“This long voyage will prove how great is My love for you.
There were many troubles and vicissitudes,
but in the thought of meeting you,
all these things vanished and were forgotten.”
No one gets to miss the storm of what will be.
Vicissitude. This word is used quite a bit in the sacred writings of the Bahá’í Faith, particularly those of The Master*. I first encountered it in a passage from Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “I hear thou art grieved and distressed at the happenings of the world and the vicissitudes of fortune. Wherefore this fear and sorrow?” This word “vicissitude” intrigued me. When I looked it up in the dictionary, I learned that it meant “a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.” Unpleasant changes of circumstances are scary. And, more often than not, exceedingly painful. Yet The Master asks us, “Wherefore this fear and sorrow?”
Tropical Storm Tomás (is it just me, or do these names make the storms seem a lot more amicable?) got me thinking about vicissitudes this week. The overall damage to Dominica ended up being minimal, but Tomás had us worried for a minute there. Well, it had the elders worried. The younger generations, who have no memory of the devastating Hurricane David three decades ago, delighted in watching the coconut palms bend and thrash in the wind, and slept soundly under the blankets of rain. But those who lived through David remained awake and alert through both nights of the weekend. They secured their baskets and handicrafts, stocked up on kerosene and canned goods, and filled gallon jugs with water. They watched the sea with anxious eyes, and braced themselves for a vicissitude of fortune. It didn’t come, this time, and the only disturbance the tropical storm left in its wake were two days without power, and a few fallen banana trees.
Hurricane David hadn’t been so benevolent. The elders tell of rooftops swept away like leaves, vehicles flying through the air, and entire villages stripped clean as sea glass. And David carried away every last bird on the island. One of Granny’s most vivid memories from that time, she says, is of the baskets. “They were everywhere,” she told me, as we listened to the rains of Tropical Storm Tomás pound against the galvanized metal roof. “Baskets covered the road, the hillsides, and hung from the branches of the trees that remained standing.” No wonder the basket weavers of the Carib Territory secured their craft shops this weekend.
St. John, a skilled boat maker and member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the Carib Territory, had to take a respite from building his wooden canoe until the storm passed. He has been working on this craft for the past two months, and still has several weeks’ worth of adjustments to make before the boat will be sea-ready. It is beautiful to watch him work, to behold the excellence and meticulousness with which he shapes the gommier tree wood, ensuring that his vessel attain the maximum degree of strength and resilience. But St. John knows that the sea is unforgiving…and he also knows that despite his wealth of skill and experience, he cannot build a storm-proof boat.
I wonder why we think we can build storm-proof lives.
On the first of November, I visited the Salybia Cemetery with Marvis and her granny (known familiarly as Ma Ti Pap), in commemoration of All Saints Day. I have spoken of this cemetery in an earlier posting (“Calling all Angels”), but I don’t think I made it known—and now it’s in writing!—that if the vicissitudes of fortune should decree that I kick the bucket while in Dominica, I would very much like to be buried in the Salybia Cemetery. What a lovely resting place for our boxes of bones. The graves of this hillside cemetery nestle between almond trees, banana trees, and red hibiscus flowers…and every resting place has a view of the crashing blue sea. Monday was the first time I’d visited the cemetery in the evening, and the softness of twilight cloaked the place in an added layer of beauty. On this particular occasion, the graves were adorned with flickering candles. All Saints Day, I learned, is a day of remembrance. Each year on November first, family and friends of the deceased pay visits to the graves of their loved ones with offerings of thin white candles, fresh flowers, and prayers.
Marvis, her grandmother and I placed our own candles in the soft green earth at the gravesite of Francois Frederick, Ma Ti Pap’s husband. After we’d said our prayers, Ma Ti Pap addressed Marvis and me with a twinkle in her eye: “I hope the two of you find husbands like him. He was a good, good man.” In the glow of the candlelight, she shared reminiscences of her life with Mr. Frederick. They’d married at the age of twenty-two, after he’d approached her in church one morning and whispered “I love you” in Creole. They made eight children together, worked in the garden together, harvested yam and dasheen and pomegranates together, and laughed together a great deal. “Some men consider washing and cooking to be women’s work,” Ma Ti Pap chuckled, “but we did that together too.” She doesn’t remember him ever uttering an unkind word to anyone. Every day, Mr. Frederick would wake up long before dawn, she recounts, to make sugarcane tea for her and the children. But one morning, he couldn’t get out of bed. This sudden tempest turned out to be prostate cancer…and it was soon to take him from this world.
“When I’m by myself, I talk to him,” Ma Ti Pap murmered, “and I know he hears me.” We sat in silence for a while—seconds minutes, hours? Time seems to suspend in cemeteries—listening to the crash of the ocean below us. Suddenly, Ma Ti Pap turned to us sharply. “You all better make sure that when I die, they bury me in this same hole with my husband. This very same hole.”
Some months ago, one of the coordinators of the Caribbean Initiative sent the pioneers a message with a quote from Paul Lample’s Creating a New Mind. It was a passage about a sailing ship:
“A complex combination of largely uncontrollable factors—weather, wind, waves—in addition to skill, affects the journey, requiring a continual series of approximations and adjustments in order to arrive at the correct destination. The actual course of the ship, therefore, results not in a straight line, but a zigzag pattern. Progress is charted, essentially, by a series of points of reflections where questions are asked about current position, environmental condidions, and the location of the final goal before correcting the course and setting out on the next leg of the journey.”
The members of the Caribbean Initiative have experienced a lot of storms this past year, and the course of our journey has been more zig-zagged than any of us probably could have imagined. Among the vicissitudes that have visited this batch of pioneers are debilitating sicknesses, surgeries, visa complications, extended absences from their posts, and even the total prohibition of teaching work on one of the islands. It has been nearly two months now that Roushy has been away from Dominica. We were counting down the days ‘til her expected return on November 1st, only to receive a text from her that morning informing us that her flight had been cancelled, and she’d have to wait another ten days before coming back. Oh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá…I know we shouldn’t sorrow over these vicissitudes, but it has been really hard without Roushy here. And now, when she finally does return on the tenth of November, I won’t even be in Dominica.
Tomorrow, I am returning to the States for a three-week visit.** I arrive on American soil exactly one year from the day I departed. I had no idea what I was getting myself into as I boarded that plane on November 7th, 2009…but I think I expected a lot smoother sailing. One thing this year has taught me is that the seas of life are nothing if not volatile. The storms will always come, and all we can really do is batten the hatches, secure our baskets, and hold on tight. And when the storm passes we adjust our course, and continue on the next leg of our journey.
Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, he will not attain.
*”The Master” is a title of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
**”Sounds of Laughter” will probably be on vacation until the end of November.