Back Home Again

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Early morning, near Keekorok, close to the Tanzanian border

Home is where the heart is. I am back in Kenya for a third time, reflecting as much a decision of the heart as anything the head had to say about it.

I still wear the beaded bracelet that was forced over a large hand onto my wrist sixteen months ago, a physical and sometimes irritating reminder of a promise I made to myself on that first trip to return.

It was early in the morning, sunrise on the Mara, and the feeling I had at sunset the night before (on my 36 hour safari) returned with astonishing power. I looked across the landscape and said to myself, I will be back. Not knowing how or when, there was as much certainty in that feeling as the sun’s trajectory into the morning sky, silhouetting the unique trees of the savannah.

The prairie soulscape of Canada for me had become forever intertwined with its African companion.

As I write this, watching a herd of elephants cross the horizon on a hill and the monkeys playing in the hammock near by, it is just as natural as seeing cats and dogs.

After the hustle of Nairobi’s traffic, the casual intensity of the distant thunderstorm out here, marked by birdcalls I don’t recognize, takes me to another time and place.

With all the complexities of the human psyche, perhaps there is some lingering genetic recall of the place from which all humanity emerged. Yet the sense of one’s African home rediscovered is clichéd, especially for the pasty Europeans whose ancestors ripped native African people out of their homes and cultures for centuries.

And of course the Africa I experience here is almost as manicured as the setting at the United Nations campus in Nairobi (UNON), not reflecting the struggle for survival that is played out across the hillscapes of Maasai-land. Yet even in safari parks and tourist lodges, the underlying primal logic breaks through.

Looking at the tourists that stroll by, shaped from worlds away, I walk instead with the local people, different to casual glance but not in the spirit beneath, though mine is as awkward and hesitant as the Maasai and Swahili words I attempt.

Even the triple handshake seems more familiar now, a rhythm of introduction that brings a complexity of touch and turns strangers into people with possibilities for a relationship. Not everyone wants or accepts that extra maneuver, but some do – and culture and difference are instantly woven into a common humanity.

It is a visit tinged with regret, however, for I only wish I had found her sooner. Africa is a mistress lodged in the moment, whatever ancient past or anxious future. Her passion and vulnerability are expressed by the dynamics of life, woven together into what is, captured in an instant that transcends the crude measures humans make of the passage of time.

As I turn the bracelet on my wrist again, at the risk of defying again whatever gods have something to say about my future, I will be back.

Goose Has Gone to Fly

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Birds do, it, bees do it – not too sure about the educated fleas, but there comes a time to leave the nest and strike out on your own.

I’ve done my share of nest leaving over the years, but it is harder to watch your child leave than to do it yourself.

When I teach ethics and sustainability, I build a values map of my classes by asking the students, individually and in groups, one simple question:

“What do children need to know when they leave home?”

Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, what do we need to teach the children?

The answers range from the profound to the absurd, from the unteachable to the mundanely practical, but the final list of ten things reveals a lot about the group.

This morning, as my first-born left the nest, the question became far less academic.

The most evident lessons are obvious in their results, external markers of social expectations, manners and the like. Personal hygiene, like cooking ability, is pretty easy to check.

As a parent, it’s much harder (and more unnerving) to gauge the lessons that you taught without knowing it, because not all lessons are good ones.

Yet the longer I have thought about it, the more I have come to realize that parents are praised and blamed about their children far out of proportion to what they deserve.

We make our own choices. Period. Others may push and pull us, persuade us and even coerce us, but in the end we all choose for ourselves. Even submission is a choice. Anything else undermines who we are as individuals. It takes away our autonomy, our moral agency, and makes us less than human.

Years ago, I remember when my daughter went on what was billed a “human rights trip” through her high school.

Instead of a trip that sampled the beaches and shopping of France and Spain, she saw something of what was eastern Europe, from behind the former Iron Curtain in Prague to salt mines in Poland. I told her not to bother bringing me back some kitschy souvenir, but that if she saw something interesting, go ahead.

When she came back and presented me with a small chip of brick she had picked up from the streets of Auschwitz, I knew that the trip had been worth far more than its cost.

I have never been there and may never have the chance, but she had learned something for herself that I have spent a lifetime teaching other people’s children.

In a world of choices, the real triumph of the will is to remember the resilience of the human spirit, the power of hope, and the possibilities that unfold in a universe of relations from any single thing you choose.

Those possibilities can be horrifying if they come out of the dark side that lies in all of us.

But they can also be beautiful and inspiring, lighting up any dark place with love, peace, hope and joy — defeating that darkness, even if just for a moment, because it exists only because of the absence of light.

That’s a lesson to teach the children, all of them – they have choices, always, and choosing light allows them to see the next step clearly, however dim or dark the journey ahead might be at any point.

My daughter is a musician, but she learned along the way that music comes from the heart and the soul – a gift, as much as it is a craft, something that comes out of who you are, not just out of what you are able to do.

No parent could teach that, but it’s a lesson I’m glad she learned.

Her plane is about to leave, so it’s time for me to go back to the work I have chosen to do. I have promises to keep.

As a parent and as a person, I know I could have made better choices than I have, but I am still learning.

Life is a work in progress, after all. The sun always rises on a new day.

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Early the next morning, I walked down to the river at sunrise, as I like to do. It is a peaceful time, a few minutes that I can walk with my thoughts or just not think at all, alone and unpursued by the demands of the day.

I caught a picture of the sun rising over the Red River as it twisted east and then north out of sight, the trail of a jet arcing across a sky skiffed with bits of cloud.

James Taylor’s song, Walkin’ Man, has haunting lyrics. In the work I have chosen for myself, I am constantly sowing seeds. But there are many times when I feel the pull of the wild geese, the need to just keep on walking, drawn along by the journey and not distracted by anything or anyone.

Yet the wild geese come back, if they can. Some fall to hunters, others to the perils of the journey they make. Age makes no difference, because it seems better to fly toward the end of life than to be afraid of what lies ahead.

What we try to teach the children, our own or others, is rarely what they learn. In the end, the most important lessons are those they choose. Whether they follow our example or avoid it isn’t the point — just as long as they don’t let that yearning pass them by.

Birds do it, bees do it, all the time – leaving the nest is part of what it means to choose the journey, not just once, but many times.

But what biologists call the homing instinct is strong in all of us. Whether we make the trip in person or only in spirit, whether we make the trip frequently or only once in a while, we are all called home.

Remembering home reminds us who we are and where we come from. It grounds us, strengthens us, gives us a place to stand. It reminds us there is a place where we belong.

And that is a feeling you can walk with, wherever.

Horizons

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A year ago today, I walked from my Vancouver hotel in the crisp early morning air down to Canada Place and found the sun catching angles of the miniature Olympic torch.

I had spent the previous three days in an international conference on sustainability, meeting people from around the world, learning details of their work that I would otherwise never have known.

As my breath crystalized in temperatures unusual for Vancouver and the sun broke past the mountains, I reflected on the unsettling experience of losing my own horizons.

I am from the prairies. While born in Alberta and despite having lived elsewhere for many years, there is something about the expanse of the prairies on a clear day that is only matched by standing on the ocean’s shore, looking out to sea.

I am used to Big Sky, the northern lights covering the night overhead, the sunrise or sunset that radiates out from where I stand in all directions. The horizon is a long way off, but it’s there. I can choose a direction to travel and the road might be a long one, but I can see where I am going.

Not any more. Most people in the world have the opposite experience of my Big Sky, teemed into urban environments where a few feet in any direction is all they can see. They walk by habit, by necessity, not by choice or sight. Their horizon is literally cut off by the people all around them or the random, ramshackle world we have built.

Much of the human population of the Earth now lives in what architects call “the built environment.” Others construct our horizons. We live within increasingly narrow confines in which our psychological opportunities are as limited as our lines-of-sight.

As more and more people move into cities – even in Canada, as the family farms and small rural communities disappear – that Big Sky feeling becomes more and more evanescent. Our world shrinks, the horizon becomes the neighbouring wall and our destination merely the nearest bus stop.

We can complain – and with justification – that our political leaders are myopic, unable to see past the end of their block or beyond their own self-interest, but that loss of a farther horizon is increasingly characteristic of our own lives, as well.

We focus on ourselves, our jobs, our homes, our debts, our next vacation – and, for the decreasing numbers of people with fewer and fewer children, on our immediate family.

As we lose that far horizon, we are less certain of the destination toward which we are traveling and less aware of both the possibilities and risks involved. It was how I had felt a few days before.

Yet if there is any single barrier to a sustainable future, it is that loss of horizon, that sense of stumbling toward the unknown, in more fear than anticipation as to what the next steps will bring.

We need to see the Big Sky, wherever we are, whoever we are, however hemmed in by circumstance we might feel. That was the reminder I found a year ago, as the world that I could see around me expanded once again.

The Olympic torch, symbolized that morning by the structure left behind as a reminder of the 2010 Winter Olympics represents the flame of possibility, of excellence, the desire to strive to be “swifter, higher, stronger.” Despite crude national ambitions to “own the podium” in Canada and elsewhere, despite the sponsorship dollars that are the real gold behind the achievements in supposedly amateur sports, the Olympics are still about ordinary people choosing their own horizons and doing what it takes to reach them.

We need to keep that flame burning in our own lives, risking the failure that leaves so many potential Olympians far from any podium – and even from the Games themselves. And, in a universe of relations, our horizons are not expanded by our individual efforts but by the people whose lives become entwined with our own.

For me, some of those new relationships that began in Vancouver have grown, threads from my life tied to people who live in different circumstances but who are no longer strangers. By the twitch of an email, we are reminded of the Presence discovered in our meeting by chance, entwined in a world now grown smaller and more meaningful.

Other relationships lie dormant, unresponsive, possibilities unrecognized, opportunities unfulfilled – for now.

For me, the past year has been extraordinary, as possibility has compounded possibility in ways I could never have expected. It has been a gift, shared with me by many open hands, along with wisdom from unexpected directions.

Whatever our horizons, we journey toward them day by day. But they are your horizons, your choices, your journey, just as I have my own – and you have your own companions for the journey that you make.

In the swirl of uncertainty that change toward a sustainable future requires, we each have our own things to do. That day in Vancouver, as I sat thinking in the airport waiting for my flight to leave, I looked out toward the mountains in the distance and read these two passages from the Bhagavad Gita, down-loaded by impulse into my new Kindle earlier that day:

“Good is the Intellect which comprehends the coming forth and going back of life, what must be done and what must not be done, what should be feared and what should not be feared, what binds and what emancipates the soul.”

“Better thine own work is, though done with fault, than doing others’ work, even excellently.”

I took both lessons to heart. A week later, I wrote the blogs that led, in a short time, to the manuscript of Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World that was published by Rocky Mountain Books last October, nine months after I watched that Vancouver sun burnish the edges of the Olympic torch.

The Year of the Water Dragon began for me in Chinatown, late one night in Vancouver. As it draws to a close and the horizons of a new year open before us, may you find your own work – and do it well.

“Change the game. Transform the impossible into the improbable – and then make it happen.

“For a sustainable future, we need to understand Life and our relations with other people not in terms of economy or exchange, but as Gift – not in expectation of any return, without calculation of cost, but instead as a celebration of Presence with another.

“In that moment of Presence, the universe changes in the way all of us need it to change.”

Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World (154).