At Eighteen Months

Kenya,1999

Kenya,1999

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.

Everything Turns

The Basillica de Santiago

The Basillica de Santiago

In the summer of 2013 my sister Jan and her husband walked for a week in France along the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The city of Santiago, in western Spain, was built in Medieval times around a cathedral where a relic of St. James, the patron of knights, laborers and pilgrims is said to have been buried. On the coast, a few miles further, Finisterre was believed to be the westernmost point of Europe, and there sins could be cast into the sea and washed away.  Some historians say these pilgrimages to the sea began long before the Christian era, but in Medieval times pilgrims began to walk to Santiago and Finisterra from as far away as Russia, merging like rivulets along the way to form a river of millions, protected from bandits and raiders by international honor for pilgrims, and served by hostels and ale houses established all along the way. Jan was on this pilgrim way when I told the family that the doctors had found Mark’s aggressive cancer. She and her party lit candles in cathedrals, and placed stones on wayside cairns for him.

When I heard their story I knew that’s what I needed to do at the end of my first year without Mark—a pilgrimage. To delineate these two parts of my life. To leave the difficult months behind and start to focus on the future. I wondered, what friend would be free to go with me? Or could I do it alone? And just as I had that thought, I came to the suggestion in the guide book, “If you are undertaking this pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, consider going alone.” That’s when I got excited. I imagined studying French and Spanish while I grieved (why not?) and walking in Europe as a pilgrim, heading west to cast my sorrows into the sea and start fresh.

The language study never happened. This year I couldn’t even concentrate to read. But walking, getting out of my head, getting my body into the physical world did happen. It happened a lot, so the idea of a walking pilgrimage as a rite of passage stayed with me.

One problem: Mark died in October, and October wasn’t going to be a good time to be outside anywhere in the temperate zone. As I thought more about rites of passage, I realized they have a wide target area. Among the Nuers of South Sudan and the Oromos of Ethiopia, men pass from boyhood to adulthood—from youth to wisdom—in age groups. Among the Nuers, any given boy may be on the older or younger side of his age group when the Men of the Spear decide the timing is right for their ordeal ceremony—when the weather is warm, when the cows are giving milk to nourish the boys, when the odds are good for successful healing from the bone-deep lines he will cut across their foreheads.

We make a parallel set of calculations—when we’re ready to marry we choose a weekend when our mother-in-law can come from New York, when our brides maid or best man is available, when the venue of our dreams is free. Whether we’re completely ready to enter the adult world or not, we graduate in late May with the rest of our college classmates. There is a randomness about the exact date of a rite of passage, and still it works. Surely September for my rite of passage would work.

In June I was delayed from moving into my new house in Portland. At the end of a year of pain and chaos, living in my grown children’s homes and families, not having either of my own—could I bear to live out of a carry-on roller-bag and sleep on my sister’s futon for eleven more days? Beth Rasmussen, my daughter-in-law, suggested I fill the time by doing things I have never done before . . . such as go to the nude beach on Sauvie Island. Yikes! I told her the time for that had passed a few decades ago!

Trying to come up with a plan of my own, of course I thought of walking. I thought of the coast. And I discovered that there’s an Oregon Coast Trail (the OCT), an official hiking pathway, walking the beaches for about half of the 400 miles, scaling the headlands that break through our beaches, and (around certain rocky bays,) walking the shoulder of Highway 101, the artery that connects the West Coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.

And September on the Oregon coast is one of its best months.

The woman who introduced me to the Oregon Coast Trail is a blogger, Bonnie Henderson, who hiked from Astoria to the California border on the OCT in 2009, averaging seventeen miles a day. If she could do it, I could do it, I thought. I’m in good shape. I had walked my first ten mile hike when I visited Mark’s parents in Kentucky in May. I had found a trail that reclaimed the old railway bed through the Cumberland Gap, a trail first pounded out across the gap in the Cumberland Mountains by Eastern Forest Bison, then followed by Native American hunters as what was called the Warriors’ Path. In a classic example of US land being wrested from the native residents, attacks on settlers were militarily put down and a wealthy land speculator paid Daniel Boone to hack a rough road through to the Kentucky River. In the next decade 300,000 settlers poured through the gap from Virginia and Tennessee to Kentucky. I had followed up that long hike with others in Bend, Oregon following the irrigation canal, and in parks in the foothills of the Cascades.

Tillamook ice cream--a sight to make Oregonians smile.

Tillamook ice cream–a sight to make Oregonians smile.

In June, while I waited for my new house to be ready, I packed a book and one change of clothes and took the bus to the coast. I walked about fifty miles, from Cannon Beach to Oceanside, west of the town of Tillamook, where the most popular Oregon cheese and ice cream are made.

That walk sealed the plan. In September I would make my rite of passage on the Oregon coast, a journey from Astoria to the California border, from grieving to putting together a rich new life.

I trained by looking up urban trails in Portland and walking early in the morning, before the summer days got too hot. I borrowed a pack. I went with my sister Jan on an overnight hike on Mount Hood. I talked with her about trail recipes.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

All these vibrant colors I found unexpected at Kelly Point Park seemed to confirm the joy I would find in walking.

For my final training hike I loaded up my pack in early September, and set out for Kelly Point Park, a thirteen mile round trip walk from my house. Some urban project has given Portlanders cheerfully painted parking barriers at the first fishing spot in Kelly Point Park. I was still feeling fairly fresh and excited when I got there, took a break, snapped some pictures of my new best friend—my niece’s backpack—and ate a power bar.

Does every journey turn at some point into a painful trudge?

By the time I got back to North Portland, I could hardly walk. I staggered slowly along the sidewalks of my own neighborhood, consumed with thoughts of who I could call for a ride. From Chautauqua Boulevard and Lombard, six blocks to my house on to Wall and Depauw streets? Unbelievable. Surely I could make it home. I was only one week from my projected leaving date, I had all my gear collected and packed, and now I knew there was no way I could make the hike as Bonnie Henderson described it. She is one tough cookie.

I studied the map: could I walk 15-25 miles a day without a pack and stay in towns instead? But I had all that gear, and my pack packed so tidily, with everything in its own pocket, and all that intriguing freeze-dried food. So I cut my ambitions down and studied the walk to Florence, Oregon, the halfway town. I spent hours creating my own itinerary of 8-13 mile days that would end me up in either a town or a campground, working with Bonnie Henderson’s blog, the Oregon state’s OCT page, the Oregon.gov Biking-the-Coast web page, lists of state parks and Google Maps.

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

Comfortable, funky, inexpensive (if you stay in one of the dorms) this hostel has a European feel. Wish we had more of these all over the state!

A week later, when I got to Seaside, Oregon I said to the proprietress of the Seaside Lodge and International Hostel, “I’m thinking of this as a pilgrimage, and I’m finding that everything has turned metaphorical.”

She said, “Life is a pilgrimage, and everything is metaphorical. We just don’t usually notice.”

My first metaphor had begun to echo in my head as I stumbled home from Kelly Point Park: can I do this hard thing? Walking the Oregon coast day after day, my physical world and my emotional world came more and more into congruence–both on a journey, both struggling with a question that was physical and spiritual at the same time: can I do this hard thing?

Soul-mates in Maji

Ato Marcos in front of the "old garden" where my dad hired Maji school boys to help grow the vegetables I grew up on--now to be a vegetable nursery for the community.

I first met Ato (Mr.) Marcos in a formal meeting.  He looked very young and very serious, sitting behind his desk with its desk-sized flag of the new Republic of Ethiopia. Maji church leaders had asked for my help getting the former mission compound back, and Ato Marcos was the district administrator.

Last month (this must be about eight years later) he met me at the airport in Jimma, to host me and drive with me to Maji.  Later, he and the synod driver told me they had talked together about how to set me at ease, and how to entertain me on the long drive.  Neither of them spoke English well enough, and Ethiopians take hospitality very seriously.   I had not spoken during that meeting years before, and they didn’t know I  was excited that I would be visiting Maji without any other Americans I needed to translate for.  “Well, I can always use sign language,” Ato Marcos had said.

Even later, I told the Maji group in that I had met Ato Marcos before, but had never seen his teeth. He looked at me, confused, until I said that I had not seen him smile or laugh.  I see that I also did not get a picture of him smiling on this trip–Ethiopians often treat photo ops as serious, formal business, and Ato Marcos is intense and takes his work seriously.  But I assure you, he has one of the warmest smiles in the world.

I saw it first when I greeted him in Amharic, there at the Jimma airport.   I’m sure his smile was particularly happy because he heard me speaking Amharic.  And mine must have been wide and happy too–I was feeling almost ebullient, because my suitcase, which had gotten checked through from Malawi to Jimma while I stayed in Addis in the same clothes for two days (wondering if I dared trust that clean clothes would meet me in Jimma), had in fact showed up!

Left to right: Zerihun the driver, the guard, Ato Marcos's children, and Ato Marcos.

 

From there, things among the three of us–Ato Marcos, Zerihun the synod driver and me–warmed right up.

 

 

 

 

 

Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely.  This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know!  Maybe it will work . . .

Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely. This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know! Maybe it will work . . .

We spent two days on the road, going about 350 miles.  I ‘m not complaining–only  a few years ago you couldn’t drive to Maji at all, and now the Chinese and Korean crews have good road beds started up to the last seventeen steep miles.  Those last miles took us an hour–in the battle between Maji Mountain and the road, Maji Mountain is still winning.

I have never enjoyed a road trip more.  The three of us talked politics (Ethiopian and US), we talked economics and nutrition, we talked about fruit trees and gardens, we talked about faith, we told jokes–well, the jokes  started in ernest when Dr. Yishak joined us on the trip back to Jimma.

You can see a glimpse of Dr. Yshak's sense of humor in this photo!

Here’s my favorite Dr. Yshak joke:  An Ethiopian goes to the States and gets a job, but he he gets fired because he isn’t used to working so hard .  He searches and searches for a new job until finally he hears that they’re hiring at the zoo.  The zoo-keeper says, “Welcome–the baboon just died!  Put on this suit and you can be the baboon.”  The guy puts on the suit and prances around making baboon noises, loving his new job, until one day someone leaves the back door to his cage open and a lion comes roaring in.  The guy says, “Archangel Michael, save me!”  The lion says, “Roar!  Roar!  Don’t worry, I’m an Ethiopian, too!”

We started laughing when the guy got fired.  We were busting out of our seat belts at the word zoo.  When Dr. Yshak said baboon, I don’t know how Zerihun stayed on the road.  I’m not sure I ever laughed harder at a joke.

Okay, it’s a cute joke, but there had to have been something else going on as well.  Don’t we hunger to connect with other travelers as we spin through space on our earthly adventures, often wondering what this trip is really about and are we alone?  When we find fellow travelers, the relief makes us giddy–we link pinkies, make brother- or sister-hood blood vows, swear we are Best Friends Forever, fall in love.  And when what we are reaching across included geography, culture and language . . . the relief and joy is even more transporting.

That is what I think happened in the car on the road between Maji and Jimma last month.  Ato Marcos, Zerihun and Dr. Yshak will be my best friends forever, and I would bet they feel the same about me.