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Touchdown week

During my brief touchdown in the US I was kept quite busy on the preparation of the material for the next assignment, a just-in-time affair that would not have been possible if one of my young colleagues had not stepped in. I am very lucky to have all this young talent around me.

There is a proposal that needed attention and there was the tying up of loose ends from the Madagascar trip. But through all of this I was nevertheless able to enjoy the changed landscape around me: the trees are green again (they were bare when I left), the asparagus are out (eating asparagus for dinner several times a week), the peas are visible, the berry bushes are looking healthy and the apple and beach plum are gorgeous with their delicate blossoms.

I wrote my annual remembrance letter to B whose daughter, Sita’s best friend, died 16 years ago of an overdose. We planted the beach plum in her memory and called it Jennee’s tree.  The tree has shown staying power. It was uprooted when the new septic system went in; it was invaded several times by a destructive colony of tiny creatures, eating its leaves, and some of its limbs died. But it is thriving again and so we think about resilient Jennee in her second life as a tree.

We attended a lecture about ‘The House at Lobster Cove.’ A wonderful book that I could not put away. Although the title suggests the story of a house, it is actually the story of a very interesting man, George Nixon Black, who lived through some of America’s big upheavals at the turn of the 19/20th century. If anyone thinks we live in a time of great upheaval now, read some history books, especially of the 19th century. Americans burned Catholic churches, feathered and tarred people of the ‘wrong’ religion (priests) and agitated against the influx of Italians and Irish. This current preoccupation with foreigners and their religion is nothing new in America.

George Nixon Black commissioned his friend, the later famous architect Peabody, to design and build the house on Lobster Cove, named Kragsyde. Olmsted designed the landscape around the house. Axel’s grandfather, after whom he is named, was the gardener and is mentioned in the book. This is where Axel sr met Axel’s grandmother, who worked at the estate as a maid.

The house was an architectural masterpiece. Unfortunately it was taken down after Black died. There is no trace of it here at Lobster Cove anymore. But the speaker and her husband, as a young couple at the time, built an exact replica using the original plans on an island off the coast of Maine. It took them 20 years. We hope to visit it one day.kragsyde

And now the day of departure has arrived again. I am switching between playing with grandchildren and packing my suitcase, favoring the former. Sita had to work in Boston and brought the family to stay with us, a wonderful advance treat for Mother’s Day.

Walking the woods

The long trip to Madagascar started in a full plane and ended in an empty one. More people fly to Paris than to Antananarivo. A good thing, as the second leg is longer by some 4 hours.

I watched the movie Lion and cried for the small boy who got lost in India and then found his way back again. At the end of the movie one gets to see the real Saroo (or Shere as he was actually called, hence the title of the film, as in Shere Khan, the lion king) and his adopted mom and real mom when they finally all meet. The movie is bringing to the attention of the world the thousands of lost children. Everyday little ‘Saroos’ get lost, and most stories don’t end that well I suspect.

Movies and books shorten a plane ride. I have a Kindle full of books allowing me to parallel read to my heart’s desire. One book that has moved to the top of the list is one Sita recommended (she is a great source of good-read suggestions). It is call The Hidden Life of Trees, written by a German forester. I had been reading it aloud to Axel during our visit to Tessa, a good three hours of reading for the round trip to Pembroke.

On the day of my departure we went to the Ipswich Audubon Park and this was our first walk in the woods since we started to read the book. It was an entirely different experience from earlier walks in the woods. I am ashamed now about the many ways in which I have abused trees in the past, like carelessly hacking off limbs, putting in hooks for our hammocks. This is one of those books that changes you.

Lost and found

We stuck to our tradition of an Easter ‘egg’ hunt party, now in its 32nd year since we initiated it in 1985, when I was pregnant with Tessa. Except for our years in Afghanistan, we never missed an occasion to bring our dearest nearest friends and neighbors together to celebrate what for us has always been a spectacular time: spring, Easter, the rising of the spirit (or Jesus as you wish), of new beginnings, of pruning and of the raking of leaves to discover the green sprouts underneath.opa-oma-saffi2

It is always tricky to schedule the party because of my travel, and our ability to get our act together in time: the invitation which is Axel’s (creative) domain, the creation of the invite list, which we still do manually, the buying of supplies to fill the Easter bags (now less sugar and more seed packets) and then the hiding.

In all these 32 years we have never perfected our game, but we spend less and less time on getting ready, being less compulsive about everything having to be right. This is the joy of getting older. These things matter less and less, and the company matters more and more.

We got reconnected with a member of the Dutch family that put up a spectacular Easter show on its big estate in the town I grew up in. We are related, my mother and his dad were cousins. It was an event I looked forward to every year and which may have contributed to the fact that some important events in my life (though not all) happened around Easter time. We had last seen each other at Easter in 1961 or thereabouts so I didn’t expect to recognize him, but I did, easily. He came late, with his partner. All the other guests had left. The sun which had lifted our spirits all day was losing its strength, so we lit a fire in our fire pit and sat around it, getting to know each other all over again, with Tessa and Axel being introduced to this found Dutch relative who lives in our neighborhood.

Refugees in our backyard

There are a few refugee families in Gloucester who had slipped in under the wire, before Trump started signing people’s lives away. I heard of an Afghan family and made contact. About two weeks ago I attended a fundraiser for this and other families, one from Syria and one from Congo. Only one member of the Afghan family spoke English, M., a young man in his twenties. The rest (two teenage girls, mom and dad) are not able to converse in any meaningful way. They were not at the event. They would have been overwhelmed. Only the son was there, and I could tell even he was rather overwhelmed.

Many people at the event wanted to shake M’s hands as he has been a kind of spokesperson for the new phenomenon of ‘refugee under Trump.’ After the event, as people queued up to say hello to him, he looked bewildered. All these friendly people, many grey-haired, many artists and all liberal and anti-Trump. I approached him and spoke some of my few remaining Dari words to him. He looked up in surprise. We exchanged telephone numbers and I gave him my well-used Dari-English dictionary.

Yesterday Axel and I had lunch with the family. Not just any lunch but an Afghan lunch made for kings and queens. There was mantou, small meat filled ravioli with a yogurt sauce, bolani (flatbread with vegetable stuffing), qabuli pilao, fried chicken. For dessert there was green tea with cardamom and a ginger-nut cake. We had to work hard to keep our hostess from filling up our plates over and over.

I had brought two additional dictionaries, which we used a lot as we tried to have a conversation – me with my rusty Dari and they with their very little English. M. helped out whenever the sentences got too complex.

I learned that they speak Farsi (Persian) rather than Dari, and that this is their first language now, especially for the kids, who spent their formative years in Iran. We learned that they have been ‘sans-papiers’ (without official identity documents) for a good part of their life as a family – lived in Iran, in Nimroz (an Afghan province bordering Iran), Eastern Turkey and finally landed, just in time, in the US.

We also learned that mom used to work in a bank, that dad was good with his hands, a glass cutter, carpenter and car mechanic and that the kids were mostly not in school, except for the older boy. The girls are now enrolled at Gloucester High School, in 9th grade although one is three years older than the other. I cannot imagine them learning anything with so little English. The one girl we met (the other was sick in her bed upstairs) hardly understood us and could not talk back in English.

The apartment is tiny. There is no bedroom for the boy; he sleeps on one of the two couches that are crammed into their tiny living room (one a two seater). A table that barely seated us was crammed into the even tinier kitchen (which appeared otherwise well supplied with donated kitchen gear). There is no air conditioner which will make the apartment unbearable in summer. We think we can solve that problem.

The boy just got his driving license this week which they celebrated in a Chinese restaurant. The father is anxious to get his but his English is too limited. He showed us a Farsi translation of a California and Virginia driver’s education manual but these manuals differ from state to state, so he cannot prepare. And even if he got his license, they don’t have a car. They feel very vulnerable to con men in their search for a second hand car.

The parents go to English classes 5 days a week but had little to show for it. They are still at the bottom of a very steep curve, and despondent. Yet over the years they have adapted, learned the 3 languages they already speak: Dari and Farsi, which are quite similar and Turkish. But English is in an entirely different linguistic class.

All through our conversation after dinner dad was thumbing through his new dictionary and enjoying it in a way I recognized when I was trying to manage Turkish during a long assignment in Turkey years ago. I saw him smile. I hope it helps. Learning a language with a smile is so much easier.

Spirit animals in the basement

We thought we ended March with spring, a teaser only. We started April with a Nor’easter that lasted 2 days and dumped a couple of inches of snow. The tender greens of the garlic, crocuses and other spring bulbs disappeared for a few days. And then it was spring again, chasing the snow quickly.

All of this week was devoted to the end of MSH’s leadership, management and governance project (LMG). I have seen the entire arc of it: the first project that started in 1985, and this one, the last, the ends in September. All of them aimed to do something about the way health services are managed, led and how institutions are governed.

We have learned a lot over those years (as have I). We tried to showcase some of that learning in ways that match our philosophy of ‘creating catalytic learning experience.’ Some people who attended the event, and did not know what that meant, got a taste of what we meant. Others already knew. I suspect we were mostly preaching to the choir.

The days of preparation at our Washington office and the event itself felt like a family reunion. There were old friends, colleagues from decades ago and folks who, like me, have been working alongside each other, sometimes collaborating and sometimes competing for the same pot of money.

Axel had come along to get a taste of what my work looks and feels like from a participant perspective.  My role was to be the MC, introducing speakers, but I also had a chance to slide in some messages that are close to my heart.

Just before leaving Boston I had discovered some forgotten beanie babies that I had used in training decades ago. They came in handy: there was the fox who jumps over obstacles to get what he or she needs in the here and now; there was the beaver who builds strong foundations on which we anchor our aspirations; there was the owl who holds the old wisdom and sees things no one else sees and there was the dolphin which is about joy, energy and spirit. Everything we showcased or talked about had something of these animal archetypes inside it.

And while we spent the day in a basement conference room of the Ronald Reagan Building in the heart of DC, inclement weather moved overhead.It raked havoc with people’s hairdo and apparently also the roof of a school. It also messed up travel plans: the next day we spent a good part of the day at the airport trying to get home. At one point we simply gave up our seats to wait even longer – we were more flexible than others. American Airlines gave us each a 500 dollar credit for our noble geste.

memories unearthed

Over dumplings and noodles we counted our blessings, my friend A and I, after visiting the Henryk Ross exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, memory unearthed. On view are more than two hundred photographs, buried and then unearthed after many years, of life in the second largest Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Europe. They were unauthorized pictures of daily life in the ghetto from 1940-1945. They are views of cruelty, suffering and resilience, familiar no doubt to Syrian refugees but unfathomable to us living in peace and comfort.

I was struck by how many people smiled when it seems there was little to smile about. There are the last glimpses of people marching towards their deaths. Only a few hundred survived from the hundreds of thousands that were forcefully resettled there and then deported. That the photographer and his wife survived is a wonder. A videotaped interview with them at the start of the exhibit left me in awe about the courage they took so that we now can remember. If you live near Boston, make sure you see it.

New beginnings

Spring is always a time of new beginnings, even if the weather keeps teasing us with temperatures going up and then down again. I have always liked how the Persian calendar starts the new year on March 21, with its Naw Roz  (New Day) celebrations. It passed us by this year, except for the many Naw Roz wishes exchanged on Facebook.

At MSH it is springtime as well. We have a new CEO. The first encounters have been wonderful and hope giving, in sync with the ice melting in our yard and the sprouting of garlic.

We are gearing up for our yearly Easter celebration at our house to remember the good things that happened around Easter.  With my travel schedule these celebrations are not always easy to schedule so we take Easter broadly, anytime between Easter celebrations from the west and from the east. They happen to fall on the same date this time, and it looks as if I am around. Invitations are still in the conceptual stage.

My travel schedule has been light and so we have taken advantage of my presence here by seeing our kids and grandkids as often as we can.  Sita and kids picked me up from the airport when I returned from Holland on the 13th, given me at least a few hours of quality time with Faro and Saffi. We learned that Faro has been accepted in the Chinese charter school in Hadley; Sita and Jim are deliberating whether to claim his spot or not. I already have a fantasy of going to a Chinese restaurant and Faro ordering for us in Chinese!

Last weekend we visited Tessa and Steve. We saw the hole in the roof made by the tree that tipped over their bedroom. No one was hurt but the damage is considerable. We also saw the new puppy that brings the number of dogs in their house to three. The older dogs were not very happy with the intruder, a bit like I remember Faro responding to his new sister, hoping she would go away.

We visited the Currier museum in Manchester (NH) and its Deep Cuts Exhibit showing what is possible with paper and scissors. Many pieces were statements about something not right in the world.  One can say a lot with a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. It does require that one has a lot of time on one’s hands, patience, sharp embroidery scissors, a steady hand and excellent eyesight. Axel thought some of these pieces were veering into OCD.

Afterwards we strolled along the main street of Manchester, given the puppy its first experience of a city. There was much to see and smell. A dance competition let out and the street was overtaken by various pods of young girls with their hair tightly pulled up into a bun, heavily made up and wearing their various team jackets. The combination of these girls and the puppy slowed down our progress considerably. Tessa patiently explained to each new group the brand (Australian shepherd and something else) and name of the puppy (Hazelnut), triggering tons of oohs and aahs and requests to pet.

Puppy love

May 2017
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