course, I was expressing this complex idea in my simple Amharic!) The breakthrough came when one boy said,

“On this page, the bird’s name is in the first place. “Was” is in the middle place. “Happy” is in the third place.” I was able then to say,

“We don’t want a place-by-place translation.”

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the translation team, and me, with the finished book.

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the entire translation team (which grew as we worked), and me, proud of the finished book.

That’s when the translation committee, as we called it, really went into action. They debated each sentence until they reached consensus: yes, that’s how we would say it best in Dizi.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children's book before, be able to "read" the pictures? To our delight, when Janie pointed to a dog, she whispered the word in Amharic.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children’s book before, be able to “read” the pictures? We were thrilled when Janie pointed to a dog and she whispered the word in Amharic.

Daphne, in Illinois, had named the little bird Henrietta. I asked the boys to choose a common Dizi girl’s name, and to our delight they suggested Oolibee. A real Oolibee was three years old, full of spunk and adventure, running around our guest house while her mother acted as sous-chef to our cook.

Another mini-project Janie and I had taken to Maji with us was to create a book with photographs of children from Maji. We asked Oolibee’s mother’s permission to photograph her. Nahosenay, with his true artist’s eye, agreed to follow little Oolibee around and photograph her. The text will be simple: she is running; she is eating; she is sitting.

So we’re making our little contribution to Dizi literacy, with the adventures of Hennrietta-Oolibee. We also got a little noun-book, made with photos of Ethiopian children in adoptive families in the USA and printed in Amharic and English translated into Dizi as well. And we have hopes of adding the verb book featuring Oolibee.

One Maji-morning, to prime the creativity pumps for her upcoming book-making workshop back in Addis, Janie showed us beautiful children’s books she’d lugged in her suitcases from the US. Some artists used torn-paper art. Some artists created with broad strokes and bright colors, others used misty neutrals with lots of white space. The beauty of children’s book art in the US is stunning.

But at the time, Addis Ababa and the book-making workshop still seemed a long way from Maji. We loved the people who were hosting, driving, guiding and cooking for us. The scenery never tired. It was going to be hard to tear ourselves away from Maji, even with the literacy project to launch ourselves into back in Addis.


The cell tower in Maji was down when Odyssey II got there. Nahosenay missed cell reception because he had a new girlfriend. But Yacob and Stephanie said the quiet surprised them. It left  space in their minds that made it worth being out of touch.

What the -- Power Monkey? (1)

I brought a Power Monkey with solar panels, but could I figure out how it was supposed to work?

power monkey audience copy

So I recruited help with that Power Monkey . . . but we never did get much power out if it.

Originally, though, the lack of connectivity had more than one member of the team anxious. How would we stay in touch with husbands and families? How would we update our supporters and friends? The power grid hasn’t reached Maji. it’s one thing to go off-grid with one of the new power technologies creeping into the scene in the USA. It’s another challenge to live altogether without. How would we keep our cameras juiced up, people asked me? Our phones? Yacob’s Jambox? Before we went we researched some options—Power Monkeys that charge with small solar panels or a car charger, clever solar blow-up lanterns for the supper table, flashlights, of course, and candles.

Once there, we stayed in a house that had been built in 1990 by John Haspels and his crew, with some help from my husband Mark.  Janie and I share a room, partly out of practicality, and partly because giggling together at night, problem solving, and sharing our impressions, is so precious.

A translation team of three Dizi men, nearing the end of a many-year project to develop an alphabet for the Dizi language and translate the New IMG_0173Testament, uses one of the rooms as an office. Our Odyssey team took over the bedrooms and our cook set up beauties burners on the floor in the kitchen area. Our hosts dug a new latrine nearby just for us. (Troy gets extra stars from the women for carrying a camp toilet in his checked luggage for night-time use in the former bathroom!) Young boys from local families make a few Ethiopian Birr carrying water in bright blue jerry cans for cooking, hand washing and our bucket-baths.

The doors of the house stood open to the light and air all day. Chickens minced through, checking for yummy crumbs. 

“Look out,” Janie said to one of them. “The cook is right here, watching you!”

IMG_0171Our struggles were temporary, of course. One of my goals in going to Maji was to gather the stories of people for whom Maji, and the neighboring government center in Tum, is home. How does the lack of power impact their lives? What difference would it make if we could help bring both public and private money together to create a mini-grid and  power co-op (maybe solar, maybe micro-hydro, maybe some combination)? Janie and I recruited Maureen to help us interview and photograph for this dream.

I’ve done some work with folks from the international arm of USA’s National Rural Electric Co-op Association (NRECA), in co-operation with Obama’s Power Africa initiative and the power sector of Ethiopia. They are developing a whole-country strategy for power. I want the people of Maji to have electricity to ease their lives. I tell Janie I feel like a politician trying to bring home the pork.

In fact, supplying power to Government centers like Tum is a priority for Ethiopia, but Maji’s remoteness has so far held back progress. Some businesses have generators. The cost of diesel is prohibitive—$4 per gallon in a place where even the top government official makes only $250 per month. Fuel is brought in by truck over roads that wind down into the Gibe River gorge and back up, deeper and deeper into the mountains of SW Ethiopia. Chinese and Korean companies have laid asphalt now, but eventually, going as far as we do toward the Sudan boarder, gravel takes over. No one is even trying to market individual solar units this far from the import sources.

According to my friends here, there was a recent government meeting with federal level officials in the nearest big town, Mizan Taferi. The provincial leaders said, “We were told Tum was a priority for electrification. What is happening?”

You are still a priority, they were told. But the grid runs out in Jemu, about eighty miles away, and to bring electricity any further, the government would need to build a sub-station. The Maji area officials left the meeting and turned to each other. “Then we will put our hope in Caroline and the people (from NRECA.” Yikes! The pressure is on!

The NRECA folks attended a world summit on power and other development issues in early January. While they were in Addis they did some of the policy research it will take to advise Ethiopia on how to improve the entire power sector—how to expand participation in the grid, which runs along every roadway, but only reaches a less than 25% of the population; how to handle the power that will be exported to neighboring countries when the dam on the Blue Nile River is finished; how to build mini-grids with solar and micro-hydro power and start co-ops to administer them.

Meanwhile, school boys in Maji tell us they study at night by flashlight—something they

Before we left, these boys got their semester grades. The tall boy on the right came first in his class.

Before we left, these boys got their semester grades. The tall boy on the right came first in his class.

have to buy themselves. What they earn carrying five gallons of water several hundred feet will buy one battery. And foreigners who will pay for water to be carried don’t come often. These boys compete for spots in the university system with youth from Addis Ababa, Jimma, Mekele—cities where electricity is lighting up their study tables.

These boys’ mothers still cook over wood fires on the floor; homes are filled with smoke, causing sinus, upper respiratory and eye infections, especially in young children. The town shuts down at eight o’clock when the sun goes down.

Still, when I asked the boys if they have hopes of passing the competitive university entrance test, they all laughed and said yes. Of course they do. Aren’t humans people of hope?

Ethiopian Odyssey II–Artists

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

Ethiopian Odyssey I had taken four artists deep into the Omo region of Ethiopia, capturing the beauty of that land and donating their art to raise money for Ethiopia Reads, the non-profit my sister Janie helped start. Ethiopia Reads plants libraries for children in Ethiopia.

Odyssey II came into my life when Janie told me she wanted to go to our childhood town of Maji, Ethiopia one more time while she was still hale and hearty. “But I’ll only go with you or Chris,” she’d said. Since Chris (who also speaks Amharic) is a full time elementary school teacher, I became the tour guide of choice. Janie’s artist friend, Stephanie, had heard her talk so much about Maji, she suggested this trip become Odyssey II.

“Okay,” I had said, and we settled on January, 2016. At the time it seemed so far away and so unlikely I hardly took it seriously. Finding myself in Ethiopia at the end of January, with a team of eight including Janie and Stephanie, amazement washed over me—we were in Maji, and my new friends were finding SW Ethiopia as beautiful as I do.

As I began to write, the four artists (two Ethiopians and two from the US) were hard at Yacob paintingwork. Yacob, who teaches at the fine arts college in Addis, wore an apron and sat on the ground spread-legged, painting. We dubbed him Mr. Pandora, and enjoying the jazz coming from his Jambox through his phone.

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

Nahom, a full time artist, also from Addis Ababa, finished one painting by sitting against a tree and bracing his canvas-board on a rock. His second piece he started, pinned to the tree. He stood back, reaching at arm-and-paint-brush-handle length to apply the paint, just as I picture painters doing.

Troy, from Connecticut created a

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

studio for himself by arranging some pieces of corrugated iron to shelter his easel from the mountain breeze of Maji. The report came back that he had found his zone, so we didn’t disturb him.

And Stephanie took shelter from the wind in the former mission teacher and nurse’s house until mid-afternoon. She produced gorgeous washes of color representing the hills and ridges around us, then gathered everything up and headed back out into the sunshine after lunch.

The other four of us wandered the former mission compound, drinking in the view from the western side, over the valley and through the gap. We marveled at the eucalyptus trees that were big when Janie and I were children fifty years ago, now grown so huge it would take all four of us to reach around them. Janie and I tried to visualize—where was Mom’s circular rose garden? Dad’s shop, which we called the magazine (emphasizing the second syllable as the Italians did when they taught the word to the Ethiopians)? The grove of false-banana trees where we caught the tree frogs Janie tried to toilet train?

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our play so many years ago.

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our games so many years ago.

And as friends from Maji town met us on the path, the others wandered on, leaving me to shift into Amharic and play that bridging role I love so much.

The stars over us the first night were brilliant in a totally dark sky. The moon rose later, so bright there was no need for flashlights. The peace of that place soothed us all in mind, body and spirit.

Lady in a Hard Hat

Wiring My House If Mark could have watched, he would have been chuckling to see Kenny and me working together on wiring my new-old house.  Mark was fascinated by electricity; in all of his remodeling projects he enjoyed the wiring most.

He was also good at solving electrical problems—more than once he came home pleased, after he figured out the glitches in someone’s three-way switch.  Sometimes a client had called in numerous electricians and had never gotten it worked out. Mark would get a pencil and paper and draw out the circuit for me, explaining in detail how it had been mis-wired and why that didn’t work, showing me what he did to let the current flow the way it was supposed to. There was nothing more elegant in his mind than a switch that let light into someone’s darkness just as it was meant to do.

Mark’s love of electricity started when he was young. As a junior in high school, he went out with his father to see the new wing of the Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia hospital that was being built. “I’m going to teach you how electricity works,” his Dad said. He had been a missionary builder before he was a missionary pastor before he was a missionary doctor. “This will be your summer job, wiring the new hospital.” Mark glowed, even as an adult, remembering the subtext of love and trust from his dad.

Mark already knew electricity could be put to fun uses. When he was about ten he had rescued an old electric razor from the dump. He mounted a propellor from his erector set (his favorite childhood toy) onto it. Then he mounted the razor on a little toy car. When he plugged the razor in, the propellor whirred, the car started moving, picked up speed, and zoomed across the floor to the end of the cord. It yanked the plug out of the outlet; the prop slowed, the car coasted to a stop. Can’t you just see a young Mark and his brothers collapsing in heaps of little boy laughter over the contraption?

So Mark wired the Dembi Dollo Hospital addition when he was sixteen.

In about 2007, we agreed to buy a fixer-upper in Albany, Oregon with our son Kenny and his wife. The idea was to find a three-bedroom one-bath house where we could add a second bathroom and enhance the value of the house beyond the investment in the remodel. It didn’t really work out that way—we found a house that maybe should have been “scraped,” and brought it back to life instead. Before we were done, hours had been spent in the basement, jacking up and leveling the floor. The stairwell had migrated from the middle of the house to a side wall, opening up floor space. The huge chimney had come down. And every internal wall had been moved.

When it came time for the wiring, Mark said to Kenny, “I’m going to teach you how electricity works, and you’re going to wire your own house.”

And that, in turn, is what Kenny said to 3 (1) copy

Wiring involves drilling and pounding, but there were also long stretches when Kenny and I could talk as we worked. Then we cleaned up and went ballroom dancing together after supper. Kenny complimented me on my improvement in dance—he said I was able to follow everything he thew at me. He will always be the natural, though, with far more creativity and styling than I can can access, starting as late in life as I have. He’s also a kinetic learner. I’m so cerebral, and that doesn’t help me dance. “Stop thinking and just follow,” he has to say.

What fun days and evenings we had, wiring my house.

And I find I’m proud, out of proportion of the effort it took, of having done part of the remodel myself. I’m pleased that my new house will have been one more family project.

As we finished up the wiring, Kenny and I tried to look with objective eyes and see what the inspector would say we’d done wrong. Kenny coached me not to expect to pass inspection the first time.

photo 2 copy 5I was terribly nervous the day the inspector came. I was afraid he would scold me, shame me, accuse me of something. I was afraid I would cry. And sure enough, the appointment started off badly. The inspector was gruff. He didn’t bother with niceties. “You don’t have a permit,” he said. We’d forgotten that step. My face burned. I started to feel miserable.

“I stopped by anyway,” he said, “because it’s easier to tell people what they’re doing wrong face to face than over the phone.”

He looked at the wires sticking out of the boxes and said, “You need to bundle the grounds.” Then he looked hard at me. “You know what that is?” I shook my head, feeling like a little kid in trouble. “Well, it’s easy. But it needs to be done.”

He went over to another box and pulled on the wires. “Who did this work?”

“I did. My son and I did.”

“Well, anyone who is willing to work this hard, I’m willing to help.”

I wasn’t even sure what he’d said, at first. Later, another contractor admired our wiring job and said it was really professional looking, really clean. That was Kenny’s influence. He made sure all the wires were running straight, not twisted; that the holes he had me drilling in the studs were orderly and even. That every wire end was marked with a sharpie.

The inspector cruised through the house, still talking really fast, still using his loud, abrupt photo 3 (1) copy 2voice. There were some framing glitches he told my framer to fix. He called the city and found out that that in an old house, since I hadn’t touched the headers, the too-small-for-code windows were grandfathered in and I didn’t need to change them. Then he made another call, and ran out to his truck.

He came back with a form—the permit application. “I’m going to take care of this for you,” he said, gruff as ever. He sat on the front porch and filled out the application, told me where to sign, and stuck it in his briefcase to turn in for me, saving me a trip downtown.

By that point, I had realized he was a friend. We chatted about pets. I offered him some of the almonds I’d been snacking on as I waited for him to arrive. He told me about the health benefits of radishes and turnips. I could have hugged him! But I restrained myself and acted like the cool lady in a hard hat that I’d been calling myself.

photo 4 copy 2Only after he left did I dance around the dusty living room, shouting and waving my arms in the air. I drove home still laughing, saying, “ThankyouThankyouThankyou!” all the way.

Early in the process of the remodel I had decided to use my building project as a spiritual discipline. I wanted to work with people who would be blessed by the work, who would bless me with their work, and who would be my partners in blessing my friends who would visit, the neighbors, and the neighborhood I would be moving into.

I got three to six bids for everything—plumbing, roofing, framing, insulating, drywall, gutters, painting, windows, refinishing the floors. Every time I drove over to meet a contractor and get a bid, I thanked God, as though I already knew which would be the right partner for me. I listened for people who were like Mark had been: who took personal pride in their work, who often were in business for themselves and depended on their reputations to stay in business; who gave advice but didn’t condescend to me. I didn’t always take the lowest bid. I often didn’t know quite why I was choosing one contractor over the others, but thanking God as though the decision was already made helped me relax and follow my instincts. I’ve had good relationships with these men who have helped me rebuild my house.

I hadn’t thought of my prayer for partners applying to my inspector, but it did. When he came back to pass the next phase he tramped around, gruff as ever, but nodding at everything he saw. “You’re doing this up right,” he said.

By this time, the finish details have almost swamped me (and they’re not done yet). I’ve moved in, choosing to live in remodeling chaos rather than wait—it was over two and a half years since I lived in my own home. To get this done, I’ve had to make dozens of decisions, and I’ve learned to listen to myself more often. I’ve gotten more confident, and learned how to be firm and business-like but also warm. It’s been a good six months, and now I have a new home. Come and visit me! 

Here are some before and after pictures to tempt you.

Paint job:

A little less flashy!

A little less flashy!

The lovely house I bought.

The lovely house I bought.


A bathroom! YAY!

A bathroom! YAY!

The bathroom space ready to go.

The bathroom space ready to go.


All these decisions! Butcherblock counter tops and white cabinets.

All these decisions! Butcherblock counter tops and white cabinets.

I tried to keep some of the 1926 look, with checkerboard floor.

I tried to keep some of the 1926 look, with checkerboard floor.

Living room:

Okay, I'll set up some furniture--but at least it's getting finished!

Okay, I’ll set up some furniture–but at least it’s getting finished!

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1925.

At Eighteen Months



April 30th was the eighteen-month anniversary of Mark’s death—a good day to evaluate where I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. My first reflection is something you might think I’d know at my age, but something that I really didn’t know quite the way I know it now: the future is unknowable.

Until the onset of Mark’s cancer, most of my days had been more like the day before than unlike. Thankfully most of our days are that way; I don’t know if we could weather the shocks and discontinuities of lives that were tossed randomly from one day to another. What grace, that we can wake up most days with a calm confidence that we know how to cope with what it will bring.

What we lose, after a long string of days like that, or even when our days take us gradually from one shaping of our lives into the next, is the deeper truth that the future is not only unknown, but unknowable. That awareness, and the patience to live in it for an extended time, is one of the gifts this time of grief and reorientation has given me.

The great African Rift Valley comes to my mind, thousands of miles long, land that fell below the surface of the earth—it didn’t erode over time, it didn’t explode in fire and lava, it dropped. Like the floor of one of those old fashioned elevators that hasn’t lined up precisely with the level of the floor it’s delivering you to.

On June 9th, Mark and I had future plans: our parents had all lived well into their eighties—his were pushing ninety—and we fully expected to grow old together. In the meantime, we had accepted jobs in South Sudan. Orientation was to start in two weeks. We’d had cleared our calendars and looked over the reading lists. On June 10th I began to understand that the future is unknowable: Mark had a tumor, it was malignant and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Over the next two weeks, our rift valley floor dropped in increments. First, the discovery of cancer in lymph-nodes far from the tumor, making the planned surgery more of a challenge. Then the image of a shadow on his hip bone; there would be no surgery. The four months we had from that moment on were infused with uncertainty. Death or life? That question was answered and other questions took its place: when? how? how painful? how shocking? The specter of a hemorrhage, “bleeding out”, faced me every time I walked into our bathroom and saw the black towels hospice nurse had told me to buy. And there was the question, the first of many Mark couldn’t help me with, that I wailed as I walked by the canal that runs through Bend, Oregon, where we were living: “What will become of me?”

We got answers to all our questions about Mark’s cancer. In the eighteen months since then, I have been given partial answers to my question. I have faced things in myself and in the nature of life on earth that I would never have chosen to face, and they have grown me. I lost much of what I had been able to fall back on, and I learned that I fall much less than I thought I would. That I am resilient. That people are kind.

Those have been comforting truths.The most uncomfortable truth I notice eighteen months after Mark’s death is that I am now stronger and I experience more joy than I ever have in my life. How can this be? What does it mean? I seem to have learned things I could not bear to choose to learn, I had to be forced—how to manage intense feelings and come back to balance, how to listen to myself and honor my own wisdom, how to do things Mark was kind enough and only too glad to do for me. I don’t think I will ever understand why light can come out of a dark time, why joy can come through grief. Maybe the deepest truths of life are like the future: unknowable. I’ve become willing to accept the beauty of paradox, of mystery; to hold them as I lift my head to greet the unknowable future unfolding to me.

Some pieces of that future are now in place:

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1926.

* I’m buying a house. It’s a fixer-upper, as much in need of TLC as any Mark and I remodeled together. Friends and family tried to tell me the time for remodeling passed with Mark. But I always loved the vision casting, the creativity, the transformation, the emergence of lovely living space out of mess.
* I dance—West Coast swing, salsa, bachata—several nights a week. Social dancing uses my whole brain and resets my mood into joy every time, and has given me new single friends who love not only to dance, but to hike, to talk about the deep things of life, and to read.
* My meditation practice, lectio divina (a way of listening for the Holy Spirit to speak through scripture reading) and the encouragement of friends and the pastoral staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church keep me growing spiritually.
* I’m starting to work with a freelance editor on the memoir I had written about growing up and working in eastern Africa.
* I’m confident that Portland is my appropriate new home, as I meet weekly with writing friends, garden with my sister and a neighbor, and have joined four of my siblings in the team caring for my mom as she ages.

Maji Waterfall Scene 2The last days and nights of April were unseasonably clear. The moon rose, grew steadily, and glowed above me as I drove home late from dancing. Its coming to fullness was assured. The steadiness of the moon, an archetype of change and inconstancy, is a comforting paradox. This may be a moon-season for me, but it is silver. And I find myself steady in the inconstancy.


I was on a roll, blogging about my big walk in September. Feeling more balanced in my new, single life; beginning to believe that I would not have to live a diminished life now that Mark is gone; settling into my little rental house in North Portland, Oregon.

This picture was taken six or seven years ago at  a family Thanksgiving at the farm where Mark and I lived. I hope we treasured the time!

This picture was taken six or seven years ago at a family Thanksgiving at the farm where Mark and I lived. I hope we treasured the time!

Then my brother-in-law Bob’s health plunged. It wasn’t a surprise that he was sick—he’d gotten a terminal cancer diagnosis in February. But he’d outlived the prognosis with no pain and fairly good energy. He’d been learning auto body work from an online community of car guys in order to renovate his old MG—(is that what you do to cars, or am I borrowing terminology from Mark’s field of carpentry and building?)—well, he was bringing the MG back to life. He’d been in the shop or in the yard, working with my sister, all summer. To all of our surprise, he started seeing a Chinese doctor, having acupuncture, and cheerfully drinking a bitter tasting brew of healing herbs (this is Bob, a Vietnam vet who was raised Irish Catholic on the south side of Chicago!)

Then he woke one Saturday in late September feeling as though someone had kicked him in the liver. I’m guessing ice crystals began to form around Cathy’s heart that day.

Tylenol didn’t work for long for the pain. Soon Bob was on the same hydrocodone medication Mark started out on. The hospice policy of requiring a six month prognosis and stopping all curative care keeps people from signing up in time to really get the help they need, so more and more hospitals are experimenting with “transition care” or “palliative care” that allows families to get pain management help sooner. Cathy got them signed up.

Bob was no longer driving, so I took him to that appointment, and Cathy left work early to meet him there. I saw the gray in his complexion—was it the opiates, or the pain, or the cancer? I knew that look too well.

Bob insisted that I drop him off at a spot away from the main entrance of the building, but facing a direction from which I could conveniently get headed back home. He moved slowly, pulling himself up and out of the car seat. He walked stiffly, bravely down the sidewalk. I sat where I’d parked and cried.

I got used to it again, that gray, pinched look, and became Bob’s favorite driver for what became daily trips for acupuncture. This was a surprise to all of us—Bob had been crusty about feisty, independent women (though he was married to one, isn’t that the way it is!) and did I mention Viet Nam and Chicago’s South Side? It probably didn’t help to be Catholic in such a determinedly Presbyterian family. On those drives, Bob and I learned to appreciate each other before we had to say good bye. I asked his advice for minor home repairs I was making in my new single life and he loved being in a position to help me. He talked to me about his feelings about death. We often drove in silence. Everyone in the family laughed that I was at the top of his list of drivers.

In November, after a bout in the emergency room, which brought us all to the hospital to say good-bye to him, Bob recovered enough to get home by ambulance to a hospital bed in the living room. Friends and his brother came to say good-bye. Cathy gave her guests a tour of the kitchen and said she could only take care of Bob and herself, they’d be on their own. Her daughters and their boyfriends began to spend all there free time at the house, cooking, playing card games, sitting by Bob’s bed talking, sorting through pictures, listening to stories they’d never heard before.

But as Bob’s pain got more intense his medication had to be increased, and he was awake less and less of the time. By Thanksgiving week he was mostly “away,” and every day we thought we’d lose him. I took to stopping by Cathy’s house any time I was out, sometimes staying to talk or play games. Sometimes just giving hugs and heading back to my own quiet house, the place I live alone now that I had gone through what they were facing.

All my plans for blogging, all my concentration, all my interest in the walk I’d taken and the thoughts I’d had while I walked evaporated.

Bob began to struggle to breathe. He sometimes woke confused and tried to get up—he’d been a survivor. A scrapper.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I woke to a text that Bob was breathing peacefully at last. I dressed and ran down. I must have walked into the house minutes after he had taken his last breath. Cathy, her girls and their boyfriends were nested in the couches around Bob’s hospital bed. I crawled in with them and we held each other. We cried. We talked. Our brother Chris came over later with his guitar and we sang a few songs. Bob wasn’t a singer, but he liked that part of the Kurtz ethos, and we sang a couple of old anti-war songs for him. “The boyfriends” went shopping and made a two-dozen-egg omelette for us. It was about eleven o’clock but it felt like only an hour had passed.

After the funeral home collected his body, at about three in the afternoon, I walked through a wet and drippy afternoon back to my house. It seemed dim and desolate. In the middle of my storm of tears I was able to reassure myself that I hadn’t gone back into the cave I’d been in after Mark’s death. This was a strong memory trigger, but for my own grief, it was only memory, and I’d get back quickly to the balance I’d come to in the intervening year.

Still, when it came to changing my ticket to Ethiopia and Kenya, where I was going to stay with Miriam and her family for Christmas, I couldn’t face, and chose to miss Bob’s memorial service. It didn’t occur to me until later—how strong the impulses are from childhood, and I was trained to be independent and self-reliant—that I could have invited an unrelated friend to attend with me, to be my support, that I wouldn’t have needed to go as support for Cathy. At the time, all I knew was that it was too soon to go to another memorial service. I knew I would only cry, and then go home alone. I needed to get away from death and grief for a while, to my sunny, dry-season eastern African home.

When I came back to Portland in January, my sister Janie welcomed me back to a season where “no one is actively dying,” though another brother-in-law’s cancer is advancing and we’re all bracing ourselves for another bout of grief and memories. Janie’s been a hero, constantly reminding us that it may feel as though there’s not enough attention and love to go around, but actually there  is. None of us need to be a martyr or do without. We can all continue to live rich and joy-filled lives even as we face these hard times together.

And so I go social dancing (Salsa and West Coast Swing) several nights a week. Cathy has taken up rock climbing, which she does with her daughters and the boyfriends. And Janie lives up to the plaque I found for her, “Garden Diva.” We cover for Mom’s care so that Chris and his wife can go to the cafe to work on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We sisters go to yoga together and we gather to sing around the piano on Sunday nights at Mom’s house. And we hug each other a lot.   

Starting Out

My rite-of-passage pilgrimage began with a bus ride to Astoria from Portland, a journey of two and a half hours for an amazing $20. I hadn’t slept well the night before, and snuggled against my backpack, I fell asleep before we were out of the Portland metro area. When I woke, the air in the bus was moist and cool, the windows were streaked. Oh yes, I thought. Fall has begun. In the Coastal Range it rains. At the coast it rains, though the foreseeable reports had predicted sunny days.

Unloading at the Astoria bus station I wandered around looking for a place to eat lunch and chose the Wet Dog Brewery and Pub for its name. I fortified myself for the coming walk with fish and chips and cider. I was self-conscious about my pack, which seemed gigantic and attention-grabbing on my back, but too heavy to carry any other way. I stood it on a bench by the entrance while I kept an eye on if from the bar (I also hadn’t yet figured out that no one else would want to pick it up, either.) 

The taxi driver who took me to Fort Stevens State Park wanted to visit, and when I told her my story, confessed that she had never gotten over the death, five years ago, of her daughter’s father. She felt responsible, because she had kicked him out. “He was always drunk or at the bars. I got tired of it. But maybe if I’d just helped him get help . . .”

I assured her he’d had plenty of chances to get help, he’d made his own decisions and she needed to forgive herself. Talking about my hike reminded her that she has wanted to hike Saddle Mountain in the spring, when the wild flowers are in bloom. Maybe this year she would do that, she said. Maybe it would help her start over. As I paid her and said good-bye, I wondered how many other people I would meet whose full names I wouldn’t find out, whose story’s ending I wouldn’t hear.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

American service men inspect a shell crater after the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens.

She had dropped me off at Battery Russell, and I wandered around getting my bearings and reading the historical brochures and placards.  This was the only spot on the continental United States to be fired on by a foreign power since the war of 1812–in June of 1942, a Japanese submarine ten miles out to sea slipped beneath a fishing fleet and fired 5.5 inch deck guns in about a fifteen minute attack. There were no injuries or casualties; one shell created a crater in the local baseball field and others fell in the forest and on the beach.  After the war, Japanese Captain Maeji Tagami admitted he thought he might be firing on a submarine attack station and would not have dared if he’d known the fire-power the battery had. Fortunately for him, the guns at Battery Russell stayed silent, because they didn’t know how sustained an attack it was, and didn’t want to give away their position. After that, civilian guard squads began patrolling the Oregon coast.

After I read this surprising local history, I walked some miles to the hiker-biker section of Fort Stevens State Park campground (bikers in this case are not the Harley guys but people on bicycles, riding the popular bike route down Highway 101 and along scenic side-roads). Oregon State Park hiker-biker campgrounds are small, with no vehicle access, but with picnic tables, fire pits and usually a near-by port-a-potty. In Fort Stevens I learned that one quiet mission of a good picnic table is to deliver packs directly onto hikers’ backs. Hoisting my pack from the ground to shoulder height was not easy nor pretty—it was much harder to handle its 35 pound weight with my arms alone, than to carry it on my hips and legs, resting against my back, anchored snuggly against my shoulders.


It wasn’t long before the second sole joined the first. The duct tape needed replacing once, when I wore through it on the bottoms, but otherwise held for the whole trip! Now to find some Shoe Goo . . . Mark fixed more than one pair of my shoes with Shoe Goo.

Next to me at the camp ground was a man who was biking from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco. We shared bemused frustrations that our “guides” in blogs and books were in their 20s, and that we no longer had their stamina. That night, his Thermarest mattress developed a slow leak. Meanwhile, I had been too careful to heed the operating warnings to screw the valve of my new Primus stove onto the fuel canister gently. Between eating my reconstituted lasagna and heating up dishwashing water, all my fuel had leaked out. In the morning, I did not find more fuel in the little KOA store nearby, and walking the mile back to my camp, the sole of my camp sandal decided to part ways from the footbed. I hadn’t even started walking yet. How quickly misadventure could find me. How much my neighbor and I were going to be affected by our simple problems: sleeping, eating. It doesn’t take much to be very uncomfortable once we leave home. As I carefully repaired my sandal with duct tape, I imagined Mark watching over my shoulder. He was chuckling.

Planning my trip, I’d been stymied by the lack of a town or campsite within twenty miles of Fort Stevens State Park on the northern tip of Oregon’s coast. Both my blogger and the official OCT site were suspiciously silent about camping in unofficial spots, but both said don’t camp on the beach, and warned that patrols will run campers off the beaches near towns and state parks. The last thing I wanted was trouble with the law. That, I thought, would completely destroy the spirit of my pilgrimage.  I imagined the incredible inconvenience of packing up in the sandy darkness and wandering on . . . to where? I didn’t realize, until I’d been on the beach longer, the dangers. By the end of three weeks, I was watching the ocean over my shoulder with some trepidation—after seeing memorials to strong young men drowned within three minutes of being swept off rocks by sneaker waves, the tsunami warning signs and escape route maps at every state park, the signs warning against napping on the beach or standing on logs, which weigh thousands of pounds and could be lifted by the surf, or could roll.

But there was no other option, I was going to have to camp on the beach halfway between Fort Stevens and the town of Seaside on my first real night out.

Low tide at mid-morning gave me a wide, packed beach to walk on. As I came out of the forested campground area to the beach, I felt my spirit lift in response to the ocean that faded away miles from me; the call of the waves, one replacing another constantly, never pausing; the bright sunlight on the sand and water. How could the beach not be a healing place for me to be?   

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

The rusting bones of the Peter Iredale.

I headed out, south of the wreck of the Peter Iredale, the most accessible wreck of the “Graveyard of the Pacific”, a treacherous band of coast from Tillamook, Oregon to Vancouver, BC. The Peter Iredale, with her royal sails above double top and topgallant sails (I don’t know what these are, but they sound wonderful) had set out from Liverpool, England to Portland, Oregon in 1906 with 1000 pounds of ballast, 25 crew members and two stowaways. Approaching the Columbia bar (which has accounted for 2000 wrecks) the Peter Iredale ran into mist, rain and wind and was blown to shore. In the weeks of waiting for weather to clear so they could tow the ship back out to sea, she listed to the side and become embedded in the sand. Captain Lawrence abandoned her with a toast: “May God bless you, and may your bones bleach in the sands.” Being iron, those bones have rusted instead.

In the misty morning air, I saw what I thought at first were jeeps carved out of sand. When I got closer I saw that they were military trucks, exactly the color of the sand. They had hauled trailers to the beach, and men were swarming around, launching rubber rafts into the surf. I wondered if a search was going on. The surf was too calm for surfingI, something done in wet suits on our beaches. Fishing boats were white dots far beyond the helicopter that whipped over and circled out from shore. Children may splash in the foam, but no one really swims in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon coast.

An hour later, the jeeps roared by, followed by an emergency vehicle which sank into the sand and got stuck. When I came abreast I felt confident enough that there hadn’t been a real emergency to joke with the young man dashing from one tire to another, pulling at the sand.

“I hope you don’t have someone dying in there!”

He laughed. “It was just a training. Now we’re just trying to get off the beach before the tide comes in.” 

I walked on, the tortoise to their hare, picturing their truck lifted off its wheels by the tide and washing out to sea.

Around noon I reached Sunset Beach State Park, a day-use site about six miles along. I walked up from the beach and ate my lunch perched on a big rock. My plan was to go just a little further before I camped, but I had the whole afternoon, the sun was hot, and I wanted shade. I looked around for something more in keeping with the spirit of a pilgrimage, but the only shade I found was a band along the east side of the outhouse (vault toilet is the new term) there at the wayside. I leaned myself and my pack against the wall and took out my journal to write.

As I rested by the Sunset Beach outhouse, a group of ecologists from the Willamette Valley, on the other side of the Coast Range, drove up. They clustered at the trailhead a few feet away for a mini-lecture by a local park ranger. I sidled over to listen. Early settlers had stabilized the dunes by planting European dune grass and what they thought were coastal pines, she said. But the species of pine they planted grew tall and straight, more like the lodgepole than the coastal pine. “They fell like matchsticks in the storm of 2007.” In the Great Coastal Gale of 2007, winds of 129-137 mph had whipped the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and given us Oregon’s only technically defined hurricane.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it's growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

Scotch Broom is beautiful in the spring. Unfortunately, it’s growth habits and aggressiveness make it an ugly invader.

In the aftermath, local residents worried about the fire hazard of all that felled wood so the park district cleared it, but then Scotch broom, a European import, moved in. Scotch Broom  grows aggressively. It produces thousands of seeds every year, and the seeds stay viable for years. It spreads into monoculture stands that crowd out native plants and habitat.  It’s a noxious weed in India, New Zealand and South America as well as Oregon. The ranger talked about observing what a site “wants to be” and recreating preferred eco systems. She spoke with regret—this site wants to be a coastal prairie, but because of the Scotch Broom they’ve had to replant pines. If the still immature coastal pines win the battle for dominance, she hopes that they will eventually shade out the encroaching invader.

The ecologists drove on, and I spent several more hours of refuge  by the outhouse until, when the sun began to drop toward the sea, I set off down the beach to set up camp. It wouldn’t hurt to shorten my walk into Seaside the following day, I decided, so I walked for about an hour. Tillamook Head appeared ahead of me, the point that separates Seaside from Cannon Beach.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand  and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

Gulls lined up between the edge of the sand and the dune watched me as I trudged by.

I began to suspect that camping on the beach sounds more romantic than it is. I knew enough to worry about high tide—I could see where the last tide had reached, but might a sneaker wave rise up in the middle of the night to sweep me off to sea, tangled in my bivouac tent? There was no picnic table to lift me or my pack out of the sand, so sand would get into everything. Since I don’t  a sleep with a gale-force fan, the ocean was going to disturb me with loud talking all night long. And there was the matter of no water or facilities. Since I had no choice, I walked clear up to the low dune that parallels the ocean on that stretch of the coast, found a level spot on the sand and pitched my tent.

All the vehicles and day visitors disappeared before the sun set. I experimented (moving slowly so I didn’t kick sand up into my food) and found out that freeze dried food will indeed reconstitute in cold water, and that cold water will not enhance its taste. A chilly mist rose up and sent me to bed early. As I crawled into the bivouac tent, again, I moved slowly and carefully so that I would take as little sand as possible into my sleeping bag with me.

I got up once in the night. To the south—it looked so very close—I saw the lights of Seaside sparkling red and white under the high full moon. I smiled. For the first time I felt as though I really was on a pilgrimage, the dots really would connect, one step would lead to another, one day would lead to the next, and my way would lead to one new place after another. Actually, and metaphorically.

In the morning I woke early. The colors of the sea and beach were as light as a watercolor. The wind had stilled. The air felt warm. The beach was mine, as if it was the first morning of creation and I was the first woman. I walked down to the tide line, shed my clothes and waded up to my knees into the ocean. I splashed water on my body and laughed at the cascade of goose bumps. I probably said out loud what Mark and I had called to each other in Lake Longano, Ethiopia, when we went for our morning swim: “Re-freshing!”

Facing October

Mark took his last fluttery breaths at noon, a year ago October 30th. I’d been up with him all night, because he’d had a seizure at around 8:00 and then started that end-of-life breathing, with its long pauses and deep sighs.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

Fun game, easy to learn, a family favorite, and now sentimental with memories.

My daughter and son sat up with me. As we began the journey of losing and grieving the man who had been husband and father, we quietly played a favorite game, Ticket to Ride. We collected train markers and spread them across the map, not noticing at the time the reverberations from all those American love songs, the woman who stands sorrowing on the platform, the man called away by the train’s haunting whistle to adventures unknown.

When the sun came up that morning, Miriam and Jesse decided to go on to work. We’d had so many false alarms that month, none of us trusted any more that we would recognize the end, and we imagined Mark able to go on with his heroic breathing forever. I settled down to sleep a little. I arranged pillows so I could hold Mark’s hand, even though there was no indication he still heard me, felt me, or cared whether I was present. I woke a few hours later—maybe I’d heard a change in his breathing. I told him I’d be right back, and stepped into the bathroom. Crossing back into the bedroom I heard him sigh twice, softly. Then his body fell silent. He was gone.

October this year hit me with unexpected force. Our wedding anniversary on July 29th had been the last important date I’d spent for the first time without Mark this year. What I forgot was how hard October last year had been. Mark had stopped eating, and I hadn’t known how long a strong and relatively young man can live before his heart gives in. He was afraid he would have severe pain at the end, and he couldn’t hold on to the doctors’ and nurses’ reassurances, that when organs are slowly shutting down under the attack of cancer, they release endorphins—pain may ease up, not increase. He got increasingly confused. He thought there’d been a murder and didn’t know what to say to the reporters. He became convinced God would reject him. He thought I was trying to poison him. He woke up from a nap and told me he’d been “dukin’ it out with the Japanese devil”.

He also got increasingly helpless and needed to be turned, needed to be fed the few ice chips per day he was living on, needed to be given Adavan (to relieve his agitation) in a syringe with only the tiniest bit of water so he didn’t choke. The all-important morphine from his pump was going into a port in his arm, a temporary port only designed for a couple of weeks’ use, and it began to deteriorate and leak as the month dragged on. Could he make it over the River before we had to put him through the ordeal of opening a new port? The uncertainty wore on me. I wasn’t sleeping well. Mark was and was no longer my husband. It was confusing. It was agonizing. I wanted it over, but I was as scared as he was about what would come next.

I hadn’t thought of the date of his death as a new anniversary for Mark and my life together, but I learned on the 30th this year, as night fell outside my rain-streaked windows, that I will indeed shy my face aside and brace myself as I enter the next few Octobers. The actual date of Mark’s death will be a tender one for me for the rest of my life, but it is not a wrenching one. It was the date when what had become inevitable came to pass.

I asked my kids early in October if they wanted to do anything special on the 30th, and got no responses. It was a work day—we are in four cities, on two continents. So I groped for what would be meaningful for me. I spent the 29th at a Trappist Abbey outside the small town of Laffayette, along Highway 99W near Salem. I’d felt calm and upbeat approaching the end of October, though, suspiciously, I’d developed three small canker sores in my mouth and a blemish on my chin. I, who am usually so careful and responsible, knocked a wine glass off the shelf at Goodwill and stared, amazed, at the shattered splinters at my feet. I then left my teakettle on the stove so long, boiling so dry, that the nob on the lid melted down the side and into a blob of hard plastic on the stovetop.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God's love.

Never beatified, she is called Blessed Julian of Norwich because she is so loved for her insights into God’s love.

I also lay awake late into the night before my retreat at the Abbey. After morning mass I nodded off over my prayers and readings until I gave up and crawled under a throw on the couch and slept. At lunch, a Trappist-style silent meal, the Beatles’ most soothing song looped through my head, “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be,” as though to relieve my guilt over sleeping away half of my retreat. On the dining room’s bulletin board, the daily calendar’s wisdom for the 29th was Julian of Norwich’s reassurance: “But all things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

In the afternoon I took a walk, meditated, read, prayed and journaled. In the end, the day was just what I wanted and needed—even the long nap. I did feel a little guilty that I was thinking and praying about my future, not remembering Mark. Those pesky “shoulds,” will I ever be free of them?

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

The camera caught teen-aged Mark and me in an unguarded moment.

I woke early the morning of the 30th with the tender pop song line, “My darling, you are wonderful to me,” running through my head. The only idea I’d had for honoring Mark that day was to light a candle, thanking him for “lighting up” my life for almost fifty years (in high school we’d enjoyed a shy, sweet young-love relationship). I took a candle out of my over-stuffed candle drawer and lit it before I even got my breakfast organized. Holding the burning match, I looked around at the candles all over my new, single-woman’s home—on sconces, in carved candle holders from Kenya, on pedestals, in pewter candle holders, in crystal. Why stop with one?

I lit all my  candles (twenty-three of them) and spent the morning surrounded by their flickering light. Light that shines in darkness and isn’t overcome. Light that also represents warmth. Light coming directly from fire. Some anthropologists think it was fire that made us human, fire that made it possible to break down hard-to-digest proteins and expanded our food sources, fire that gave us time off from constant “gazing” and allowed us to take in enough energy to feed our ravenous brains and fuel higher thinking.

As moving into a rich, new life without Mark becomes more and more real, I find myself reacting to the implications of that with ambivalence at the best of times, with positively queasy emotional indigestion at others. I have to hold even tighter to mystery.

Sorrow and struggle do leave us deeper, richer, more complex if we submit to learning what there is to learn—all the sages say so. Places I was emotionally stuck have jiggled loose under the stresses of the last eighteen months. I feel lighter, freer. Grief has washed away some dross and left treasures I didn’t expect. Can I appreciate the growth without seeming glad for the trauma and loss? And if God redeems struggle by enriching me, does that mean I’m being lazy on days I find wider valleys and smoother paths? Can I assume plenty of trouble will find me, I don’t have to look for it? The new feelings of joy that are starting to come to me—can I enjoy them conscience-free?

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya,1999.

This happy moment was caught by a friend at the Rosslyn Academy staff Christmas party, Kenya, 1999.

This overly-serious Calvinist inches forward on the journey, learning as she goes, deeply grateful for her long marriage and willing, just barely willing, to start letting it go.