MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Stories

In Africa, the Art of Listening

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Photo: Giovanni/Flickr

I CAME to Africa with one purpose: I wanted to see the world outside the perspective of European egocentricity. I could have chosen Asia or South America. I ended up in Africa because the plane ticket there was cheapest.

I came and I stayed. For nearly 25 years I’ve lived off and on in Mozambique. Time has passed, and I’m no longer young; in fact, I’m approaching old age. But my motive for living this straddled existence, with one foot in African sand and the other in European snow, in the melancholy region of Norrland in Sweden where I grew up, has to do with wanting to see clearly, to understand.

The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.

In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. From my own experience, I’ve noticed how much faster I have to answer a question during a TV interview than I did 10, maybe even 5, years ago. It’s as if we have completely lost the ability to listen. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence, the refuge of those who are at a loss for an answer.

I’m old enough to remember when South American literature emerged in popular consciousness and changed forever our view of the human condition and what it means to be human. Now, I think it’s Africa’s turn.

Everywhere, people on the African continent write and tell stories. Soon, African literature seems likely to burst onto the world scene — much as South American literature did some years ago when Gabriel García Márquez and others led a tumultuous and highly emotional revolt against ingrained truth. Soon an African literary outpouring will offer a new perspective on the human condition. The Mozambican author Mia Couto has, for example, created an African magic realism that mixes written language with the great oral traditions of Africa.

If we are capable of listening, we’re going to discover that many African narratives have completely different structures than we’re used to. I over-simplify, of course. Yet everybody knows that there is truth in what I’m saying: Western literature is normally linear; it proceeds from beginning to end without major digressions in space or time.

That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example.

The nomads who still inhabit the Kalahari Desert are said to tell one another stories on their daylong wanderings, during which they search for edible roots and animals to hunt. Often they have more than one story going at the same time. Sometimes they have three or four stories running in parallel. But before they return to the spot where they will spend the night, they manage either to intertwine the stories or split them apart for good, giving each its own ending.

A number of years ago I sat down on a stone bench outside the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique, where I work as an artistic consultant. It was a hot day, and we were taking a break from rehearsals so we fled outside, hoping that a cool breeze would drift past. The theater’s air-conditioning system had long since stopped functioning. It must have been over 100 degrees inside while we were working.

Two old African men were sitting on that bench, but there was room for me, too. In Africa people share more than just water in a brotherly or sisterly fashion. Even when it comes to shade, people are generous.

I heard the two men talking about a third old man who had recently died. One of them said, “I was visiting him at his home. He started to tell me an amazing story about something that had happened to him when he was young. But it was a long story. Night came, and we decided that I should come back the next day to hear the rest. But when I arrived, he was dead.”

The man fell silent. I decided not to leave that bench until I heard how the other man would respond to what he’d heard. I had an instinctive feeling that it would prove to be important.

Finally he, too, spoke.

“That’s not a good way to die — before you’ve told the end of your story.”

It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.

Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening.

So if I am right that we are storytelling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while now and then, the eternal narrative will continue.

Many words will be written on the wind and the sand, or end up in some obscure digital vault. But the storytelling will go on until the last human being stops listening. Then we can send the great chronicle of humanity out into the endless universe.

Who knows? Maybe someone is out there, willing to listen …

~ Henning Mankell

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Written by MattAndJojang

January 21, 2012 at 11:14 am

Made For Goodness

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Photo: The Canadien/Flickr

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths… The world needs your acts and compassionate loving goodness.

In the darkest days of the struggle to end apartheid, it was possible for some to succumb to the endless bad news of violence and torture systematically directed against people because of the color of their skin or those who had a vision of our oneness as people. But we were always upheld and strengthened by the good news of those whose actions reminded us that we are each God’s partners in a love and justice that includes all.

The God who existed before any religion counts on you to make the oneness of the human family known and celebrated. You do this as you respond to the invitation found in the news of the day to make a difference. Your ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.

Everywhere around us, there are examples of people who are doing just that — who are celebrating the oneness of the human family.

Atlanta’s Derreck Kayongo noticed that bars of soap in hotels in the United States were going to waste. He knew that over two million children a year die of diarrheal illness often caused because people cannot afford to buy soap to wash their hands and prevent the spread of illness. Kayongo and his parents had fled Uganda 30 years ago to avoid the torture and killings of Idi Amin. From his experience of refugee camps he knew that people struggled to survive without basic necessities like soap.

Out of his dismay about wasted soap an idea was hatched. What if the soap could be cleaned and recycled? With the advice of his father, a soap maker from Uganda, he began the Global Soap Project, to collect, recycle and then distribute soaps to nine countries including Haiti, Uganda and Swaziland. More than just preventing the spread of diarrheal diseases and saving the lives of children, Kayongo has brought people and organizations together from around the world in this project of hope.

Like Derreck Kayongo, our own stories, experiences and gifts are the incubators of good news. When we allow our imagination to be engaged with the needs of the world around us, we actively participate in expanding love and compassion. When we do so, God is tickled pink!

Patricia from Seattle says that her struggles with “the blues” are changed by her volunteering, despite her own physical limitations, in a nursing home and in a program where she reads stories to young children. Patricia chooses to work with such divergent age groups because the combination of youthful enthusiasm and the wisdom of elders keep her balanced and appreciative of life.

Patricia may not know the impact of her goodness in the lives of others but her experience is that goodness in action is transformative. She reminds me that every seemingly small thing we do becomes like a drop of water flowing into an ocean of hope and compassion. Opportunities abound in our local communities for being people of hope and good news.

I think also of Bruno Serato… who is revered for the fine cuisine served to the rich and famous in his California restaurant. Bruno has never forgotten his humble beginnings as an immigrant who started out washing dishes. When Bruno saw a homeless child sheltered in a motel eating potato chips for dinner he wondered how to respond to the heart-breaking sadness of homeless children living in motels. Using the skills of his professional life he began delivering evening meals and has now served over 250,000 meals to children who live in motels.

Derreck, Patricia and Bruno are the tip of the iceberg among people across the world engaging in goodness, love and compassion. Their stories invite each of us to consider how we participate in making good news every day.

In becoming part of the good news of the human story, you remind us all that we are made for oneness as a human family. You become a birth-giver of hope. God smiles on you with every piece of good news that you contribute to.

~ Desmond Tutu

Written by MattAndJojang

January 14, 2012 at 10:02 am

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The Story Behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series

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Joanne “Joe” Rowling was born near Bristol, England, in 1965. She

attended local schools and “Hermione is loosely based on me—at age

11,” she has said. She earned a B.A. in English and Classics at the

University of Exeter and in 1990, while on a delayed train trip, jotted

down notes about a young boy attending a school of wizardry. In 1994

she moved to Edinborough, Scotland, to be near her sister. Divorced,

unemployed, and living on state benefits, she completed her first

novel, writing in local cafés because she would take her daughter

Jessica out for walks and, when she fell asleep, would duck into the

nearest café and continue the story.

 

She completed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1995 and

found an agent who submitted the manuscript to twelve publishers,

all of whom rejected it. The thirteenth, a small publisher in

Bloomsbury, accepted it because the eight-year-old daughter of the

chairman read the first chapter and “demanded the next.” Rowling

received an advance of 1,500 pounds, about the same number of

dollars at that time.

 

The book was published in 1997 with a first printing of one thousand

copies, five hundred of which were distributed free to libraries.

Such copies now sell for between $25,000 and $35,000. Rowling

received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council of 8,000 pounds to

allow her to go on writing, and in fact that first book was named

British Children’s Book of the Year. It was published in the United

States in 1998 by Scholastic after they had won an auction. Over the

author’s protests, Scholastic changed the name of the book to Harry

Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

 

The seventh and last of the Harry Potter series was published on

July 21, 2007, and sold more than 250,000 copies in the first 24 hours.

More than eight million copies have been sold all told, and J.K.

Rowling is now the wealthiest woman writer in history, with a net

worth for the books alone estimated at more than eight billion

dollars. Well, in my humble opinion “Joe” Rowling deserves every

penny of it. The books have gotten better and better as time has gone

on, and the last—I truly hope it is the last—is the best of all. I read

it through in the first four days and then joined John and Sally and

our two grandchildren, Sam and Charlie, while they read the last

hundred pages out loud to one another. We were aware that many

thousands of people were doing the same thing at the same time.

Maybe half of them were youngsters, but the other half were grownups,

even oldsters like me. It has turned out to be hard for some

grownups to admit this, but all I can say is I’m sorry for them.

 

Why has this extraordinary success come to Rowling? Does she

have a secret? If so, what is it?

 

I don’t think there is a secret. In a way, she does what all authors

of novels, and especially series of novels, do: She imagines a situation

and invents characters and events. She creates a world, peoples it,

describes it, makes us care about it. She tells good stories, being sure

to build suspense. She leaves us hungry for more, which is what the

best series do.

 

Rowling’s tale opens in a special school where students are taught

about magic—what it is and how to do it. It isn’t easy to get to this

school, because you have to know a secret place where you can board

a special train. When you arrive at the school you find that it too is

special, secret. Not just anyone can go there. That’s exciting. It’s a

good start.

 

The characters are also interesting, but not unique. There is a girl

and two boys; they start as children and grow up as seven years pass.

There are families and one of the boys finally falls in love with the

sister of the other boy. That is good but not unique, either.

There is something very special about the first boy, though. He

has a tragic past; his parents were killed when he was a child, his

mother, when she was trying to protect him: giving up her life to save

him. This is fine; it adds a tragic note even if the characters are just

children and then teenagers.

 

The circumstances surrounding the death of the boy’s parents are

mysterious, which is good. Some kind of evil was involved; only very

slowly do we begin to understand that the evil is represented by a single

individual who grows more powerful as the series proceeds. In the last

book he has become all-powerful, and there is no hope left for the world.

 

Or so it seems, even to Harry, the boy-hero. But his courage, which

has always been remarkable, permits him to face the prospect of certain

death if he does not yield to the evil lord. Even so, he does not yield.

 

His courage, in the last analysis, is greater than that of his foe.

It is Harry’s beautiful courage, I think, that makes this series

unique. We accept it, we believe in it. We are frightened for him at

the end of the series; we can’t see any way out. But Harry Potter can.

~ Charles Van Doren


	

Written by MattAndJojang

September 13, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Seeing

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Photo: Maddy Clare/Flickr

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight of a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

I used to be able to see flying insects in the air. I’d look ahead and see, not the row of hemlocks across the road, but the air in front of it. My eyes would focus along that column of air, picking out flying insects. But I lost interest, I guess, for I dropped the habit. Now I can see birds. Probably some people can look at the grass at their feet and discover all the crawling creatures. I would like to know grasses and sedges—and care. Then my least journey into the world would be a field trip, a series of happy recognitions. Thoreau, in an expansive mood, exulted, “What a rich book might be made about buds, including, perhaps, sprouts!” It would be nice to think so. I cherish mental images I have of three perfectly happy people. One collects stones. Another—an Englishman, say—watches clouds. The third lives on a coast and collects drops of seawater which he examines microscopically and mounts. But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.

Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes, then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt. Deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils. For nature does reveal as well as conceal: now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do. For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away. They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again. I walked closer and another hundred blackbirds took flight. Not a branch, not a twig budged: the birds were apparently weightless as well as invisible. Or, it was as if the leaves of the Osage orange had been freed from a spell in the form of red-winged blackbirds; they flew from the tree, caught my eye in the sky, and vanished. When I looked again at the tree the leaves had reassembled as if nothing had happened. Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real diehards, appeared, spread, and vanished. How could so many hide in the tree without my seeing them? The Osage orange, unruffled, looked just as it had looked from the house, when three hundred red-winged blackbirds cried from its crown. I looked downstream where they flew, and they were gone. Searching, I couldn’t spot one. I wandered downstream to force them to play their hand, but they’d crossed the creek and scattered. One show to a customer. These appearances catch at my throat; they are the free gifts, the bright coppers at the roots of trees.

It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open. Nature is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot? Specialists can find the most incredibly well-hidden things. A book I read when I was young recommended an easy way to find caterpillars to rear: you simply find some fresh caterpillar droppings, look up, and there’s your caterpillar. More recently an author advised me to set my mind at ease about those piles of cut stems on the ground in grassy fields. Field mice make them; they cut the grass down by degrees to reach the seeds at the head. It seems that when the grass is tightly packed, as in a field of ripe grain, the blade won’t topple at a single cut through the stem; instead, the cut stem simply drops vertically, held in the crush of grain. The mouse severs the bottom again and again, the stem keeps dropping an inch at a time, and finally the head is low enough for the mouse to reach the seeds. Meanwhile, the mouse is positively littering the field with its little piles of cut stems into which, presumably, the author of the book is constantly stumbling.

If I can’t see these minutiae, I still try to keep my eyes open. I’m always on the lookout for antlion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves. These things are utterly common, and I’ve not seen one. I bang on hollow trees near water, but so far no flying squirrels have appeared. In flat country I watch every sunset in hopes of seeing the green ray. The green ray is a seldom-seen streak of light that rises from the sun like a spurting fountain at the moment of sunset; it throbs into the sky for two seconds and disappears. One more reason to keep my eyes open. A photography professor at the University of Florida just happened to see a bird die in midflight; it jerked, died, dropped, and smashed on the ground. I squint at the wind because I read Stewart Edward White: “I have always maintained that if you looked closely enough you could see the wind—the dim, hardly-made-out, fine débris fleeing high in the air.” White was an excellent observer, and devoted an entire chapter of The Mountains to the subject of seeing deer: “As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you too will see deer.”

But the artificial obvious is hard to see. My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head; I’m bony and dense; I see what I expect. I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions. Finally I asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against: the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.

The lover can see, and the knowledgeable. I visited an aunt and uncle at a quarter-horse ranch in Cody, Wyoming. I couldn’t do much of anything useful, but I could, I thought, draw. So, as we all sat around the kitchen table after supper, I produced a sheet of paper and drew a horse. “That’s one lame horse,” my aunt volunteered. The rest of the family joined in: “Only place to saddle that one is his neck”; “Looks like we better shoot the poor thing, on account of those terrible growths.” Meekly, I slid the pencil and paper down the table. Everyone in that family, including my three young cousins, could draw a horse. Beautifully. When the paper came back it looked as though five shining, real quarter horses had been corralled by mistake with a papier-mâché moose; the real horses seemed to gaze at the monster with a steady, puzzled air. I stay away from horses now, but I can do a creditable goldfish. The point is that I just don’t know what the lover knows; I just can’t see the artificial obvious that those in the know construct. The herpetologist asks the native, “Are there snakes in that ravine?” “Nosir.” And the herpetologist comes home with, yessir, three bags full. Are there butterflies on that mountain? Are the bluets in bloom, are there arrowheads here, or fossil shells in the shale?

Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: “This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is.”

A fog that won’t burn away drifts and flows across my field of vision. When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, you don’t see the fog itself, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in dark shreds. So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity. I can’t distinguish the fog from the overcast sky; I can’t be sure if the light is direct or reflected. Everywhere darkness and the presence of the unseen appalls. We estimate now that only one atom dances alone in every cubic meter of intergalactic space. I blink and squint. What planet or power yanks Halley’s Comet out of orbit? We haven’t seen that force yet; it’s a question of distance, density, and the pallor of reflected light. We rock, cradled in the swaddling band of darkness. Even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind. Last summer, in August, I stayed at the creek too late.

~ Annie Dillard

Written by MattAndJojang

August 13, 2011 at 11:56 am

The Hard Work of Keeping Still

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One day last fall, just after 3 a.m, I found myself on a country road in the high Ogden Valley near Huntsville, Utah. It was the first morning of a three-day retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, a Trappist-Cistercian monastery, and I was walking the half mile from the guest house to the church for Vigils, the first of seven times each day that the monks gather to chant and pray.

I am not Catholic. As a child, I did not attend church of any kind and my adult observance can best be described as “Cafeterian,” drawing nourishment from many spiritual traditions. But the abbey offers retreat to anyone who seeks renewal, and for three days I had an apartment in the guest house to myself and an invitation to use my time for contemplation in whatever form I chose.

On a moonless night, the earth was inky black and the sky a field of diamonds. I did not, however, find myself in a world of ethereal quiet. I might have expected the chirp of night birds, the strange wooden cooing of Sandhill cranes, the bark of town dogs a few miles away, or even a truck groaning up a distant grade. All of these were present but only as bass tones to a more pervasive racket, an eerie, high-pitched call and response back and forth across the valley from high up in the hills. I didn’t recognize the sound: certainly not coyotes and too high-pitched for donkeys — unlike any bird call I could imagine. The sound wrapped me in its mystery and I had a thought that often occurs when I stop to really listen, even in midday: a world exists outside my knowing because I am asleep.

Later, Father Charles, who coordinates the retreats for women, told me I had arrived at the height of elk mating season. Of course. I should have known. I had heard bugling once or twice in my childhood, but I remembered it as much lower in pitch, and in fact elk make many different sounds. On subsequent mornings, I heard a range of calls as well as other signs that the animals were near: the sound of hooves running in the field beside the road, the stick-on-stick clatter of antlers as two bulls sparred. All this in the pitch dark. By day, the elk were nowhere to be seen, but I took comfort in knowing they were about, taking refuge, as was I, at the abbey.

The Abbey of our Lady of the Holy Trinity was founded in 1947 with 34 monks from Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky and is one of twelve Cistercian-Trappist monasteries in the United States. (There are also five convents.) The monks observe seven periods of Scripture, prayer, and song throughout the day known as the Liturgy of the Hours: Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. The ancient chants — historically in Latin but now in English — are sung in unison. In addition, the monks devote their lives to private prayer and manual labor.

Monks who enter a Trappist monastery live out their lives in community. Today, 15 monks live at the Huntsville Abbey and their average age is 80; there have been four funerals in the past year. There are more stones in the graveyard than plates on the table. They have no novices. “We are praying for that to change,” Father Charles told me.

The Abbey is self-supporting on 1800 acres of crop and range ground. Traditionally, the monks did all the ranch work themselves. Now, in deference to their ages, they lease out the land but still do the maintenance and housekeeping themselves as well as process creamed honey and run a book store and gift shop. One monk, a fine woodworker, builds grandfather clocks.

I had been under the impression that Trappist monks observe a vow of silence, but that has never been the case. They follow rules of silence that were stricter in the past than now, but they have always believed, as they explain on their website, that silence ”is a form of charity to others, but it is not absolute. Charity may sometimes oblige persons, including monks, to speak at the right time and in the right way.” The words have stayed with me. Often I am so distracted, so “busy,” that I feel far removed from a world in which I know how to speak — or do anything else, for that matter — “at the right time and in the right way.”

Recently, a friend reminded me of a quote from advertising: “I know half my advertising dollars are completely wasted; the problem is I don’t know which half.” And then commented that she felt that way about her busy-ness. “It’s usually only in retrospect that I can see things that really didn’t need to be done,” she wrote, “or at least not done in the frenzy with which I approached them, or indeed would have been much better left undone.”

She identifies a quandary that many of us feel. We are dancing so fast that we hardly hear the music. We fall in bed each night too exhausted to imagine that the ceaseless tasks that engage us might be a form of what the Tibetan Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche calls “active laziness.”

“Eastern laziness,” he writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,“ is like the one practiced to perfection in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite different. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues.

Many of us want to confront the real issues: how to live responsibly on this Earth, practice love for one other, and live in gratitude for the miracle of our existence — but we have forgotten how. It is one reason I went to Huntsville: to grow quiet enough to remember. It was not a complete retreat. I was “too busy” not to bring a writing deadline with me and I spent a few hours each day in the Huntsville library. But for a little sliver of time, my days were not so very different from those of the monks, in form if not in depth: I attended many, though not all, of the hours; I spent time in private meditation; I worked quietly with little outside distraction.

The Trappists are not teachers in the active sense. They do no ministry outside the monastery. In their words, they devote their lives “to live the gospel in our particular way for the sake of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.” They pray for us, and they provide a model of commitment and reverent industry through the quiet order of their day.

The monks live the strength of their vows to a degree that few of us can imagine. But as they observe the hours, they remind us that we all make vows with time, something which David Whyte eloquently explores in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:

“When we make a good marriage with time, … whatever sanity, patience, generosity and creative genius we are able to achieve in life is not solely within our own remit. It comes from a real conversation with something other than ourselves…The closer we are to the productions of time — that is, to the eternal — the more easily we understand the particular currents we must navigate on any given day…

To say yes …to [something] that we know we cannot do with any sanity given all our present commitments … would be the equivalent of promiscuity, of faithlessness and betrayal. Stress means we have committed adultery with regard to our marriage with time. If we want to understand the particulars of our reality, we must understand the way we conduct our daily relationship with the hours.”

I did not come home from Huntsville having entirely healed my marriage with time, and I know myself well enough to doubt I can completely resist the seduction of unnecessary busy-ness. But the retreat reminded me of the power of contemplation to create a spaciousness where our larger commitments can come into view. This seems a simple truth and in fact the Greek word for truth, aletheia, means a clearing. No matter how full the hours, I need to make time to hear the elk bugling in the hills, the monks chanting in the chapel, and the still small voice within.

~ Teresa Jordan

Written by MattAndJojang

March 13, 2011 at 9:41 am

Distant Drums

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Fermin with a Zambian child

We are reposting this inspiring blog entry  written by our good friend, Fermin ” Tarcs” Taruc who suddenly passed away today. We will miss you, Fermin. Rest in peace…

The author, Fermin “Tarcs” Taruc, is Jojang’s friend since the 1980′s. Recently, Fermin made a radical decision in his life. He took a sabbatical leave from his lucrative job at Gurango Software as its Chief Executive Officer, to spend six months in Zambia, Africa. We regularly read his blog because we enjoy reading his blog entries. His latest entry, Distant Drums, is very inspiring and we would like to share it with you…

As of today, I have 16 days left in Zambia. My remaining time will be spent completing a few projects and saying goodbye to the friends I have made.

The experience has been everything that I expected. It has been difficult and challenging. Oftentimes, I felt isolated and lonely. Conversely, it has also been everything I did not expect. I made a lot of new friends that I would not have been able to meet elsewhere. I learned new things, most especially about what I can do without. I look at my end-of-placement review document and, on paper at least, it seems I have done a lot in the past five and a half months. At the same time, I feel like I have not done much at all.

In the bus this morning on the way to the big city for a final workshop, I realized that It may take some time before I could process my entire experience and understand how exactly it has changed me. Maybe someday, after having made another one of my strange life choices, that is when I will suddenly realize – ah, this is what I learned in Africa, this is how Africa has transformed me.

For now, I have my curios and my experiences to remind me of the time I have spent here. When I am alone, I take out and admire the African souvenirs . I imagine how I would put them up back home or how to explain their provenance to my friends. But, a thing is a thing. I quickly get bored with this activity.

I spend more time running through my memories. I hold each one in my consciousness, considering their value against the bright light of hindsight Which ones are most precious to me? Which ones do I want to take home with me?

I could remember:

  • the wretchedness of a diarrhea attack in a place with limited toilet facilities (dear God, the wretchedness).
  • the 2 kilometer walk to get to the nearest hospital and the stench of sweat and sickness while waiting in line for my malaria test results (negative, but I was scared)
  • the appetizing mixture of mud and manure on which I could just not avoid stepping during rainy days
  • the frustrations from a work environment with limited resources and a different ethic
  • the feeling of helpless anger and the lost of my sense of complacent security after having my things stolen
  • the homesickness that was never more acute as during the cold nights when I would be shivering under a thick blanket, listening to the sound of scurrying rats in the ceiling, wishing I were home – warm, clean, stomach full – instead.

I could remember grievances, inconveniences, hardships, annoyances, irritants.

I could. But I don’t think I would want to. Even now, the details of these memories are starting to get fuzzy. How many times did I get diarrhea? Was it in November or December that I had malaria-like symptoms? What exactly were the things that were stolen from me?

I brush these memories aside. I survived. That is what matters. I have suffered thru shit, theft, stomach problems and homesickness before. They are not unique to my African experience.

Fortunately, there are many more memories from which to choose. These are the ones that will always seem like they only happened an hour ago. No matter what the future holds for me, these are the ones that will make me want to come back to this time and place.

I will remember

  • the many nights when I drifted off to sleep listening to the sound of distant drums, imagining people dancing around a bonfire, wondering what it was they might be celebrating.
  • that hot day, sitting under the shade of a tree when a hungry boy fell asleep in my arms – his rhythmic breathing against my chest, his little fingers clutched tightly around mine
  • that first day in Church when, after being introduced as a new member of the parish, a grandfatherly man came up to me, held my hands and said “You are home. We are your family here”
  • that late afternoon when, on the way home from work, I chanced upon a group of women standing at the back of a slowly moving truck. They were softly singing . The words were foreign but the melody was so evocative of sadness and longing. I was struck still in the middle of the street, suddenly remembering everything that I too have lost and miss as I watched them disappear into the dusk
  • the thrill of riding in a car moving carefully along a deserted road late at night, careful not to hit any elephant that may cross our way, thinking to myself, “Only in Africa”
  • the awe inspired by the gentle gaze of a fawn or the perfect beauty of a zebra ambling casually in front of me.
  • the joy in the faces of the children who would run up to greet me every single day that I have been in Kalomo. “Muzungu, muzungu”, they would shout, racing against each other in their ragged clothes, to be the first to touch me.
  • the simple, inspired meals cooked in small, cramped kitchens and shared happily with friends, all the more special because the occasions were so rare.
  • telling a group of Zambians that my hero is the ordinary Filipino in times of crisis; saying how proud I am of my countrymen who, regardless of the odds and the difficulties, still manage to laugh and to share; realizing as I was speaking how much it meant to me to be able to say this.

I will remember faces and names and smiles, each special, each distinct and separate from the other. I will remember every life story that was shared with me,.

I will remember magnificent, MAGNIFICENT, sunsets, and thundering waterfalls.

I will remember a rare rainbow seen in the faint glow of the moonlight; colorful trees that seemed to reach up to the sky; verdant landscapes dotted with settlements of mud-huts;

I will remember. Perhaps, while remembering, I might even hear the sound of distant drums again.

I have come full circle. This is Africa. This is my Africa.

Fermin “Tarcs” Taruc


Note: You may read the other entries of Tarc’s blog at: mid-life-angst.blogspot.com

Written by MattAndJojang Edit

March 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Blog

Written by MattAndJojang

February 28, 2011 at 7:37 pm

The Story of the Egyptian Revolution

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Photo: Nevine Saki

 

One week ago, Egypt was a stable authoritarian regime, prospects of change were minimal and every expert in Washington would have betted on the endurance of its regime. Today, Egypt is in a state of chaos. The regime, even after using its mightiest sword is not able to control the country and the streets of Egypt are in a state of utter lawlessness. As the world stands in awe, confusion, and worry at the unfolding events, perhaps it is important to write the evolving story that is happening in Egypt before any reflections can be made on them.

Contrary to pundits, it turns out that the Egyptian regime was neither stable nor secure. The lack of its stability is not a reflection of its weakness or lack of a resolve to oppress. It is a reflection of its inherent contradiction to the natural desire of men to enjoy their basic freedoms. Egyptians might not know what democracy actually means, but that does not make the concept any less desirable. Perhaps it is precisely its vagueness and abstraction that makes the concept all the more desirable.

For two weeks calls were made using new social media tools for a mass demonstration on the 25th of January. Observers dismissed those calls as another virtual activism that would not result in anything. Other calls in the past had resulted in very small public support and the demonstrations were limited to the familiar faces of political activists numbering in the hundreds. As the day progressed, the observers seemed to be correct in their skepticism. While the demonstrations were certainly larger than previous ones, numbering perhaps 15,000 in Cairo, they were nothing worrisome for the regime. They were certainly much smaller than the ones in 2003 against the Iraq War. The police force was largely tolerating and when they decided to empty Tahrir Square, where the demonstrators had camped for the night, it took them less than 5 minutes to do so.

But beneath that, things were very different. The social media tools had given people something that they had lacked previously, an independent means of communication and propaganda. Hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians in a matter of minutes were seeing the demonstration videos being uploaded on youtube. For an apolitical generation that had never shown interest in such events the demonstration was unprecedented. More remarkable they were tremendously exaggerated. At a moment when no more than 500 demonstrators had started gathering in that early morning, an Egyptian opposition leader could confidently tweet that he was leading 100,000 in Tahrir Square. And it stuck.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that after 58 years of organized state propaganda, people would not believe for a second the government’s media machine and its coverage of the events. Why they chose to believe the alternative propaganda needs more explaining. People believed the twitter messages and the facebook postings because they wanted to believe them. Tunisia had broken the barrier for many people. It mattered not that the situation and ruling formula in Tunisia is very different than the one in Egypt. Perceptions were more important than reality. If the Tunisians could do it, then so could we. With 15,000 demonstrating in Cairo, Egyptians were already texting each other with stories of the President’s son escape. The only debate being whether Hosni Mubarak would escape to London or Saudi Arabia.

The next day the demonstrations continued with a promise of a return on Friday the 28th after Friday Prayers in Mosques. The regime started panicking at this moment. This was simply something they did not understand. Imagine for a second Mubarak’s advisors trying to explain to the 83 year old dictator what twitter is in the first place. What was more worrying for them was that the only real force in Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood, announced its intention of joining the demonstrations. Suddenly they were faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from every Mosque in the country. They acted as every panicking authoritarian regime would act. They acted stupidly.

The internet was cut off in Egypt. Mobile phone companies were ordered to suspend services. With tools of communication disrupted the regime was hopeful that they had things under control. Simultaneously they started standard arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Things seemed for them under control. But they weren’t. With every stupid panicking move by the regime, the narrative of its weakness was only reinforced for the people. People saw a regime that was scarred of the internet and they rightfully calculated that this was their golden opportunity.

Friday was an unprecedented event in Egypt. While it is impossible to guess the number of protestors on the streets that day, it is safe to say that they exceeded one million. Every Mosque was a launching site for a demonstration. The Islamists were out in full force. The slogans that day were quite different than the previous ones. Islamic slogans and activists were clearly visible. The security forces were faced with wave after wave of protestors that came from every street. In 4 hours, the security forces were collapsing.

Whether Mubarak was fully previously told about the deteriorating situation for the previous days or whether it was at this moment that he suddenly realized the gravity of the situation remains unknown. One thing is sure; the regime was not prepared for this. It is at this moment that the decision was taken to call in the army, announce a curfew, and withdraw the security forces. In reality the army did not deploy immediately. The troops and tanks that appeared in the streets were the Presidential Guard units deployed in Cairo.

The army was actually still far away from deploying in Cairo. Because no one had imagined that the situation would totally be out of control, the level of alert of the army was never raised. Officers were not called from their vacations and the whole top command of the Egyptian army was actually thousands of miles away in Washington for strategic prearranged discussions at the Pentagon. Moreover, the plan of deployment of the army never imagined a scenario where people would defy it. No one imagined that the army would be required to put a tank in every street. They thought that the mere mention of the army being called in, the sight of a few tanks, and the announcement of the curfew, would make people immediately go home scared. People did not.

The Egyptian army is hugely popular. This is due to the established mythology of Egyptian politics. The army, which is in all aspects the regime, is seen as separate by the people. The army is viewed as clean (not like the corrupt government), efficient (they do build bridges fast), and more importantly the heroes that defeated Israel in 1973 (it is no use to debate that point with an Egyptian). With the troops and tanks appearing in the streets, people actually thought the army was on their side, whatever that might mean. With an announced Presidential addressed that kept being delayed; Egyptians prepared themselves for an announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.

Mubarak was at a loss. The troops could not possibly shoot people. That would not only destroy the army’s reputation, but more importantly the troops practically could not do it. These guys after all were not trained for this. They do not have rubber bullets or tear gas. They only have live ammunition and tanks and the thought of actually using them in this situation was never an option. To the surprise of the regime, people just celebrated the army’s arrival and started dancing in the streets defying the curfew. More importantly something else was happening as well. The looting was starting.

The decision to withdraw the security forces was a natural decision. First they were utterly exhausted and needed the rest to regroup. Secondly, as the security forces had become the symbol of the regime’s oppression their withdrawal was seen as necessary to calm things. Thirdly and most importantly, in the protocol of operations there could not possibly be two forces with arms in the same street receiving orders from two different structures of command. Even with the best of coordination, a disaster is bound to happen.

What was not calculated however is the fact that suddenly a vacuum was created. The security forces were withdrawn and the army was not deployed yet. In this gap an opportunity presented itself for everyone. The scenes were unbelievable. First there was massive anger vented at symbols of state oppression such as the ruling party’s headquarters. More drastically, in what can only be described as systematic targeting, police stations everywhere were attacked. Every police station in Cairo was looted, the weapons in them stolen and then burned. At the same time, massive looting was taking place. Even the Egyptian Museum, which hosts some of the world’s greatest heritage, was not spared.

Saturday was indescribable. Nothing that I write can describe the utter state of lawlessness that prevailed. Every Egyptian prison was attacked by organized groups trying to free the prisoners inside. In the case of the prisons holding regular criminals this was done by their families and friends. In the case of the prisons with the political prisoners this was done by the Islamists. Bulldozers were used in those attacks and the weapons available from the looting of police stations were available. Nearly all the prisons fell. The prison forces simply could not deal with such an onslaught and no reinforcements were available. Nearly every terrorist held in the Egyptian prisons from those that bombed the Alexandria Church less than a month ago to the Murderer of Anwar El Sadat was freed, the later reportedly being arrested again tonight.

On the streets of Cairo it was the scene of a jungle. With no law enforcement in town and the army at a loss at how to deal with it, it was the golden opportunity for everyone. In a city that is surrounded with slums, thousands of thieves fell on their neighboring richer districts. People were robbed in broad daylight, houses were invaded, and stores looted and burned. Egypt had suddenly fallen back to the State of Nature. Panicking, people started grabbing whatever weapon they could find and forming groups to protect their houses. As the day progressed the street defense committees became more organized. Every building had its men standing in front of it with everything they could find from personal guns, knives to sticks. Women started preparing Molotov bombs using alcohol bottles. Street committees started coordinating themselves. Every major crossroad had now groups of citizens stopping all passing cars checking their ID cards and searching the cars for weapons. Machine guns were in high demand and were sold in the streets.

I do not aim to turn this into a personal story, but those people are my friends and family. It is a personal story to me. My neighbors were all stationed in my father-in-law’s house with men on the roof to lookout for possible attackers. A friend of mine was shot at by a gang of thieves and another actually killed one of them to defend his house and wife. Another friend’s brother arrested 37 thieves that day. The army’s only role in all of this was to pass by each area to pick up the arrested thieves. Army officers informed the street committees that anyone with an illegal weapon should not worry and should use it. Any death of one of the thieves would not be punished.

On the political front the story was evolving. More troops were pouring into Cairo. Mubarak decided to appoint Omar Suliman as Vice President and Ahmed Shafik as Prime Minister. Both are military men, Suliman being the Chief of the Egyptian Intelligence Service and Shafik being the former commander of the Air Forces. To understand the moves one has to understand the nature of the ruling coalition in Egypt and the role of the army in it.

The Egyptian regime has been based since 1952 on a coalition between the army and the bureaucrats. In this regard it fits perfectly into O’Donnell’s Bureaucratic Authoritarian model. The army is fully in control of both actual power and the economy. Ex-army officers are appointed to run state enterprises and high level administrative positions. More importantly the army has an enormous economic arm that runs enterprises as diverse as construction companies and food distribution chains. In the late 90’s this picture began to change.

It is no news for anyone following Egyptian politics that Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son was being groomed to follow his father. In reality, the elder Mubarak was never fully behind that scenario. Whether it was a real assessment of his son’s capabilities or of the acceptance of the army to such a scenario, Mubarak was hesitant. It was his wife who was heavily pushing that scenario. Gamal, step by step started rising inside the ruling NDP party. With him he brought two groups to the ruling coalition. First were the Western educated economic technocrats trained in international financial institutions they shared what is generally described as neo-liberal economic policies labeled the Washington Consensus. Secondly was the growing business community that was emerging in Egypt. Together they started the process of both restructuring the Egyptian economy and the ruling party.

For the technocrats it was the fiscal and economic policy that was their domain and they performed miracles. The Egyptian economy under the Nazif government showed unprecedented growth. The currency was devalued, investment was pouring in, and exports were growing. Even the economic crisis did not dramatically effect Egypt. The real disaster in all of this however is that no one actually rationalized or defended those policies to the Egyptian public. The country was moving towards a full capitalist system but no explained why that was needed or why it was ultimately beneficial. While such restructuring is naturally painful for a population that was dependent on the government for all its needs, the people were fed the same socialist rhetoric nonetheless. It mattered very little that the country was improving economically, people did not see that. It is not that the effects were not trickling down, they were. It is that the people were used to the nanny state for so many years that they could not understand why the government was no longer providing them with those services.

Businessmen greatly benefited from the economic improvement. Business was good and political aspirations started to emerge for them. First it was a Parliament seat that they desired. It offered immunity from prosecution after all. With Gamal however, they suddenly had a higher opportunity. Gamal wanted to recreate the ruling NDP party. The NDP, never actually a real party and more of a mass valueless organization of state operation was suddenly turning into a real party. Businessmen like Ahmed Ezz, the steel tycoon saw a golden opportunity. They took full control with Gamal of the party and with it power.

The army never liked Gamal or his friends. Gamal had never served in the military. To add insult to injury his friends were threatening the dominance of the army. The technocrat’s neo-liberal policies were threatening the army’s dominance of the closed economy and the party was becoming step by step an actual organization that competes with the army officers in filling administrative positions. Suddenly the doors to power in Egypt were not a military career but a party ID card. As long as the President was there however, the army was silent. The army is 100% loyal to the President. He is an October War hero and their Commander in Chief. He is seen as an Egyptian patriot by them who has served his country well. Moreover Gamal Abdel Nasser having conducted his own military coup in 1952 put mechanisms in the army to ensure that no one else would do the same and remove him.

With the unfolding events the army was finally able to put its narrative to the President and have his support behind it. The army’s narrative is that Gamal and his friends ruined it. Their neo-liberal policies alienated people and angered them with talks of subsidies removal, while his party gang destroyed the political system by aiming to crush all opposition. Mubarak in the past had mastered the art of playing the opposition. The opposition was always co-opted. Sizes in Parliament differed in various elections, but there was always a place there for the opposition. The last elections in 2010 were different. No opposition was allowed to win seats. By closing the legitimate political methods of raising grievances, the opposition chose the illegitimate ones in the form of street demonstrations.

Today the Egyptians are scared. They have been given a glimpse of hell and they don’t like what they see. Contrary to Al Jazeera’s propaganda, the Egyptian masses are not demonstrating anymore. They are protecting their homes and families. The demonstration last night had 5,000 political activists participating and not 150,000 as Al Jazeera insists. At this moment, no one outside of those political activists cares less now if the President will resign or not. They have more important concerns now; security and food.

So where are we today? Well the answer is still not clear, yet a couple of conclusions are evident.

1.      The Gamal inheritance scenario is finished.

2.      Mubarak will not run for another Presidential term. His term ends in October and either he will serve the rest of his term or will resign once things cool down for health reasons, which are real. He is dying.

3.      The army is in control now. We are heading back to the “golden age” of army rule. The “kids” are no longer in charge. The “men’ are.

4.      Until the economy fails again, the neo-liberal economic policies are over. Forget about an open economy for some time.

Immediately the task of the army is to stabilize the situation and enforce order. The security forces have been ordered to reappear in the streets starting tonight. The next task will be to deal with the political activists and the Muslim Brotherhood which now dominates the scene. It is anyone’s guess how that will be done, but in a couple of days the Egyptians will probably be begging the army to shoot them. Third stage will be to return to normal life again with people going back to their jobs and somehow food being made available. Later on however will come the political questions.

The long term challenges are numerous. First you have a huge economic loss in terms of property destroyed. The minute the banks will be reopened, there will be a run on them and capital flight will be the key word in town. It is of course quite natural that for some time no one in his sensible mind will invest in Egypt.

Politically, the army will aim at returning to the pre-Gamal ruling formula. People will be appeased by raising salaries and increasing subsidies with the hope of silencing them. Will it be enough? That is doubtful. The Egyptians have realized for the first time that the regime is not as strong as it looked a week ago. If the army did not stop them, how will they ever be silenced? Moreover they are greatly empowered. Egyptians today feel pride in themselves. They have protected their neighborhoods and done what the army has failed to do. This empowerment will not be crushed easily.

Security wise the situation is a disaster. It might take months to arrest all those criminals again. Moreover no one has a clue how the weapons that were stolen will ever be collected again or how the security will ever regain its necessary respect to restore public order after it was defeated in 4 hours. More importantly, reports indicate that the borders in Gaza were open for the past few days. What exactly was transferred between Gaza and Egypt is anyone’s guess.

You seem to wonder after all of this where El Baradei and the Egyptian opposition are. CNN’s anointed leader of the Egyptian Revolution must be important to the future of Egypt. Hardly! Outside of Western media hype, El Baradei is nothing. A man that has spent less than 30 days in the past year in Egypt and hardly any time in the past 20 years is a nobody. It is entirely insulting to Egyptians to suggest otherwise. The opposition you wonder? Outside of the Muslim Brotherhood we are discussing groups that can each claim less than 5,000 actual members. With no organization, no ideas, and no leaders they are entirely irrelevant to the discussion. It is the apolitical young generation that has suddenly been transformed that is the real question here.

Where Egypt will go from here is an enigma. In a sense everything will be the same. The army that has ruled Egypt since 1952 will continue to rule it and the country will still suffer from a huge vacuum of ideas and real political alternatives. On the other hand, it will never be the same again. Once empowered, the Egyptians will not accept the status quo for long.

On the long run the Egyptian question remains the same. Nothing has changed in that regard. It is quite remarkable for people to be talking about the prospect for a democratic transition at this moment. A population that was convinced just two months ago that sharks in the Red Sea were implanted by the Israeli Intelligence Services is hardly at a stage of creating a liberal democracy in Egypt. But the status quo cannot be maintained. A lack of any meaningful political discourse in the country has to be addressed.  Until someone actually starts addressing the real issues and stop the chatterbox of clichés on democracy, things will not get better at all. It will only get worse.

~ Sam Tadros