Sanctuary

I wrote this poem a while ago and it has appeared in an earlier blog .

Responsibility

The house gasps
dust won’t settle
nor walls stay silent
but the world
is writing a poem
in another room

This morning I watched about 50 new geese land in the Wigtown Nature Reserve wetlands, joining the hundreds that have already arrived. They rest here for a while to gather their strength for the long flight over the Atlantic, back to their homes in Canada. I am privileged to be staying here for the week, house and dogsitting for friends, and use their home as a sanctuary where I can escape the daily demands I allow to be put upon myself, and find the time, space and inspiration to write.

Watching the birds reminded me of Pokhara in Nepal, where climbers rest and acclimatize before moving on to attempt climbing Everest or any of the other mountains in the range. I worked there 1997-8 as a volunteer for VSO and just before I left I met a team from East Germany who were making their third, and last, attempt on Everest.

Their first attempt at Everest was abandoned when 12 climbers ahead of them were killed in one of the worst climbing disasters there. All climbers came off the mountains in respect for the dead and it was a couple of years before the East Germans raised enough money to make a second attempt. That disaster had particular significance for the East Germans because one of their friends was amongst the dead and his widow was with them at base camp when they heard about the accident. She managed to find some Sherpas who went up the mountain, against the odds found her husband, and brought his body down wrapped in a tent the Japanese team had discarded. I don’t know if it’s still the same today, but the mountains were littered with discarded equipment and resources. Unfortunately the Japanese billed her for the tent, which instilled in the East Germans a deep hatred for all Japanese climbers.

Their second attempt on the mountain went well, all weather conditions were good and the team had trained especially hard. Their motivation was to achieve the climb for their dead friend and they were three quarters of the way up when they came across a Japanese group going down. The Japanese told them to look out for a climber they had lost, believed dead, and carried on with their descent. Not much further up the East Germans came across the missing climber, who was not dead, just injured, so they radioed for the Japanese team to turn back and collect him. No-one came.

My understanding of climbing is that you cannot stay at the same altitude for any great length of time. When you bed down for the night you have to go down a hundred meters or so to avoid altitude sickness. The East Germans climbed without oxygen and at the level they were at there was a danger their lungs would start to fill with water if they stayed any longer. When no Japanese came they made the decision to abandon their climb and bring the injured man down off the mountain, saving his life.

Listening to their stories of mountains and the code that climbers have regarding safety and responsibility towards each other I was impressed that they overcame their prejudice and saved the life of a man in need without looking at the colour of his skin or under whose flag he was climbing. I don’t know if the team did achieve their third attempt because I was ill and sent home shortly after, but I certainly hope so.

Nepal was my santuary for a while. It was where I escaped the pressures of western life and the demands on me that I allowed others to put there. It literally changed my life, bringing my long-term, undiagnosed illness to the fore, and completely changed the way I looked at people and regarded myself.

One last mountain story happened the day before my flight when a couple of young walkers/climbers (Brits I think) came across two nuns and several children escaping from Tibet across the mountains. They had been passed by several teams and groups of walkers not wanting to get involved or abandon their own climbing aspirations, until this young couple took responsibility and brought them down to Kathmandu. Most of the children had frostbite so severe they lost hands, feet and limbs. Despite this, and the fact their stories of life under Chinese rule were harrowing, these young people were happy and smiling, grateful to just be alive. It put my health concerns into perspective and my belief in the interventions of strangers/angels became much stronger.

I believe that we are all connected and that whatever happens to others somehow affects our lives too, for good or bad. We may not like the horrific images on our tv screens of what people do to one another but I believe we have a responsibility to bear witness to their suffering and do what we can to help, even if all we can manage is to think about them or send out prayers.

I want to leave you with a poem I wrote about Rwanda, about a time in their history where not even churches provided sanctuary.

Bearing Witness

In the peace some of us return
finding the wreckage that was home.
It used to be, ‘I cry, you cry. You cry, I cry. We all
come running.’ That was normal. That was community.
Before.

Now, bleached bones reside here
amongst the spears of grass. Wisteria,
hibiscus and columbine complement the green
and intertwine with skeletons of mother and child;
life and death in symbiosis.

Insects and small animals browse,
burrowing and shredding fabric, turning
scraps of clothing into fluttering flags marking
territory, bearing witness to unacknowledged cries
in the sun, wind and dark.

Masus and machetes
are efficient ovens these days.

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