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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Power

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.

Interrupted

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.   

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?

The Darkest Valley

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

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

I have a new understanding of the valley of the shadow of death. It is a road walked in shadow. Ahead, on the other side of the ridge, the sun will shine, as it did on the open path behind. But for now, mountains have cast shadows on the valley. The shadows are many; Mark’s leaving is only one of them. Other losses crowd the path. I have a myriad adjustments to make. Sometimes finding my new, single identity feels painful as a birth.

I moved to Portland, Oregon in June. I live alone now, in a small rental house, perfectly sized for one person, a few blocks from one of my sisters and only a few miles from the rest of my Portland-based family. Expressing my gratitude for this house is one of my daily spiritual disciplines, an antidote to the free-floating anxiety I feel about the lack of direction and focus in my life. And since I am back in Portland, I have started seeing K, the counselor I went to after my dad died in 2009, another time when my whole identity felt shaken and I needed help putting the pieces into their new places.

When I said to her that I am afraid I’m doing something wrong–maybe I’m wallowing in my sadness and disorientation, maybe I’m obsessively focussing on the negatives instead of the positives, of which there are many, in my life–she looked surprised. She told me, essentially, that losing a spouse is a long valley.

I had done so much of what I now know is called “anticipatory grief,” I thought this part would go faster. And so many of the “firsts” came quickly–within the first two months Thanksgiving, Mark’s birthday, and Christmas came, and the new year began, a year Mark would never see. Now, with our anniversary on July 29th, the firsts are all behind me.

On Valentine’s Day I was in Kenya, where the European cut-flower industry sheds less-than-perfect roses, lilies, and whole flower arrangements to be sold on the street corners, I bought myself one long-stemmed red rose bud. One for my singleness. Red for committing to love and take care of myself.

I was in Ethiopia on my birthday. Though Mark supported my traveling work, he was lonely when I was gone, and I was gone a number of years on my birthday because March is a good month to travel in Ethiopia. I said to him one year, “Hey, I just realized. When I’m gone on my birthday, I don’t get a present, do I?”

The way he said, “No!” conveyed it all–his unsentimentality, how he hated my being away, his punitive bent. So this year I thought of that conversation and thought Ethiopia was a good place to be, where I didn’t miss someone to make much over me.

On Mother’s Day I laughed, remembering years before, when we attended Kenton Church and our children were young. Throughout April we were invited to order carnations for our mothers–red to honor those still living, white to honor those who had died. In spite of all the announcements, Mark invariably forgot to order me a carnation. One year he dashed up to get me one of the spare flowers as soon as the benediction was over. When he came back and lovingly presented it to me, Miriam said, “Da-ad! That’s the dead-mother color!”

It’s been a gift that Mark was so unsentimental. The “firsts” have not been terribly painful.

This photo shocked me--he is holding his hand just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don't understand

This photo shocked me–Mark (right) was in tenth grade, and he is holding his pencil just the way he always did. How can that hand, that thumb be gone? I don’t understand.

But the lack of focus and direction; the many, many hours alone, even when I do get together with friends or family during the day; the visceral shock I still feel that someone so real, so solid, so distinct simply isn’t here any more; and maybe a cell-level grief over having watched Mark waste away; these are all still painful. I, who am so verbal, sometimes still wake up sobbing wordlessly.

K reassured me. Her husband died young, of a heart attack, so I know I can trust her in this. She helped me realize that this August may have been rough for me because my body–my spirit–something in me–knows that this is the first anniversary month of Mark’s cancer taking hold.  His pain spun out of control about this time last year. He found himself already too fatigued to put in a dining room window for Jesse, the last project he’d planned to do. We spent a day in the ER. He began to vomit blood. These were firsts I hadn’t thought of, and the first anniversary of his death itself, is still to come at the end of October.

At the suggestion of Kenny, my youngest son, I’ve been organizing the photos of our last ten years into photo albums, and K assured me that facing those memories–I think of it as metabolizing my life with Mark–may make me sad some days, but will ultimately help me go on well.

“ Anything could happen for you,” K said. “You have something we don’t often have once we become adults–an open future.  Giving your grief all the time it needs is part of letting your new life unfold in its own time.”

I Want Something to Spill Over

Dr. Charles Kraft

Recently I heard Charles Kraft, an ex-missionary and a Fuller Seminary professor, say that Jesus didn’t heal or cast out demons or raise people from the dead with his own power, but with God’s power flowing through him. Jesus himself said that–he had power only by abiding in God and doing what God told him to do.  I thought again of his analogy of a vine and its branches bearing fruit because they’re connected (John 15).

What a mystery it is–for fleshly, in-the-world people like me to abide in Jesus.  No wonder the monks and holy mothers went into the desert to concentrate!  But I am reading a journal Henri Nowen wrote when he spent seven months in a monastery, and he found that even in a monastery it isn’t easy to abide in God.

Father Henri Nouwen

He found himself wounded when friends didn’t answer his letters.  He worried that his adoring public had forgotten him.  He felt upset when a particularly warm fellow monk was just as friendly to everyone–was he not special? But instead of stewing on these feelings, Nouwen used his time in the monastery to notice his internal life.  Was his anger hotter, his disappointment deeper, his discouragement heavier than the event required?  Then he took his reactions to God for healing.  That is more than spiritual discipline–it’s spiritual bench-pressing!

My own small discipline of contemplative prayer started around this time two years ago and  opened a connection to God that I had only longed for in my first sixty years.  Sometimes I wonder: why would God wait so long?  I don’t know why, I only pray that God will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.  Through the prophet Joel, that’s what God promised Israel, “I will give you back what you lost to the swarming locusts . . . and you will praise the Lord your God . . . then you will know that I am among my people . . . that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other.”  It’s what I want, too.

Another story to share with you–a friend, working in Indonesia, learned of a ministry of prayer that was hugely effective with the Muslim women there.  She went to her colleague and asked, “Will you teach me how to pray with people like you do?”  The other woman said no.  “You can’t pass on what you don’t have.”

This has haunted me ever since I heard the story.  What do I have to pass on?  Then she went on:  “I’ll pray with you, and what God does for you will spill over into whatever ministry you have.”

This is what changed Peter and John–what Jesus taught and showed them transformed their lives and spilled over.  When they, ex-fishermen, spoke to the Jewish Council in Acts 4, the learned men were amazed, “for they could see that they were ordinary men,” (the word for ordinary men in Greek is the root for our word idiot).  They recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus.

Girls sing in a rural church in Ethiopia

This is how the church in remote parts of Ethiopia has grown–people set free from curses and taboos share their liberation with their neighbors.  People are healed, and everyone takes notice.  Demonic activity is banished, and the whole community is blessed.  Surely this same God is here with us in the United States in the 21st century, ready to transform us and spill over.  Maybe the ministries will look different–we don’t see evil spirits working in our lives these days.  But we  just as much need to be set free from greed, anxiety, addictions.  We need to be healed of abuse, disappointment, depression.  We are as much in need of God’s shalom as Jesus’ contemporaries, and as our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.

I believe that if I can abide in Jesus even a fraction of the way he abided (abode??) in God, something new will happen in my life and I will have more to pass on.  That’s my journey.

Join me?  Here’s a link to Father Keating introducing centering prayer.  It’s where I started.