Perspectives

It was a beautiful sunny morning in a distant country many years back. I can still recall the scent of tropical flowers in the cool morning air I enjoyed on my short walk to the hospital. Hospital? You may think that hospitals usually don’t prompt lighthearted stories that provide tiny lessons, and you are right. This is a sad story. I am telling this particular one in my 10th post, much to remind myself that some lessons are tougher than others. And to make the point that among the tiny lessons we barely notice, there will be a few bigger ones. These are the ones that may impact our choices in life.

No, I was not sick or going for tests. I was actually young, very healthy – and very inexperienced, a “green hat” of sorts. I wasn’t going to visit a sick friend or family member, I was an invited guest of the pediatric department of this teaching hospital. A visitor with powers to possibly enhance things. And I was eager to see what my hosts would show me. Although I’d seen many hospitals, helped to manage a few, and recently even had an inside experience after giving birth in one, I would come to realize that I had seen nothing yet.

I was met by the administrative director, flanked by a pediatrician and someone else, who I took to be the PR woman for the hospital. They told me we were going to visit the new pediatric wing donated by so and so rich country. It was obvious they were very proud to show me their hospital. And soon I understood why.  Following a short buzz, the double doors at the end of the corridor opened to a brand new facility, a neonatal ICU. Everything was white and clean, a light sterile scent lingered in the large air-conditioned rooms filled with shiny, state-of-the-art medical equipment. I counted eight incubators in the first large room, six of them were empty, two were in use. The equipment hummed quietly. Several nurses strutted around in white pumps, white stockings and well-pressed, starched white uniforms, complete with the traditional  two-button “winged” hat, no longer seen in many hospitals. A  foreign-looking doctor was explaining something about one of the machines to a group of young residents. After each piece of equipment was presented, I was told that for the first time in this large city, the premature babies now had a change. I was extremely happy to hear that.

This facility was no less than perfect, probably the best I’d ever seen, but I had lots of questions on my mind. How did the babies get here when most births still happened at home in the surrounding villages and there was no reliable transportation? Etcetera. The large numbers of perfectly attired staff  also didn’t fit my picture of severe staffing shortages in this country’s health care system. So I asked the director about that when we returned to the lobby. I was told that the donor still took care of the facility, including all its operating costs, and had committed to continue doing so for the next five years. I now had my explanation and realized that I had not yet seen what I needed to learn about. I thanked my hosts for showing me this great new wing, I was truly impressed,  and then asked where we would go next. They looked at each other and I immediately realized that this had completed the visit.

Stubborn as I am, I politely asked to be shown the old pediatric wing too. The director quickly told me that the old wing did not have power at the moment and therefore a visit would not be possible. The PR woman nodded, maybe another time. That’s when the doctor came to my rescue. He offered to take me there, just for a quick walk-through, if I didn’t mind. So before anyone objected, off we walked in the opposite direction – and entered another world.

The tiny rooms were overcrowded and dirty, cot after cot with several sick babies sharing each little bed, lying sideways, many crying.  In other rooms we found bigger kids, some of them cancer patients, sharing rusty old iron beds. The air was hot, stagnant and despite many open windows, heavy with odors. Between all these rooms, we found one nurse and one aide. The second aide was out fetching water because the running water didn’t work. The nurse in a faded blue uniform was very apologetic and embarrassed about the poor conditions, no power, no water, and it’s been like this for several days now, important meds out of stock too, but she was too busy to stay with us more that a few minutes. I didn’t blame her, instead I was grateful over the fact she had come to work at all that day, knowing the impossible task in front of her. And I know if was not for the salary, her payroll was not covered by any donor. It was for the love and care for these kids. The prospect that some of them might make it.

Walking out of the hospital I cried. It was impossible for me to reconcile the two different realities very present in the same building. I was shaken to my core, and after managing to understand some of it, my lessons were quite profound. I often think about these kids in the old wing and hope many of them made it into adulthood and became productive members in their communities. They certainly contributed to some of the better choices I’ve made in life, some of which, hopefully, have made a tiniest dent in improving a few “old wings”.

I told you this was sad story. I wish I could say there are no more old wings in the world. But honestly, I can’t – not yet.

You Can’t Top This!

That’s how the screaming red headline announced in a magazine I was flipping through the other day while my niece, visiting from Stockholm, was cooking dinner. It was an ad, of course. While I didn’t rush to buy anything, I found the claim quite interesting. Minutes later we had dinner, my niece served us fillet and chanterelle pasta with salad and a bottle of exquisite – not expensive – Cabernet Sauvignon. My taste buds truly enjoyed the meal (if you’d like, I’m happy to share the recipe she gave me) and I found myself thinking “you can’t top this”! Meaning all of the experience: the great food (that someone else than me had prepared, for a change), the smooth wine, the wonderful company of my family, the beautiful evening – all of it.

I have noticed I make this claim more often now than I used to, find myself appreciating the little good things in life that sometimes just come together in the right way. That’s not to say there haven’t been any really special moments when this declaration would have required bold red letters, like in the ad. In fact, there have been a fair number of those occasions – balanced by others, like hills and valleys. One of them has remained a bit mysterious to me until to date, nothing over-the-top, just different from the rest. It was in July exactly ten years ago.

My family had already left for vacation in Europe, to see everybody “back home”. I had bought apex tickets on BA for all of us a while back, but we were on different schedules. I had to remain working for one more week before I could join them. I was busy at work, in the “can’t leave, things will collapse” way, which you might be familiar with. I felt completely exhausted when I finally left my downtown office late in the evening my last full day of work.  I remember that the weather in the nation’s capital was hot and humid, very sticky. Took the metro, as usual, walked home across the park and literally collapsed at my kitchen table. Next day in the afternoon I would go to the airport straight from the office, so now I had to pack and prepare the house to be able to leave it on its own for two weeks.

Somehow I managed to get everything done (we usually do). I climbed upstairs to my bed sometime in the wee hours of the morning – ah, almost four hours to dedicate to rest. But sleep didn’t come. I was too tired to fall asleep! My mind was wired up and I started worrying about the trip.  Sitting in a middle seat in row 30-something over the Atlantic didn’t promise the much-needed rest even the following night. I would be a jet-lagged “basket case” when arriving the next day. But then I started to object to that scenario. After all the hard work, I deserved better! The problem was I hadn’t thought of it when I bought the tickets. My ticket was the cheapest available apex and I had no money or miles for a last minute upgrade. My BA card was a basic blue with no-privileges and no miles on it. But still! My mind started wandering and soon I “saw” myself sitting in the newly upgraded Club World flat-bed seat, sipping a glass of bubbly. That was the way to start my vacation and I deserved it! I could feel the soft seat leaning back and the fruity taste of my champagne. I would be able to relax after  dinner and get some sleep! That felt extremely good…and I finally slept.

I forgot all about this until I arrived at the airport late afternoon the next day. At check-in, I got my boarding pass – seat 30-something E. That’s when I remembered my “positive thinking” from the night before. Strange enough, holding the document with my middle seat in the back of the plane,  I still felt I’d be sitting in Business. This feeling didn’t leave me until I was lining up for boarding with all my fellow economy passengers. Oh well, the line moved swiftly and I was only three people away from the gate agent when I suddenly heard my name being called. Was it my name? The pronunciation was a bit off (difficult name, was used to it), but since no one else moved it had to be my name. I left the line and went to the podium as requested. The agent asked for my boarding pass, her hand already reaching for it when I came upfront. I handed it to her, she looked at something in her terminal and then handed it back, no explanation. Walking back to the line, I took a better look at the boarding pass. It was for an aisle seat in Club World, row 10 – a flat-bed seat! Needless to say I was amazed, but gratefully adjusted to the comfort of my new seat. You can’t top this, I thought. But I was wrong. The same thing repeated on the way back home. Not only was my apex ticket upgraded again, but also my then teen-age son’s who was traveling with me. No explanation – two happy passengers.

I still don’t know how this all happened. In any case, this experience gave me some additional food for thought on positive thinking. To me it’s no longer the same as wishful thinking, there is something more to it. Whatever it is, stay positive.

Drought (a poem)

The crop is yellow, now dying

Dust everywhere, and the wind

hauling, merciless, calling for rain

Long overdue

My land is burning.

– – –

Waiting patiently from dawn to dusk, weary

Thirsty for dignity, a bit of humanity

Hungry for hope, and barely breathing

Tasting despair

My heart is sinking.

– – –

But tomorrow, maybe, the rain will arrive

Compassionate and fully inclusive

Big-hearted, providing shelter for hope

Feeding life

Soon vibrant, thriving.

Lions out of Focus

Focus is the central point of attention or activity. Of course there are other meanings for specific areas such as optics, geometry and geology. But in a general sence, we may agree that it’s important to focus on whatever you want to get done. My tiny lesson is on the how we focus on something we want to accomplish.

I learned this lesson many years ago in the early evening hours of a beautiful day in Zambia (there are many lessons I learned in that country, will come back to some of those in future posts). We had embarked on our first safari ever. Not driving ourselves like we used to do later, but actually buying a “package”. That meant flying from Lusaka to Chipata, a small town in eastern Zambia close to the Malawi border, in a small plane with huge windows reaching almost to the floor. And then taking a four-seater to the smallest grassy air strip you can imagine (seen “Out of Africa”, that kind) in Mwufe National Park.

We had arrived at the lodge and gotten settled in our room by five in the afternoon. Having two hours to spear before the camp dinner, we opted for a “sunset drive” in the park. Maybe we would spot some animals, with a bit of good luck even one of the “big five” on our first ever safari night? So we settled in a typical “safari jeep”, you know one that’s completely open and has a couple of seat rows behind the driver, each set a bit higher up than the one in front of it. My husband sat in the front passenger seat on the left with his RCA camcorder (they were huge then!) ready to capture the sights and any wild animals we might encounter. I sat in the next row with our son, who was about three at the time. Our guide drove us around in the park and we saw many different types of antelopes, zebras and water buffaloes. It was very exciting!

About an hour into the drive, our guide told us that before we’d return to the lodge for dinner, he would drive us down to the river to see the sunset. It was spectacular, he said, and there was a good chance we would spot animals who came there to drink in the early evening hours.   A few minutes later we approached the river banks. Already from afar, we could see a huge herd of elephants crossing the river.  My husband rigged his camcorder. Can you picture the long line of elephants against the orange-red sky, moving rhythmically in the shallow water?  The sight was almost magical. They were of all sizes: large adults, youngsters, teens and babies. The babies were hanging onto their mothers while trying to hold their heads over the water. They were adorable. My husband was filming them against the gorgeous sunset. We stopped on the high river bank and the driver left the engine running (we were in the wild).

Just at that moment we spotted 22 (I counted) lionesses! They were laying on the driver’s side of the vehicle, basking themselves in the last rays of the setting sun and strategizing, I imagined, about the upcoming hunt. They were close and very calm.  We watched them breathlessly from the relative safety of our vehicle (and the driver of course had a rifle, just in case). Suddenly my hubby moved. He stepped down onto the ground from the open jeep – to get a better shot of the sunset over the river! He was so focused on filming the herd crossing the river and the huge red ball going down that he had not seen what we saw, the lions. He had also not heard the driver’s whisper warning us about the lions (quiet, don’t move!). His focus was solely on what he wanted to capture. In an instant, he was the easy catch, a free meal, so to speak. I was about to scream, but the driver was faster. In a fraction of a second, or so it felt, and without a word he grabbed my husband’s shoulder and pulled him back into the vehicle. Then he backed out of there, slowly and calmly.

That was a close call. My tiny (my hubby’s big) lesson was on the how we focus on something. It actually matters. We should focus on what needs to get done, but not so narrowly that we lose sight of what is going on around us. Things can change fast.

Lycaon Pictus – The Hunt

I recently prepared some talking points for a seminar on effective teams and while searching my archives for illustrations,  came across notes I had made almost 20 years ago about a remarkable hunt I witnessed in Ethiopia. In all its cruelty (I always feel for the prey), I think this true story offers a few tiny lessons.

It was a really hot afternoon in the Awash National Park, one could feel and see the air vibrating in the heat.  We decided to take a trip down to the Awash river, more to escape the heat at the camp site in the air-conditioned comfort of our truck than expecting to see any animals in the mid afternoon blaze. So much for knowing what the future will bring.

Even before reaching the river, we saw a large herd of impalas grazing peacefully on the dry savannah, not far from the tracks we were traveling. The next thing we observed was a pack of African wild dogs, probably more than 10, in the distance. They stood completely quiet, watching the antelopes, big ears pointing up, listening intently. No one moved. We didn’t either.

The next few minutes were tense, the hunters observing the prey and (I’m sure) making plans, while the impalas yet had to pick up the scent of danger. Then suddenly the hunt started. Watch that speed of the two leading alpha dogs! And the resulting confusion in the impalas herd when all of them instantaneously realized the present danger. They darted away, seemingly in many different directions. The dogs were communicating loudly to coordinate their movements and the dust filled the air. The wild chaos lasted only a few minutes until two adult antelopes were separated from the herd, running far out in the opposite direction. The hunting strategy seemed to work so far.

We drove into the terrain to follow the wild hunt a bit closer. I remember secretly hoping that this would be one of the rare 10-15% of hunts that fail for these wild dogs. For a while it seemed that the two impalas might have a slim chance, but soon it was evident that only one of them would.  The chase was intense and high-speed.  The dogs vocalized their messages to each other all the time, and the coordination of their circling and zigzagging was absolutely fascinating. When the leading dog got tired out, another dog took over. And so it went on for close to an hour, until they got their prey.

I have to say I was very impressed by the collaboration exhibited by these wild dogs, Africa’s best hunters without comparison. In the course of this chase, they communicated continuously, coordinated their actions, helped each other out, and showed extraordinary understanding, commitment and endurance to reach their goal. Maybe something there to learn from.

Foot Prints (a poem)

At the edge of water somewhere, observing.

Ocean waves, just like days, come from the past

and fade into the future. Searching for the now.

And time doesn’t exist.

At the shores of silence, anywhere, reflecting

images on the water, like illustrations. Past

measures of success, still waiting for impact,

which the truth already knows.

At the dawn of tomorrow, here, expecting

life, like the bird’s song, thrive.

Beginnings of self-realization, insisting for birth.

And the contentment is alive.

Lasting foot prints in the sand

at the edge of water. Tiny lessons.

Now

When I think about a topic worth discussing in my first real blog post ever, too many tiny lessons come to mind at once …and some bigger things too. It feels important to select the right topic even if no one would ever read it. While wondering about the worthiness of sharing this or the other, my little old poodle (who is almost blind) manages to jump into my lap. It’s a pleasant surprise because he has not managed to jump this high for a while now. He is happy to sit with me at the computer and…well, just be. He lives in the moment, doesn’t fret over things that happened in the past or worry about things to come. He plainly relaxes and enjoys the now.

I have often reflected on how easy it is to spend time on “redoing” or “improving” what has been, things that are already facts of life, choices I made or  things that just came along.   I know I can not change the past, it’s gone, but I can learn from it for the future. So I jump to think about the future. And it’s not always about how I’d apply the lessons I’ve learned. More often it’s worrying about things that might happen tomorrow, next week or later, particularly when I get old…I mean really old. I also know that worry never helps, on the contrary, too much of it can actually make me sick. But somehow it seems easy to spend time in the past or in the future while life passes by right now.  But one can only participate in life now, because that’s all we really have.

It is quite puzzling to me that I still catch myself doing those things, having realized the wastefulness of it quite a while ago. And to tell the truth,  the right now for me is fairly pleasant, considering everything. Looking out of my window I see it: the blue ocean is calm today, boats passing by, light winds, sunny. Will this continue or will there be heavy thunder storms later in the evening? High winds, no power? Maybe a tiny lesson there, something to ponder.

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