Wa-hoo and Ye-Hah

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So much gloom and doubt in our poetry-
flowers wilting on the table,
the self regarding itself in a watery mirror.

Dead leaves cover the ground,
the wind moans in the chimney,
and the tendrils of the yew tree inch toward the coffin.

I wonder what the ancient Chinese poets
would make of all this,
these shadows and empty cupboards?

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,

Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,
Ye-Hah.
~Billy Collins “Despair”

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So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear… The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels… never concealed His tears. Yet He concealed something… He never restrained His anger… Yet He restrained something… There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or imperious isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
G.K. Chesterton in his closing words of Orthodoxy

 

There is humor in the Bible –irony, puns, absurdities, parodies, paradox–yet we miss hearing the laughter of the heavens as we are simply too close to the joke to get it.  In fact, we are likely the punch line of the joke more often than not.  God shows remarkable restraint when it comes to observing the hilarious antics of His children.  We don’t see verses such as, “Jesus laughed” or “Jesus smiled” or “Jesus stifled a chuckle”  even though He surely had plenty of opportunity. He was too gracious to laugh at us so surely He laughed with us.

We often take ourselves too seriously.   A little joy can’t hurt.

A lot of joy is hearing the laughter of heaven itself.

Wa-Hoo and Ye-Hah!

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Happiness is a Chewbacca Mask

Reflecting Back the Light

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With the close approach of Mars this week (maximum size in the sky will be May 30), I recalled a similar time a few years back:

It was a treasured late summer evening when temperatures hover around 70 degrees, there was a slight cooling breeze, clear starlit skies, and barely a mosquito buzzing.  We had just returned from a lovely evening outdoor wedding for two special young friends,  with a special message from our pastor about the profound mystery of marriage, not just for newlyweds, but also for those of us married for many years. We are blessed in the knowledge we depend on God’s grace every day, trying to reflect it back to our children, our community, to each other.

We decided to hike up to the top of our hill after dark to catch the best view of our neighbor Mars before we brought our Haflinger horses in for the night.  Mars was there to see, orange and bright in the southeast sky. But the Haflingers seemed to be afflicted by strange Martian fever, or perhaps it was simply because we rarely wander out into the field in the dark with flashlights in hand. There was no moon yet when we were out –simply starlight and the far-off lights from Vancouver,  British Columbia to the north and Bellingham to the south.

The Haflingers started running in the dark, kicking and snorting and bucking with the joy of a starlit, Martian-lit summer evening. Only all we could see of the Haflingers were their ghostly white manes and tails moving across the fields, jumping and twisting and cavorting.

I’m sure over the generations, in the alpine meadows of the South Tyrol, there must have been some starlit moonless lights when the Haflinger herds would run together, and all you could see in the dark were floating disembodied white manes and tails.

Perhaps that is what enchanted the mountain peasants the most about their sturdy reliable golden companions—at night they become spirit and light. They shine like the stars, even from the ground, reflecting back the lights from the heavens.

And so, in our companionship with each other and with God, do we glow with His light and reflect it to those around us.

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Make the Best of What Remains

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Every moment is a fresh beginning.
~T.S. Eliot

 

What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it…
For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?
~Kazuo Ishiguro from The Remains of the Day

 

I am ashamed to admit I squander time looking back,
yearning for a day that has long since passed,
tossing off these present precious hours
as somehow not measuring up to what came before.

There have been over thirty years
of such days in this farm country,
one flowing gently after another,
and every single one have been exactly what I’m looking for.

I shall toss my heart ahead and set out after it,
making the best of what remains of my day.

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Sacred Intoxication

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For half-an-hour he writes words upon a scrap of paper….
words in which the soul’s blood pours out, like the body’s blood from a wound.

He writes secretly this mad diary,
all his passion and longing,

his dark and dreadful gratitude to God,
his idle allegories,
the tales that tell themselves in his head;
the joy that comes on him sometimes (he cannot help it)
at the sacred intoxication of existence

~G.K. Chesterton in a letter to his fiancé

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I can grumble with the best of the them, especially over the last few months of watching presidential election politics unfold at this particular time in our country’s history. There is camaraderie in shared grumbling, as well as an exponential increase in dissatisfaction as everyone shares their frustrations over how we have come to this.

But I know better. I’ve seen where grousing leads and I can feel it aching in my bones when I’m steeped in it. The sky is grayer, the clouds are thicker, the night is darker–on and on to its overwhelming suffocating conclusion.

I have the privilege to choose joy, to turn away from the bleak and simply seek and bathe in the warmth and wonder of each new day. Like an opportunistic cat finding that one ray of sun and melting into it, I can absorb and equip myself to be radiant as well. It is not putting on a “happy face” — instead joy adopts me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me. Though at times joy may dip temporarily behind a cloud, I know it is there even when I can’t feel it.

Joy is mine to choose because joy has chosen me.

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The Fierce Humility of Rain

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Praise to the Maker of the torrent
and the hurricane,
praise for the fierce humility of rain:

whose motion will not end, neither come to rest
nor ascend again until, like grace,
it finds the lowest empty place.
~Matthew Baker “Rainfall”

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See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “Thou art indeed just, Lord”

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As I look out through a tear-streaked window at the beginning of this lightening day,
I fear inadequacy to the task before me:
Parched and struggling patients line my schedule.
Anxious and weary and barren too young,
seeking something, anything
to ease their distress in a hostile world,
preferably an easy pill to swallow.
Nothing that hurts going down.

While others thrive around them,
they wilt and wither,
wishing to cease breathing.

Lord of Life, equip me to find the words to say that might help.
May it be about more than genetics, neurotransmitters and physiology.

In this dry season for young lives,
send your penetrating rain
to fill with grace
the emptiest space.
Reach down and shake their roots
fiercely
and slake their thirst.

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Remembering May 19

photo by Larry Goldman

Reflecting on the courage shown by Tanzanian park rangers and my kidnapped research colleagues on this unforgettable day 41 years ago  —  I’m reposting this part of my Gombe saga from when I worked as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.

At first glance,  Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle.  It was a façade.  It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.

Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi.  When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us.  Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.

There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.

Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.

Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders.  The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.

Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by some students who were fleeing, hearing the commotion.  No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard.  Had someone been injured or killed?   There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.

We hurried along barely familiar  trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.

That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub.  A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do.  We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds.  We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world.   We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.

Jane held Grub in her arms, trying to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.

“Will they kidnap me, Jane?  Will they come for me?  Where will they take us?  Will they shoot us dead?”

Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders,  sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us.  We’re safe staying right here.  Everything will be fine in the morning.  No one will take you from me.”

Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder.

When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting  an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy.  Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers beaten but with no life threatening injuries.   There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.

We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi.  Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp.  We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.

In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with suspicion.  Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments.  We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa.  It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety.  The agents did not shed any light on whether they knew our friends were alive or dead.

We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone.  I flew back to Stanford the next day, spending 24 hours on a plane that made six stops up the coast of West Africa on its way back west, to tell what I knew to President Lyman and other administration officials at Stanford as they prepared a plan to locate and free the students.   I then returned home to Washington state to await any news that came too slowly from a place so far away that I remain astonished to this day that I was ever there at all.

It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety.

photo from a press conference at Stanford a few days later

Leaving the Old Self Behind

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Cast off on a sunny day
onto a warm manure pile,
a wriggled-free fresh snakeskin,
almost covered by my fresh load~
lay blended with old hay, horse hair, shavings,
tucked among what is already digested,
dumped and discarded.
This, an intact hollowed shadow
of a still living creature
who has moved on:
I too need to leave my old self
shrugged off onto the manure pile,
shed when it no longer fits
the ways I’ve grown hallowed,
a fitting remembrance of
who I once was,
yet left behind.
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