Friday, May 07, 2010

17 Days in April- Reflections on Life's Fragileness

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


Though we may want to live in the illusions of certainty and perpetual strength, the guarantees of relationships and fortunes lasting forever, we actually live quite temporarily on the fragile edge of life - and more than we sometimes acknowledge. We can demand entitlement, but entitlement, as with certainty and guarantee, is an illusion. The reality is, life is fragile. It changes in a moment with simple decisions. It's as fragile as the thin crust that covers the molten raw energy churning just below the earth's surface. Life's simple preciousness and profoundness happens each day, and often without predictability.

April 7, 2010. I leave Petaluma on schedule. The plan: fly to the Netherlands to deliver the Samurai Game® (April 10-11) for The Avalon Group, then proceed to Poland April 12 - 19 to deliver it three times there for clients of Aiki Management.

April 10, 2010. It is 8:00 pm in Utrecht. I've been here two days. Like the buses and trains I've taken into the city to see the sights, everything has proceeded neatly, as predicted. I walk into my hotel room now that today's work is complete. The class began this morning and has fully occupied my attention. It's over for the evening. The people are on their way home or back to their hotel rooms following a richly rewarding experience regarding the vividness of life played out through our workshop. Per usual most of them "died" during the play - all symbolic of course - kind of like being "red flagged" during a soccer match. Tomorrow we will reconvene to talk and share our lessons learned. I sit at my desk, open my laptop, and begin to read today's news, about which until this moment I am unaware:

Polish president among 96 killed in plane crash

SMOLENSK, Russia, April 10 (Reuters) - Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, its central bank head and the country's military chief were among 96 people killed when their plane crashed in thick fog on its approach to a Russian airport on Saturday.

The president's wife and several other high-ranking government officials were also aboard the Tupolev Tu-154 that plunged into a forest about two km (1.3 miles) from the airport in the western Russian city of Smolensk.

"The political consequences will be long-term and possibly will change the entire future landscape of Polish politics," said Jacek Wasilewski, professor at the Higher School of Social Psychology in Warsaw.

Polish government spokesman Pawel Gras said the country would hold elections after the death of Kaczynski, who was 60 and had been president since 2005.

"In line with the constitution, we will have to hold an early presidential poll," Gras said. "For now, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, is automatically ... the acting president."

Russian television showed the smouldering fuselage and fragments of the plane scattered in a forest. A Reuters reporter saw a broken wing some distance from the rest of the aircraft.

Russia's Emergencies Ministry said 96 people were aboard the government plane, including 88 members of a Polish delegation en route to commemorate Poles killed in mass murders in the town of Katyn under orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1940.

Twenty minutes later. I open my email account to find a message waiting from my colleague, Pawel Olesiak in Krakow, Poland. I am to travel there day-after-tomorrow to conduct three similar programs with him. I read his words:

Hi Lance, I'm very sorry to tell that, because of today tragedy of Poland: death of Polish president and 86 government people and Polish national deep mourning we have decided to cancel the Samurai game in this week. Any way we are waiting for you. On Monday we'll inform all of participants. Very, very sad Pawel


April 12, 2010. I arrive Krakow. The weather is forecast to be partly sunny looks to turn otherwise. I take a bus to the RELAX Pensjonat B&B, unpack and walk to the "Any Time" restaurant and I enjoy dinner. I take along a book, "Horse Soldiers", a true accounting of life's unpredictability in midst of intensity and change.

April 13, 2010. It is 10:00 a.m. Pawel Bernas, long-time friend and partner of Pawel Olesiak, arrives at the RELAX. "All work has been cancelled," he says. "Life is hard. But we are still alive. Let's enjoy what little time we have together."

April 14, 2010. Krakow. The past two days have been low key. We visited historic places, ancient fields and fortresses warred over for a thousand years. There is deep mourning. Conversations are quiet. All theaters are closed. Sports events cancelled. Regardless, we do train a lot of aikido. Poland is an interesting place: young people stand up on crowded busses to offer their seats to older folks; the cemeteries are full of flowers even on non-holidays; the economy is surprisingly vibrant and I'm told it's because Poland was a bit behind the rest of the world when financial crisis hit, so they came back quicker; people of all ages appear in great physical shape - biking, roller-blading, walking and running throughout the parks; cars are racy and small and efficient; mass transit is everywhere available; people freely offer help when and where needed; towns are a blend of the very new and the very old.

Today there is sadness. Except for movies of historical significance, TV stations are broadcasting almost nothing but news of the tragedy and aftermath. Reporters, news anchors, weather forecasters - all wear black - black suits, black ties, black dresses, black bows, black stockings. The clear message, though non-verbal: stop, reflect, and think. On Saturday, three days from now, the largest gathering of world leaders to visit Poland in the last few hundred years will descend on Warsaw. On Sunday their delegations will migrate to Krakow. A great sense of togetherness abounds amongst the Polish people not only with their countrymen, but also with the world at large. The wind seems to whisper, "We are not alone." And, there is excitement that the president of Poland's firm ally, the US, is guaranteed to be here.

There is word regarding the cause of the April 10th fatal crash. Smolensk air traffic controllers had told the pilot to not land. The Polish president did not want to be late to the ceremonies commemorating the Katyn killings - an historic event they were arriving so as to receive an official apology from Russia for the killing of 22,000 Polish military officers some seventy years prior. Whether the Polish president ordered his pilot to disregard air traffic controllers to not land, or whether the pilot, feeling pressure from within, took it upon himself to land, I don't know today. But the plane crashed because a rushed decision was made in the midst of fog.

Other news - I hear that a volcano is erupting in Iceland.

April 15, 2010. Yesterday early evening I heard Ronn Owens' KGO Radio 810 morning show (Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose) streaming live over the Internet. This morning I turn on Gene Burns, also KGO, doing his evening show and discussing "issues of the day." I don't remember either of them saying much if anything regarding the historical significance of events consuming most of Europe the last few days. But, I listen because on Monday, the 19th I will travel home. I open my laptop for today's electronic copy:

(Reuters) - A volcanic eruption in Iceland, which has thrown up a 6-km (3.7 mile) high plume of ash and disrupted air traffic across northern Europe, has grown more intense, an expert said on Thursday.

The eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier continued to spew large amounts of ash and smoke into the air and showed no signs of abating after 40 hours of activity, said Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland.

The cloud of ash from the eruption has hit air travel all over northern Europe, with flights grounded or diverted due to the risk of engine damage from sucking in particles of ash from the volcanic cloud.

"I guess that means my plane, too." Then I notice email from my travel agent informing me that my flight set for April 19th is cancelled and that the earliest flight available for my return to the US is now April 24, that is - if the skies allow.

April 17, 2010. I turn 60.

I decide to spend morning feeling the fullness of life as it pulses through the oldest parts of Krakow - a city now in full preparation for tomorrow's state funeral and burial honoring the country's president and first lady. I grab my camera (lest I forget what is here to be witnessed) and begin a long walk. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving. Lines are forming to special locations where tickets are available for those who will want to view the ceremonies telecast from near the Wawel. Police are everywhere. Large tractor-trailer trucks are delivering thousands of folding chairs for attending dignitaries who will not be able to fit inside the cathedral. Everywhere stand people with cameras. We are witnessing the world watching us. This truly is, as we used to say in the 1970's, "A Happening."

The Olesiak family has invited me to celebrate my birthday at their home for traditional beet soup lunch (my favorite), and cake. "A birthday you won't ever forget," they say. I celebrate so I won't forget.

Late afternoon. We walk Krakow Centrum. The crowds are bigger. Candles everywhere, as are the country's flags draped in black ribbon. No one is rushing to get somewhere else. We are all simply and calmly just here. The atmosphere is thick with respect and patience. As night falls the thin layer of volcanic ash miles above has turned the sun into a brilliant orange ball.

It has been two days since an airplane passed overhead. I am reminded of the eerie silence the air over the US held during the week following 9/11. Obama's flight has been cancelled. The ash has made too risky an Air Force One flight over Europe. I think again: "My plane too."

April 18, 2010. Three or four aircraft from outside Poland make it into Krakow - one or two from Russia, one from Ukraine and another carrying the president of Georgia apparently flying from the US and through a half dozen other countries determined o arrive, albeit late for the funeral but in time for the burial. I watch a Russian plane come and go as I live amidst "The Happening" with 100,000 others standing, sitting and kneeling in the large grassy field know as "Blonia". It is a seven-hour-long moment.

I have been thinking for the past eight days - the loss of one-thing ushers in the advent of another. Surely unseen and unreported economic and political forces are shifting within as well as outside the Polish borders and establishments, again just as the raw lava is shifting beneath Iceland. Sad and stunned as this population is, there are tremendous opportunities and risks at stake here that perhaps we won't see unfold for months or years. But it's a sure bet because a void has been created. And something always moves to fill a void.

April 19, 2010. Pawel Olesiak, Pawel Bernas and their associate, Adam, need to drive to Warsaw for a meeting. I ride with them. Perhaps I can catch a flight because some flights are still showing "departure on schedule". It takes us five hours to get to Warsaw. Along the way the radio reports, "Yesterday in America the US president played golf. Yesterday at the Wawel we buried ours." I feel embarrassed. Someone should have had better foresight. The Warsaw airport, though open this morning, is now closed. I wait for the Pawel's to have their meeting. We drive back to Krakow.

April 20 & 21, 2010. I am in Krakow waiting for the calendar to turn to April 24. I go to the airport and ask to "stand by". That phrase has no meaning.

April 22, 2010. Word arrives just after midnight. A flight is available on April 23. How did that happen? Who knows? Who cares? It happened.

April 23, 2010. I'm in Krakow at 10 am - and then - I am in Frankfurt mid day and then San Francisco and it's 6:30pm. My bus drops me in Petaluma, CA. It is 8 pm.

April 24, 2010. Sonoma County, California. This afternoon my 60th birthday party is scheduled, held over because of the well-planned trip to Europe, a party almost cancelled because of events in Russia, Poland and Iceland that changed the trip. My mother - 85 years young, yet fragile and with my sister - arrived into Petaluma last night at the same time as me. We decide this morning to attend the annual Petaluma "Better and Egg Days" festivities before heading off to the big party.

The sun is shining at the parade, but mom is feeling cold. She walks to stand in the shade. She faints and falls. She is fortunate. Though she is knocked out cold, only one rib, one wrist and one thumb are broken and one eye blackened. It could have been worse. She won't make the party. Tonight a hospital is her home, but she is alive.

In the ER we discover the cause. In the rush to enjoy the ceremonies of the day, on her terms rather than as nature required, mom made a simple decision to not drink water. The result - dehydration and accompanying drop in blood pressure. Not terribly unlike a pilot's decision made fourteen days prior to ignore a different set nature's signals. The rest - simply a matter of gravity, distance to landing, number of passengers aboard and, of course, the arbitrariness and capriciousness of fate.

Certainty and perpetual strength are illusions, as are the promises (and fears) of long lasting relationships and fortunes. We walk temporarily on the edge of life. We can demand entitlement, and pout for it when it eludes us, yet as with certainty and guarantee, entitlement is as whimsical as fog. Life is fragile. It changes every moment. It's as delicate as the thin layer of land that covers the molten raw energy churning below Earth's crust and the thin layer of air that rides just above that crust. It's as subtle as the intricate motions of the hand responsible for caressing the flight controls of an aircraft descending for a safe homecoming, and the spoken and unspoken words and glances that influence the hand touching throttle and playing the ailerons. It's as delicate as the finger that reaches for a cup of water but yields upon hearing an inner voice that whispers, "wait 'till later." Life's simple preciousness and profoundness happens everyday, as do the players that make up its games. Rarely are either predictable or guaranteed.


Winter 1975.

It is a sunny Sunday Honolulu afternoon. Thirty some of us sit in a room overlooking the expanse of Waikiki's shoreline.A young brash rich fellow full of youth's vinegar and confidence asks,"If you knew you had only one day of life remaining what would you do with that day?"Then he adds, "We should take a few minutes to write our answers to that question."

Summer 1991.

It is a dark northern California night.The Milky Way stretches brilliantly across the black sky. A number of us are preparing to go to bed. A wise elderly athletic gentleman poses the following in preparation for how we will engage with him in a training session that will occupy our next day:"As you leave tonight reflect on the people who have made up your life. Before we see each other tomorrow, sit quietly and write a letter as though it would be the last thing you would ever get to write. This may serve our purpose tomorrow. Don't send the letter. Just write it.As you do, honestly consider who you will write to, what you will say and why."

©Lance Giroux, May 2010

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