personal story

An Elephant Pilgrimage

Mom Elephant

 

We are in Africa so my mother can see elephants. She has a special reason for loving elephants. One saved her life when she was caught in the Hartford Circus Fire at the age of 10. She and four other girls were there for a birthday party. When the circus tent caught fire, amidst the flames and smoke and chaos, Mom saw an elephant stoically holding up the burning stairs. She and her friend ran down the stairs and escaped. The other girls, who were seated separately, did not make it out.

 

Mom has only told this story to me a few times.  I was shocked to stumble upon an independent account of the fire when I read Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Heffer, which describes Modoc’s life-saving efforts.

 

At any rate, we’ve come to HHuluwe so Mom can see elephants in the wild. She is 84. We are here, 6 women from the family, our own kind of herd.   We are on a pilgrimage.

 

With some hesitation, I privately told our guide, Rian, the background story behind our trip. He proceeded to look for elephants for us. Yesterday, just after sunrise, he spotted three massive grayish lumps on the hillside opposite. Even with binoculars, I could not detect they were living creatures; they continued to look like boulders. Rian, however, knew exactly what they were, what they were doing, and where they would go next.

 

He maneuvered the Land Cruiser through the brush for about 20 minutes, stopping in a stand of acacia trees. In a few minutes, three elephants lumbered in front of us. They were 3 ladies, Rian told us, two sisters and one three-year old calf. They paid no attention to us, but proceeded to demolish an entire acacia tree, placidly reaching up with their coiling trunks, delicately stripping off leaves, yanking down branches, and finally uprooting the whole tree, and stuffing its roots in their mouths.  We watched in awed silence as these massive creatures went about their business, oblivious to us, though we were only 10 feet away.

 

My attention was torn between the elephants and my mother, who was seated in front next to Rian. She looked like a child again, gazing in wonder. A half hour later, the elephants lumbered off into the bush. When they were out of sight, just as Rian started up the engine, I heard Mom tell him, “I was in a circus fire once…”


 

Posted by admin in family, travel, 4 comments

Tell Me About Your Shoes

     HangingSneakerjmsnewpairofshoesjs10053

 

Lani Peterson, a psychologist and storyteller, posted this story on the Healing Story Alliance listserv. It was told to her at the Women’s Lunch Place, a soup kitchen in downtown Boston, after Lani had offered the prompt, “Tell me about your shoes.” Lani passed the story along in honor of the woman who shared it.

 

 

You see these beautiful white sneakers? I didn’t always have them. My last pair of shoes was pretty sad. After many winters of walking through snow and slush, I was holding them together with cardboard and masking tape.  So I decided to go to the mall to get a new pair. There’s a Payless Shoes store there that often has sneakers I can afford.

 

Walking through the mall I knew everyone was looking at me. They didn’t like me being there. I wanted to get my new shoes quick and leave. Walking down the aisle, I saw a really nice pair of white sneakers. There was only this one pair in my size left. I put them on and couldn’t believe how good they felt. I walked all around the store in them, thinking how nice it would be if they were mine.  I knew I didn’t have the money to get them that day but I also knew that if I waited, they’d be gone. I brought them up to the front of the store and asked the guy behind the counter if he would hold them for me. He said it was against store policy. I promised him I would come back as soon as I could to buy them, but he just kept shaking his head and saying no, he couldn’t. I put my masking tape sneakers back on and left the mall as fast as I could.

 

For the next two weeks, I scraped by until I had enough money to go back for my shoes. Funny how I kept calling them mine, as if somehow I could protect them from going home with anyone else. The day I had enough money, I ran all the way to the mall, and ignored all those people staring at my masking tape shoes. I went to the shelf where I left them, with my eyes half shut afraid to look.  Sure enough they were gone. I looked at every pair of shoes in the aisle that had my size, but there were no shoes left like them. They were gone.

 

I started for the door. I wasn’t ready to try on anything else that day. I just felt too worn down to look any more. That’s when the manager yelled at me. I started to walk faster to get away, but he ran after me, still yelling. “I have your shoes”.  It took me a few times of hearing it to get what he meant.  ‘I HAVE YOUR SHOES.’

“OK”, I said. “I’ve got the money now to pay for them.”

“No. No”, he said. “They’ve been paid for. That’s why I’ve got them. They’re all yours.”

 

I can’t tell you fully what went on in my head in that moment. I only remember leaving my old shoes in the trash bin and walking out into the mall wearing my new white sneakers with money still in my pocket. I took my time leaving that day. As I walked past each stranger, I looked them in the eye and smiled. I felt so good.  It wasn’t that I thought that they were looking at me differently because of my new sneakers. It was more that I was seeing them differently. I used to think no one was on my side.  But that day I knew that any person I walked by could be the one who gave me my new shoes.  Whoever they were, I wanted them to know I was saying “Thank you”.

HangingSneakerjms Hanging Sneakers, JMS, Dreamstime.com

 newpairofshoesjs10053 New Pair of Shoes, js10053, Dreamstime.com

 


 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, story, 2 comments

That Which Persists

oak tree winter photo

Yesterday I walked a half mile to Starbucks with my dear friend Gail. It was an immense journey. Gail has had 6 strokes in the last 9 months. She lives in a constant present moment, which may be a spiritual ideal but presents  challenges when you cannot remember your address or how to turn on your computer. Let alone what year it is or who is president. 

But this blog is not about loss or suffering.  Or about her husband’s nobility as he rises to this new situation with dignity and compassion. This blog is about what has not changed: Gail’s luminous spirit.

During her long hospital stays, she was unfailingly gracious, thanking everyone who entered her room: aids, doctors, friends, family, therapists. Not knowing who anyone was, she smiled and said welcome.

Lying in that hospital bed, she was no longer an Executive Director, Academic or Philanthropist; she was bereft of all personas, stripped of  every identity. Helpless. And in that radical exposure, her deepest self was revealed: a self that is open, gracious and grateful.

It is a current mantra that we should live in the moment. But what if that moment is filled with terror? If every moment is a succession of fear, anguish, loss? For Gail, this is not so, although it certainly could be so, given that the strokes seem unpredictable and largely inexplicable.

Gail remains herself because she continues to say Yes. A deep and profound Yes that is not intellectual and not egotistical.  It is a Yes that comes from a deep core of goodness that is the signature of her being.

As we walked to Starbucks yesterday, I told her of my daughter’s recent engagement. Gail clapped her hands with delight, asking question after question. She was unable to see the photos on my phone, but she asked for detailed descriptions. Her face glowed. “This is so good,” she said. “I’m so happy. Nothing could be better than this. Thank you for this wonderful news. For this perfect day.”


 

An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, Getty An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, courtesy of  Getty Museum

After the Sixth Stroke, a poem about Gail

Bedside, a poem about Gail

Posted by admin in Inspiration, 0 comments