My mother always told me never to miss an opportunity to thank someone or be kind to someone. She passed away yesterday morning, less than two weeks shy of her 83rd birthday. My mother has been the rock and foundation, the inspiration and moral compass for me, my brothers, and I suspect many others whose lives she touched as relative, colleague, teacher, neighbor and friend throughout her vibrant, warm, inquisitive and exemplary life. I will not go into greater detail about the remarkable human being whom we’ve lost; instead I have chosen to find every single photo readily available from past blog postings and put them into a collage which will change each time I (or you) come to look at this page. In part I have done this to remind myself of the quality time I have been able to spend with her during the adult phase of my own life, and partly to reassure myself that she felt thanked by me. I’m sure I was never as kind as I could have been, and I will try to learn as she would expect. So far as I can tell, these photos cover nearly 50 years of Mom’s life, since some of the earliest photos are ones I scanned a few years ago. Please join me in honoring the mothers and models in our lives…by being kind and thankful, as I am for my mother, and the support of my family and friends.
Ok,so since I’m on a roll I’m putting up the first photos from a completely **glorious** day at my own personal very-favorite day-trip location near NYC: Storm King Art Center, which I certainly remember visiting in the early 80’s if not before. As you’ll see here, and in upcoming posts, we had simply the most perfect possible weather, and Mom mustered the energy to hold up more than her half of the sky, even as she juggled a few health challenges of her own. If you’ve not been to Storm King, do go. And support your own local gardens & arts places :-). Peace, out.
2015 was the first time since 2005, when I started this whole global-wanderer thing, that I’ve been at work only one flight away from the US, and in the same time zone as my mom and one of my brothers. This was also the first holiday season in more than a decade where both my brothers and I managed to get together in one place. Not only several lovely meals and afternoons together, but a trip to the local, fantastic, brewery in honor of my biggest brother’s new brewing ambitions. My sister-in-law generally stayed behind the camera, but certainly helped fill out the festive feeling for everyone. We got out and about a good deal, some with just mom and Steve who were able to stay longer, and some with Chuck as well. Lovely, and I’m going to let the many pics just speak for themselves. Some are really just family stuff of limited appeal to most of my readers…apologies, but it was special for me. 🙂
My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then. (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!
In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)
Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).
This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):
Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:
I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:
2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:
2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:
I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:
2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:
…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.
I’ve woken this morning, for the first time in my life, to a world in which I can’t visit, see or phone my uncle Bill. Having grown up without a father around & with both grandfathers passed before I was eleven, uncle Bill was the only adult male relative that I really felt close to, growing up. I always had the sense – once I grew up enough to take note – that he tried to step in and do what he could for me and my brothers whenever we were together: from miniature golf when I was a kid and we were all visiting our grandparents, to the summers that he and aunt Judy let me spend at their home when I was a teenager which were an opportunity to spend time with my cousins also, to more recent conversations about my humanitarian medical work, given his role as an eminent MD and medical researcher. I know that it’s one of those essential realities of being human, being organic life, that generations succeed each other and, yes, that generational succession means our elders will not always be with us. Since my work takes me so far away, so much of the time these days, this is one of my greatest fears: losing someone dear to me when I’m thousands of miles and many long flights away. I take slim consolation in my own loss this morning, from my very fond memories of the visits I was able to make to Bill and Judy at their lake house in Wisconsin just last summer, and the time spent at that wonderful family reunion (also known as my niece’s wedding) in New Mexico just weeks later. I haven’t seen Bill since, but with me on the continent we’ve talked by phone a few times. I know with time I’ll adapt to the idea that we won’t talk on the phone or see each other in person again, and that Bill will join my grandmother as one of the people with whom I wish I could share the moments when I’m living most richly — as I’ve done since that other sad family reunion nearly 30 years ago when she had left us all. I know that others feel this loss even more deeply than I, and I send my thoughts to all of my cherished extended family this morning, along with some photos I’ve scanned and pulled from my archives. Though I’ve rarely gotten so personal on this blog, uncle Bill absolutely merits special treatment and this review of my lifetime’s worth of memories of the closest uncle I’ll ever have is the best I can do right now. Good bye, uncle Bill…
The road trip continued….although it takes me far longer than I’d wish to get these photos sorted and up here for you to enjoy! After leaving upstate New York, Mom and I decided that we simply couldn’t bear another trip along the usual I-80/I-90 corridor the follows the U.S. southern shore of Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Michigan — our goal was Wisconsin, where we were able to spend a few lovely days visiting my aunt and uncle; and we were departing from Rochester which – by U.S. standards – is quite a piece north…and this led to my crazy idea to explore the northern shore of Lake Huron through Ontario. What a lovely outing it was!
This enabled us to spend a night in the lakeside town of Blind River, ON and to explore portions of that enormous province that I’d never been anywhere near, previously – gaining a more visceral sense of the beautiful, rich rivers and waterways which the Ojibwe and Cree have traveled since long before my ancestors arrived near these shores. I really wish we’d had more time to stay, explore and enjoy high summer along the Canadian shores of North America’s Great Lakes — but the wedding date loomed ever nearer and we had many other people and places on the list before we intended to arrive in Albuquerque. So here, and without much further comment, you can enjoy shots from Blind River, some not-so-great but they are what they are shots taken by Mom as we drove across the international bridge from Canada back into the US where three lakes are all coming very close to one another, along the channel directly connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron and quite close to where the Edumund Fitzgerald went down in stormy waters back in the 1970s as commemorated in that wonderful song by Gordon Lightfoot…and then some shots from the Lake Michigan shoreline along Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and one beautiful farm-field sunset shot in Wisconsin. Didn’t get the camera out much more in Wisconsin and this shot doesn’t do justice to the huge midsummer sun sinking below corn fields in real time, but trust me – the upper great lakes region in high summer is pretty wonderful to spend time in.
In the photo gallery and below, the three shots taken by Mom from the Sault Sainte Marie Bridge, which connects the nations of Canada and the U.S. across the locks and waterway which link Lake Superior with Lake Huron, you are looking west over Whitefish Bay and it’s maybe conceivable (what do I know?!) the camera sees as far as the water above the spot where the Edmund Fitzgerald was found.
I’m still pretty deeply embedded in this north American continent, still quite deeply enmeshed in this project to set Mom up for a safer, gentler ongoing retirement by, well, nearly tearing down and rebuilding her house. This raises questions both deep and shallow. The most-common question asked by new acquaintances (read: usually guys I wish I could be dating) is ‘What do you do.’ For some time now I’ve taken disproportionate pride and joy in being able to say I’m a humanitarian worker – it usually launches interesting conversations, and it pretty well always garners me some approving feelings and comments from my conversation partner. However, for a guy of my years and experience to be…sort of an unemployed homeless person, formerly a humanitarian worker but now engaged in the humanitarian ‘Mom Project,’ – well, that just doesn’t come across quite so glamorous. There are deeper pleasures and rewards of family closeness and connection to my Mom, though; one came this past week, as my brothers and I gathered to help move Mom into her new temporary residence, and a few days later when I saw this house in which she (and we) had been accumulating detritus and stuff since 1975 emptied completely. It awaits now only building approval for the demolition and excavation to begin.
And while, on the surface, none of this is as challenging or rewarding as – say – running a surgical and emergency hospital in the Niger Delta, it keeps me busy. In addition, whether I like it or not, it forces me to sit down with questions like identity, life goals, and what it’s all about. I’m one of those Americans who’s felt rather estranged from my country, which took a turn from bad to much worse when we allowed the most destructive president of all time to remain in office after the 2004 elections. It’s much easier, when traveling internationally, to act Canadian than to have to explain that we truly have NO IDEA how that managed to happen. And since that was true – I really have had no idea why so many Americans looked at this lying, incompetent man and said ‘yeah, four more years in the White House sounds like a great idea for him.’ So it’s been much easier to just act like I’m not really part of it.
Being back has made me recognize, again, the complicated reality that is America, that is being American. And that complicated multi-faceted contradictory reality is more than ever present in our current circumstances. We’ve passed a presidential election that’s brought hope to folks around the world for a more constructive, engaged and positive American influence in the world – not to mention more realistic and honorable policies at home. At the same time, the US has spurred another global economic downturn that’s clearly one of the worst in 100 years, and whose bottom we’ve probably not yet found. Four and six years ago, I was totally bearish on America when others were betting our stock ever higher and acting like the high-flying leveraged days of irresponsibility could last forever. Now I find myself unusually bullish and confident, at a time when many seem quite lost and fearful.
The most worrisome aspect to me of our current situation is the deliberate know-nothing approach that many Americans take to our social and political realities. And I don’t say that lightly. A democratic nation whose citizens choose, quite deliberately, to show no interest in the complex and challenging realities of the world they live in simply cannot succeed over the long term. Those who’ve fallen deeply in love with Sarah Palin reflect a deeply-rooted, uniquely American idea that complicated answers are bad, and sound bites are good; that intellect is the enemy, irrational simplicity our friend. I’ve wondered constantly how mothers and fathers in middle America, who I’m certain can barely manage to find solutions to their own family’s belt-tightening crisis, can possibly think that simple sound-bite answers will be found for the largest economy and most complicated government structure the world has ever know. And YES, our government DOES need to be the most complicated the world has ever known, since it manages the largest military, biggest economy, and third largest population the world has ever known. How could there possibly be simple answers for such an entity?
But this is the country where you can’t run for president without mouthing the mandatory ‘America is the greatest nation on earth’ formula. Do those mouthing or hearing the words have concrete ideas (as in, why we’re necessarily greater than Bhutan, Ethiopia or Italy?) in mind when they say it or hear it? I AM proud to be American; I DO think there’s much to be proud of in what we’ve done over the years. Sadly, there’s very much to be terribly ashamed of more recently, and those who re-elected Bush and brought more death and torture to remote corners of the globe, funded by their tax dollars, need to acknowledge their responsibility for what was done by the government they voted for, with their tax dollars. And I’d love to hear their list of concrete things that make them so proud, that make this the ‘greatest nation.’ I have my own list – though I reject utterly the notion that any nation is, or should expect to be, the ‘greatest nation.’ All citizens in all nations are doing what they can to put food on the tables of their families, and most governments, to a greater or lesser extent, are trying to find ways of meeting at least the most basic needs of their citizens.
Still and all, considering the fear and worry on the minds of many Americans, it’s a good time to remember things we can be reasonably proud of. This country, in creative dialogue with Franceth century, created a meaningful new model of democracy that helped fire political and social imaginations throughout the world. This country has been the leading nation composed of immigrants from all cultures, languages and ethnicities; and that diversity has usually given us the kind of health and creative vitality that most mutts have. At times we could learn well from our great northern neighbor, Canada, how better to create a cultural quilt that honors our differences rather than trying to melt them in a pot and fit everyone into the same mold; but still, we’ve done pretty well at taking the energies and experiences of people from all over the world and using them grow an endlessly creative and energetic nation. And we’ll need all that energy and creativity to find our way out of the mess Bush & Co have sunk us so deeply into. I could go on, but the point is made –like all nations and groups, we’ve made contributions both good and bad to the world as a whole, but consistent with our size and place in history, we’ve had a larger impact that most other nations in the past couple hundred years. And we can really be proud of a lot. But it’s been too long since our government did much that we can really be proud of: I’d say the last truly visionary thing we did was use the Marshall plan to invest in a devastated Europe (including Germany) and Japan at the end of World War II. We’ve been coasting on the good will that created ever since – and that well done run dry. We need to get out there and create some meaningful good will, by dropping help rather than bombs on people in developing nations around the world. In fairness to Shrub, he’s left at least one meaningful, positive legacy in the plus column – his serious commitment to AIDS help for nations in Africa. Would that he’d done more of that, and less of the bombs and torture.
It’s clear the hope for renewal and meaningful leadership is shared eagerly all over the world, and this shows up in my own inbox with emails from friends all over saying things from ‘good on you, america,’ or ‘yippi yi ya for obama’ to ‘thank you all you american friends out there…you have made it for the whole of us!!!’ and ‘tears of joy and relief are in my eyes.’ I gave many hours to campaign phone-banks for Obama during October and November. I was born and grew up in Ohio, which was to 2004 what Florida was to 2000. I’m so happy to see the voters finally reject the hate, fear and consumption based approach to life we’ve followed for too long. (Don’t forget that W’s recommendation to citizens after 9/11 was that we should go shopping.) I was personally called anti-American and anti-troops by several people I thought of as friends when I opposed our imperial unilateralist war-mongering response to what, in 2001, could have been a very teachable moment for ourselves and the world. (How different would we and the world now be if we’d taken all those dollars we’ve now wasted in Iraq, and used it on a Marshall-like plan to provide healthcare, education and opportunity in the world’s most deprived places?)
One thing I’ve become increasingly clear about is the need to speak out about my own beliefs and faith. Here in the US, religion is too often used as such a bludgeon to separate and judge – making folks like me very uncomfortable about speaking out for our own beliefs and values, which differ so starkly from those judgmental, narrow-minded religions that bludgeon, but that are no less deeply based in a deep spiritual commitment to right and ethical living in this world. I’ve become convinced that traditional, hidebound religions are a terrible impediment to progress in the US, and are limiting our vision and potential far too much. We are, after all, a nation formed by religious rebels of many stripes – so it’s unsurprising that religion and ethics play a huge role in our public life. Before church recently, I sat in the one of the adult education sessions I’ve so enjoyed; this was about Jewish theologian Abraham Hershel. In one passage, he recounted being told, as a 7-year-old, about the biblical story of Abraham taking Isaac up to the mountain to be sacrificed, as he’d heard his god demand he do. Naturally the 7-year-old was pretty horrified by the notion of a father killing his son based on the say-so of some voice in the air, and wondered what would have happened if the angel hadn’t told Abraham to stop before his knife struck Isaac’s neck. The rabbi’s answer? Angels are never late – humans, maybe, Angels never.
And that, my friends, is as good an illustration as any of why organized, judgmental religions have far outlived their usefulness to humanity. What sane ethical being would stick a knife in a son’s neck, for any reason, let alone because a voice spoke in thin air? And what sane person would put stock in a holy book that calls this a test of faith? Who needs a god that tests faith by insisting on human sacrifice? Didn’t Christians kill ‘pagans’ for thinking just that when they arrived in far-flung lands throughout the 19th century? What responsible human being would cede agency and responsibility for their own actions and ethics to an unknown angel, or an unknown god, whose existence must be taken on faith? If you believe in that god, don’t you suppose he/she/it gave you that head on your shoulders to be USED rather than turned off?
Something that discomfits me about the unitarian church I’ve been attending here in NYC is that the G word comes up rather often in services. I’m tired of whether we do or don’t believe in G – and I think actions matter more than spoken beliefs. It’s totally clear what sane, intelligent and ethical human beings should be doing in this world — taking care of one another and the planet, reducing conflict, bringing more and more deprived and impoverished people from developing nations and deprived parts of our own nations into our communities of opportunity, restoring the earth and our human world to a more sane balance and distribution of opportunity. To those in Kansas or Alabama who want to parrot that old Puritan saw about predestination, and basically say that their god has blessed them by allowing them to be born in this rich land of milk and honey, while those poor kids in [name of developing nation here] are just shit out of luck in this life…well, I say yours is not a religious practice worthy of the name. Because if religion serves any purpose in human life, surely it is to bind humanity together and increase the safety and security of us all, not just of one people or one community, but of our ever-more-connected global village. So learn a bit more about the world, get out of the Wal Mart and off your butt and do something to help the world become a better place – and start by reducing your own consumption, and using the saved money to donate to reliable charities that give food and medicine to needy people – and not bibles, since those don’t cure tuberculosis or hunger. While you’re at it, you might get around to admitting that hormones are hormones, and abstinence-only ain’t never gonna work…but I won’t ask too much.
In Clint Eastwood’s new movie Changeling, the main character says ‘I didn’t start this fight, but I’m going to finish it.’ I’m feeling much that way now. For many years now, I and other liberal and progressive Americans have felt judged and rejected by what the media like to call ‘values voters.’ I’m tired of that – I am what I am, my values tell me to take care of my friends, family, community and world, and yes I’m proud to be far to the left and far more knowledgeable about what goes on in the world than most other Americans. Deal with it. We all have the right and responsibility both to live the lives that feel right to us – and to accept, without complaint, the consequences of those lives. For many Americans, right now, that means finding ways to tighten belts and develop some goals and values in life that involve something more than non-stop consumption, trips to the mall, and heaping more junk into their houses that will end up in the trash. There’s a lot to see and do in the world that doesn’t increase you carbon footprint. Try it – learn a little, explore a little; you might find that you like living a bit smaller in a larger world.