The Mountain Beyond This Mountain

by - 3:56 PM

On the 16th of May, the month of Ramadan began. The people of this land and many other lands all around the world engage in a period of fasting (roza in Dari) from sun up to sun down. Many will rise as early as 2AM to prepare an early meal while it is still dark before the sun rises, before the full day of fasting commences. I just found out today that one of my most diligent students would wake at 2.30AM and come to school as early as 4AM – with special permission – so that he can practice his piano music in the early hours before school started at 7:30AM. (Can you see my jaw drop?) I was so amazed by that level of discipline and dedication; I’m not sure if I’ll find it anywhere else. Of course, music-making is a most unconventional activity in these parts of the world. None of my students have the luxury of owning an acoustic piano at home. If they have some means, they might have a keyboard, or a digital piano, at best. Needless to say, their hard-work and commitment to music astounds me. Some of them come early in the morning to practice, others stay back late after school. I think about the privilege I’ve had growing up to own an acoustic piano. My family isn’t ‘rich’, but my parents were willing to work hard to give me a music education. They saw the importance of music-making in intellectual, spiritual and social life. I had the opportunity to go for piano lessons, and later, study music at a conservatoire; I could come home and spend hours practicing on my piano in the comfort of a home. Some of my students don’t have a home, a family they can return to. When I think of them I often feel this deep sense of responsibility – and my eyes fill with tears – as I think about how hard it must be for them not only to risk their lives doing music, but to fight this uphill battle to be the some of the first ones to wage this fight in their generation.

One of my wonderful students came to give me a fresh rose again today. I can hardly bear the sight and feeling of such sweetness! Each day, I feel such a synergy of hearts as I have never experienced before. Because of this synergy, I do not feel weary. I may feel tired, but that’s just from simple things like a full, busy day or a sometimes feeling confined to my room, thanks to the volatile security situation. I define the feeling of tiredness differently from weariness. The state of the latter is something like being so bored or burnt out to your bones that you have no means of being energized by anything else except to escape that situation. On the other hand, tiredness is a good thing, because it shows that you have simply enjoyed a good, hard day of work in a challenging environment – filled with moments of doing, being, and engaging with the world – so much so that when you get home, you are happy for the stillness, a hot cup of tea, simple cooking, good reading, and talking to God about the beautiful moments you dare not forget… then finally, for your head to fall into a restful sleep at a nice, early hour. (For me, it’s something like 9pm here! Quite unbelievable, considering I used to stay up past midnight back home.)

A day filled with good work is just as much a day filled with new learning. I had a memorable jam session learning the Afghan ‘dal’ drum on one of the days when I walked past a room of six young percussionists. They looked like they were mucking around when they should have been rehearsing. I stepped in and they immediately straightened up with their cheeky smiles. I asked for all of their names. I echoed back their names to make sure I got them right and began to address each of them repeatedly by name for the entire session. None of them spoke English. So I motioned for them to position themselves to play me a percussion work they’re supposed to be practicing and gave them a count-in in Dari: Amadast? Yak, du, sey, char! (Ready? One, two, three, four!) After that I asked one of the boys to teach me how to play his ‘dal’, a resonant Afghan drum you placed on your lap as you sit crossed legged with one leg firmly tucked over the other knee. Each student turns to demonstrate a rhythm for me to drum in return. It was so much fun and a lot of hysterical laughter as we tried to understand each other in few words but many musical rhythms. These moments are eternally special for me.

In one of my group classes this week, I could see tired restlessness in their faces and felt I needed to bring some inspiration to their day. On the spot, I wrote down four qualities I wanted them to bring to my class:

1.     Focus
2.    Smiles
3.    Creativity
4.    Respect

The smiles on their faces were priceless in that moment when I asked them if they understood what I was asking for – they did. Some of the students who were better at English helped me to translate those words into Dari.

Sometimes I wonder, is it possible to become accustomed to an absurd reality if you immerse yourself in it for long enough? I believe it is not only possible, but dangerously inevitable. Against an unrelenting tide of ruthless oppression, it requires no small measure of courage and a heck load of moral fortitude to remember who you are and why you were placed somewhere for the unique reason that you were created for. But what happens to the ones who are born into such an era of suffering and hostility? They have known nothing else. For an outsider like myself, I have the benefit of safe-keeping memories, lessons and treasured moments of better times and places that I’ve dwelt in before this time. I know what Hope feels like; I have experienced simple freedoms; I understand the power of Truth, because I have held it in my hands and my heart. But what if you have never seen the vast ocean, or the faint light of dawn? What if you have always been caged in the four dank walls of unjust treatment? What if you have ever only read history books re-telling generations of vengeance, and urging you to perpetuate it? What if you have never heard the Truth that you are not a forgotten speck, but you were created for a purpose? How would you stand up in protest against an absurd and otherwise unacceptable reality if you never knew the possibility of this other infinitely better reality?

These are questions that I am in the process of working out as I live, make music, and ponder daily in my space of solitude here. I know I am being prepared for far more difficult places and circumstances. Sometimes I feel that after this season of my life, I really am ready to go anywhere else I am called. I’m boundlessly excited and at the same time slightly terrified. I feel a weighty yet promising burden of responsibility being laid upon my heart. It is not a regrettable burden, but a burden of high privilege that requires an expansion of heart for a deeper capacity to love, and a spirit of humility to serve. My prayer is that I will be forged in a furnace that expands my heart and humbles my spirit to love others in the depth of despair, wherever and whenever I am called upon to respond in grace and truth. This calling to be who we really are is not reserved for any special kind of people, but for you as much as it is for me and anyone else. Oh what an invitation and challenge to embark on an odyssey of faith with our God that takes us not only beyond our door, but over this present looming mountain, and into the deep valley – where the foothills of the mountain towering beyond this mountain await!

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