We spent a day a couple of weeks ago hiking through farmland and fields in the San Rafael National Park, nestled in the foothills of the Andes. It was a sheer delight, not least all of all because the lunch ladies, instead of sandwiches, packed us styrofoam takeout containers overflowing with overcooked spaghetti and meat sauce; the lunches promptly spilled all over our backpacks as we scrambled up cliffs, accompanied by neighbourhood dogs drawn by the spaghetti smell . Who takes spaghetti on a hike? We do, it turns out.
At one point near the beginning of the trail, we stood on a road between two farms. Our guide instructed us to face both plots of land, one at a time, with our hands cups around each ear to catch every drop of sound. The land on one side of the road had been cleared for cattle and the only audible noise was the distant wind. In contrast, the other side of the road, a farm full of trees and brush, was alive with sounds: birds, leaves, insects. The different was amazing, we exclaimed as we listened with elbows high in the air.
I have dedicated a lot of time this year to reading memoirs and poetry. In their own ways, they share different ways of what it means to be alive in this world. There are days when all I can do is cling to a string of words and keep on going. Over the last retreat, in between hiking and eating spaghetti, I read Rudy Wiebe’s Of this Earth.
At another moment, our guide asked us who the most interesting person in the world was to each one of us. Jesus. Pope Francis. Grandparents. Sofia Vergara. (you can learn a lot about our group from that simple list). The guide chuckled and then pointed at himself. “Each one of you are the most interesting person in the world, to yourselves,” he proclaimed. “Know yourself and you will know the world.”
In his book, Rudy Wiebe writes about ways of knowing intimately connected to the intertwining of soil and of faith. His early childhood echoes that of my grand and great grandparents: a desperate flight from Russia; living off the land; a vibrant storytelling oral culture; simple living; and a faith shaped by hymns and church gatherings.
When I look at where I am today, in Bogota, in Colombia, I feel a long way from that life. I do not see the fruits of a day’s work in the fields or often stand with my toes curled into sun warmed soil, nor do I really want to, although those are beautiful and necessary things.
Woven throughout the book, however, are glimpses of events or places that would hold significant meaning for Rudy in his further life, even though at the moment, such as when travelling past Big Bear’s territory as a seven year old, he has no idea where his future will lead. I suppose I am, as are we all, somewhere in the middle of past and future. I may not practice much of the heritage in Of this Earth yet here I am, drawn to try to discover what it means to be myself away from home.
Throughout that journey, I have been privileged to experience the juxtaposition of multiple different ways of understanding the world, cupping my hands behind my ears to listen. I can discover the universe by understanding who I am, but we can only know ourselves through our interactions with the world. There are moments, in between the humdrum everyday activities of ordinary existence, when I am filled with the wonder of being alive.
After all, if we can still hear the difference between one world and another, there is still time to foster a society where multiples differences are seen as essential to understanding who we are as humans. We need policies and structures that supports difference, not in a romanticized way, but in a way that allows us and the earth to flourish. My friend Joanne mentioned on facebook that she would be voting in accord with environmental policies, as they seemed to be the umbrella under which everything else falls: human rights, foreign policy, climate change, Indigenous justice. To me, is a strategy that demands that our potential leaders recognize that we care about each other in a profound way.
A month ago, I went to a bullerengue concert in El Carmen de Bolivar, filled with traditional Afro-Colombian music. On Thursday night, I went to a ballet in Bogota. We need both these expressions, and so many more. As Wade Davis puts it: On the contrary, these people, with their dreams and prayers, their myths and memories, teach us that there are indeed other ways of being, alternative visions of life, birth, death and creation itself. When asked the meaning of being human, they respond with ten thousand different voices. It is within this diversity of knowledge and practice, of intuition and interpretation, of promise and hope, that we will all rediscover the enchantment of being what we are, a conscious species aware of our place on the planet and fully capable not only of doing no harm but of ensuring that all creatures in every garden find a way to flourish.
(Wade Davis, Light at the End of the World, 202.)
On this Canadian Thanksgiving, I am grateful, in as non-cheesy a way as possible, for the gift of the journey of life and all of those, from my ancestors to a hiking guide, who help me to understand how to listen.
Here’s the poem that Larisa and I read in a coffee shop after the retreat was over:
Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;
to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;
to tell pain from everything it’s not;
to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.
An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;
and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,
mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
— Wislawa Szymborska