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.

High Tech, Low Tech

Saturday, the day I arrived in Maji, was market day.  I walked around “downtown” for a half hour, enjoying the bustle of activity–not much different from when I was there as a child half a century ago.  But wait . . .

 Wait.  There was a difference.  What’s that hovering over the cattle, the piles of hot peppers for sale, the raw honey in gourds, the

butter wrapped in leaves?  It’s a cell tower!

All over Ethiopia–all over Africa, I believe–cell phones are connecting people to worlds they may never visit.  I hadn’t taken my iPad with me to Maji–could I have gotten on Google using my 3G connection?  Amazingly enough, it’s possible!

But I had realized my battery would quickly run down and make my iPad into a flat, dead piece of plastic and chemicals.  Now I realized people face the same problem with their cell phones.  After all, the real key to technology is electricity.

It turns out that in Ethiopia people can get small solar systems.  They set the collector panels on their thatch or tin roofs, or prop them up carefully on chairs in front of their houses.  The panels hook to car batteries, which store the electricity for evenings or cloudy days.  People who can afford  two- or three-outlet systems power light bulbs for a few hours in the evening.

Cell technology has scuttled the slow, laborious process (that wasn’t really happening) of erecting telephone poles across the world’s second largest continent.  Now it seems entirely possible that the solar technology going with the cell phones could bring “rural electrification” efforts to a halt.  It’s a good thing, because no matter how many dams or generators are erected across Africa, the kilowatts are snatched up by industry, malls and equipment-rich urban Africans, leaving nothing for people who still live in the country and farm.

I was intrigued to think about how owning a cell phone and a solar system to keep it running is going to change cultures that have non-initiative woven into their languages.  In Amharic, you don’t drop something, it “falls from you”.  You don’t catch a cold, “a cold catches you” (and indeed–who would chase down a cold?)

In our years of working in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, my husband Mark and I ran into problem after problem that seemed rooted in the lack of cause-and-effect thinking.  Pre-science cultures, with a pre-science languages.  That will change for these children–what an interesting process it would be to study–as they grow up watching their parents figure out how to think ahead and keep their cell phones alive!

Another question got me chuckling.  The Suri people also have cell reception in the hot lowlands where they live, off the escarpment from Maji.   (These two tribes flare into violence with each other from time to time, violence fueled by the gun, another high tech import that is changing  cultures).  Where do you carry your cell phone if you don’t have pockets?