Circle of Life

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The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere. Empedocles

Spring comes reluctantly to Northern Maine as the cold fingers of winter cling selfishly to the land before the relentless warmth of the sun forces her to retreat. Salmon Brook runs through our property and each spring, swelled with melted snow, it rushes with all the pent up energy of a horse long confined to a stall. It takes savage bites of the banks and seeks new territory to explore after its frozen winter imprisonment. It tumbles rocks and flings trees in its desire to flex its freedom and each year new channels are carved in its impatience to join up with bigger waters on their inevitable rush to the sea.

I eagerly await the moment when the snow melts enough for me to get to the brook’s edge to see what changes have been wrought by the spring runoff. Just across from where we have our firepit a small island splits the brook and some years the water cuts a channel towards the front of the island. These are the years that taking a nap in the hammock are accompanied by the giggling of the water as it tickles over the rocks nearby. Other years the brook jumps to the backside of the island and it creates a nice swimming hole to cool off in the hot summer months.

This week I decided to put on my waders and walk through the water to the island and try to determine if the brook has made up its mind which way it will go this year. I could see a new gravel bar along the side of the brook and uprooted trees were bridging another section. I thought about how life is like this brook. When we are young we are sure of our path and we rush headlong toward our goals. In our single minded need for success and happiness we fling obstacles out of our path without regard to where they will land. We don’t look back to see what damage we’ve done, focusing only on our efforts to reach our destinations.

As we progress in life some of the obstacles throw us into a different direction. Births, deaths, jobs, illnesses cut new channels into our path and take us into unplanned and uncharted territory. Just as the flow of the brook begins to slow as the summer months sap its strength and it can no longer manhandle boulders and impediments we begin to slow down as the years go by. We figure out that obstacles can be overcome by reason and ingenuity. As we tire we learn to value not the achievement at the end of our journey but the journey itself. We stop more often to enjoy the peace of the still pools and the beauty of the overhanging branches and wildflowers along the way.

As fall approaches the brook slows to a trickle, reluctant to rest on winter’s cold breast. As we approach our final destination we value each day more and more. And like the last of the summer wine, life becomes sweeter because it is the last leg of our journey. We remember with fondness when we galloped through life kicking up our heels with the sheer joy of living. We remember the boulders and limbs along the way that threatened to derail us and we marvel at our resilience to withstand the bruises and cuts they inflicted to emerge stronger and more assured.

As I near the last part of life’s journey I still have a kick or two left in me. I am no longer afraid to take a new path because experience has taught me that there is always something wonderful waiting round the bend. I don’t fret if I want to spend a day in contemplation and rest because those are the times when the deep pools can be explored and long hidden memories return and we embrace as old friends. Sometimes I wonder why we can’t have the insights we gather as we age when we have the exuberance of youth to enjoy them. But it is the journey of life that weaves all our joys, pain, laughter and tears together into the complete masterpiece God intended.  This knowledge reassures me that death is not to be feared, it is simply the end of the journey we embarked on the minute we drew our first breaths. When our journey is ended we will wake refreshed into the warm, loving arms of our Lord; reborn into the light, just as the brook wakes up each spring, for life is a never ending circle of birth and death, sleep and renewal.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. Ecclesiastes 3

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Coming of Age

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There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age. – Sophia Loren

Let’s face it, in America we pander to a cult of youthfulness. Any actress over 30 is considered past it. I was reading the other day that Halle Berry, unarguably one of the most beautiful women in the world, is constantly under pressure to have her face “done”. So far she has resisted and I hope she continues to do so. All too often we see public figures who are no longer recognizable and in their efforts to retain eternal youth they have lost the essence of what made them special and unique. Every other commercial on TV is for a new groundbreaking face cream promising to erase those ravaged lines of wear and tear on a 20-something model.

When I first got to Kabul it was two weeks before I knew where I would be stationed. Finally I was called into the office and told there was an opening in Kapisa, a small province northeast of Kabul.

“Great! When do I leave?” I ask.

The program coordinator says, “Well, there are a few concerns we have to talk about.” Okay, I reply, thinking it is about the dangerousness of the area. Later I Google Kapisa and “The Gateway to the Taliban” pops up. Yes, it is a very dangerous province, but that is not the issue the coordinator wants to discuss.

“It is a coed base,” he says. I give him a blank stare. I assumed all the bases had men and women. He clarifies, “The showers and bathrooms are coed.” Did I say this is a French base? Okay, I grew up in the 60’s. I’m opened-minded. I can live with this.

“They do a lot of foot patrols,” he says. Okay, I can walk. Not a problem.

“Sometimes the patrols are long and your body armor weighs about 50 pounds.” Okay, I learned this in training. I wasn’t expecting to go to a day spa.

Finally he says, “Do you think that will be too much for you physically?” The penny drops. At 57 years of age they think I’m too old. I assure him if the patrols aren’t 20 miles long, I’ll be fine.  When I fly by helicopter to Bagram Air Base (BAF) to rendezvous with my crew that will take me to Kapisa, the USDA representative, Jim, is there to meet me.

“Let’s take a walk and I’ll show you around the base,” Jim says. I leave my body armor and bags in his office and we start walking from one end of the base to another. BAF is a huge base with over 30,000 people living there. It is over a mile from one end to the other. As we walk along we pass masses of hardened structures, tents, containerized housing units, all slightly obscured by a pervasive red dust that fills my nose and makes me sneeze. On the sidewalk we join a flood of jostling pedestrians. It is like walking in downtown Washington, D.C. at rush hour. Jim points out dining halls, laundries, office buildings, and other points of interest as we briskly walk along. He is walking very fast and I am almost in a slow jog to keep up with him. When we get to the end, we start back, still at the same pace. Along the way we make detours on the dusty streets that crisscross the base. Back and forth, left and right, Jim marches along with me loping at his side. It suddenly hits me that this is not a random stroll. It is a forced march. I can imagine the thoughts in Jim’s head. “Can she take it? Will she fall down in a geriatric heap before we get back to the office? We’ll see how tough she is!” I think to myself, “Jim, you don’t know who you are dealing with.” If life has taught me anything it is to be tough and not to give up.

I guess I passed the test because three days later I climb aboard the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle that will take me to my base. Once there I find out I am the oldest person, but I am so busy it doesn’t really bother me. I am exercising every morning and I feel good. I just want to figure out what to do to start assisting Afghan farmers in my area. Ageism doesn’t rear its ugly head again until a mission takes us back to Bagram. Anne, another Federal agency rep, and I are going out with the Kentucky ADT; National Guardsmen with an expertise in agriculture and engineering. They tell us to meet them at an area where the convoy MRAPs are staged at 8:45 AM. Anne wants to be there early so we show up at 8:15. Of course, no one is there. I know we are in the right place because the MRAPS have ADT lettered on them. Anne is in the generation that cannot communicate without a cell phone or other electronic device. We sit in the same office and instead of just telling me something she sends me an email. Having been a supervisor to many young people I am used to this and accept it the way my mother accepted me getting a Texas Instrument calculator. Anne is not comforted by the site of the MRAPs and she starts fretting that we are in the wrong place.

“We are early. They’ll be here soon.” I am not concerned. Anne starts calling numbers and asks me, “Do you have the number for the lieutenant commander? The project coordinator, etc.?” I have these numbers, but I say shake my head no. I am not going to bother the unit when I know they are busy getting ready for the mission. Anne keeps frantically punching in numbers on her phone.

My phone is in my backpack and it beeps, telling me I have a message. As I dig it out, Anne looks a little funny and she hastily says, “No, it’s my phone.” I look at my cell and see I do have an incoming message.

I read, “My USDA rep is so space cadet. I don’t want to be mean, but maybe its old age and she’s just not with it.” I am stunned and I look at Anne and say, “Ann, did you send this?” She shakes her head no and I say, “Well, I‘ll just see who sent it.”

Clearly miserable, Anne says, “I did it. I sent it.” She was texting a message to her boyfriend about me but accidentally sent it to me instead. It has to be a person’s worst nightmare.

“Anne, is that what you think of me?” I ask her incredulously,

“Well, I just thought you should have those numbers.”

“You know, I do have those numbers but I know we are in the right place and I am prepared to wait. It’s called patience. And you know what? I may not can text a hundred words a minute, but I have pretty much known what is going on for the last 30 or 40 years. Most of the USDA advisors here are my age or older and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think they selected us because we have experience, can build relationships and won’t start an international incident.”

Anne says, “I just hope you can forgive me.” I can tell she is near to tears.

I put my hand on her arm and say, “Anne, I am a big girl. I’ll get over it. I just want you to promise me one thing. On your 57th birthday I want you to think back to this day and I want you to think about how young and vital you feel and how much you still feel you have to offer. Will you promise me that?” A big tear rolled down her cheek and she hung her head.

I hope Anne learned a life lesson that day on how to treat people, or at least to make sure she knows who she is sending a text message to before she hits that “Send” button. I do know she will remember that day for the next thirty years or so.

I have to admit that my feelings and pride are hurt. It’s like getting hit in the face with cold water to suddenly see yourself as old in other people’s eyes– being judged by years instead of ability. I tamp my feelings down as our convoy bounces off because I need to be stay focused on the mission. It isn’t a time to nurse grudges or a bruised ego.

Later in the day we conduct a market walk in a local village. A knot of 10 or 15 young men gather around me and we move as one through the market. My interpreter says, “All the talk in the market is about you. They want to know if you are married.” Really? Me, with my hair that has been snow-white since I was in my 30’s? Me, who is old enough to be these young men’s grandmother? With just a little smugness and a lot of amazement, I notice they are ignoring Anne, who is a beautiful young woman.

You see in Afghanistan, age is looked at differently than in the western world. It is the norm for several generations to live together and parents and grandparents are revered and cared for. Age is respected. The men in Afghanistan didn’t see me as old. With my white hair and light skin I was regarded as exotic and desirable. (I am so pale I once was awakened on a flight by an attendant shaking me saying, “Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me?” I looked over at my seatmate who is cringing as far away from me as possible, convinced she is sitting next to a corpse.) It is a remarkable feeling. In the States I might hear, “Oh, she’s so old.” In Afghanistan I heard, “Oh, madam. You so beautiful, you so nice.” I tell you, it beats a kick in the Zimmer frame any day!

Afghan men made me feel beautiful and made me reevaluate how I want to see myself as I headed into my 60’s. At 59 you can say you are middle-aged, but at 60, if not elderly, it is the slippery slope we slide giddily down towards the grave. And while I admit I have spent my share on those miracle wrinkle creams, I don’t want to be young again with all of its angst and uncertainties. I want to keep growing, learning, teaching, and loving. I want to continue to help others and to find beauty in the world every day. If I can do that, I think I will also be beautiful.

So instead of dreading old age, I plan to run to it as fast as my arthritic knees can carry me, embracing the last chapter of my life, which will be the sweetest because it is the last.