Close to home is where we need to live

(February 9, 2021)

Nine years ago, I began to write a trilogy of books on the sustainability problem – what was wrong, how we got here, and what we could do to avert the disaster that lies ahead.

The title of the third book, published in in 2016, was somewhat prophetic, given our current pandemic situation. I called it Live Close to Home.

One of the things I had realized about our unsustainable western culture was that many of us are more interested in things at a distance than in things close at hand.

Instead of eating staple foods that are produced locally, we import them from away — often, far away. Instead of spending time at home, we escape from there as often as we can — again, sometimes going far away. Instead of spending cash we already have in our pockets, we buy more and more on credit, which is money we hope to have, sometime in the future. We fume about politics and global affairs in other places, but ignore what is happening in our own city or neighbourhood.

When it comes to the environment, we worry about global warming, pollution and environmental degradation and how these affect people and planet somewhere else, but don’t think much about what we eat, drink and breathe ourselves, right here.

If you think about our relationships with other people, there has been a similar shift there, too. We don’t really reach out and touch someone – too often, we use our communications technology to do it instead, from a distance.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has only made this situation worse. So, with physical distancing morphing into social isolation, it’s not surprising that we worry about our mental as well as physical health during this pandemic.

I remember watching people, supposedly out together to talk over coffee, yet both on their cellphones messaging someone else instead. After all, when you text and message instead of talking face to face, your partner literally can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Often, these partners are far away — because distant avatars may be more exciting than an actual person picking the food out of their teeth, seated across the table.

Surveying students, especially international students, I found many are spending six to eight hours a day on their phones and computers, and others confess they are online from the moment they wake up, all day long. So if the internet goes down or the cell service stops, it seems we are utterly cut off from everything and everyone that matters.

Of course, this is not true. But that’s how it feels.

Obviously, isolation and loneliness are not new problems. You could argue the pandemic has merely removed the distractions that used to keep us from noticing how alone we really are. A night at the club, the pub, the concert, the game — all these activities allow us to avoid the awkward fact that the crowd would not have missed us if we had stayed away.

In the end, we can’t escape who and where we are. For the sake of our own good health, we need to live close to home, focusing first on ourselves and where (and how) we live, and to make that the foundation of everything else.

Living close to home provides other benefits for a green recovery and a sustainable future, too. We can buy local food to cook for ourselves; shop local, in community stores; help neighbours struggling with chores they can’t manage on their own; drop food on the doorstep of someone who feels just as isolated as we do. We can be kind, rather than cranky, when someone makes a mistake because of the stress they are under, too.

We are trying to spend less and stretch each dollar further, because our future income seems not as certain as it used to be. We now know more about our kids’ education than perhaps we ever did before, because we help them with it every day — or perhaps we have become their teacher.

Favourite restaurants provide us with takeout food that families are now eating together, instead of everyone alone and apart. We can no longer easily escape the people we live with, a fact that can be both painful and hopeful at the same time, as we are made to focus on what is happening close to home.

And yet while we have learned, the hard way, that nothing on a screen can replace a hug from someone we love, no one is ever really alone when there is someone, somewhere, who appreciates us for who we are. Especially when our communications technology is used to develop or enrich our personal situation, not just to escape it, living close to home can be a healthy and positive approach to coping with pandemic stress.

Read More

The Gift

Looking out toward the Ngong Hills, where Karen Blixen began to write Out of Africa

Sitting at the millstone table where Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa, I looked out at the Ngong Hills she loved, hazy in the distance.

I saw the movie in 1985, before I read the book. Africa had always been an exotic National Geographic place, far removed from my experience growing up on the flat Manitoba prairie.

Yet her stories somehow struck a deep chord in me.

We say writing is a gift, as though it is a personality trait. The real gift lies in what is written, offered freely to an invisible audience scattered across time and space.

Unlike the probabilities that otherwise shape our lives, there is no calculation to a gift – how could there be? A true gift is unexpected, unpredicted, something that appears out of nowhere.

It may only be accepted – a dangerous thing to do, because accepting a gift creates a new relationship, bursting with unpredictable possibilities.

When it comes to writing, the ideas shared between author and reader for the first time are just as full of such possibilities.

Fast-forward several decades after reading Blixen’s book. Having taught students for years that individuals can change the world by their choices, I made one myself: I wrote my own book, on sustainability.

It should have been called Into Africa, because twelve months to the day after I got the publisher’s offer in 2012, I was in Nairobi having a private conversation with the President of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – from Sudan – to whom I had given a copy. We talked about UNEP’s role in caring for the planet on behalf of the United Nations, Muslim-Christian relations – and my book.

It deals with how a gift changes everything by the unexpected possibilities it creates. The book certainly did this for me, because its publication led to my election in Washington, DC, as a civil society representative to UNEP. Weeks later, I was on a plane to UNEP’s annual global meeting at its headquarters in Kenya.

It was a whirlwind time for me in Nairobi, working together with other civil society representatives to influence government delegates, from countries all around the world, to make better decisions about our environment.

I contributed through writing, helping various people to express their thoughts and feelings more effectively in English, the main UN language. Extraordinary possibilities for friendship and collaboration appeared with every gift of my words they accepted.

My family pushed me to get out of Nairobi afterward and see something else of Africa. With only 36 hours before my flight home, I reluctantly accepted their gift and left the city (and the Ngong Hills) far behind.

I flew over the Great Rift Valley (where we are told all human life began) and into the Maasai Mara. After one brief vehicle safari late afternoon, there was dinner and then the generator-driven lights were extinguished at sunset.

There was little sleep for me, though. The resort was next to the Mara River, right where a pod of some 70 hippos submerged during the day, coming out to graze by the cabins all through the night. The double-ended flatulence of so many hippos together was truly amazing – and deafening!

Bleary-eyed, I greeted the sunrise on safari, breathing crisp highland cold air that grew into driving heat by mid-day. The animals practically lined up for pictures and, after breakfast, I went on a walking safari across the savannah. Following a hippo track, my Maasai guards focused me on the small things along the path – a wild beehive, droppings from different animals (hyena droppings are white, by the way), plants used for medicines, and stories of drought among the Maasai and their cattle who lived up into the surrounding hills.

There was time for one last meal, at lunchtime, before packing my bags and taking a roundabout trip to the airstrip, where I would catch the light plane back to Wilson Airport in Nairobi and then make it (barely) to the international airport.

With no guests around, I was able to talk to the young Maasai man who was my waiter. His name was Joshua, and as the conversation grew, I learned a little about him and his community up in the Loita Hills. He asked me why I was in Kenya – few people paid the price for a trip to the Mara and spent only one night – so I told him about my book and what it meant.

I was astonished and humbled by how quickly he grasped the idea of the Gift and the possibilities it meant for relationships, so I gave him my last (battered) copy.

He told me then about his dream, how he wanted to bring the gift of water to his community. The women had to walk kilometres each day to bring back dirty water from holes in the ground – water shared with livestock and wild animal – and in a drought this made life precarious.

In the developing world, everything revolves around water. Without a clean and local source, there is never enough that is safe to drink. The women spend their days carrying water instead of going to school, tending gardens, or contributing to the family income.

He dreamed of what a well and clean water would mean – and when I found out what it would cost, I made a promise I did not know how to keep. Somehow, I said, we will find a way.

Looking out over the Maasai Mara earlier that morning, as the sun rose in the sky to light my way home to Manitoba, I had said under my breath: “I will be back – I don’t know how, or when, but I will be back.”

There have been five trips since – and two more books.

At home in Winnipeg, I kept in touch with Joshua by Facebook, though he had to climb a hill in Kisokon to get cell reception. I told anyone who would listen the story of Joshua’s Well – of his dream, of the importance of the Gift and the possibilities it releases, creating a pathway to a sustainable future for us all.

Within a few months, I had raised enough money. The next spring, I travelled into the Kenyan hills I have come to love, the Loita Hills, to meet Joshua’s people and sign an agreement between the communities involved.

The day the papers were signed – by younger women, too, who pushed their way to the table to sign with the older male elders – I was given a shirt, red for Maasai and green for the environment, hand-sewn by Joshua’s wife, Patricia. On the back was embroidered the title of my book.

It was a precious gift (though it made me look like a pudgy Christmas elf!). The shirt was accompanied by a Maasai name, offered spontaneously by people in the crowd: Olomunyak, which caused some consternation and much laughter. Someone politely translated it as “blessed one,” but I guessed its true meaning among the Maasai, who have a wicked sense of humour: Clearly not a normal person, I had somehow been “touched by the gods” – and had the shirt to prove it.

In the Loita Hills, with the book that started the journey

Today, however, three villages close to Joshua’s now share a hand-dug well, the first successful development project in that remote area, with biosand filters installed in as many huts as we could afford. Throughout a bad drought this year, about 450 women a day have been pumping clean water for their families.

His village is next, with hopes for a borehole well in a school compound, where children can also learn how to grow the foods they need to supplement a traditional Maasai diet based on the herd animals that suffer most from the drought. We are enabling small-scale community development, across all the barriers thrown up by language, culture, religion, politics, history and distance – and I have held my godson as a reminder of why that needs to continue.

I was honoured in two communities as an elder among the Maasai, learned that choosing a roadside “toilet tree” could be a lethal decision in black mamba territory, opened my tent flap to see Mount Kilimanjaro rise in front of me in the morning sun, and walked parts of the Loita Hills that tourists simply don’t visit.

I have looked into the eyes of wild animals and seen what our generation will cost the Earth, if we do not live differently and those animals disappear. I have sat with children whose parents make unthinkable sacrifices for their education in a place where schools are named “Osiligi,” which means “hope,” and wished I could do more. I have held the dry red earth and talked about what to do when the rains come, to protect against the drought that frequently seems to follow these days.

Throughout, I have experienced the generosity of friendship, of acceptance, not as a bringer of gifts, but as a strange cousin – Olomunyak – from elsewhere.

Scuffing the dirt with my boots in the middle of the Great Rift Valley on my last trip, it felt, finally, that I had come home.

This time, I could make no silent promise to return. While I don’t know what other doors might yet be opened, age and circumstance limit the gifts any of us have the opportunity to give.

But the farewells I received – from the Loita Hills to Nairobi – were the kind one offers to family who simply expect to see you again, out of affection for who you are, not for what you carry.

In a world where relationships of all kinds are threatened by fear, by difference and suffering, we are one in heart together, separated only by the mereness of space.

Four years ago on the UN campus in Nairobi, two friends forced a bracelet over my hand and onto my wrist. Intricately beaded, it was a birthday gift from Lucy, an indigenous Kenyan colleague, who remarked as they struggled, “I got mine three years ago and it hasn’t been off since.”

Apart from two stints in hospital, neither has mine. It marked the beginning of a relationship with the Africa that caught my imagination and overwhelmed my heart, just as Karen Blixen wrote how it happened to her 80 years ago.

That bracelet still looks out of place on my wrist as I teach my classes. Another one, from the women at the Murja well, joined it this past June.

They are physical reminders to me of the new, unexpected relationships that may be created simply by choosing to give or to accept a gift.

I have learned we should never underestimate the power of our words or how far they might travel. When two people are joined by the gift of the words they share, time and space disappear.

In a universe of relations, woven together by gifts, anything then becomes possible.

* * * * * * *

(submitted to the 2017 CBC non-fiction competition…finally got me writing again, even if it did not make the long list!)

Where have all the readers gone?

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016...all of them in search of that rare and elusive Reader!

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016…all of them in search of that rare and elusive creature, The Reader!

Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought.

Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.

If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

I’m old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday I will find the time to read them.

As an author, I write books I want other people to read, so I also feel compelled to support colleagues and the publishing industry.

As a university and college teacher, however, I am deeply troubled by the inability of my students to read quickly. Given all the money and effort the school system spends on literacy, books should not be foreign objects. Nor should reading be a difficult activity.

My students are assigned about ¼ of the reading I had as an undergraduate. Their protests about how much there is and how long it takes to read it grow every year. Match this to fewer and shorter essays than I used to write – and epically bad essay examinations – and their downward graph toward illiteracy mirrors the downward slide in the number of books sold these days.

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books anymore. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.

Simply put, we are no longer a nation of readers – at least not of more than 1000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Academics of course have coined a term for this – apparently we now live in a post-literate society. We communicate in other ways than words. Images (worth a thousand words, remember?) flash across our screens and lure our eyes away from the solidity of a book. We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.

Yet the irony is palpable. All around the world, education (especially for girls and women) is seen as the key to sustainable development and a better future. Parents sacrifice themselves and their future to pay the school fees for children who often are forced to live at a distance to attend.

Literacy – reading books and writing – are at the centre of this passion for education. Yet here at home our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

I suggest the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction. Children learn what they live with more than what they are taught. The same parents who spent hours reading aloud to toddlers are never seen book in hand by their teenagers. If there are bookshelves, they hold other things or dusty artifacts, not a library of books waiting to be read.

When there is dinner table conversation, it is fuelled by Facebook or current events, not by the book someone is reading. We know how to read (and to write), but like physical muscles grown flabby with lack of use, our literary muscles are out of shape.

At school (college or university) and at work, this has a direct effect on performance. Given the limited time for an assignment, any student who can finish the reading quickly has more time left to actually do the work that is graded. A plodding reader is also often a slow writer, so the penalty is multiplied.

Vocabulary is similarly affected. Even the words that are learned by hearing them are misspelled in hilarious ways. (In one recent Facebook example, “gender parity” was spelled “gender parody” instead!) Spell check doesn’t help if brain check is disabled by lack of practice.

At work, employees can’t process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.

It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end!

Peter Denton’s sixth book, Live Close to Home, will be ignored in bookstores everywhere in Fall 2016. This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.