Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I am writing this note from Kennedy Airport. I grew up about eight miles from here; when the plane from Seattle landed, I could pick out the old neighborhood by locating the taller apartment towers only two miles from my street.

This year I will turn 60, and I have traveled far – both literally and figuratively. And it’s been a good life. I founded the most successful pacifist publishing house in North America in the past 200 years, and it is still going strong. Wrote or edited 11 books with my name on them (if I’m counting correctly; I’m not sure I have copies of all of them, and there are plenty more essentially ghostwritten), not including the annual 400-page tome I have written and published every year for a decade as part of my day job. Started two ongoing foundations (one to promote education for peace, justice, and community development; one to support nonviolent land reform efforts in India); a third – to promote appropriate, community-based, self-sustaining clean water technology – is on the boards. Continue to write two widely known education columns, and travel around promoting homeschooling and what has now become known as “alternative education” (what is “alternative” about it I’m not exactly sure; what passes for mainstream education these days seems to me to have remarkably little to do with “education”.) There have been occasional articles on reptiles, and philosophy (that turn up being republished when I least expect it.)

Learned to play the veena (as the Enclopedia Britannica once informed me in my college days, sans picture, “A seven-stringed musical instrument, played in South India, sacred to the goddess Saraswati, made from the wood of the jackfruit tree.”) And got so good at it that I performed for the Sankaracharya of Sringeri (you’ll have to look that one up). But I’m now very rusty. Took up opera singing and performance at the age of 52, and am reasonably decent at it. Took up violin-playing at 47, and remain sub-mediocre, and I am resigned to not getting any better. But I founded a community orchestra, so they can’t kick me out. Am thinking about a gospel music choir.

Very happily partnered for more than 30 years with a woman who has found great passion for her work (hospice nursing). Homeschooled two wonderful daughters: the elder a graduate student at Princeton pursing a doctorate in musicology and Italian studies (I always knew I’d produce at least one scholar – music was a bonus - or at least one that can appreciate the dendritus that inhabits my brain), the younger a concert pianist and a student of international development at American University, with a head for business and things practical (thought I’d produce some kind of activist; I was always good at business, but never much cared for it.) Both turned out to be Quakers (that they’d follow me in this path is, to me, rather surprising.)

I’ve met at least one prime minister (a particularly charismatic but nasty one, it turns out), famous authors, a conductor and composer, scholars, and poets. I have a network of friends doing amazing impossible things around the world – in Sri Lanka, Jordan, Burundi, Cambodia, India, and the U.S.

I had the inevitable heart attack that was supposed to kill me before reaching this point, and it did, and then unexpectedly I came back. Being dead isn’t all its cracked up to be, though I did the obligatory video review of my life and came back with two thumbs up. The PTBs (Powers-That-Be) seem to have decided they have more in store for me, and I have consented to go along without kicking or screaming, though with a few more aches and pains.

The most fateful of all the decisions I made was following this old woman (everyone seemed old to me in those days) to her home 2,000 miles south on an Indian second-class unreserved train in December 1977. I could never have known how our lives would become intertwined in their own extraordinary way, with my going on to influence and find avenues to support her work and that of her husband in ways I could not appreciate at the time, and then going my own path, and she winning the Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel Prize” (and I do know why it is “alternative”, as there is no Nobel for community service, and the “Peace” prize has sometimes been a bit “iffy”.) And how this organization of Dalits (“untouchables”) she built (with lots of us cheering her on) found ways for 20,000 families who had been landless laborers for somewhat on 700 years have come to own their own land. And I was there when the multinationals and World Bank decided there was money to be made in prawns, displacing tens of thousands of people, and leaving the land scarred with gray chemicalized lunarscapes. And I was there when they found ways to fight them. And I was there for the aftermath of the tsunami (which is how this blog got started, made much worse by the ravages of these same multinational corporations), and the purchase of a brickmaking machine so that entire villages can build their own houses, and found money for biosand water filters so that at last people can come out from under the continuous weight of waterborne illnesses. I have been on the edge of, for lack of a better way to express it, something very, very large, or very, very warm, and I have basked in the afterglow. Now the government is talking nuclear plants…

Somewhere along the line, and it wasn’t through my rational mind, I learned that happiness consists of finding the highest good you know, and learning to serve it. The knowing is, I have discovered, the hard part; once you know, the opportunities to serve just seem to make their appearance in reasonably regular fashion, even when they are somewhat inconvenient or take you out of your initial comfort zone. This is something you could not know in advance. It only becomes clear in the light of experience, or so it has mine. I’ve learned to trust that remarkable people doing remarkably good things seem to march in my direction, and all I really have to do is find ways to hitch along for the ride.

It is easier to remember when I am with Krishnammal, and I have become convinced that I am not simply in the way.

“How long are you staying?”

“Three weeks.”

“Too short,” she says, taking my hand, “I need you for six months.”

I’m not there yet. (But I am contemplating it….Sigh.)


Blogger Paul Schwartzentruber said...

Dear David, Thank you for this very moving writing. I have been in Tamil Nadu for the last year or so working with Ekta Parishad so it all wrings so true to my experience. I too want to be there longer but...I will keep reading. A friend in Canada, Skye Faris, knows you and Krishnamal well. I am at http://onewaveintheocean.blogspot.com

6:04 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger David Albert and Aliyah Shanti said...

Thanks, Paul. It was fun making it down to the ashram in Nattur. There is always so much more!


9:21 PM, February 01, 2010  

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