Vaughan Williams and Me

I love the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and have done so for most of my life.

His music seems to resonate with what lies deeply within, almost as if I hear it in my bone marrow. His music seems to appear on occasions where I would not have expected it but find it has done so most appropriately. I also find I like the words he uses for his choral works, especially the poems of Walt Whitman.

His setting of the poems of George Herbert as The Five Mystical Songs contains a verse which has very much been one of the fundamental values or philosophies that has informed my life:

Can there be any day but this, Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss: There is but one, and that one ever.

 My first encounter with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams may have been his setting of Greensleeves, which I remember as the music for a serial on the ABC Children’s program back in the 1950s. I would also enjoyed hymns set to his music singing in the school chapel choir during my secondary schooling.

However the more profound memory is that of hearing the Sydney University choir sing his “Donna Nobis Pacem” in the Great Hall of Sydney University during my time there as an undergraduate in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I have described this encounter with Vaughan Williams elsewhere as “one of the early experience of the rapture of being alive, a new world of sound in words, the like of which I had not until then experienced”. I recall also being enthralled by his “Sir John in Love”, also in the Great Hall of Sydney University, around that time.

So began a long friendship with poet Walt Whitman and music maker Ralph Vaughan Williams. The ‘Lark ascending’, the Fifth Symphony and the ‘Five Mystical Songs’ became firm favourites. On a four-week trek into the Himalayas in December 1970 I took with me a cassette recorder and tapes of these works. I would ration myself to one piece per evening, in order to make the batteries last the whole trek. When walking alone on a trail that gave me views of the high Himalaya, I would sing at the top of my voice one of the Five Mystical Songs.  I recall how I responded to Vaughan Williams music in my writings and jottings, with occasional poems and references in travel journals and later in emails to sons away in boarding schools.

This continued throughout my life, and has enriched the 50 or more years since those early encounters. I continue to discover pieces by Vaughan Williams that I had not heard. For example, I recently came across his “Dark Pastorale for Cello” and have added it to my ‘soul music’ playlist.  His Tuba Concerto is a particular favourite, especially the slow movement, my private ‘swoon’. It is reminder of being in the Primary School Brass band at Brisbane’s Ascot State School in the early 1950s, playing that instrument. It turns out that the school band tuba experience may have been more significant than I ever imagined.

The band master, Mr Thompson, was my classroom teacher. I would have been 9 years old at the time. When he asked for volunteers for the band. I put up my hand, thinking of the cornet or trumpet (my elder brother already played the tenor horn in the band). However, much to my disappointment I was assigned the tuba, and I was too shy to decline. As I learned the tuba part to the then National Anthem, which on its own is very dull, I wished even more that I had had the courage to say “No thanks”. Practising alone was meaningless. The 3 or 4 notes I was to play were not melodies, not even tunes. However, I remember the absolute joy of discovering the contribution that my tuba part made to the big picture when I played the national anthem for the first time with the rest of the band. My hitherto meaningless oompah – oompah became a sequence of moments of incredible beauty as they gave harmony and depth to others’ notes. I was overjoyed and transformed.  It is interesting how this became a life-long theme for me, and I wonder was this the beginning of my interest in teamwork and collaboration and my quest for harmony, things I pursued in my career and family life. Working with others, cooperation and achieving harmony amongst people characterised my working life and subsequently my so called ‘retirement’ years.

As I thought about these things, I became curious about where references to these memories might lie and so began a wonderful journey through computer files and journals. I was delighted to find many references to Vaughan Williams’ music and a number of poems, representing more than 60 years of “Vaughan Williams and me”. I imagine this will be a work in progress.

 Pieces of writing from my past that reflect on my love of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

 Vaughan Williams Tuba concerto: I am always moved by its mellowness. I love the way it represents an instrument normally used as one to back up others now having its own concerto. The sublime slow movement brings tears and seems to fill that space that must be my soul, which I presume, is deep, since it resonates so well with deep sounds. I have it on my ipod in a playlist I call my “soul music”.

 Vaughan Williams 5th Symphony: This was an early favourite and an early purchase as an LP recording. I had also heard it in performance. In 1968 I spent 5 months in Papua New Guinea on secondment as a young medico to a District Hospital in the Highlands, at the end of which I put together a film of the experience, using the VW 5th Symphony as part of the soundtrack.

Poem from 1970: I recall an early poem, lying on the floor listening to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Benedicite’, after a run with the dog.

When I listen I like to lie full length on the floor 
to relax and loosen enough for the music to move my body
to undulate with its rhythm
to turbulate with its turbulence
to dissipate, to move and flow

on it goes,
and I am left with its movement,
its sequence of moments remain within

they have done me great joy
they have moved me in time 
as I lie stretched out
the music has flowed beyond my dimensions
to linger as joy and great potential

References to Vaughan Williams Music in Journals and Jottings: I find references to Vaughan Williams’ music in journals kept during travels in 1971 and 1972, travels which had me trekking in Nepal, travelling overland in Europe and North America and later while working in Nepal.

  • From my Nepal Journal, December 1970, (from Pokhara to Annapurna Base Camp, Jomson and back)

Christmas eve 1970: 
A thoroughly delightful day… a day of old and new sounds;
the familiar whistle, song and laugh of the Sherpas;
the cough and chatter of the porters; bark of dogs; rush of water;
howl of the south wind up the Kali Gandaki river valley;

the gurgle of water in the races that supply villages with water,
or their mills with milling power;

the greetings of people; the tingle of bells on animal pack teams,
the calls whistles of their Tibetan attendants;
the sound of footsteps, one’s own and those of the party,
muffled by the dust, distorted by the loose stones, or clipped on the stone steps,

new sounds which include the rumble of the ice fall on Nilgiri –
followed by a slow prolonged cloud of snow and dust
moving as in slow motion down the mountain’s side —

the crows, chickens and other birds,
-and a new note of sadness, if this be a sound,
as we no longer go on, but begin our return
as Jomoson and the Nama Phu Yak pastures
were the farthest points of our itinerary.   
And add to these
the sounds of Vaughan William’s’ “Lark Ascending” from my cassette recorder.

° Saturday   26 December 1970:  BOXING DAY: A perfect day on which we climb to the Dhaulagiri icefall (glacier) and see how spectacular is the panorama here. another happy day. On the steep hill the path leaves the rhododendron forest. The tussocks of grass are dry and yellow, flowers dry and white, desiccated thistles and the ground dry and cold.  Eagles lazily soar, ‑ two today: Crows swoop and cry their raucous craw. Small swallow like birds flitter and twitter. The smaller they are, the more they seem to.  Frost on the ground; snow on the hill, frozen waterfall on the opposite cliff ‑ not far away, ice falls from on the Tuckche ridge with a “boom” and a slowly falling cloud of white, rolling, roaring. The ice lip on Dhaulagiri seems about to fall while the glacier tumbles as if from the side of the mountain.  As I write in the evening, the shadows creep up the ranges opposite, Nilgiri close by and Annapurna over there, now turning pink. I sit by a large log fire. Music plays. It is Vaughan William’s 5th Symphony’, and soup arrives. So, I will pause and may even delay writing more until tomorrow. Time goes on, but there is no hurry here.

  • In Europe, 1971
the music of Vaughan Williams
sunset the soft colours of Scottish twilight a cloudy day folk relaxing kindness the relaxation at the end of a long climb Heather grass fronds waving in the wind the wrinkled surface of a sheet of silver sea shining with the moon contraltos and baritones cellos and oboes bassoons softness, mellowness and depth... minor key....   
  • Discovering Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, Scotland, summer 1971: Driving through Scotland with my sister Elizabeth in the summer of 1971, exploring family connections and family history, I heard on the radio that the BBC would be broadcasting Ralph Vaughan Williams “Sea Symphony” that evening. I had not heard this work, although Vaughan Williams was already a favourite of mine. I suggested to Elizabeth that we camp early so that we could have made our supper and cleaned up in time to listen to the concert. We were able to find a beautiful camping spot in a farmer’s field on the shore of Loch Linnhe. We cooked our supper, cleaned up and with the portable radio moved closer to the shore to listen to the Sea Symphony.

Journal entry June 16 1971, Onich, Scotland, on hearing of Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony:

Kaleidoscope of clouds, piled high above the sea loch –  clouds that sail across the sky,  music and soft colours softening me, bringing the close mountains near and the far ones close;  clouds form and reform – play the wind, as the sea gently laps the shore

as patches of sunlight slide up the hills –lighting the clouds from above and then below – the lap of the sea is gentle, mostly quiet;

a sheepdog, on his evening run, loping along the shore, crosses the field to greet us, to sit and seem to listen with us to the music.  He stays awhile, then bounds off to continue his run, bushy tail waving in the breeze like another wispy cloud, into the evening through the far corner of the yellow green field, watched lazily by the black faced shaggy Highland sheep.

all this to music, now our music, as it imitates the sea and transforms us who sit on its shore. and Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony is all around; each compass point is worthy of our full gaze within this dome of beauty, within this place of peace  – within the soft shadowless shades of the Scottish coastal twilight.

How hard it is to describe the setting, for what I see is now but a part of the whole, that sea surrounded by mountains, green and brown and shades of blue; that sky above, around, behind and in front, with clouds from right to left moving across and upwards, changing shapes changing types, all part of a greater connectedness

The music finishes. We linger, becoming part of the Highland twilight glow, evening’s gentle colour softening the blow of days departure. The horizon seems longer now. There is more to each part of my world now. The wind blows cold, the clouds change their character, as many times as the waves seemed to have lapped. It grows cold without, hands and nose, but warm, very warm within, in the knowledge of what it is to feel the folding of the day. and so to our tent, into our sleeping bags, withdrawing like the closing buttercups and daisies of the seaside field; withdrawing from the now purple sea where there is less light now, but where hills, shadowed before, are now a new glow in the evening sky.

As we get into our sleeping bags, we agree that it had been a beautiful evening, neither wishes to let words spoil the magic. What a multi-directional experience, as Elizabeth and I sat in a field last night with Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony bringing it all together, that sea of waves, of clouds and of hills, of buttercups, of joy, all seas on which to sail, seas joined across time and space, in harmony creating their symphonies of life, weaving us into each day as a wave upon the shore rising and falling back, to rise again amore

We awake on Thursday within a soft blue morning, – blue water, blue hills across the water. We breakfast, pack and are ready to move on when I say to Elizabeth, that I would like to do some writing before we do so. She says that suits her, as she wishes also to write.  I write in my journal and she writes a letter home. I write describing the evening before, the magic of the music, the transcendence and the connections that it made for me with people near and far, with places far and near. As I shared these thoughts with Elizabeth, we discovered we had expressed the same sentiments. And you can imagine how delighted I was when later, in London, I found a copy of the LP record of Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony which contained the texts of the poems by Walt Whitman which Vaughan Williams had set to his music, discovering they also expressed all the sentiments that we had felt, the feelings that the music had evoked within us, sister and brother, sitting on the shore of Loch Linnhe on that special evening in June 1971.

  • A couple of months later, on the Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth II from Southampton to New York:  3 August, 1971: early morning on the stern deck of the QE II, mid-Atlantic, listening to Vaughan Williams’ ” Sea Symphony ” 
a sea symphony...

to the early morning deck

to contemplate the sea
and its limitless heaving breast
on which our ship rides
churning away from its wake,
a ribbon of turmoiled water
all so close
water and sky, low cloud- fog
shrouding now, -then lifting
patchy enough to pattern the still sea
with sheets of silver,
silver in the gray

the wake turquoise now
but then deep blue gray,
sometimes stretching far out
and then, meeting the mist
to meld and almost surge back

silver ball,
weaving through the thin cloud
light on sea's expanse-   shine !
still softness of early morning
alone on the deck with music
watching the wake

letting the mind be tossed

as is the discarded carton
by that rush of foaming colour
ruffled as the still sea is
and settling as it does
warmth of the morning breeze
of its gentle stillness
which barely disturbs the surface
but gives a lilt to reflective calm ......
as the sun shines forth, the clouds round
and become themselves as ships on the  sea
white sails reflecting on a deep blue mirror
its still surface making
for deeper depth
deeper into the day
we churn on into the warming
a brightness that lights the emerging people
as they come to join its symphony
  • Kathmandu, July 1997: on reading ‘Anatomy of the Spirit’  by Caroline Myss:   At this moment, as I read on in the book, I listen to Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, which is his setting to music of poems of the spirit by Walt Whitman. I pause to listen to the words. I look for them in a volume of his poems. To my surprise, they are from his 1865 poem “Passage to India”. What connections with where I am at the moment, physically just to the north of that country.  What a whole new dimension this gives to the words I am reading. I am immediately taken back to the occasion on which I first heard this music. I am right there on the edge of Loch Linnie in Scotland in the summer of 1971. My sister Elizabeth is with me, and without speaking to each other, we both experience the spiritual dimension of both words and music. My eyes fill with tears. I know these are special tears. They are not of sadness, such is the first label so many give. No, they are the tears  of fullness and joy. They are indeed a physiological response to my thoughts, but such are the tears, they are not just a response to the thoughts, they are a response to my atoms and molecules vibrating with energy from elsewhere, from across time and space, from the music that surrounds me. It surely is my soul’s resonance with the resonance of others’ souls. It is the infinite dimension of my own being, tapping the wider and higher energy of all.  ..and perhaps this is what, for generations, those who would do so, have tried to describe as “God”. 

 

  • Words from Music: in an email to three sons from Nepal in the 1990s: 

Two pieces that move me muchly as music, but also as words, are the Gerald Finzi ‘’Dies Natalis” and one of Vaughan Williams ”Five Mystical Songs” which sets to music poems of George Hebert. The Vaughan Williams setting of the poem of George Hebert has been a treasure, carried deeply within, since my mid twenties. I used to sing it out loud during my 4 week 1970-71 trek in Nepal, to the Annapurna Sanctuary and Jomosom, on those occasions when I found myself walking alone or when I had stopped to let a mountain vista overwhelm me and take me away! To me the song represents the essence of the immediacy of the present moment, the allness of today, of each day.

I got me flowers to strew thy way; 
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light and the East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

George Herbert, 1593-1633


  • June 1996: Kathmandu, Nepal:  today I found a music which I could feel represents me. First the young idealist, weaving a theme of purity, which becomes enriched with time and experience, striving on to crescendo and that deep double harp as depth of soul is realised. Then the soaring, that new theme the winds weave, and together they move to crescendo; And then there is a shift to a different key and a second theme of richness and fullness, reflecting what I feel at this time and in this place; a processional if not regal, music for a country representative…. “

Job a Masque for Dancing” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, tracks 8 and 9.

  • In November 1997, while working in Nepal:  We spent just over two weeks in India. As the WHO  Representative in Nepal, I was to attend the annual meeting of the WHO Country Representatives of the South East Asian Region in the WHO Regional Office in New Delhi, India.  Leslie and I decided to drive ourselves there from Kathmandu in our own Landrover Discovery. We took three days for the trip there and an extra three days for the return, so that we could have a day or two in Jaipur and Deeg on the return trip. What a wonderful trip we had. I would never have believed that driving through the North of India could have been such a colourful and enjoyable adventure.  It proved to be a veritable feast for the eyes and all the other senses. (which we unashamedly enriched with our own music tapes on the car stereo, Mozart and Vaughan Williams in the morning and Loreena McKennit or Dave Matthews later in the day). We had wonderful contact with our fellow travellers and those through whose towns and villages we passed. People were so helpful and always willing to give us direction when the signposts we needed were not there.  So many images remain vivid in my mind, none the least of which was Leslie’s comment on our return that it had been a highlight of her life. Wow.  Now that is a privilege, to have been part of that. 

 

  • December 2011, from my 70th birthday:   My little sister (13 years younger than me) had been asked to make some comment on her memories of my adolescent years at my 70th birthday celebration. She did so and followed up a day or so later with this message:

“I heard Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ today in the car and thought of an addendum to the adolescence stories. Perhaps that piece would be the soundtrack, as it was to the flickering super 8 movies you would bring back from your adventures far and near, the Warrumbungle mountains, Goroka tribal gatherings. And I was lucky enough to be taken to some of the places you loved and have the music you loved played to me and to this day I know that it helped me develop a deep sense of knowing who I was in the very deep still pool of my inner self that sustained me silently and steadfastly through troubled young adult years. So, if you had been a piece of music in your ‘adolescence’, it would have been the big vista and soaring heights and sublime beauty of “The Lark Ascending”.

What a profound compliment.  And it is that “Lark ascending” which just keeps “popping up” at appropriate occasions, especially when we are travelling. Always the tear jerker.

And some final words: I am deeply moved by the resonance Vaughan Williams music has with that deep space that must be my soul, and by the way it appears at auspicious times, especially on journeys.

  • Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams to be remembered by:
The Lark Ascending
Five Mystical songs: No 2 I got me flowers
Dona Nobis Pacem: IV   The dirge for two veterans
From Job, A Masque for Dancing;
Scene VII; Elihu’s Dance of youth and beauty.
Pavane of the Sons of morning
from Hodie: XI Lullaby; Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sang
Sea Symphony   ii Largo;   On the Beach at night alone
Piano Concerto 2nd movt Romanza
Tuba Concerto   2nd movt  Romanza
5th Symphony in its entirety

Rose Petals, Music and Connectedness

On the train home from a day with a dying mother;  26/04/2005 

 My mother lived in Sydney and at the time was emerging from a serious illness. Her doctors had told us she does not have long to go.

 April 2005

I am on the train, going home from a day with my dying mother, which is a three hour journey. I listen to music while I read. I am listening to John Taverner’s “The Protecting Veil”. Towards the end of the piece there is a section where the music has the richest deepest and most profound harmony.

In the context of today, I hear it as a rich bed of music on which to lay a tired old body, a venerable 90 year old, a dying mother; one whom has given so much and so deserves such  rich harmony upon which to rest and slip away.

Could the tears that now appear perhaps moisten the slide and make it smoother?

Could my earlier questions to her about what she thinks might come next have helped her let go a little and just feel the connectedness with those who have gone before and with those who will follow?

Could the gratitude for what she has given us, and through us, others, be the hands that hold and comfort her as she goes, as she slips away on this rich bed of harmonies?

As I listen, the music seems to be the sound equivalent of a bed of rose petals; deep and rich; a fulsome harmony; music which brings forth the tears, the questions and the gratitude; music which is indeed an expression of that connectedness.

I have reached for my notebook and jot down these thoughts as the music changes to the Good Friday music from Parsifal, another piece with connections for me. In this context it is the link with the Holy Grail, the search for which we perhaps all reflect. And can it be that indeed it is found as we become who we are and are at one with those we know and love, and found in the knowing that we have experienced ourselves in love and compassion with them?

Is this indeed the softness and fullness of the harmony, the choir of angels that takes us into the realm of the spiritual, as, no longer tethered to the ground, we expand to encompass the infinity that surrounds us; like a balloon that expands until its wall becomes so thin that it no longer matters and what was inside becomes one with the infinite. Is this indeed what those who went before experienced; those we thought we had lost; now to know that they were always there, part of that infinite spiritual realm?  Am I now just experiencing the deep harmony of becoming one with them?

And for those that remain, her going in this way can point us to this aspect of our own being, this aspect of the present moment, of now, and more than now, the knowing, so that we can grasp this connection, this connectedness, long before we cast off the finite and ourselves become one with the infinite; and in doing so find a spiritual dimension of our being, find the harmony that is the process of being love and compassion, of being infinite.

Today I had given her 10 red roses. I wondered what each one might represent as a memory of a special moment of peace, joy or great happiness, but instead I ask her about such things in general. She speaks of riding her horse as a young woman, with their spaniel running ahead, returning and running ahead again. I ask her about thoughts she has about what will happen next. She has not thought about that, she says. “Maybe I will when my time comes”, she says. “Maybe”, I say, “that has something to do with when you are ready”. She nods. We laugh about how tired her old body is, how it labours to function and how she welcomes the relief that tablets and oxygen give her.

I sense the time is drawing near, and wonder whether she is not sure how to do it. And as with many situations faced during her life, she will stew a little, worry about doing it right, and then do it with grace, courage, dignity and style, getting it right as she has done with so many things throughout her life.

The next morning I sit at home and watch the sun rise. There is mist amongst the trees at the bottom of the hill on which our house sits. That mist softly colours the suns rising. I hear in the distance the surf on Seven Mile beach, while close at hand and all around the birdsong of many different birds and the croaking of frogs give me the immediacy of day’s beginning. And here you have it all: the timelessness of the surf, waves caressing the shore as they have done for millions of years, and will continue to do so for millions more, and the immediacy of the birds and small animals, here today, gone tomorrow, next week or next year; and it seems that at this moment I am the bridge between the two;  and in my connectedness with others, they become also part of that marvellous continuum: from the timelessness of waves and sunrises to the immediacy of the birds and trees around us and our own breathing.

Even that spot on the continuum changes as day lightens; Those shafts of golden sunlight through the trees, that hint of mist enabling the sun to transform its passage through the morning, its rising this morning made new by the uniqueness of this day and us within it, its rising its timelessness, its transformation of this morning to immediacy;  .. and I the bridge.

It seems the birds respond. More join in the morning chorus; whip birds, currawongs, magpies, black cockatoos, galahs and crimson rosellas. A kookaburra is sitting in a nearby tree and is joined by another and they watch me. Their usually raucous song is quite gentle this morning. How poignant is that? We had spoken yesterday, Mum and I, of Kookaburras and our family, and how they had been at Dad’s passing and his burial, and at the grave on every occasion I have visited, and how they had always bought us comfort and memories of him.

I say to them “Go now and be with Betty, hold her hand as she moves on.”

I go again to Sydney that day, to be with her again.  I refer to the ten roses. This time ask her which 10 special moments of joy, happiness or peace in her life might be represented by each one of the ten roses.

At first she is not too sure of how to approach this. Then she says “My engagement and my Marriage”. She pauses. Yes, the smile shows she savours them as special times.  Now, with confidence, even enthusiasm, she tells me to add the births of each of her seven children. That accounts for nine of the ten roses, I say. The tenth, she tells me, is knowing her Scottish cousin Sheila Macleod. She adds that Sheila’s Norman was also a very special person and it seems that we might need more than 10 roses.

Ten roses; ten special memories.

A hundred roses; a hundred treasured times;

Thousands of roses for thousands of great moments: enough for a thick bed of rose petals on which she can rest while she eases away from her finiteness to the shared infinity beyond.

 

 

A “Three Buddha Farewell” Revisited.

January 2020:  I am revisiting this piece from 2001 as a result of a whole new perspective given to these three Buddhas by the second of our three sons, who helped us choose items of significance or treasures to pack in our car, in readiness for evacuation should a bushfire threaten our property, a log house in a forest clearing on a bushfire prone block.

The three Buddhas sit together on a side table in our living room. They represent many aspects and memories of our rich life in South Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. They are gifts I received on leaving Nepal in 1999, from each the three groups that I had served as the WHO Representative in Nepal.

I had selected the larger of the three to go into the box of treasures to pack. When Michael saw this he asked “Why are you only taking Dave?”. I realised instantly that Michael had assumed these three Buddhas represented our three boys, and was either unaware or had forgotten their original story. Suddenly, like a drum-roll, like a fanfare, our three statues  take on a whole new set of additional meanings and dimensions. They had not represented our three sons. They do now, and I thank Michael for giving them this extra meaning.

3 budha farewell

A Three Buddha Farewell   ( a piece from 2001)

One aspect of our departure from Nepal in 1999, at the end of my second WHO assignment there, is what I describe as the ‘Three Buddha Farewell’. Three seated statues of Buddha, between 20 and 27 cms high, one copper, one gold painted and the other bronze, had been presented with affection and good wishes as farewell gifts; one from the members of the WHO-Nepal staff team; one from the Nepal Ministry of Health; one from fellow heads of UN agencies in Nepal, each unaware of the others’ gift.

At the time the three Buddhas symbolised for me the three levels of our WHO work at country level: being members of a WHO team, being in partnership with the people of Nepal and being a member of the UN team and the wider world of international support.

Those three Buddhas reminded me also of three things I have taken with me from living amongst Buddhists in Nepal; the benefits of letting go; the need to be centred and live in the present moment; and the value of compassion.  I anticipated that these three Buddhas would give me symbolic energy, serenity and equanimity, and these three precious things at many levels, as I moved on to the next phase of my life as WHO Representative in Cambodia. And they did.

There is much more to such Buddha statues than meets the eye. They represent different aspects of the Buddha simply by the position of their hands. I had accepted the gratitude and friendship they represented as gifts from people who had mattered so much to me. I had added symbolic meaning, but had not even thought about, or I am ashamed to say, even noticed the position of their hands.

Then Pam Putney, an old friend from our first time in Nepal was here briefly in Phnom Penh. I showed her the three Buddhas, now placed side by side together on a rather fine old Cambodian side table in our living room. She was delighted with my story. Then she gently said “How wonderful, they are all in the service position, their right hands touching the ground, making connections”.

In an instant, here was new information. In an instant, whole new meaning. In a moment, more meaning in these three gifts than I had ever imagined. In a moment, new meaning at many levels in what they say to me, what they say about those who gave them, what they say about us all and where we are; and for me, not just meaning, but a message for this and subsequent phases of my life.

That ‘aha’ moment and its consequences also remind me that we do not see things all at once, nor do we need to, and perhaps should not try to; that we cannot know it all now, nor might we need to, and therefore maybe we should not strive to have all the loose ends so neatly tied. Perhaps we should rather celebrate uncertainty and incompleteness and focus on the connectedness, unfolding-ness and preciousness of being a human being.

Now in January 2020, I am so grateful to all those who connect me with these three Buddhas and the myriad of meanings and memories they represent.

 

Advice to self: action I can take

Thoughts arising as we pass through a Bushfire Emergency on the South Coast of NSW, January 2020:

I see around me people who are overwhelmed and overwrought, dissipating their energy on things that are beyond their control, blaming others, generating anger which they spray on others, catastrophising and immobilising themselves and at times those around them. I see others who do what they can with what they’ve got, reach out and be part of a community, collaborating and contributing. I find myself wanting to reach out to those who are in pain and in a state of fear or anxiety and let them be part of this other community. I ask myself, what can I do to calm the overwrought, soothe the troubled and comfort the frightened.

I think I might try the following:

With kindness and kind words, establish what the facts are, choose not to pass on or amplify alarmist posts, false posts, incomplete information. Let such stuff ‘stop with me’. Passing things on amplifies them. I will pass on the good news, the good advice, the reassurance of others.

Celebrate achievement, no matter how small. Be less judgemental. Be not judgemental at all. Be willing to see the many sides to every story, the many dimensions of every situation. I can say “Let us learn to collaborate with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Let us discover the unfoldingness of things. Let us experience the connections we have with the community in which we find ourselves”. Being connected. Being compassionate. Being collaborative. Being kind, to myself and to others.

Focus on what is. The ‘is-ness’ of things is what we have. It is solid ground in an otherwise shifting of sands, which, if we jump up and down in it, becomes quicksand. Be grounded on what is. Be grounded in the present moment. Cultivate the notion that together we will get through the present situation, no matter how awful.

Focus of what is, not on what is not. Highlighting defects, deficiencies, gaps, and negatives just heightens the fears and anxieties, especially of those who grasp on to such things as confirmation of how bad things are. Blaming others, bad mouthing them seems to come from that place of fear and anger and make matters more fraught. I have found that providing balance with stories of success, of help given, of support provided, can enable me to see the bigger picture, one in which there is good and bad, positive and negative, hope and fear. When others have nothing to say but how awful it was, or is, I will listen. I will let them know that I understand the impact that had on them, reassure them, bring them into the present, remind them of what is happening, what is being achieved, of the miracles being wrought all around us. I will collect stories of these miracles, so that I am ready to share them when I encounter others whose fears and anxieties immobilise them and prevent them from seeing what is there, what is happening, what is helping, who is there to support and how they are supporting. I will acknowledge what is, whether it be fear, pain, support given, support received, sorrow or joy. I will be interested in where others are and how they are travelling, how they are negotiating the uncertainties, the ups and downs of their respective journeys. I will do my best to be there for the other.

I can make a pot of tea, a brew of coffee. Make muffins. Cook a meal. Include love as an ingredient. Share such things.

Pause, go for a walk, be still in a forest. Hug a tree. Plant a tree. Keep alive a tree previously planted. Pause, be still as I listen to a favourite piece of music, listening with my whole self and my full attention, being there within the music. Let tears flow if that is what is prompted. Let the soul resonate, if that is what ensues.

Find comfort in the uncertainty of things. Avoid seeking certainty in this uncertain journey. Avoid encouraging others to do so, even inadvertently. Life does unfold in uncertain and mostly beautiful ways. Seek and find the beauty, the harmony, of things.

Find the music within. Seek stillness, allow myself to resonate with it.

Find peace and equanimity, sharing these precious things by being peaceful and equanimous.

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EIGHT PIECES: Written treasures or “pieces of eight”

EIGHT PIECES by Bill Pigott

Written treasures or “pieces of eight”

Wishing to Share

Back in 1999, as I prepared to move from Nepal to Cambodia I wrote the following: “In that space between assignments, at rest, but awake and alive with thoughts memories and ideas, I found myself wanting to respond to the many who have asked me to share thoughts and stories. Wishing, not wanting.” One could reflect at length on the difference between wishing and wanting. I have been a story teller of sorts since childhood. Later I got into a habit of telling stories about my comings and goings and sharing my reflections on these with my children and other members of the family. I also wrote up some of my field visits and shared them with colleagues in our head office, where they often ended up in the staff newsletter. I was pleased to be putting in front of them some of the realities one faces when working in the field. I have used my own and other’s stories to illustrate ideas, to make points and to stimulate others, or to provoke them to see a situation from a different perspective.

In my last posting with WHO I was on many occasions asked to say a few words at the opening or closing of a conference or seminar. Early on I introduced some stories. People loved them. I was rewarded with other’s stories. Stories leapt out of the books I read, or rather books with suitable stories fell into my lap. People expected new stories all the time and expressed their disappointment when none were offered. People also clearly loved hearing again certain stories, told in different settings or in relation to different issues. Many asked for print-outs of the notes for my speeches and people have asked me again and again to share the stories I had gathered.

Always there was this wish within to share. But the time was not. Now, however there is a space, so I will start with pieces that have become small treasures for me, like pirates gold, my ‘pieces of eight’.

Eight Pieces:

  1. A meeting where road and river cross
  2. Words from Music
  3. Château la Pigotte: Summer 1992
  4. Family
  5. Solstice Celebration
  6. Protecting Pines
  7. Samundra Tar
  8. India Drive

The context of these tales is on a timeline that begins in Adelaide South Australia at the end of 1941, the second of what became a family of seven children, and continues through 70 years until the present in Berry NSW, with a number of journeys,  re-locations and other events, including marriage and fathering three sons, along the way. These journeys and re-locations resulted in a move to Brisbane at the beginning of 1948, to Sydney in 1953, travel in Asia, Europe and north America 1971 and 1972, Sydney 1973 to end 75, Adelaide until 81, then working for the World Health Organisation in Nepal until end 86, in Geneva until mid 95, back to Nepal for 4 years, and then 2 ½ years in Cambodia, returning to Australia in early 2002 for so-called retirement.

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1        A Meeting Where Road and River Cross

It was just after Easter 1996. Two of our boys are in Nepal with us for Easter holidays from their respective boarding schools in England. Michael, 19, is studying for three to five hours each day for his A level exams while Peter, 17, is out trekking with a group from his school. I need to go to Pokhara  for a workshop on Primary Health Care, which is 200 km by road to the west of Kathmandu. I decide to drive there and take Leslie and Michael with me for the two days.

We set off soon after 7 a.m., an hour or so later than planned. I was sure I had set the alarm for 5 am in order to leave at 6, beat the traffic and be in Pokhara in good time for the 2 p.m. inauguration of the meeting. However the alarm was not on, and we left later than we had intended.  We knew that Peter was somewhere in Nepal with his school group, all 34 of them, and would spend some of that day on a river somewhere, rafting, having completed their 12 day trek in the Annapurna area. Leslie is sure they would be rafting on some other river than the one we would drive by on our journey.

The road to Pokhara does run alongside the Trisuli River for about 30 kms. On this stretch we often see rafting groups. A particularly good place from which to watch them from the road is just before the town of Mugling, midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, where the road crosses a bridge and leaves the Trisuli River behind. As we approached Mugling, from the road, high above the river we do see a group of rafts on the river. Michael asks me to pull over. We stop to look down on them as they flow down a calm stretch. Some are paddling. Two people are in the water swimming and others are throwing buckets of water on another raft. Michael does a quick count and says the numbers are right. “It could be the Bryanston group”. He thinks he recognises one. As one of the swimmers hauls himself back into his raft, it could be our Peter, but we are too far away to be sure.

We drive on through Mugling, which perches above the river at a point where it makes a sharp turn through some rapids as it is joined by another river, to flow south under the Mugling bridge. We cross the bridge and stop again just in time to see the first raft come through the rapids and put ashore on the small beach just across the river from where we are stopped.  Michael climbs down closer to the river and from a splendid rock, watches the other rafts come through. By this time the first group of rafters are now out of their life jackets and helmets, and indeed it is the Bryanston School group. We recognise each other as Peters raft negotiates the rapids. As they all come ashore, we recross the bridge and go down the steep path to meet them. Clearly the rest stop was not for our benefit, and we learn that they had started earlier than planned in order to reach the Chitwan National Park, their destination for that day, a little earlier.  They all look great -tanned, relaxed, happy and at peace. They had a great trek, and the rafting so far had been excellent.

For us, what a wonderful coincidence. What an auspicious crossing of paths. One party starts later than intended and the other starts earlier, so that we meet, in that few moments of a window of opportunity. How wonderful. How extraordinary, and in true Nepali style, how auspicious, that unplanned and unforseen meeting where road and river cross.


2.   Words from Music:

Two pieces that move me greatly as music, but also as words, are ‘’Dies Natalis” by  Gerald Finzi and one of Vaughn Williams’ ”Five Mystical Songs” which sets poems of George Hebert to music.

The Vaughn Williams setting of this particular poem of George Hebert has been a treasure, carried deeply within, since my mid twenties. I used to sing it out loud during my trek in and around the Annapurnas at the end of 1970, on those occasions when I found myself walking alone or had stopped to let a mountain vista overwhelm me and take me away! To me the song  represents the essence of the immediacy of the present moment, the allness of today, of each day.

“I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light and the East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this..
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever .

The Finzi piece is different. There is a more sublime sense to this setting of words by poet  Thomas Traherne. He  actually uses the word sublime and speaks directly to me of the profound joy of being alive, while at the same time pointing out the beyondness of our being, to the infinite worlds and dimensions beyond what we see and feel at the moment. The piece Dies Natalis, with words by Thomas Traherne, has four parts, Rhapsody, The Rapture, Wonder and The Salutation. The words that follow are the first part, Rhapsody, and are adapted from Centuries of Mediation, the Third Century

Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness?

I as a stranger, which at my entrance was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys; my knowledge was divine. I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in Splendor and glory. Heaven and earth did sing my Creator’s praises, and could not make more melody to Adam than to me. Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I.

All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressably rare and delightful and beautiful.. All things were spotless and pure and glorious. The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.

The green trees, when I saw them first, transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things.

O what venerable creatures did the aged seem! Immortal cherubims! And the young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty. I knew not that they were born or should die; but all things abided eternally.

I knew not that there were sins of complaint or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, free and immortal

I share them with you.


3.   Château la Pigotte: France, Summer 1992

One of our excursions as a family in the European summer of 1992 was a camping trip to the Atlantic coast of France.

We, the two parents, 3 teenage young men and one large dog, travelled from Geneva across the centre of France and stayed the first night near Figeac. This is a lovely old part of France, near the Dordogne valley, not far from the place where they found the remains of the Cro-Magnon man and close to those famous caves with the pre‑historic paintings of hunting scenes. We found ourselves in a valley that reminded us all of the settings we have imagined as we read books such as the Hobbit or stories from medieval times or the middle ages. It had the feeling that people had been living here for a long long time, as indeed they have.

We reached the coast near Mimizan (to the south‑west of Bordeaux) on the second night, and camped on a farm not far from a relatively isolated surfing beach. Actually it would be better described as an isolated bathing area on a beach that extends for miles and miles of coastline within a National forest, with only a house for the lifesavers who patrol the area, and without all the resort facilities of the less isolated places.

The surf was great. I treasure the moment when our youngest Peter, having caught a decent wave, comes out of the water with his face beaming, to say “now I know what it’s like to catch a wave.”

We took our big dog Matts with us (He was a Bernese mountain dog). He loved the beach. However we only let him have one go at it, because on his first experience of a beach and the sea, he drank so much sea water as he romped along the water’s edge, in and out of the waves, crouching in the shallows and rolling on the wet sand, that he later started vomiting the sea and squirting it out the other end! He didn’t seem too bothered by it all, but we thought it would be more predictable if it didn’t happen again. He travelled well in the back of the station wagon, but I think by the end, he was wondering when we would get back home to things more familiar. On the last day we were camped, he preferred to lie in his place in the back of the station wagon. We took it as his hint to get going on our way home! 

We had two wonderful days surfing and then decided to go back to the area in which we’d stopped on the way over, so that the boys could do some canoeing. However we would not go straight, but make a diversion through the Medoc region of Gironde, a little to the north of where we had been surfing, to look for the place where they grow and make the wine which bears the label Château La Pigotte Terre Feu.

The clue that there exists such a place came through the visit of our good friend from Australia, Graeme Morgan. At the time we were living in Switzerland, just outside Geneva, because of my work at WHO Headquarters.  Graeme spent a couple of days with us at the beginning of July 1992. One day we took him on a trip across the lake by paddle steamer, from nearby Nyon to the lovely old lakeside village of Yvoire. On the way back through Nyon, Graeme suggested we find “nice bottle of wine for dinner”. I remembered there was a gourmet shop nearby, although had never ventured within. We found it and as we browsed the shelves, I came across a bottle labelled   

Château La Pigotte Terre Feu’ 1988 Medoc“,

We bought a bottle and thoroughly enjoyed it that evening with our meal. The label contained the address of the wine maker, a M. Freche of St‑Yzans du Medoc, but of course we could not find such a village on any maps we had at home.

It was a good wine and the label made us curious, but it was not until we had already planned our trip to the Atlantic coast that we even considered a side trip to hunt down a place named with our name.

It was not until we were in that part of France, in the Departement adjacent to the Gironde, that we were able to find a map that actually showed St‑Yzans du Medoc, a small village, 65km or so north‑west of Bordeaux, off the N215, beyond St Laurent‑et‑Benon, near Lesparre‑Medoc.

With map in hand, a spirit of adventure and a full tank of petrol, not to mention the full car, with its five adult sized people, roof rack piled with camping gear and large 45 kg dog in the back, we set off from our coastal campsite for the Medoc.

The Medoc is such beautiful country, with its vineyards and noble chateaux. The land transforms into rolling hills as we moved north. We turned off the main road N215 just before the town of Lesparre‑Medoc, which is just to the north of the famous Mouton‑Rothschild vineyards. We passed through beautiful old villages and by the occasional ancient stone windmill, and found St-Yzans without any trouble.

There were a couple of prosperous looking wine Cellars in the village, both open for tasting and purchase. We asked.  No, they had never heard of Chateau La Pigotte …but wait a minute, one of them knows of Monsieur Freche, who lives on the other side of the village, by the bakery.

We ask again at the bakery.  Yes, but of course, M. Freche lives just down the lane. ( all of this done in my best, but far from good, French ) We move on, feeling as if we are on a treasure hunt. The house was all open, and even fresh loaves of long French bread were on the table, obviously to accompany an excellent dish that was announcing itself most aromatically from the kitchen window and open back door. However no‑one appeared to be about.  A young boy soon arrived on his bicycle.  “Yes, this is the home of M. Freche, but he is at the vineyard, which is 5 or 6 km away, near the village of Blaignan”.  “Look for the sign La Pigotte at the first turn after the Chateau La Gorce and follow the road….”

As instructed, we find the sign, LA  PIGOTTE, follow the road through the vines of the Domaine La Pigotte, and reach a high wall, behind the locked gates of which is a fine old house. That must be the Chateau. The road turns along the wall and crosses an open area onto which face a number of houses and sheds, including a substantial old stone barn like building which extends from the back of the Chateau. AN elderly man walking determinedly towards the old stone building with an empty wine bottle does not seem to notice us. We later realise why, when we see him return, clutching his full lunch‑time bottle of wine.

Another man comes out of his front gate to talk with us. He is, he tells us, the owner of one of the houses in the hamlet and would appear to want to own the vineyards here as well. He explains that “Chateau La Pigotte” could have one of 3 meanings as far as wine is concerned: wine made in the Chateau, in the old stone building right behind us, (from which the man with his lunch‑time bottle now appears); secondly, wine made from grapes grown on the Domaine La Pigotte;  or wine from other wineries who wanted to use the name because Chateau La Pigotte had won a Gold Medal in Paris some years ago.

I didn’t quite catch the last bit and it was all made less clear later, when we met the man who does own the Domaine La Pigotte and makes the wine from its grapes, Monsieur Freche himself. He inferred that our first informant was a bit of a fool who talks too much. Indeed he had been  most talkative. We heard about his many children..4 sons and 3 daughters; about his son who has a girlfriend from NZ and another whose girlfriend is to go to Australia on an exchange;   of a daughter who is a nurse, and two who are secretaries; of how he had come down here from Brittany, and how he loves the life down here, and how much he would like to be able to own the whole set‑up and make the wine we are interested in…  and so on.

If we want wine, he says we must go to that house, the one next door, to which the old man with the full bottle of wine has now returned, without even appearing to notice our strange caravan. Just then, a man on a tractor draws up and parks nearby. As we had driven into the hamlet, we had noticed him trimming the vines with circular blades mounted on the back of his tractor. He approaches the house in question.

Yes, he is Mr. Freche. Yes, he does have wine available, and if we want some he will go and get the key.  The key is enormous, and fitting for such a noble stone building.

We follow him deep into the old stone building; into its subdued light and coolness, past the huge stainless steel vats in which the first stage of the wine making takes place; into the cool dark room of wooden casks in which the wine is aged; to the bottling room where the 1988 and 1989 wines are in their bottles in neat stacks against two of the white stone walls.  A large fireplace seems to take up a third wall, and he reaches for several glasses from the jumble of things on its wide timber mantel. He washes the glasses and takes a bottle from the stack of 1988, draws the cork and pours 5 glasses; we all taste, except Peter, who doesn’t wish to (so we hand Freche one of the glasses..)

It all seems just right. The right setting, the right wine, the right colour, the right bouquet, and  a most refreshing taste …excellent: Perhaps it has a thinner taste than the one we had enjoyed back home ?  Perhaps not.   Anyway, to us, who have no expertise in the matter of wines, but know what we like, it seems to be pretty good. (Or as Leslie says, “…a little young now, but it will be great.”)  It is good enough to ask for 14 bottles. It cost us 32 French francs per bottle, which in those days was equivalent to about $6 (and I’d have bought more if I had not been concerned about further overloading an already overloaded car!  Maybe we can order more later.) I decide then and there that I will take some as Christmas gifts for each of my four brothers and two sisters when we go to Australia the following December.

  1. Freche shows us the corking and labelling equipment and talks about his wine making. He gives us some labels as souvenirs. His accent was sometimes difficult for even our bilingual sons to decipher, let alone their not‑so‑young parents, but we did pick up the essentials of his story. Last year’s crop was entirely wiped out by late frosts. This year’s could be excellent. He had obviously escaped the storms of the previous weekend that had caused so much damage in the Margaux area to the south and was pleased about that.
summer 92 winesummer 92 winesummer 92 winesummer 92 winesummer 92 winesummer 92 winesummer 92 wine

Clearly there was some issue between our man of the vines and the talkative newcomer from Brittany, with whom we had spoken on first arriving in La Pigotte. It may have concerned the latter’s attempt to buy up the land he wanted, with each seeing the other as some sort of rival. The old house had been bought recently and renovated by a business man from Castelnau or Bordeaux.

Before we moved out of the tasting room to leave the winery, Mr. Freche presented us with a bottle of 1989 wine as a gift. It seems much more than just a complimentary bottle of wine, perhaps indicating that after all he appreciates our special interest in his place and its wine.

They had no idea where the name La Pigotte comes from. It has been the name of this locality for as long as anyone can remember. They have no idea what the name means. No, they cannot recall of anyone with the name Pigott, or anyone who knew anything about the origin of the name. (We do know the name is from Normandy and that Pigott ancestors travelled with William the Conqueror to England in 1066). One senses that such questions are of less importance to a man of the land who carries on the craft of his father than they are to a foreigner from a foreign land who happens to have the name “Pigott”, interesting though that may be. …and interesting indeed to the old lady whom I imagined to be the mother of Mr. Freche, who is fascinated that we should have come to buy their wine because it bears our name….

As we leave, the talkative man runs after us, to show us the coat of arms, or rather the sign of the house La Pigotte, carved in stone high on the end wall of one of the ancient outbuildings. It was in the form of a hollow circle, the upper 2 quadrants with grapes and the lower 2 grapes and wheat, symbolising the bread and wine produced from the domaine.

We depart with our wine, some photographs, addresses, a very real sense of a link with a place and a feeling that this had indeed been an adventure worth having.  We stopped on the way out to photograph Pigotts against the sign “La Pigotte” and had a quick look in the Cemetery of the nearby village of Blaignan, but there were no names there that might be  meaningful in terms of our family history.

Footnote:  We learned a little later of another wine with a Pigott label. Another friend who came to stay with us in Switzerland presented us with a bottle of South Australian white wine he had found in a wineshop in England with the label Pigott Hill. It was a fine drop, but we have never been able to locate its origins.

Years later, in the locked glass doored cabinet at the local wineshop in Berry NSW we see bottles of a rather expensive Clarendon Hills Piggott Range Syrah, nestled amongst precious bottles of Grange Hermitage. The wine is from a hillside vineyard planted in the 1960’s adjacent to the Onkaparinga Valley in South Australia. For one bottle of Clarendon Hills Piggott Range I would need somewhat more than what I paid for all 14 bottles of Château la Pigotte at the winery back in 1992 !


 

4.    Family… Switzerland,  November 6 1994:

Yesterday we went walking with two dear friends, walking up a mountain for a picnic with the finest of views, on one of those spectacular autumn days on which the suns rays reach down to touch the earth like the fingers of God, make rainbows, and move patches of sunshine across the mountainsides, and touch us in a most moving way. Returning from the heights, we find ourselves walking in pairs.

Astrid and Bill walk and talk of connectedness, of being in tune with the earth’s rhythms in the same manner as they observe the grasses do, seeing how the grasses, the dried flowers and the berried branches, in the same wind, all wave their own frequency, each with their own rhythm, creating a visual  harmony in their collectiveness, interweaving and interacting. As they walk, they appreciate their own resonance with the mountains’ mood and the process of the day.

Meanwhile Sandra and Leslie move at a faster pace and discuss with each other their experience of relationships with others, and Leslie is drawn out on what having the three the boys away at boarding school during term-time means for her.

The following morning Leslie shares some aspects of the conversation and relates how she described the episode of distance between us in Nepal as a “falling out”. She described to Sandra how she dealt with it by focusing on the positive aspect of being a family, because of the strong family unit, the strong family structure we had… even if, as two of its members, we had “fallen out”.. The strength of the family as a whole was for her the positive force on which to focus. Interestingly, at the time, I also dealt with the situation (after experiencing some hurt and negative feelings) by consciously focusing on positives. For me, it was a focus on the positive in her.., effectively pushing aside the angry and negative thoughts, the feeling sorry for myself, by focusing on her strengths and the things I valued in her and about her. I had always believed it was that which had made the difference.  However, now she tells me, 10 years later, that she was also using a positive focus; and now I perceive that in itself is another of her great strengths.., that she would see our small family as a strength in itself, with a being or an identity of its own, above and beyond the identity of the couple defined as the parents.. 

It presents me with a most exciting concept of family as an entity with its own innate life, of which the parents are a part. But more than that, of which the parents are but two individual members..,  so that the family as a group can live on, even if two of its members need distance from each other or experience changes in the way they feel about each other… the individuals each contributing to the life of the entity, as equal contributors… as beings within a group; contributing to the group’s reality, because they are members, not because of their age, experience, contribution or role;  They each contribute because they are there, because they belong.. (shades of the recently discovered book “The Tao of Pooh” by Ben Hoff). It certainly puts the notion of family on a higher plane… no longer permits one to see children as appendages, no longer parents as the driving force… no longer the couple as the most important element, but the group, with its higher level of being.. its higher purpose as that essential aspect. It throws away the notion of ownership…  even of stewardship on the part of the parents,  and brings forward the mutual nature of relationships in a family process..

What a flurry of ideas. So many thoughts.. and an underlying sense of profound insight into what enables our family experience to be so rich, so different and unexplainable.. and at the same time for it to be such a source of energy for me, not as father, but as member with father responsibilities.

Leslie you have this day given me a gift. The gift of insight, of new awareness before un-noticed…   maybe even a step ahead in my understanding of the way people interact. I will have to look again at what others say about family relationships.

The whole issue is reflected in other aspects of our own family life: – the sharing of decisions, planning, and responsibility; – everyone’s involvement in decision making; –  respect for each other and for the family as a unit; – investment of time and effort, on the part of all of us, in being a family; – helping each other at times of trouble and need; – being concerned for each other, rather than finding fault or blaming; –  trying to understand, and helping each other to do so; – celebrating each others successes, participating in each others downs. 

Yes, there must have been leadership in the early days from the parents, but it clearly became a self strengthening system, which at a time of crisis, clearly helped two of its members, the parents, survive that crisis. It is “being a family” as a self strengthening process. Probably  the real leadership and foundation, the underlying strength was the mother, who perceived that she was a contributor rather than just the source, whose notion of family and being a partner was not one of possession, not one of owning.. nor even of creating.. but that of a process of which she is an integral part,  not as provider, but as facilitator.. She started as catalyst, and has in turn become enriched by the process she initiated and thus enabled to nurture and facilitate its process, as well as to receive strength when she needed it.  It is a leadership that enables others to grow, as individuals, ..retaining respect for herself and each member as an individual, each entitled to be respected as such;  not one losing their individuality because they became part of a couple or were born into a family… but all playing their unique parts as extra ordinary components in a process… mutually strengthening the individuals so that they become exponentially stronger as a group,  .. a group whose mutual strength now strengthens each individual, and is available to be drawn upon by the individuals, should they so choose to do….  

How beautiful this seems to me, as I perceive, in a very real way, family as the first and most immediate layer in an infinite series of energy levels from which we can all draw.. And I see also, now more clearly than ever before, how this has emerged with the five of us, how it has developed. I can see how it has grown through circumstance; ..travel as a couple and the uncertainty and adventure that brings; losing early pregnancies; three births as individual entries, one a breech, the second head first as normally is the way, but a slow and long delivery, the third a caesarean; life events.. shared work experiences, always reaching into the human dimension of various activities, with students, colleagues and others often sharing our home and our food around our family table; a time of shared involvement in a community programme helping other young parents cope; full involvement in each of the schools the boys have attended; reading together as a family for so many of those early years (helped by not having TV or Video in Nepal); eating together at the table, whenever possible, and in later years it becomes a real round table, physically and intellectually; episodes such as Michael’s skull fracture and all sharing the response, the concern and the care; and being galvanised by the experience; Peter’s asthma and David’s various injuries; lots of travel and adventure; being interested in, supporting, contributing to and going to see each others performances, whether sport, theatre or music;  the many extra-ordinary people who have shared themselves with us as a family, those who stayed with us, dined, trekked, travelled, camped, celebrated and so became not only our families enrichment but its extendedness; dealing with dyslexia times two;  the ups and downs, letting the traumas and the frustrations become the learning experiences which would help us better deal with the next one; the expressions of concern, the shared joys, sorrows and tears (recalling some of those precious moments, such as the morning each, one by one, tearfully embraced Michael as he set off, the first to leave home, for boarding school; the touching concern the other two showed for David when his first love broke off their relationship; the three boys concern whether the parents would be all right with the three of them away at school..  etc.,); and all the shared music, the shared laughter;

It is all about being a family..  with all those reminders that we are individuals within the flow of being a group, and the privilege of having developed the respect for each other that enables us to recognise each other’s worth, as well as each others need to be different and to have space and time to oneself within the ongoing life of the group.. and the privilege of having one amongst us who had such a vision of what it might mean to be a family..!!!  ( and if ever I thought about the  positive aspects of Leslie as a person, this out-shines them all…)

However the day in the mountains will not be remembered for so much for all this, but more for Leslie’s unplugging of the car’s exhaust pipe and the shared picnic on that seemingly timeless and infinite sunlit space on the side of the mountain, with four kindred spirits at the centre of this huge kaliedescopic disc of mountainscape and autumn sky…

           all part of the process and privilege of being alive……..

           and discovering the extendedness of being family….


 

5.  Solstice Celebration

a Saturday morning meditation     June 21 1997

 I finish my morning yoga. I am still in that wide wide  space between my inner depth and life’s infinite expansiveness, that space that one touches with the practice of  yoga. I play some music with Celtic rhythms, some of which goes right into my bones. Some new thoughts arise, and I find myself reflecting, exactly why, I do not know, on my own biology. Leslie and I have shared that creativity and three sons now add value to life, to our lives and to others’ lives, each in their own precious way. David, the reality and depth of it all; Michael, the salute to the sun of the yoga I have just completed; and Peter the Namaste of this monsoon morning. Yes they are our biology, but they have their own souls, their own destiny and their own leap into times beyond those we ourselves enjoy.

And then there is my other biology. My mother will celebrate her 83rd birthday this coming week. Gratitude and humility open my arms and then bring my hands together, as, with head bowed,  I acknowledge what she has given, to my brothers and sisters and to us.

It seems I know now more about the energy that being parent both takes and gives. I know I have taken. I hope what I have given back to her has been received; I think of the brothers and sisters themselves, each in their own space, and the biology beyond, which is now my soul connection with those special ones who have been with me, who in many ways still accompany me on my journey.. especially my father.

I guess this is yoga of another sort. Reaching out to those that have that special link.

Reaching in to my own within, conscious that they are all part of what I am and of this full and joyous moment, as Himalayan day awakens to its own timeless rhythm-  taking us all with it into spaces bigger than we think we are, enriching us as we let ourselves be linked and taken beyond, well beyond our own biology.

Is this prompted, I wonder, by being physically in Nepal, midway between where those special people  are in Europe and Australia, the coming birthday of one of the generation before, this weeks ending of schooldays for one of the generation ahead, and that sense of being part of the generations far beyond with which those Celtic rhythms surround me. 

Ah, life is good. It has such a sense of wholeness. The spaces between my own molecules and atoms are the same spaces as between theirs. We are one and I feel it and am thankful that I am able so to do.

I write this  for Leslie and especially for Michael for I know he will know what I mean, but also for  David, who lives it rather than talking it and would rather discover it for himself, and Peter does not need the words since he lives it anyway.. as we all do. This yoga of the mind, this family yoga…I, Leslie and them…. Being. Connected, being together, but each their own.

There is a joy that this all brings. Gentle tears reflect that fullness to overflowing, and just as with the well that fills from its spring within, the junk floats to the top and away. Gone is any thought of regret and anger, replaced by a lightness, a fullness and a peace that is felt today within my very bones.

Perhaps the preceding week contributes.. An evening with Jesuit Cap Miller, reading together mystic Christian poets, listening to Loreena McKennitt’s setting of a poem of St John of God and introducing to him my own favourite Vaughn Williams and his setting of Easter poems of  another Christian mystic, George Herbert . Together we feel that Herbert’s 23rd psalm would comfort a mother we both know whose son was recently lost to his self administered gun shot. Sadly so, but I see this morning that such things are part of it all.

I give a thought to my own mother’s 83 years, so much love so freely given, but also the break-up of her own family as part of her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s early death, the war deaths of father and both brothers, a husband with a chronic illness, her own brief breakdown, a precious daughter scalded with boiling water and her guilt that she should have prevented it, the 7 children, troubles with schooling for some, similar to those we face but  for which we were able to get expert help, because the so-called problem is now understood; accepting her two gay sons; surviving a pulmonary embolism, and yet now such a gracious lady with her artificial knee and intraocular lenses, and a heart that is much larger than all the joys and sorrows of all her children and their families, who is so full of vigour and good humour, that she shares the sparkle in her eye with her grandchildren.

It is a sparkling space in a monsoon morning. The room is filled with sunlight. Outside,  the green is so green that the red of the bougainvillaea, the red red roses and salvia in the garden cry out their colour, so brilliant, so joyful in themselves. They contribute to the day.

I sit and look around. I can see 4 small blue glass vases, hand made in Afghanistan, transmitting the morning light into the adjacent dining room. Nearer, on the wall between, are photographs with their Buddhist images, David’s prayer flags, Michael’s Boudha monk, Leslie’s of Thyangboche and mine from Ladakh. Monks and mountains.

 My eyes fall upon the rugs and weavings that surround me, the work of many hands in many places, each with their own story and their own special connections. Oh, the joy of supporting and being supported.

Hands open to receive and hands coming together, from bidding, to Namaste.

Namaste,

Namaste

..and the last song on the McKennitt CD, Parallel Dreams, completes the meditation. It is “Ancient Pines”, and how appropriate, for that links with other pines of mine, and another story, already written, but obviously linked and ongoing.

A little later, I move with my breakfast tray to our rooftop terrace.

Now the valley is clouded. Gone is that sense of blue sky infinity we feel so often in this valley. Come is the monsoon closeness. But somehow it does not diminish the reality of that infinity. Perhaps it even intensifies it, as the cloud cover makes one more aware of the valley itself, and Kathmandu as the hub of that great wheel of life, that centre of the mandala that draws all sorts of connections to me at this moment. And before me another delight of the morning, the deepest red colour imaginable of plums from our own garden, chopped and mixed with the gold, equally deep, of a mango from the market… 

What a richness to accompany the croissants, the coffee and this Saturday break in my work routine. I am so privileged. Thanks be.


6.    The PROTECTING PINES

         Chataigneriaz, Switzerland,  27 March 1994 ,         

on a beautiful spring morning, after a run in its freshness

 FIRST HEARING:

I listen to the cello harmonies of John Tavener’s “the Protecting Veil”..   -and it seems to be the right music for the movement of the wind tossing the pines outside the large window by which I sit, and of the small bird flitting in and out of the cones on the end of the branch nearest to me.

I think for a moment that it would make a good visual accompaniment to the music…  …just the branches waving and the sunlit needles vibrating in harmony with wind and music, each needle catching morning suns rays…

and I recall other occasions on which pine needles caught morning suns’ and other rays and it makes me wonder whether pines themselves have been for me a protecting veil.

the thoughts just  tumble out…

           a poem written in California

           – Crystalline pines exploding into light

           needles encased in ice, each catching

           the momentary blast of sun’s brilliance

           as clouds parted one December.

           another poem -another morning

           dew on the needles

           announcing suns arrival with a fanfare

           in the Canadian Rockies

           earliest memories of gathering pine cones

           in the parklands near where we lived
          from ancient pines which still stand to remind me
          that 45 years on, our span is but a small part
          of the bigness of things
          and that their hugeness and darkness
          was then a little more than frightening

 

           and then the Norfolk Island pines
          that characterise so many Australian beaches,.
          not the least those at Manly near Sydney
          and the holidays we had there as a family
          from when I was six
          in my grandmother's house
          and the small holiday apartments we would sometimes rent
          - the sea, the sand, the sunburn,
          the hours of swimming until our fingers and toes
          would wrinkle like prunes...
          - and the evening walks
          along the promenade     
          between the huge pines, beneath which
          we would make swords from their needles
           and later how we would live in an ancient house
          which used to be called "Pine Ridge"
          and my sense of history which had me plant pines
          where they had been long gone
           and pines in Nepal, with their wonderful colours
          I remember the deep purple-blue of the cones
          on the spruce near Thyangboche
          and how they framed for us the high Himalaya
          as we five neared the high point
          of our three week Khumbu trek,         
          the pines no doubt framing the family for them;
          - noble pines on the Panch Pokhari trek;
          pines planted in another garden
          and the many pines of the many young forests
          through which we would walk
          on the many treks we did
          during our six years in Nepal
           and other walks through the pines
          in Canada, Switzerland and the Adelaide Hills..

           and the sound

                       Oh listen to the sound

                                  as the earth breathes

                                             in

                                                         and out

           across these connections
          through those needles
         how I love that sound and how it fits the music,
          the cello and the strings that weave now their theme
          to reach deeply within me that part of my soul that is most deep

          and maybe there is further resonance and harmony
          as John Tavener sets to music
          that story of Orthodox monks who
          saw a vision of the protecting veil of Mary
          back in the Tenth Century, the very music
          that now sets alive for me
          this tapestry of pines
           none the least of which are the many Christmas trees
          that have helped us celebrate the birth of Christ
         
          ... and that takes me on another circle
          another movement of my own symphony
          another poem to set to the music of
                      wind in the outstretched arms
                                 of the many pines
                                            I have encountered

 

II    –  SECOND HEARING                                                     

           I like it how
          as when seeds are sown,
          time and warmth and water
          empower them to grow,

           so with my pines
          many others now remembered
          and each connected with someone or other special....

           in the south of France, February 1971, at Cassis
          a Youth Hostel in and old foresters house;
          the peace of les Calanques, those long
          limestone inlets from the Mediterranean
          and the pines...
                      sun on the blue sea and a morning swim
                      followed by the joyous sounds of
                      a group of young French people
                      with their guitars and songs...

           a similar sense of peace
          on the Adriatic island of Brioni off Istrea
          walks, pines, bicycle rides and rich conversations...

           and on the hills behind Kathmandu
          pines walked through and picnicked beneath...

          and a house in Pennant Hills in Australia
          with its two ancient pines
          beneath which one year we celebrate Christmas
          around a smaller younger one
          decorated by the small boys,
          watched by their aged grandfather,
          freshness of youth adjacent to the nobility of age..

          - and now the Siberian Spruce in its wooden tub,
          alive, but contained,
          drawing together a world of connectedness
          for the last seven Christmases but one
          bringing with its candlelight
          a softness from other worlds and other times
          and from those who taught us
          to celebrate by lighting candles...

          and how, so often, they have been in pairs
          two graceful beings reach into the sky
          reaching into each other,
          arms intertwined,
          hands open and outstretched,
          in peace to all.....


III:  THIRD HEARING

           and on another occasion
          the music again prompts reflection:
          again the wind in the pines plays its part
          to evoke a wonderful sense of new being...
          of trust and love....

           of how Trust.... is; 
          and Love just 'is'
                     not intentional, not something wanted
                     and then turned on;
                     but a resonance,  a response,  a sharing...
          a hearing of music that is there
                     not of sounds conjured up
                      but a tuning in to existent energy

           and yes, a tuning in
          an appreciation, a realisation
          a focus with intent to hear:
intention that is not a deciding to be
but to realise the being,
to manifest the reality,
the reality of being.

becoming what is
emerging from a shadow;
bringing forth that dimension
whether it be love, trust
          music or connectedness.

and as it is shared, it resonates;
as it is connected, it vibrates within the other;
is amplified like the vibration of
the deepest bell you have ever known...
until all are vibrating
with the same frequency

                       vibrating profoundly
                      with love, trust, connectedness and being.

I letting go the illusion that I can just turn it on
letting go the phoniness
                                 the calculated
                                            the contrived
                                                        the artificial
                                                        the "turned on"...
so that authentic being can rise up
a creative force in people themselves,
between them and those with whom they interact
within their communities

human being a reflection
of what whole people really are...
their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls interacting,   … ...being

And will our communities again become whole
with that wholeness of body mind and soul
          of action, thought and being
that itself brings forth
          the same from its members ?
a holy resonance
as communities affect each other
and societies themselves become whole again ?

and I am struck once again by the inner realisation
that there is a profound difference
between "having" and "being"..
-and how so many who experience in another
the other's truth of being,
try to concoct or generate in themselves the same,
because they must "have" what they see with their brains;
instead of relaxing and letting their own being be,
they try too hard and thus create a cruel forgery,
a counterfeit form, imposed harshly,
- not only on themselves, but on others,
in order to justify the effort they have made..
and therein lie resonances with Laurens van der Post's
          "What we do to others, we in fact do to ourselves" ....
Yes, and what we are to others, we are to ourselves

and my thoughts again return to trust;
          not trusting because you want to trust
          not trusting because you have decided to trust
           but because you do..
like believing
not because I want to believe
        or have decided so to do
        but because I know...
        because I am in touch with that reality
       that allows me to say
       Oh so deeply within
             yes, that is  the way it is
                  that is the way I am
          that trust
                      that love
                                 that letting go

          is as part of me, as the not-felt beating of my heart
                  as the unsensed biological processes within my cells
                      as the very life I have:

          so that what I am
          is the manifestation of that process of interaction,
          of all the dimensions
          and the alchemy of its wholeness
          which overflows as a life energy          
                                 of exuberance,
                                            a zest,
                      that tumbles forth as enthusiasm
          and yet rests ever deeper as soulfulness

soulfulness which in itself
is my resonance with all things...
          not with their components,
but with the process of their being
not their resonance with my own inner and outer selves
or my thoughts and feelings
but with my own essential being;
          with the I am
               with the we are
that takes us beyond ourselves
           and the definitions and understandings
                      we have concocted with our minds...

beyond the moment we define with date and time
beyond the place we define with geographic meridian
beyond the scenarios we define with intention, volition
and thoughtful consideration
of what we think we have decided to be

yes, deeply beyond
to that flow of being...
not just in touch with dimensions beyond these definitions,
but being within the process of their being,
their wholeness and their evolving oneness,
becoming the resonance of the parts
that draws all into that infinite harmony,
          that infinite connectedness

it is that Tavener again, and the wind in the pines...
their music goes right through me,
(into my very bones and then far beyond)
                      taking me with them
                                 every time!!

Oh hallelujah
          how the words fail
I suddenly want to sing this soul harmony
          but then I let go
and let it be what it  is

and be profoundly thankful
for the privilege of knowing in this way

                      Oh thank you,   thank you

 

IV  FOURTH HEARING

  enough…

 

yet somehow there is more to write;

about that other knowing;

that what I feel as I listen…

as I think, and become part of the music I hear,

is the life given to this moment

by a composers grasp of his reality

and its transformation to notes on a page..

by musicians response to composers notes…

through the life given to each instrument by their makers..

 

and more.., 

it includes the life given to the moment

by those who worked in the electronics factory-

those            who made the disc-

                       who invented the technology-

those who administered the orchestra-

                      who nurtured and loved the actors in this incredible drama

their mothers, their fathers, their teachers;

those who built the buildings,

                       who generate the electricity

to power the mechanisms that at this very moment,

this physical point in time,

bring all these together to add life to this moment of mine.

 

all this life added by so many

to a piece of music,

heard anew within this deeper being

 

o vast panorama of people

who, by living their lives

contribute to an epic

of truly infinite proportions

that makes this moment most full

and so very infinite

 

another verse,

as content becomes the process;

not just the vibration of a cello string resonating with my soul

but the bringing together of

           composer’s being

           cellist, conductor and other players;

           sound engineers’ efforts;

           the theme of Mary’s protecting veil,

           and even those who initiated the story so many centuries ago…

together with my own soul

           components which now are all immeasurably changed

because they have taken on new life this very moment

                       new dimensions of their own being

           living each now with the newness created, no, realised,

at this time one Sunday morning, beneath the pines..

           components now becoming more infinite

           than they had ever been before,

           part of the beyondness of all moments;

 

and how wonderful that composer, cellist and all the others

know not from where this added value has been achieved this day…

 

 

           and Oh my God

Who can know the added value

being realised this very moment

in so many ways

by our own contributions

to such processes…

           yesterday,

                       today

                                  and tomorrow

Who knows what is happening now to the processes

           initiated by myriads of small actions..

                       a word here; a hug

a moment given fully to another to allow them to share their music, their poem;

another heard and understood

connections made between others, a book shared; a token given..

what life abounds as these small changes continue to resonate, reverberate and multiply

and share the life

           that we, until know presumed

was confined to that moment when it happened…

           What an incredibly rich harmony

           of the most profound proportions

                       what infinity

                       what sanctity

                                  is this vast universe of interaction

                                  enriching all those souls and all those lives

and for me, a new dimension of knowing

another part of my being

another of those infinite number

of hidden dimensions glimpsed,

           appreciated and now,

                                  now…..

                                             ah….

 

           and all the time

                       the wind continues to move the pines

                                  their branches dancing the music

           as if in celebration

of one souls drawing together

           so many threads and themes

                       in testimony to

                                  the profoundness

                                             of being alive

                                                         in this way…

                                                                                                                                                               Amen

                                   on a windy day in Chataigneriaz,       

 listening to “The Protecting Veil” by John Tavener                 june 1994

 


V

it does happen in reverse,

so these pines and their protecting veil showed me last week-end

when I was in the forest of deciduous pines

that cloaks the lotschen-tal,

yellow in their autumn magnificence,

alight with the sunshine of one of autumns most beautiful days:

 

and it was that music I could hear, those cello chords

which had previously connected me with pines,

the pines now evoking the music

rather than the other way round…

 

it was that music again

in harmony with the glacial streams and gurgling springs

resonance at the physical level with trekking in Nepal

Namaste, and the same feelings and sensations

high in this glacial valley;

a reminder of this forest’s enveloping connectedness,

the intertwining of the trees themselves,

involving we three who walked that day amongst them

 

we pause to eat, drink and take in the view;

a bird circles to see if we will have crumbs to leave…

we do and are rewarded by the most gracious flight;

to and fro across the vista before us,

like the cellist’s bow across the strings

each of us a string to now vibrate with deep music

and become the harmony of this day and this place…

 

nearby, some other walkers light a fire

and we are conscious immediately of those four elements

fire, earth, air and water;

and our completeness…

more reminders and connections..

such fullness,

such joy

that I must take deep breaths of the mountain air

in order not to explode

 

like a cathedral, Astrid said,

once again looking up

through the translucent yellow of those sunlit columns,

luminous larches framing, as if in stained glass,

here a peak of pristine white against a vivid blue vault,

there a glimpse of distant mountains,

blue in the afternoon light,

the more so because of their yellow frame..

 

           the bird soars above and sweeps

           across the colours of fall in the high valley;

           Leslie says it is like a Japanese painting

           that collage of muted colours;

           and again the bird swings by as a spirit freed

           taking ours with it

           and that becomes the motion of our own souls

           throughout the afternoons’ descent

           within our conifer cathedral

 

           yellow of sunlight through autumn needles,

           frames the blue of the distant range in one direction,

           the white of the mountains snow in another…

           and above the most brilliant blue of a most autumn sky

           against which the blackest of black birds soars

           and takes us with him beyond ourselves and this moment

 

           soaring and wheeling in joyous ecstasy

           we were the bird in flight…

           we are the spirits soaring,

           inward, onward,  and outward… 

 

and as I listen to the music of “The Protecting Veil”

on our return home,

the music draws it all together

immersing me in that oneness

          of experience and spiritual being,

the holiness of daily life

within the sacrament of living,

never again to be the same…

17 October 1994, after a weekend in the Lotschental valley, Valais, Switzerland


7 Samundra Tar , Nepal, November 1998

Sunday 30th November was a wonderful day. Although only two nights away and a long walk up a valley to be ‘chief guest’ at the inauguration of an Eye camp on the day between, it felt as if I had been away for a week or more.

Patricia Brice our WHO Admin and Programme Officer, who is about to be re-assigned to Geneva, had a lunch at her place for all the WHO staff on Saturday. So we left from there, Sailesh Upadhayay, Basanta Khadka and I, with Narayan Sapkota as our driver, for the 4 hour drive to Aprha Bazaar. Our route took us out of the Kathmandu valley towards Trisuli Bazaar. The long descent from the valley rim gave us constant views of Ganesh Himal, Langtang and other high peaks, especially beautiful in the clear afternoon light and sunset. We turned off the main road a short while after crossing the big river at the end of the long descent from Karkani, and continued for a further hour of very rough road, including a long river crossing, by which time it was quite dark.

Overnight in a simple lodge:  Breakfast at 6.30 of good nepali chia, omelet and channa dahl, and we set out on foot across a long suspension bridge for an exhilarating walk into the sunrise and the morning hills; along the now empty rice terraces; the stacking  of the straw still going on in many places; lots of people carrying huge bundles of straw and porters with loads to remind us we were now beyond the road-reach. On the way we meet the five porters who had carried the equipment for the eye camp. They complained about not reaching the village until 9 pm previous evening and that, because of the tigers and the late hour of their arrival, they thought they should be paid more money.

Beautiful vistas, lovely houses, noble new stone ones, more worn but very lived in farm houses with their very Nepali verandahs; I just love the patterns made by the fields we see below us as we traverse a wide hillside, the river far below; hamlets to be passed through, suspension bridges to be crossed.  Namaste! The greeting is returned. Namaste. We overtake a man taking his mother to the eye camp. He is 55 and his mother ‘over 70’. They have walked already for 4 hours by the time we meet them. We pause for a drink, later to buy bananas and then at a shop to take yogurt.

We arrive in the town of Samundra Tar by 10.45. They have already registered at least 100 patients.

The screening is in full swing in the sub-health post building. The doctor is Rishi Kant Adhikari, whom I discovered is the brother of the man from whom we rent our house in Kathmandu.  In another building they are scrubbing one room for the cataract operations and getting the adjacent room set up for preparation. An adjacent hall is being set up with makeshift straw mattresses for the overnight stays the people will need.

The patients for surgery are lining up outside, seated on the ground in the bright sunshine, having their blood pressures taken. What an absolutely marvellous collection of wonderful older faces. What stories they must have to tell.

 The team consists of the one doctor, 3 nurses, one Ophthalmic Assistant and 3 helpers. Basanta, who came up with us, is a WHO staff member with the Prevention of Blindness Programme. He immediately busied himself with assisting in the ‘setting up’ process. He stayed on when we returned to Kathmandu. The camp started on the Sunday morning, the team having arrived the evening before, and continued until Thursday. The setting up and initial screening proceeded at the same time, which is what we arrived to see. They screened until 1.30 p.m., and then started the first 10 or so cataract operations. 450 people were examined and 59 had cataracts removed during the five days of the camp. 9 other eye operation were also done. For the cataracts, they are not yet using Intra Ocular Lenses, which are now produced in Nepal at the Tilganga Eye Centre to EC and ISO 9000 standards. I was told that this is because the cost is still too high for the villagers in these areas and the techniques for inserting them in a camp setting are not yet mastered by all the ophthalmic surgeons. So the cataracts are removed, and then aphakic glasses fitted after three days.

There was an ‘ inauguration’ at 1.00 p.m., at which I was the “chief guest”. It clearly meant a lot to the local organizers and volunteers that we had walked up to their village for the ceremony.

Eye camps and such things are clearly all about people: Volunteers, the team of eye care professionals, the supporters, the patients and those who carry or lead them in from surrounding villages and potential patients.

The camp was organized by the local Lions Club. They have only 20 members and club has been established for just over a year. They held a ‘dental camp’ last year.  And now the eye camp. They raised funds raised locally to cover the local costs (publicity, food and accommodation for the patients).  WHO covered the cost of the team from the Nepal Eye Hospital. What a great example of a community effort. I said so in my brief speech, drawing attention to WHO’s motto of Health for all the people and health by all the people.

 The Lions club volunteers were bright and energetic young men. One  accompanied us up to the village and another went with us as we returned to Aprha Bazaar immediately after the inauguration ceremony. That walk was also wonderful, down into the evening light, with the sun setting in front of us as we neared our destination.

Ishwar, one of the Lions club volunteers came down with us. He is a high school teacher and had taken leave for a couple of days of Social Service. He was going to Aprha bazaar to follow up the mobilization of people for the camp. He took us to see his school, which was about half way down. We met other teachers and talked briefly with them. We also had some chia. How good that sweet milky tea is when you are walking.  Instant energy!  For security reasons, we were also accompanied on the first part of the trip back by two special police. They were, as our sons would say, two really ‘hard’ men. However one feels safe with them. “Hard” as they were, theirs was a really gentle farewell at the point they had deemed it was safe for us to go on without them. They say there are Maoists around (there is a so called ‘people’s war’ smoldering away in the hills), and that an office of Save the Children Fund (US) had been torched by them two nights earlier.

By the end of the walk, my legs were a bit wobbly, and later I had some muscle cramps. It had been a long time since I have walked 7 hours and more in one day. However with a meal and a good sleep I felt fine. It had been a great day.

 On the following morning we day we left before 7 a.m. for Kathmandu and arrived back at about 10.30. The road up from the Trisuli Valley is spectacular, a long ascent with wonderful mountain views.  I went straight home, had a shower and some fruit and yogurt , and off to the office for some appointments and a big National Immunisation Day  Steering Committee meeting with the Prime Minister. With World Aids day the following day, a National Immunization Day for Polio a week later, with an early morning rally to promote the NID, visits from HQ and Regional Office staff, a Safe motherhood coordinating committee and other appointments in between, it was indeed a full week. The following weekend saw the Prime Minister administering the ceremonial first drops at an event at 8.30 a.m. on Sunday. Then at midday I set out by car for Hetauda (4 hours drive) with three of our WHO office staff, to carry out supervision in one of the Terrai districts on the following day, Monday 7th, first of this round of the National Immunization Days. Nearly all the WHO staff members were also be out in the field during the day itself. It is a wonderful thing to see communities mobilizing themselves, and gaining visible pleasure for achieving high coverage. They know they have because as part of their preparations they visit all households in the area and count whom they have to reach.  That is another story.


  1. On the Road in India

A short drive to India; from Kathmandu to Delhi and Jaipur and back, November 1997 

In November 1997, we spent just over two weeks in India. As the World Health Organisation (WHO)  Representative in Nepal, I was to attend the annual meeting of the WHO Country Representatives of the South East Asian Region in the WHO Regional Office in New Delhi, India.  Leslie and I decided to drive ourselves there from Kathmandu in our own vehicle. We took three days for the trip there and an extra three days for the return, so that we could have a day in Jaipur. What a wonderful trip we had. I would never have believed that driving through the North of India could have been such a colourful and enjoyable adventure.

 

It proved to be a veritable feast for the eyes and all the other senses.. (which we unashamedly enriched with our own music tapes on the car stereo, Mozart in the morning and Loreena McKennit or Dave Matthews later in the day;  )

 

We had such wonderful contact with our fellow travellers and those through whose towns and villages we passed. People were so helpful and always willing to give us direction when the signposts we needed were not there.

 

So many images remain vivid in my mind, none the least of which was Leslie’s comment on our return that it had been a highlight of her life. Wow.  Now that is a privilege, to have been part of that. 

  • morning mists cut by shafts of sunlight as we drive through long arcades of trees that meet above the road like the nave of a gothic cathedral, such a nave as reaches for so many kilometres, in fact for days- and takes us in all directions; (He was deemed to be a good king who planted trees along the ancient highways of India, because he gave shade to the travellers, who in those days travelled by foot. …and so the most wonderful tunnels of trees hold the road on which we drive, giving perspective to the passing scene),
  • the sunlight on the yellow of the flowering fields of mustard .. these extend from the plains right to the foothills of the Himalaya.. and are with us for days;
  • the colour and constant variety of the traffic on the roads on which we drive;

 

 It is the amazing array of people that gives it colour… and the colours are as if put together by an artist :

  • a tractor towing a blue trailer full of elderly Sikhs, all in blue, with silvery blue beards; another two Sikhs, red turbaned on a red motor cycle; a bullock cart covered with men and women all dressed in variations of orange;
  • bright eyed and scrubbed clean children on their way to school, filling to overflowing a rickshaw here, a horse drawn tonga or an ox cart there;
  • boys on top of a load of bricks on a large truck..
  • ladies in their multiplicity of colours packed into the back of a jeep, men standing across the back of another, confident enough of their hold on life to return our wave.. so many people images and they all acknowledge us with a wave of a gracious hand or a broad teethy smile;
  • images of the glistening bodies of small boys by a pump having been washed, of people fishing or working in the fields; of a small boy languishing on the back of one of the herd of water buffaloes he is watching over;
  • the wonderful colour and grace of the women, particularly in Rajastan and the western part of Nepal.. the sunlight making translucent their wonderful scarves or saris, the wind catches them to display more of their colour, their colour contrasting with whatever background is there.. the new green of young crops, the brown of ploughed field, the rich collage of colour of the village marketplaces;
  • the grace with which they carry things on their heads, bundles or their round clay water pots, sometimes two pots at a time, one on top of the other;

 

 The variety is the traffic itself, from hand wound wheel chair to combine harvester,  on roads that on the whole were wide and in very good condition, although very crowded at times. We saw the whole range… people on foot, people with their sheep, their goats or their cattle, the man with a performing bear, a group with their camels; Elephants too, especially on the road between Jaipur and Amber; especially vivid are the images of the fine buck that stood on the road, splendid in the morning light, in Bardia national park in Nepal,  the sunlight on the early morning monkeys in Rajastan and what could only be described as a conference of the monkeys on the road through Sariska National Park near Alwar. There were hundreds of bicycles, often hung with several metal milk cans. We commented how many bicycles are ridden by girls and women these days.. 

There were motor scooters, motor bikes, often carrying a whole family; little three wheelers stuffed full of people, or even fuller of produce; the bicycle rickshaw loaded with the huge balls of deep red and beige wool in Amber,  a line of bicycle rickshaws piled high with schoolchildren on their way home from school;  the large three wheelers, often at a crazy angle as they list to the left with an overflow of passengers who hang on the outside.. small minibuses that do the same, cars.. the small Maruti-Suzuki cars that buzz in and out of the trucks like flies, the three white ones overtaking  each other at the same time; the familiar Ambassadors,  the many buses and the hundreds of Tata trucks, often overloaded, lurching from side to side with the bumps in the road, with the sad scenes of those that fell.. lying on their side or on their backs with all four wheels in the air, like elephants who have done their duty and given up.. and amongst all of these the innumerable wagons, drawn by bullocks in the north, camels in Rajastan and all over by horses; loaded with people, with sugar cane  on the way to the mill, with huge huge canvas enclosures of grain, with high piles of straw, or empty of all but the driver who sleeps in the confidence that his faithful beast knows the way home. 

 

The variety comes also from the fact that not all the traffic is on their left side of their road, even when there is a divided road.

 

        -and those graceful hand movements that emanate from the cabins of the trucks that bid us pass, or counsel us to remain where we are; such fine and graceful movements, such as those we more usually see from the conductor of an orchestra.

 

We saw vehicles get stuck as enormous loads tried to pass through a space already occupied by another enormous load, like enormous sumo wrestlers locked in a hold; we learned to be Indian and dart to the very of  the edge of the road to get around such events or when two truck drivers passing from opposite directions stopped for a chat; we learned that the truck is king, and the larger the load the more respect we would give. Not often did we have to almost get off the road to let one pass. We did learn the language of the drivers and found that it does make sense and that on the whole they are most helpful. The main hazard with this language is the interpretation of the flashing right direction indicator of a bus or truck, which can mean that the road ahead is clear to pass, or that another truck is approaching from the opposite direction with its right indicator flashing, or, less often, it seems,  that the truck is actually about to turn right. We were constantly amused by the workshop that appears around a broken down truck, which sits exactly where it came to a halt, and is repaired where it stands, even if that happens to be in the middle of the road. Driving after dark is the most hazardous, with unlit vehicles or ox carts crawling along the edge of the road, difficult to see when there are lights from oncoming vehicles. So we planned not to be driving at that  time.

 

-and the places.. buildings that delighted us because of their shape or colour, because of the materials with which they are built or their decorations, or because of their grandeur and beauty, their columns and  shapes, arches that frame; A most rich tapestry of form and light..  Palaces in Jaipur, Amber and Deeg, and the farms and villages along the way.

 

and then there was some shopping.. wonderful things to see and feel, especially the textiles and handicrafts, and each merchant a delight to interact with…  and so on. Travelling in our own car eliminated any barrier to buying heavy or bulky items, so there are wooden bowls from “the Shop” in Connaught Place, Delhi, puppets and Blue Pottery from Jaipur and pieces of fabric from all over. So the Christmas shopping is done. Leslie was able to see the National Museum in Delhi and the Handicraft Museum which they say is one of the best of its kind and with which she was absolutely delighted.

 

The places in which we stayed will also remain memorable, especially the most elegantly renovated Chomu Haveli, one of the oldest royal residences in Jaipur, for two months now operating as the Raj Palace Hotel. Not like a hotel at all, no bustling lobby filled with shops and tourists, but a cool green lawned forecourt in which we took tea, tastefully decorated bedrooms and a most elegant dining room, with a musician to accompany breakfast as we looked out to the hills and one of the forts that look down on Jaipur.  As well as our two nights in Jaipur, we over-nighted twice in Nepalganj in Nepal, and in Naini Tal and Bareilly in India, and stayed with our good friends the Abeykoons in Delhi.

 

Our pattern when on the road was to start early, to have with us a thermos of hot water and things with which to make tea or coffee for picnics along the way (our “survival kit now has a small electric jug and the stainless steel thermos that has been part of our travels over the last 20 years), and to finish the days drive early enough for tea in the garden of the overnight stop, which, of course required a hotel with such a facility. So the memories we also have are of some splendid picnic sites, by rivers, or pulled off the road by the edge of a farmer’s field, in the cool depth of a mango orchard, or on a hill overlooking Jaipur. Of course, it was tea on our roof

terrace when we reached home at the end of the 2900 km round trip. We found our white Land Rover Discovery to be a most comfortable chariot and the only trouble we had was one puncture. It was useful, but not necessary to have 4 WD while driving through the seven or so rivers in the west of Nepal where the final bridges on the east-west highway are still to be completed.

 

One special footnote to this trip is that at the same time 25 years previously, Leslie and I toured Greece, Turkey and Italy, also in a white car, a journey which included our marriage at the end of 1972.  In fact, coinciding with our wonderful day of shopping and wandering through rich and ancient palaces in Jaipur on November 15 1997,  we had 25 years earlier, on that very day, been in Istanbul and had gone to the bazaar and bought our wedding rings and the two rugs that we have in our bedroom.

 

Another interesting footnote is that our route from Kathmandu to Delhi followed the route of that segment of the recent Peking to Paris Veteran Car rally, which passed through here at the end of September. We had gone out on the road that comes in from Tibet to watch these amazing old cars come into Kathmandu, and commented we would love to do something like that. In a way we now were, as we followed their path. However, we were glad we were not driving an MGB or a Morris Minor through those rivers in Western Nepal.

 

It was a great adventure, and we are pleased we were not put off by all those who doubted the sanity of such a trip.

 

We have shown ourselves that we can still be travelling and enjoying adventure 25 years on and have confirmed that the colour of our world is its people.

 

 

Stories from “the field”:

Seeds are sown and from their fields, the results are harvested.  Like the lilies of the field, there are so many stories that can be gathered from a person’s life, especially when much of it has been in, as they call it, ‘the field’. When I worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO), as I did for 21 years, this is the term that the HQ people used to refer to colleagues who worked at country level. Those of us who worked at country level used the term to refer to activities that took place outside the country office.

And then there were the field trips that filled our lives with so many good stories and so much valuable learning, whether done as a staff member from HQ, or as field staff.

 The first three of these are stories that granddaughter Anna would have called “mouth stories” when she was 4 or 5 years old. They have been transcribed from tapes which recorded them as presentations, and used either in a seminar to illustrate a point, or in a course on making presentations. These have been edited lightly for reading.  In both cases it was likely the audience would have been mixed, representing different nationalities and a range of ‘mother tongues’.  Others were written as “dispatches from the field”


#1:

Standing back, letting go to let another do their job:  RESPONSIBILITY

I wonder whether any of you have a fear of flying, or whether you’ve flown very much in small aircraft. Have any of you even flown in small light aircraft?  Have any of you been totally lost in a small aircraft?

I have, and I want you to imagine yourself in a small de Havilland Drover (a Canadian built aircraft with three engines, one on the nose and one on each wing) flying across what we call the ‘dead heart’ of Australia. When you see it from the air it is red. It is almost formless. There are small hills but it is flat and open as you fly across it for an hour and a half from Broken Hill to reach a small town called Tibooburra. I was on my way there to help conduct a clinic for the Royal Flying Doctors’ Service, where I was to spend several weeks as the ‘locum’ for the regular Medical Officer while he was on leave.

This was the day after my arrival, and we went together to Tibooburra with the dentist. The clinic took about an hour and a half, and during that time  our pilot, Jack, kept on coming to us to ask “have you finished yet?”. We would say “No” and he would say “Get a move on, we’ve got to get going”. He seemed quite agitated.

Now it was always customary at the end of a clinic to have a cup of tea and some sandwiches with the nurses who were really isolated at this very small hospital away in the center of Australia. For them, it was an important social occasion. However Jack said “I don’t want you to waste time. Have your tea, but I don’t want you to have any sandwiches, because we’ve got to go”. He pointed out through the window to a red cloud, from ground to ceiling. It was a dust-storm approaching. Jack says ”we’ve got to go”, so we went.

As we took off, I realized this dust-storm was coming between us and our destination, Broken Hill. We soon actually flew into the dust-cloud. Soon Jack said “ I want to go higher and see if we can get above this. He flies higher and higher until the engine coughs and splutters and we are still in the dust. He mutters “if we cannot go above it, we must go below it”. By this time he had lost radio contact with anyone. He  couldn’t get below it because the dust-was right to the ground. So for about an hour we were flying sort of blind. Remember that this was my second day on my first time ever with the Flying Doctor Service. Graeme, the regular doctor who I was to cover for, had taken me out to the clinic, now explained to me that we had lost radio contact with Broken Hill and the instruments to find our location were also not functioning, and what the pilot was  doing was looking for landmark he would recognize. It seemed though that wasn’t finding anything.  I was beginning to feel a little bit tense myself by now, when I hear “Oh-oh!  He’s taken his hat off, he must be really worried”. It was the dentist, who went on to tell me that Jack only takes his hat off when he is really worried.  I found myself just looking out the window and looking at this dust and the ground not too far below. Jack soon came to a fence and followed it until he came to and then banked the aircraft  and swung round to follow the road.

I remember how at the point in time when my colleague said, “Oh, he’s taken his hat off, he must be really worried now”, as I looked out the window, I became conscious of letting go and accepting the situation for what it was. The process was something like this: There is nothing I could do. I tell myself  that Jack is the pilot, and he has the skill to get us out of this. He has as much interest in getting out of this as I do.  I must let go and let him get us out of here.  So that’s what I did. I take a deep breath and let go.  Since that moment,  I don’t think I‘ve ever worried about flying in small aircraft. A couple of years later Papua New Guinea,  when I was in single engine aircraft landing and taking off in some of the most incredible airstrips, I was never worried about flying, I seemed to have developed a capacity to let go and let the other person take the responsibility of their job.  It was a good lesson I think.

# 2:

Enabling another to act when you cannot:

RESPONSE-ABILITY

During  those same three weeks  with the Flying Doctor Service, in addition flying out to small isolated hospitals and remote cattle stations to conduct routine clinics where people would gather to see the doctor or the dentist, you conduct a medical clinic by radio from the Base twice a day.

One morning, a woman on a cattle-station some 200 miles away from the base had called in to say that they had a 15 year old who had pain in the abdomen, had been feeling very sick and had vomited a couple of times.  It was the boy’s mother who made the call on the two way radio. I gathered information about the onset and nature of the illness. Then I asked her -was she near the patient; She said “No,  he’s in the other room”.  When, as a doctor,  you’re think you might be dealing with appendicitis, there are some things you look for.  if you press in on the abdomen and let it go quickly, the pain is even more intense, it’s called rebound tenderness. If that test is positive it means that there is inflammation within the abdominal cavity, and I thought,  ‘Maybe I can get her to do that for me’. So I described how to do it, to press in and let go quickly. She had to leave the radio, go to the patient bedside. When she came back, she said “Yes, he really cried out when I let go quickly”. My thoughts were ‘isn’t that interesting, here is a mother, probably of basic-level education, who is able to elicit an important clinical sign for me.

It was clear now that he had to be brought in, so I rang the pilot who said we could be out there in two hours to pick up the patient. I worked out that it would be at least 4 hours before he was back into the base and to the Broken Hill Hospital for treatment, and that time would allow for some pain relief that would wear off by the time the hospital doctors would see and assess him. For that I would do something which is quite unusual in any setting. I asked the mother to go to her  medicine kit (the one that is part of the Flying Doctor’s Service set-up and to take and ample of No.40 and give 15mils of that as an injection.  What I was asking her to do was to give her son an injection of morphine to deal with the pain until he got back into the hospital.  Now it seemed to me that what I was doing here was letting another person take responsibility for what would in a normal hospital setting had been mine. If I was there at the bedside, I would have taken all responsibility for that. So this was a real eye-opener of how much, if you’ve got the right setup and you have to you can actually let another person take responsibility for what would otherwise be highly professional technical tasks.  I was amazed that the extent to which these ordinary folk out in the country areas, in these way-out areas in Australia could take responsibility for things like making a diagnosis with the help of a doctor on a radio and giving drugs.  So the 2nd thing that was a lesson for me in the Flying Doctor’s Service was letting people take their and enabling people to take responsibility.

I was in Norway some years later, and  came across a haematologist who had patients who lived in remote and isolated areas of Norway. They were taking anti-leukaemia drugs which kill the leukaemia cells, but also affect the level of normal white cells in the blood. The size of the next dose of drugs depends on the patients white-cell count. Because of their isolation, especially in winter, he had taught his people to do their own white-cell counts. His view was that because their life depended on it, they would do it properly. From his experience, they did so. I was fascinated and when I returned to Australia and told this story to two haematologists that I had earlier worked with, they were furious with me for even telling the story, They angry because, as they said “ you simply cannot let people take that sort of responsibility”.

Interesting. What about you? Are you able to let people take responsibility for the job they have?  Perhaps more importantly, are you able to enable others and to let others take responsibility for the things which they can do but which they are often not allowed to do?


# 3: 

PERCEPTIONS: Is the glass half full or half empty?

I wonder how many times a day you drink from a glass like this. (a glass on the table, It is half full of water).  Often?  I see that you do, and  I’ll come back to that.

I remember a time when I was working with a group of young parents, when one of the mothers was complaining about the way her child always left her room in a mess and even left the yard in a mess, when the child had been playing in the yard.  Have you come across people like that?  I wonder what your reaction would have been when you found out that the child was less than 2 years old.

When I came from ‘the field’  to WHO Headquarters, it wasn’t long before I heard people talking about 2 particular WHO Country Representatives (WRs) as being extremely hopeless.  Have you ever heard that comment about WHO Representatives?  I wonder then what your reaction would have been when you met those 2 WRs in a WR Seminar and discovered that ever since that they had been in their jobs as WRs, they had experience ongoing civil disruption and political upheaval of the sort that meant there was a new Minister of Health every six months.  (I was to experience this myself as a WHO Representative back in Nepal  some years later, and understood how change of government and change of Minister of Health could disrupt WHO’s programme of work with the officials of a country.)

Recently I was reading a book  by Steven Covey who writes about personal development and leadership. In it he tells the story of how he was riding in the New York subway when a man got on the train with three children and sat next to him in the only available seat. The man sat very quietly and was very still while his three children behaved in a way disturbed the rest of the passengers on the subway car. Even Steven Covey got very irritated and said to himself “Somebody should tell the man that his children are mucking up and disrupting others”.  Not before long did he realize that he was going to be the one that should tell him, as the man with the disruptive kids was sitting next to him.  I wonder what your reaction would have been when you heard the man say “Oh, I guess they’re being disruptive because we’ve just come from the hospital where their mother died an hour or so ago, and I am at a loss what to do”.

I have told these three stories about changes in perception because, for me, the really important thing about my work, about staff development and about my role as a parent, is the need to help people look at both sides of a picture, to encourage people not to make assumptions, and to enable them to go beyond the obvious and to look for the view from the other side of a situation.  Do you think those are valid conclusions to come from three stories like that?

I believe we can learn from such stories. I’d like to identify lessons, even tools which can be used by all of us in our work and in our life in general. I’d like to start by going back to the mother who expected her two year old child to be keeping the room tidy.   (Incidentally we asked her what about her husband: “What was the husband’s workshop like?” , she said “Oh, it’s a terrible mess” . We asked what about the laundry and other places in their house, and she said “Oh, they’re terrible mess too”)

The setting in which I heard his mother complaining about the fact that her two year old child could never keep the room tidy was a community based programme on “parenting” in which we were  working with young new parents to help them look differently at their role as a parent .

The reason why we were together was that we had been asked by the Infant Welfare Agency in Adelaide, the city in which I was living and working at that time, to set up some programmes for young parents on “Parenting”. The reason was that there were young parents living in new housing areas where all the residents were young parents with young children. There were no older people, no points of reference, no models of parenting.  These young people were isolated, alone and comparing themselves with each other. They punished their children to make them behave, and some of the children were appearing at a local clinic damaged, so we were asked to do something about it. The attitude of the mother who wanted her 2 year old to have a tidy room was typical of what these parents felt. They thought the answer was to punish the child for such untidiness. Our job was to help them to look at things differently.

The courses were held over a period of six weeks, one night a week for six weeks. We could ask them to do something as homework between sessions. We started the course with discussion on the’ Joys and sorrows’ of being a parent, and moved onto a second session on the stages and milestones in early child development, leading up to a third session on the issue of Discipline. We wanted to present a constructive developmental view of ‘discipline’. Clearly we needed to explore their understanding of the issue, so we asked them to define in their own words what they meant by ‘discipline’. They did this in small groups and reported their definition back to the whole group.  They all said “our job as parents is to make these children good”. Whatever words they used indicated that they believed that children were born bad and now had to be made good.  This alarmed us. We had set up the course to guide them to see discipline a constructive tool to help the child learn responsibility and life skills. We realised that we could not simply tell them that there was another way of seeing it or what to do differently. We had to enable them to see things differently. So on this first occasion we went into a huddle and revised what we had planned as the ‘homework’ for the week. We asked them for following week to take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle  and on it, at the end of each day, write down two good things their child had done and two bad things, and come back next week and tell us what happened.  We were surprised by the response.  The following week everybody arrived early.  They were all excited. When we asked them what had happened, the answer was that “at the beginning of the week we could hardly find anything good about the child, but by the end of the week the child had changed”.  This response was consistent over the several years that we ran these programmes.  So interesting!

Can you see the connection then with my first 3 examples?  It seems that people find what they look for, and by encouraging and enabling them to look for something different, change happened. Their perception changed, and change happened.

At the same time, my real work was working with students from different health professions, setting up an educational programme where they were to learn to work together. One of the courses was for students in their 2nd year, working in small mixed groups with some students from medicine, some from nursing, and others from social-work, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and psychology.

On the first day of this course we asked  “ What does your profession do in a particular health situation?” , wanting them in their mixed groups to tell each other what they do as members of their profession. In the first year of this experimental programme, when the question was posed, nothing really happened. The sort of inter-action that we wanted between these people just did not happen. We hoped they would establish a foundation on which they could look into teamwork as a positive thing for them to do. We had an evaluation of first course management committee, which included the heads of the schools of each of these professions. When we told of our disappointment, it was the head of the school of social work who said “You asked them the wrong question. With that question you could not have expected to get any more”. I replied “What question would you ask?” He quickly responded “You should have asked them what they’re trying to achieve”.

So the following year, we did ask them, at the beginning of the course, to share with each other what the, as members of their profession, were trying to achieve. The difference was dramatic. It was the most exciting opening up  of these students. Once they began to talk about what they were trying to achieve, they discovered that had much in common and recognised the unique contributions they also would make. It made sense to them to be different and to have different offerings and to work together.

I came away from these experiences with two tools; one was a question and other a framework.

The question is “what are you trying to achieve?”  The framework is similar to the one we asked our young parents to use, identifying the positives, the strengths in the present situation, and separately listing the negatives, the weaknesses. It is a framework to look at the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses, the ‘pros’ and the ‘cons’, helping factors and hindering factors, resilience vulnerability.

Using such a framework helps me understand how it is that I can be successful in achieving what I wish to achieve.  I look at the positives or the strengths within my present situation which will help  and  I can see the things that might prevent me from achieving what I want to achieve. This gives me a very quick problem-analysis of the present situation which makes it more likely for me to achieve what I want to achieve.  I’ve looked for the strengths, I’ve looked for the positives, and I’ve identified which ones I can build on.  I’ve identified some of the constraints, some of the negatives and can identify which are worth addressing, which to move away from or just leave alone. For me, these have been two very successful tools. The value of the question has increased as I subsequently worked in Nepal with WHO and as I worked in the Staff Development Programme in WHO headquarters.

One example from Nepal in the 1980s comes to mind. A group of students came to me in my office in Kathmandu. They were medical students, senior medical students, who wanted to set up a clinic in one of the villages on the outskirts of the Kathmandu valley. They said they wanted me to help them. I suspect they wanted me to tell them how to go about it. I thought for a moment. Quite sincerely, I wanted to clarify with them what it was that they wanted to achieve by setting up this clinic. Equally, and as sincerely, I did not want to just tell them how to do it. I wanted to help them work it through for themselves. So the first thing I said was “Please help me understand what it is you are trying to achieve”. I asked my first “question”.  They began to tell me what they want to do. “No”, I  say, “What do you want to achieve”. Again they say what it is they intend to do. So I ask them what will be different if I go to that village in 5 years time. “What will I notice?” , I ask.   This led to a great discussion, more between themselves than between me and them. They debated exactly what it was that they were going to try to achieve. They wanted something for themselves. They wanted something for the village. They wanted something for other students to be involved in.  Once we clarified that, we then continued with my next ‘question’. I asked them “What are the good things about the present situation which will help you to achieve what you wish to achieve?”. “In the present situation, now, as far as that village is concerned, and concerning what you’ve already done, what are the things that are helping you?”  On the other side, what are the things that might prevent you achieving what you want to achieve? what are the barriers?, what are the blocks?, what are the negatives?” This led to further lively discussion and I could now say  to them that I understood both what they wanted  to achieve and  something about the setting in which they would work. I summarised what I had heard and asked them how I might be of assistance. “You have helped us so much already,” they said.  My student friends seemed to be pleased and thanked me for my help. I was pleased that I had helped them help themselves.

In the training programme on “Presentation Skills”, we were also using these two tools. In preparing speeches or presentations, we were being encouraged to ask ourselves “ what do we want to achieve by giving a talk, by giving a speech or making a presentation?”.  Then we were giving short presentations which were videotaped and critiqued by identifying what are strengths, what are the good things in what we do and what are the things that we can improve on, what are the things which are hindering us getting our message across. This is another example of the application of these two tools.

Another area where these tools may be used, and I throw this as a challenge to those of  you who are dealing with them at the moment, is the situation budget cuts within our programmes. I often wonder why people’s immediate reaction to a budget cut is to fall flat, get depressed and say there’s no hope of doing anything, because I haven’t got any money.  I think an alternative would be to say, “What is it that I’m really trying to achieve?”  and “What is it in my present situation that helps me to achieve that, even though a negative is going to be the budget cut?” So in a sense, there are some applications of these two tools even to the budget cuts that we are facing in the Organization at the moment.  I can see from your faces that this might be a little more difficult for you do under the circumstances, however I am willing to try.

This sort of thinking isn’t new. If we were to take the positives as being the light in a situation and the negative as being the dark, we can see that the parents in my earlier story were only looking at the darkness. They were punishing their children to eradicate the badness, to get rid of the darkness.  I’m suggesting is that if we look at the light, it will help us to see the situation as a whole. This reminds me of the old Chinese saying which says that just lighting one match can get rid of the darkest of darkness.

It is my view that if we cultivated the attitude of looking at the positives and the negatives we would be better able to bring about change. Instead of trying to eradicate the darkness, we can just turn on the light, and so produce change.

This brings me back to the glass of water. Is it half-full or is it half-empty?   I believe that the way we see it, our perception of its fullness , or emptiness, will influence the action we take.  Perhaps it will be more significant when there is even less water in the glass.  Personally I would rather focus on the ¼ fullness  than to become overwhelmed and depressed by the ¾ emptiness.

So I would like to leave that with you as two tools.  “What can I achieve?” and “Can I look at the good things, the bad things, the strengths and the weaknesses” as tools for helping myself, for helping yourselves and for helping others to help themselves.  Do you see the link?

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#4 :

CAMBODIA FIELD TRIP, May 2000:   ( For the WHO HQ Staff Newsletter )

I returned from a four-day field trip with the Secretary of State for Health and the Acting Director of the Planning Division. We had visited three provinces and included on our itinerary 5 hospitals 5 health centres, a Regional Training Centre, two Provincial Health Departments, a Trauma Centre, an orphanage and a pagoda or two. .

Three images stand out:

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1:  If you think you are unlucky or having a hard time, consider this nine year old, who fell from a tree, onto a landmine which exploded. Bad enough luck to fall from a tree, but to fall onto a landmine!! He lost the lower part of one leg and has extensive injury to the other, yet the hospital staff of the NGO Emergency Centre in Battambang say he is the brightest of their people and is an inspiration to everyone.

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2: This farmer three days earlier stepped on a landmine in one of his own fields. He has had a below knee amputation. Imagine what that will do to his ability to support his family.

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3: These children suffer from diarrhoea or malaria. These are the lucky ones who have reached the hospital in Pailin.  Many do not. Others find the drugs they buy over the counter are labelled mefloquine, but are actually fake.

So my message to those who do so, stop complaining about how difficult things are and how much work you have. Be thankful for your own health and the opportunity we all have to work towards meeting the needs of such people. Be encouraged by the news that most of the people I met are getting on with their work and benefiting in a variety of ways from support WHO from all levels is giving through staff work and technical collaboration with the Ministry of Health in Cambodia.

Do not moan about how life is for you. Do what you can for others. The people out here need all our support. We each have purpose in this life, and working for WHO is a great opportunity to contribute to the health of hundreds and thousands of people in the remoter parts of the world.

Let the lad who fell from a tree onto a landmine and the people who work in outlying Health centres with only the most basic of equipment and a positive attitude, be an inspiration to us as well.

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#5 :

The Martina Hingis visit to Nepal, February 1998

 Observations by Bill Pigott, WHO Representative to Nepal

Martina Hingis, the world’s number one woman tennis player and WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Immunisation, visited Nepal on her way home from winning the Australian Open and  reaching the final of the Pan Pacific in Tokyo. Martina, her mother and a family friend came on a ‘private visit’, during which they wanted to trek and also visit the site where a donation of $10,000 from Martina had funded an immunisation campaign against neonatal tetanus. We at the WHO Nepal office were asked to facilitate the arrangements and suggested a programme that included a half day ‘trek’ in the mountains outside Pokhara, a night at Tiger Tops in the Chitwan National Park, and a morning visit to immunisation activities in the Nawalparasi District, which is just across the river from Chitwan.

Dr. Jagat Giri, the District Health Officer who so impressed me when I observed the second round of tetanus immunisation for all women of child bearing age (14 to 45 years) the previous May, was delighted at the prospect of a visit, and organised for  the third round of immunisation to coincide with Martina’s visit. He also arranged that routine child immunisation would also be done and orchestrated the most amazing welcome by the villagers at the three immunisation centres we visited.

The Hingis party arrived from Tokyo via Shanghai on Wednesday evening. Many recognised Martina, and wanted photographs and autographs. It was amazing to see airport staff produce any scrap of paper, including banknotes for autographs.

DAY 1 Thursday 12  February;  

While the Hingis party, together with Drs Anton Fric and Imam Mochny of WHO, fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara, enjoying spectacular mountain views on the way, with Martina in the cockpit for some of the journey, my wife Leslie and I drive in our own Land Rover Discovery, leaving early in order to be in Pokhara before  they arrive. After lunch we drive out to Lumle, but sadly the high mountains have clouded over.

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We then walked from Lumle to Chandrakot, about an hour or so away. The walk  through the villages was wonderful. The clouds obscured what are usually spectacular views of the Annapurna range, but the terraced fields of green new wheat and yellow mustard   flowers were brilliant. Martina wanted to meet Tibetans.. and she did, selling handicrafts in one of the villages. We encountered women carrying heavy loads of fodder, lots of children, and a large flock of mountain sheep.

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Martina rests during the walk from Lumle to Chandrakot photo by Bill Pigott

As we walked, we talked about village life, about health, the importance of women’s literacy, the importance of population control, the vicious circle of high child and infant mortality creating the desire for more children, the pressure of this on child survival, population growth and land usage, and the contribution of all this to poverty.  We discussed the importance of immunisation and basic prevention of illnesses. At the village water tap, we talked about the importance of a clean water supply and the immense burden borne by the women of Nepal spending hours each day carrying water in places where there is no pump or tap. Martina was clearly most interested.

Day 2:  Friday 13 February

Before we set out from the Fish Tail Lodge for Chitwan, Martina was able to meet a few of the many young tennis players of Pokhara. The four hour drive to Chitwan allowed them to see more of the country, the roadside farming activities and village life. We had a coffee break along the way at a riverside stop, and were able to watch a man ploughing his fields with a traditional wooden plough and two buffalo. (We carried thermoses of hot water, tea, coffee, cookies and brownies with us and discovered how much Martina enjoyed the brownies made by Gopal our cook, which are such a favourite of our boys.).

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As we arrived at Chitwan, there were army parachutists doing practice jumps at Meghauli airport, just beyond which we left our vehicles to cross the river by boat  to Royal National Park, for the twenty minute drive through the jungle in an open Land Rover to the Tiger Tops Lodge.

There we were assigned to our rooms, had a late lunch under the trees and then went for a two hour elephant ride to see the wildlife, which included rhinos with babies, wild boar, deer and hog deer and lots of birds. Afterwards Martina rode an elephant herself, and fed the baby elephant they have there. Then there was time for a drink and a  slide show before  dinner. We had great conversations with Martina about what it is like to be on the tennis circuit, and her love of horse riding.

 Day 3; Saturday 14 February

The third day started early, with a misty morning drive for 20 minutes in the  open Land Rover through jungle shrouded in morning fog, during which we encountered beautiful herds of chitral deer. As we reach the river which we must cross to reach our vehicles, we are met by a Star TV crew, already filming, and this starts the day a little “on edge”.

We pack the two vehicles and drive for an hour on rough roads to the main highway, cross the wide Naryani River to the District of Nawalparasi,  where we are welcomed by a banner across the highway and the district officials, who each present Martina with a posy of flowers. We then move off in convoy to visit the three immunization centres, all of which are along the highway.

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The village welcomes were quite overwhelming. At the first stop there is a real crush as everyone tries to place their garlands of flowers around Martina’s neck. She stops and greets them all, but there is some pressure and the police seem to find it difficult to maintain a path to the Primary Health Care centre, where the immunisations are taking place. However, the police wisely bring the WHO Land Rover to the door of the PHC centre, and as Martina leaves, we stand amazed at the spectacle of people showering the vehicle with flowers as she drives back to the highway.

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Crowds at Choramara greeting Martina Hingis            photo by Leslie Pigott

The second stop was at a school in Arunghat, where the children lined up across an open field, so the pressure seemed less. It was wonderful to walk through the lines of children with  their  banners, clapping and placing more garlands of flowers over Martina’s head. Here we heard the first of the welcome songs in English.  Martina seemed to love every minute and responded to each person.

The third stop was at the Health Post in Dhumkibas; again with crowds of people lining the path, clapping, and garlanding Martina with flowers. In the grounds of the health post, they had arranged some chairs and a small table with the photographs of each of Their Majesties the King and Queen, each with a garland of flowers, which are the custom for official ceremonies in Nepal. Once the crowd was seated, the speeches of welcome and ”thank you” began. The ceremony ended with a shower of gifts and a visit to the immunisation centre. I loved the way Jagat Giri addressed the crowd as my brothers and sisters. Martina gave a wonderful speech of thanks.

The whole morning was truly amazing. What an outpouring of affection and gratitude!  Martina just glowed. It must have been quite a magic moment for the village folk, but also for Martina. I was really touched as two elderly women came up to Martina during the ceremony and offered their ‘flowers’, one just a single flower and the other a tiny bunch of leaves, offered reverently in their outstretched cupped hands.

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I realised, as I sat waiting for my turn to say a few words, that it is rare for people in developing countries to meet, in person, the one who has funded an activity. And even more rarely is it a 17 year old tennis princess. This is another aspect of Development with a human face. What a wonderful young face.    What a privilege it was to have been part of such an event.

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Listening to speeches and awaiting immunisation against Tetanus at Dhumkibas 

photo by Leslie Pigott

Immediately after the ceremony we set out for Kathmandu, stopping for lunch on the way. What a sparkling day on which to make that journey, beautiful on any occasion, but particularly so today, as we followed the Naryani and Trisuli Rivers and climbed up into the Kathmandu valley on a beautiful spring afternoon.

 

We arrived back in Kathmandu by 5 pm.  Sadly, we were asked to excuse Martina from attending the reception planned for later in the evening. This was to have been the opportunity for her to meet the young tennis players of Kathmandu, so we cancelled their attendance, and proceeded to have drinks and snacks with the WHO team who had supported the visit, together with others who had been invited and still wanted to hear about the visit. I was pleased Martina was able to meet the young tennis players in Pokhara, and some others who turned up at the airport on the morning of her early departure for Switzerland. I feel that the visit went well. The Hingis party seemed very happy as they left, however I sense that  they were quite overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection and the crowds at the immunisation centres in Nawalparasi, and I think a bit ‘culture shocked’ by their first exposure to village life in a third world country.

 

Our biggest concern had been how to maintain the privacy of the first two days of the visit. Somehow we managed to contain most of the press activities to the official day.  The report on Star TV news, which went out on Sunday evening to more than 50 countries, was excellent and positive. We were able to take some good photographs. We had good front page press coverage in the local press, of both her arrival and departure. The information sheet prepared by us has been  picked up by several of the local papers.

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Eddy Risch, a photographer from Blick, the Swiss newspaper, also accompanied the visit. Mario Widmer is a close friend  of Melanie Zogg, the mother of Martina, and as sports editor of  Blick will do a story with Eddy Risch’s photos. Mario and Eddy were the third and fourth members of the Hingis party for the visit.                                                                   

Eddy took an enormous number of photographs and seemed to indicate that some could be made available to WHO. He was a great travelling companion and gave us lots of information about life on the tennis circuit and was delighted with and enthusiastic about  everything he found in Nepal (except the way the local drivers drive!). However  I think Martina’s mother and Mario Widmer were rather overwhelmed at times. Martina took everything in her stride, except for the cameraman and interviewer from StarTV.

As they departed from Nepal, they were all really appreciative of our efforts, and recognised that the full impact of the visit on them may not be realised for days to come.  We could not have done it at this end without Anton Fric, a WHO staff member in Indonesia who had played competition Tennis with Martina’s mother years ago, who was able to act as interpreter for Melanie, and be the key liaison with Martina herself. We could not have done it without Dr Ojha from the Department of Health Services, Dr Giri, the District Health Officer in Nawalparasi, and his team of health workers and volunteers.

We appreciate the presence of Dr Mochny representing the WHO South East Asia Regional Office, and in retrospect are relieved that we did not have to deal with a larger or higher level team under the circumstances. (It had been proposed that the WHO Regional Director also accompany the visit.)

My who team here were magnificent, especially Jorge Luna, Patricia Brice , Lava Shrestha and Narendra Tandukar, and I am most grateful for the role my wife Leslie played, sharing the driving of our personal Land Rover, which was one of the vehicles used, and being particularly helpful in explaining to Martina different aspects of Nepali culture. The other WHO drivers, Narayan Sapkota and Ram Ranjit were an essential ingredient for the success of the visit.

This seems to have been the first visit of a WHO Goodwill Ambassador to a country to observe immunisation activities. It was a great experience. We were all moved by Saturday’s events in the villages and Martina’s gracious response. She was treated like royalty, and responded accordingly.

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photo by Leslie Pigott