the Dubai airport, complete with indoor palm trees
It’s five in the afternoon in Brisbane, and about 10 AM here on this airplane. According to the flight information on the little screen embedded in the seat in front of me, I’m flying over Damascus right now, on my way to England. I spent a few hours in the United Arab Emirates at the Dubai airport this morning, meeting some Peace Fellows from previous classes that I hadn’t known before— from Argentina, Japan and Uganda. They’re all traveling to the same conference, and it’s good to converge, even in airports. I’ve been traveling for twenty-four hours now, with four and a half to go before I get in.
I’ve been lax in keeping the blog up lately as the end of the semester crunch took over my life. The last few weeks have been a blur, and it’s good to be re-emerging and find that the ‘real world’ is still waiting for me. Mason is on the edge of both crawling and cutting teeth, and I’m overdue for putting some new pictures of him up. Soon, I promise.
For now, though, I’m thinking about the end of the semester and looking back at this first stretch. It’s hard to believe that one of my three semesters in Australia is already over, but I turned in my last paper online a half-hour after midnight on Sunday night, and that makes it official. It looks like my ‘marks’ (grades) will be good for the semester, but more importantly, I’ve learned a great deal and made some extraordinary new friends. Rotary is treating us very well, as is the University of Queensland. So much to be grateful for.
Since the Fellowship in Brisbane is eighteen months long, there is a strange contour to the program: When we arrive for the first semester, we are welcomed by the class of Fellows before us. We’re matched up with a ‘buddy’ from the previous class to show us the ropes and ease the transition. At the end of that first semester, though, they graduate and for the second semester it is only our cohort, Class VII in my case. It’s sad to see the Class VI Fellows graduating, but I’m grateful for the time we had, and I look forward to keeping in touch with them and watching their lives and careers continue to unfold.
After the second semester we will head out for three months to our AFE’s (Applied Field Experience), where we will get our heads out of the books and our hands dirty with the work to be done— more on that soon. Then in the last semester we will welcome Class VIII. All of that seems pretty far away at the moment, but the Class VI Fellows tell me that the last two semesters will go progressively faster.
It’s hard to see Class VI leaving, but before the circle of Fellows shrinks it will swell mightily. Over 150 of the four hundred are currently on their way to England to attend the Rotary World Peace Symposium. The keynote speaker is Desmond Tutu, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing him again. In 1999 I had the opportunity to perform at a conference where Tutu was speaking, and though we didn’t cross paths (he didn’t hear my play and I didn’t get to meet him), I did have the treasured opportunity to hear him speak. He addressed the audience for about two hours without a pause, a visual aid or a song to break things up, and when he finished it felt like he had been speaking for about fifteen minutes.
Desmond Tutu indicating how long he’s been speaking (no, not really)
My son Mason’s middle name is Bishop, and there are two reasons for that. The first is that it is my mother’s maiden name and the family name that marks much beloved extended family. The second, though, is that it was a way to name him after Archbishop Desmond Tutu without naming him Desmond or Tutu, neither of which seem to fit the little guy. Tutu really is one of my heroes, and not just for the obvious reasons of his political stands and powerful faith.
In Paul Loeb’s excellent book Soul of a Citizen he tells a wonderful story of being backstage with Tutu at an anti-apartheid rally during the dark days when it still reigned in South Africa. It was an outdoor event with bands and speakers, and when Tutu finished his portion of the program he was followed by a groove-driven reggae band. As Tutu, in his late sixties, came down the back stairs out of sight of the audience, he was boogying down, dancing with joy, and with the same passion he summoned to motivate people to work against apartheid.
I think about that image frequently, though it’s not my own experience, only a vivid picture drawn for me by a good writer. It’s a useful reminder that joy and laughter and bliss are not points on a continuum on the other end of which lies anger, resolve and righteous indignation. The fact is that all of those things can coexist. And when I allow my joy to be defeated by fear, viciousness and oppression, I’m allowing those things, in some sense, to win. Joy doesn’t deny the existence of cruelty and sadness any more than light denies the existence of darkness.
Of the Fellows I’ve met so far, maybe thirty or so, they seem to have a real gift for joy. People who get things done often do, I think, because to allow oneself to be consumed by the heaviness of things can so quickly become immobilizing.
Don’t misunderstand me, though, and think that I mean that in order to keep moving we have to look away from the darkness. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. We just have to also look toward the light. The truth isn’t as it is often portrayed: that the ‘real world’ is so dark that it is only the naive who believe it can be made better. Cynics will pat you on the head and say that it’s sweet and cute for you to pursue such notions while you’re young, but that you will inevitably grow up and get a taste of the real world, and it will wear off.
Tutu, and his good friend Nelson Mandela, are fine antidotes to that falsehood. Who could tell these great men that their hope and belief are rooted in naive inexperience? Who could tell Tutu that his strong commitment to non-violence is rooted in a lack of understanding of the reality of violence? Who could tell Mandela that his ideas of forgiveness are unrealistic— that his 27-year imprisonment and torture were not enough to make him understand the nature of evil? Who can tell these men that they don’t really know how hard the world is?
They do. And they remain authentic voices for hope, peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. Their wisdom is a good gift, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing Tutu again. Clearly I am, because I have left Deanna for a few days for the first time in five months, and left Mason for more than one night the first time in his life. It will be a quick trip, though, so I’ll make it— six days total: three traveling and three there.
And I left him in very good hands. My parents have made the trip to Australia for a month-long visit, and they planned it so they could be there to help Deanna out while I’m gone. It’s tough to miss part of their time there, but I’m so grateful that they are there. Being so far away is hard for all of us, and to get a good visit in is a treasure. I’ll be home Monday morning and we’ll have three more weeks together.
Speaking of missing home, I got to make a guest appearance at the Grey Eagle, my hometown music hall, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. My long-time friend Cecil Bothwell is running for Asheville City Council and I popped in via video link to endorse him in front of capacity crowd of over 400 people.
I also did a radio interview in New York via telephone about my newest recorded song, A Place to Go. It’s now out as a CD-single at CDBaby.com, and as an MP3 download at iTunes, CD Baby and any number of other online retailers. All the proceeds from this one go to museums that commemorate tragic events, so I don’t have to feel awkward about plugging it. 😉 I called in at 2AM Brisbane time to be on a Saturday noon radio show. The hosts were concerned about that, but I explained that I was a professional musician for 18 years, so 2AM isn’t such an unusual time to be up and doing.
And that’s the update. Classes start again three weeks into July, so I’ve got time to catch my breath, play my guitar a bit, spend some family time and get refreshed for the next semester, which will involve four classes instead of three. Thanks for staying in touch, and for your kindness. Your supportive comments go a long way toward keeping me inspired and hopeful about the real world and my place in it.