Following nearly two months away I am now home. Home in a quiet room of a colorful cabin bathed in November’s low-hanging sunlight and fenced in by thickets of birch and pine. After the maniacal streets of Kathmandu I can’t imagine anywhere more dissimilar to find myself. The clean air and deep silence are new sensations which I drink in like never before, each bursting with a freshness and healthiness that nears overwhelming. That somewhere so pure, so wholesome as the woods, the clear lake, or the bright sky can exist seems a miracle. Yet thousands of such miraculous gifts surround me every day, and I’m learning to stop and appreciate them all as little bits of living a fully present life.
In this little corner of the north woods we’re transitioning into the next phase of our lives. Several years of classes, travel, moving, starting jobs, quitting jobs, traveling, and moving some more is giving way to a time of less movement and more peace. This place feels like home, and I hope to call it home for a long time to come. The little cabin we are renting is the perfect host to welcome us into this new era, with plenty of lovable quirk and character. The maple floors creak with experience, the front porch greets me with that endearing musty, old-house smell, and I ponder its past in the boundary waters before being moved here to Grand Marais. It’s seen a lot, like we have, and seems a fitting location to begin a new phase of settling in, of healing, of slowing life down to cherish what needs to be treasured and cut what needs to go. I will write about these things in time and share my reflections from the northland as the days go on, but for now I will look back a bit and share a story from my time abroad.
I had every intention of continuing to write while in Nepal, but it seems third-world internet and WordPress don’t cooperate. Compounding that was the feeling a sore lack of inspiration and creative energy, and so I did not put a whole lot of words to paper in the first place. Perhaps I’ll return and give more accounts of our time abroad, once the dust settles. We’ll see. But for now I’ll content myself with this simple story that I hope not to forget.
It happened after some friends and I jumped on a decrepit bus to take the rough, pothole-ridden road across town. Thousands and thousands of people crowd the skinny dirt lanes, travelling here and there in the plume of dust and black smoke pouring out of every vehicle’s tailpipe. Some people smile and laugh, but most wear the careworn expression of constantly battling life in this nearly unlivable place.
On this particular day, our bus trip followed a huge thunderstorm, and the roads and alleys were transformed into giant pits of mud. I watched from the window as people tried to avoid the lakes in the sidewalks or utilize the fraction of road that was actually usable. We travelled along block after block of tiny shops, me starting to wonder if walking would be more efficient than putting up with this bus’s snail-like pace. As I looked out the window, searching for patience, the normal wall of buildings gave way to a recess resembling a miniature courtyard. This nook was piled high and packed tight with garbage: old wooden planks, broken pieces of metal, rotting furniture; all of it stacked haphazardly and staying in place by what I assumed to be a miracle. It would take days upon days to go through every piece stuffed into that space. Yet there was a certain order to it, and as the bus slowed I noticed a small, old man with a little twig broom in his hand.
He stood on a pathway of slate stepping stones that led into this great rubbish pile, steps that were surrounded on all sides by the deep mud of last night’s storm. As I watched, the man stooped over, took his broom and carefully swept off each stone step. I marveled. Why clean stones stuck in a mud pit that leads to a bunch of trash? I guess I don’t have an answer, and that’s fine. I don’t have to understand. But whatever the reason, to this diligent man the little set of steps mattered. And since they mattered, he was faithful in taking care of them. It didn’t bother him if others perceived his efforts as a lost cause or a waste of time. To him they were important, and they were in his care, and thanks to his faithfulness there is a set of fresh, clean stones in the middle of a chaotic city.
As small people in the middle of a wild world, we can’t change everything. There will be corruption, poverty, and darkness beyond our control. It’s heartbreaking, truly, but just because the problems of this world can daunt, overwhelm, and abound, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. This man could have easily considered the little bit of property in his care a lost cause, but he didn’t. He could have stood complaining about everyone else’s messes, but he didn’t. He helped the little bit that he could, even if the rest of the world saw it as a waste of time, even if the rest of the world was letting what was entrusted to them fall apart.
And still today I’m thankful for that man. For his faithfulness, for his care, and for the well-loved set of stone steps.