Saturday, March 24, 2012
Several years ago I climbed Africa’s “Shining Mountain,” Mt. Kilimanjaro. It hadn’t been on my bucket list. It was a time in my life when the mere thought of bucket lists turned my stomach. I had just lost my partner and husband to brain cancer the year before, the whole concept of a bucket list – things you had to do before you died -- seemed a luxury. I was broken, in pieces, and quite literally, list-less.
So when a friend invited me to join his climbing party, I shrugged -- listlessly – and said: “Why not?” A few months later, I found myself at the base of the mountain.
We climbed through the rainforest.
There was evening and there was morning, a second day.
We climbed through the alpine meadow, filled with scrub trees green against red volcanic rock. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.
We climbed above the tree line, into a zone where plants hugged the ground, bursting with color from every crevice and cranny, and we learned the hearty species that survive altitude and intense swings in temperature.
There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
We climbed out of realm of vegetation, entering the fierce landscape of the summit itself. Here there was nothing but scree, searing sun, and sharp fragments of lava. It looked for all in the world like we’d stumbled into a giants’ kitchen. And maybe it had been an earthquake or a violent domestic argument, but something traumatic had happened, and we were surrounded by the aftermath. The ground looked littered with shards of red-clay pottery – and little else. Here, a once perfect bowl, angrily smashed into pieces; there, a pitcher, broken beyond repair; up ahead, a plate, dashed into fragments.
There was evening – and at midnight we made the final ascent, snaking up the mountain, our path lit only by headlamps. By that time, we ourselves were practically in pieces, shattered by exhaustion, the thin air, and the cold. The only thing that kept me going was the pull of the hundreds of hikers in front of us, the push of the hundreds from behind. Broken as we were, we snaked up the mountain like something alive, our headlamps steady shards of light in an inky darkness.
There was the rest of that evening and there was morning, a fifth day
We stood at the summit at sunrise and surveyed the wreckage we’d spent the night walking through. As I looked at the earth’s curvature falling around us, I remember thinking: this whole mountain is one huge mound of broken pieces, shards from something else. Yet, there it was, Africa’s “Shining Mountain,” the highest on the continent. Out of these pieces, a new creation.
That wasn’t the only high point of the trip, though it certainly scored in terms of elevation. The following week we visited a school a member of our climbing party had started in his native village outside of Iringa in central Tanzania. We lost a tire to a pot-hole on the way there, but when we finally arrived, students stood at attention in their classrooms in faded green uniforms to greet us.
Their green jackets and pleated skirts looked worn. Their desks and chairs looked vaguely familiar, kind of like the ones I’d used when I’d been in grade school. Broken and badly in need of repair, they’d done hard service for at least as long. Names on the backs of the chairs told a story: Anderson, Jenson, Carlson. Those weren’t Tanzanian names. Later the principal proudly explained that the furniture, the uniforms, even the schoolbooks had all been donated by a Minnesota non-profit. Like the mountain, the school had been built on shards, cast-off pieces from somewhere else.
Yet, there it was, in many ways more magnificent than Kilimanjaro, a school at the end of a red dirt road, the only opportunity for education beyond third grade for miles around. Out of these pieces, a new creation.
These images stuck with me, broken as I was, like scraps of a rhyme that at first I could neither shake nor completely make out. But then I started to hear it everywhere: breaking and remaking, breaking and remaking. Out of the pieces, a new creation.
You catch the rhyme in the story of the first creation: there’s a lot of breakage involved. For anything to happen, the smooth stone of matter, which was “without form and void,” must be shattered, rather like the aftermath of the domestic argument we imagined on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Light is broken apart from darkness, day from night, the heavens from the land and the seas, sun from moon and all stars – the stars themselves suddenly seem split-off shards of something else. And at the end of each day, God looks at all these broken and repurposed pieces of creation – and blesses them: “God saw that it was good....God saw that it was very good.”
There is evening and there is morning, another day. Then we come upon the story of the creation of Eve, itself a story of breaking and remaking, because the only way to get to Eve is to break Adam apart, break Adam open, break into Adam. From his bone and from his flesh, literally, from pieces of his body, Eve comes forth, the second human. Out of the pieces, a new creation.
New creation always comes out of the broken shards of something else. It’s the story of the phoenix, rising out of the ashes. It’s the picture on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece. But look more carefully at the creation of Adam: God’s finger almost touching Adam’s – but in between them, the crack.