Sunday, September 5, 2010

Just Keep Going

In many ways this August 2010 trip to Zambia was the hardest one for me. Being there is always physically challenging—malaria medications; the need to be covered with insect repellent; scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables; the standard difficulties with water, electricity, and the internet—but the poor air quality this time took the challenge to a whole new level.

When people have no way of dealing with trash except to burn it, and when a huge percentage of the burning trash is plastic, the result for the environment and lungs is disastrous. When those circumstances take place in the hottest, windiest season of the year, we get that “whole new level” I mentioned. So, when the day arrived for my departure, while it is always sad to leave good friends, I was ready to get on the plane that would fly me away to the marginally more agreeable atmosphere of the Johannesburg airport.

We have a departure tradition in Ndola. The traveler checks in the requisite two hours before the flight, after which we adjourn to a nearby coffee/tea establishment to go over last-minute details. Alas, the computers were down and all tickets were being written by hand. By the time I got my boarding pass, there was barely time to say a hasty farewell and make it through the rest of security and immigration before queuing up for boarding.
Ah, here we go!

The airlines in that part of the world have a few traditions of their own. One I find most (yes, the word I keep coming up with is “challenging”) challenging is spraying the interior of the plane before take off and/or landing. I understand that there are all sorts of challenging (!) critters who would stow-away and set up housekeeping in new locations without that spray, but goodness, it is unpleasant to be closed in a small compartment, breathing air one intuitively senses just isn’t good for a human, reassurances from the airline to the contrary.

Moments after the plane had been sprayed down, the captain came on the PA to announce, in that tired or bored voice people assume when they want to sound reassuring, that there “are a couple of problems with the plane.” A couple!?! My row mates began telling stories of these kinds of situations leaving Ndola, specifically involving the very plane we were on, which had come in two days before and promptly been grounded for mechanical problems. OK. This might not go as planned.

He announced we would be deplaning and returning to the terminal, while the airline either fixed the problems or brought in another plane from Johannesburg. The seasoned travelers on this route groaned simultaneously and announced, “That’s it, we’re stuck, we won’t get to Jo’burg tonight.” I, too, was groaning, but inside the conversation was more along the lines of, “No, this is not possible. If that’s true I’ll lose my entire itinerary. This is not happening!”

As we stood to deplane, the Captain came on once again to announce the door would not open! Not a problem, there’s a door at the back, we’ll just bring stairs…

Imagine this next part happening at the speed of “I am perfectly willing to accept whatever happens, and I am going to do absolutely everything humanly possible for me to get to Jo’burg and make my connecting flight”:

I’m first in line at the desk.
Airlink: We don’t have any information.
Me: What’s that plane on the tarmac?
Airlink: That’s a Zambezi Air plane.
Me: (Internally, “Yikes.”) Where’s it going?
Airlink: Johannesburg.
Me: Can I get on it?
Airlink: Don’t know. You can ask them.
Me: If I can get on that plane, can I get my luggage off of yours?
Airlink: Yes, if you can get a ticket, we’ll get your bags.

Hyper-speed. Found an adorable fellow who was immediately sympathetic, walked me to the Zambezi ticket counter so I wouldn’t get stuck behind official lines, and explained the urgency of the situation to his colleague who hopped on writing a ticket (no computers, remember). “Will I make it?” I ask. “I think so,” is his less than reassuring answer. What seemed like hours later, I had a rather expensive replacement ticket for the one going nowhere. Back to Airlink with my shiny new ticket. “Can I get my bags?” The woman from the ticket counter stood up and I followed her out across the tarmac, while she yelled at young fellows to open up the plane and offload the luggage. There my bags were. Back we trudged, sweating profusely in the scorching sub-Saharan Africa afternoon sun.

More forms and conferencing and explaining and my bags were checked to Jo’burg. After profuse thank-yous, some discrete tipping, and hugs all around with my new best friends (amazing how going through an emergency bonds people!), I was once again on my way through the rest of security and immigration to queue up for boarding. I felt, and I suspect looked, as if I had just run a summer 10K—perfect way to start 48 hours of travel!

On that flight I reflected on the relationship between acceptance, maximum effort, and letting go. I remembered a call years earlier from a monk who, driving up to the gate of the Zen Monastery Peace Center to leave for an appointment, came upon a huge tree that had fallen, blocking the road completely. “Guess it’s God’s will that I not go,” was the comment. “Perhaps,” I replied, “but I suspect it’s also God’s will that you go get a chainsaw, cut up that tree, and clear the road.”

Seems to me we never have to decide anything, even in circumstances such as these. Our job, our opportunity, is to show up with all the trust, willingness, and courage we can muster. Life will take us where we need to go.

When we decided to purchase the property for the Monastery, we had many uncertain moments, most of which resulted from having no money. How was this going to work? Would we be able to find the money? What if we couldn’t come up with all we needed? Much “sitting still with” was required. Finally, in one of our discussions, Sr. Phil said, “Well, how about if we just keep going until something we can’t get past stops us?”

Good plan. Here we are 23 years later, still going!

In Gassho,


  1. You wrote:
    -- “Well, how about if we just keep going until something we can’t get past stops us?”

    Similarly, a wise man once told me:
    -- "If you don't quit, you'll never stop."

  2. It's kinda like what
    the better poker players agree on:
    "Ya gotta know when to hold 'em,
    and when to fold 'em."

    Conditioning works something like this.
    If I hold on, it makes me suffer for being attached.
    If I let go, it makes me suffer for giving up.

    But let me tell ya,
    I ain't a gonna fall for it no more.
    'Cuz I got an ace up my sleeve.

    It's called practice.

    In this way I most deeply vow to train myself.

    Deep gassho to all the monks who have preserved the Dharma for us.

    And a special THANK YOU to our guide for
    bringing it all back home.

  3. Thank you! I just read this in the Artist's Way (or somewhere): "Pray to catch the bus, but run." And I actually did that, once in Iceland... and, to my complete and utter amazement, caught the bus!

    Don't know, don't know, don't know...