Our lives are like a pebble thrown into a placid pond – the ripples of which expand to reach even the distant ends of the waters, touching the lives of people great and small as they extend out. Some of us are stones of great mass and the waves created are epic; others of us are small like a grain of sand that nevertheless accumulate over time to change the dimensions of the waters.
A few years ago I was doing work in Mali, in West Africa. Engaging with isolated communities perched precariously on the banks of the Niger, that oldest of rivers; silent and quiet, mud houses and mud mosques, knowing only the dust and the poverty – bubbling with hate. Trying to pull them up and out of the nasty little abyss they’d dug for themselves. As part of our work, we did a survey to understand the opinions and experiences of community members. What stuck with me – there were a few folks, young men, who had never even heard of the internet.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Fast forward a while – the Radisson Blu. Murder, mayhem – significance, for the right crowd at least. More than twenty killed – an adviser to Hillary Clinton, a Jewish Venezuelan man who had become Israeli, who had been a childhood friend of somebody I have known in a different life, a different world. Young African men who seized a gun, and whose lives had quickly become boulders – and the waves they created traveled far and wide and are still lapping up upon very foreign shores indeed.
In my novel “Lords of Misrule”, the villain Salif, talking to his friend Aliuf says, “The old ways are dying, my young friend. We cannot preserve them, even if we wanted to. New times are upon us, times of struggle and meaning. I aim to make my place in our new time, by the powers. There are many who will know of Salif Dicko before I leave this world.”
We are all products of our environments, our past – aren’t we? We hear a lot about glass ceilings in the United States – outside forces that rob us of our birthrights. Mostly by the whiners; as if the natural state isn’t poverty, but instead wealth and leisure. As if there isn’t an immediate ceiling over the top of every child who is born. As if the ceilings in Africa aren’t so low as to force even the strongest, smartest into a perpetual stoop.
And then we wonder in angst and confusion why they sometimes use guns to try and shatter them.
“If you were young, you just set your teeth, bit on and held on,” D. H. Laurence once said. But what happens when you’re old, and you realize that you have to make peace with that closet of dusty opportunities and moldy chances, disintegrating into the cluttered parts of your consciousness? When you realize that “it’s no secret that the both of us are running out of time,” like Adele says.
That is harder.
There’s a fake quote going around the internet that says, “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you.” Fake because it’s probably not actually quoting the Buddha – instead coming from Jack Kornfield – not because it’s not true. I suppose the older we all get the more truth we find in those words. But how do we do that, gracefully let go? When for some reason fate, destiny, history – dumb luck conspired against us when all should have been flowers and rolling fields of opportunity?
I guess there’s no answer; but there is some comfort I think. For it is only those who have not really lived who haven’t tasted the bitter fruit of failure. And anyhow fate is often unpredictable, and at the oddest times too. I’m old enough to know that – to have watched the changing of fortunes in a flash of violence or prospect. The great men often fall; while the unlikely rise to great heights upon the wings of what seems mostly like chance. J.K. Rowling unemployed in a coffee shop; Harrison Ford as a set carpenter – and yes Hugo Chavez wracked by disease, Hillary Clinton destroyed by arrogance.
So we work and we watch and we wait – and those of us who are so inclined write. “As for me” says Salif, “I will not play by their rules, and my passing will not be with a whisper.”