Having Seen Life Itself

by bicyclemark 0 Comments
Having Seen Life Itself
Photo by Michael Stephens / Flickr

If there is one word to describe the tone of this website over the past 2 or 3 years I would choose the word “less”. Less writing. Less podcasts. Less photos. Less activity. Less experimentation. Without knowing exactly why or when it started, I seem to have gotten busy elsewhere. Offline life? Perhaps. Work life? Often. Somewhere along the line, my little corner of the internet that is now well over 13 years old, was no longer my obsession or even my canvas. And while that may be a good thing, to focus one’s energy elsewhere on new projects. It has also at times felt like an outlet that was missing from my life and my work. A void that would surely get filled somehow over time, but I do wonder if any of it matched the magic that once was right here in this space you are reading.

An unlikely source to trigger me back into writing: Roger Ebert. If you don’t know who that is, because of course I realize the world is larger than the United States or its sometimes global cultural tentacles, Ebert was a very prolific American film critic who reviewed films for the Chicago Sun-Times for an incredible number of years. In his career he saw and reviewed thousands upon thousands of films and got many accolades for his writing. He is credited for making cinema for accessible for regular people, and shedding light on emerging talent when others would not.

What These Beds Have Seen

by bicyclemark 4 Comments
What These Beds Have Seen

When I arrived at the former monastery, roughly ten days ago, I knew by the unkempt and run down buildings, it would not be a pretty sight inside. Despite the numerous buildings that made up the compound, most were locked up and seemingly out of use for several decades.  Only one building, just beyond the chapel, looked like it was still in use, as families with young children huddled around the visitors entrance, telling stories and discussing who their children resemble.  All the adults have the same concerned, uncomfortable look on their faces, as if to say – I can’t wait until they day I don’t have to come to this place anymore. 

HandsThe old sign reads Pulmonology C and as I walk down the odd smelling hallway I notice that in fact it isn’t a hallway. If I jump I can see over the temporary walls into the makeshift rooms that have been created from what is one massive room where I can imagine some 25 years ago everyone was just thrown in all together. Not that much has changed, I estimate, only now there are 6 beds to a room, each room with its own thin 2 meter high walls that allow every hacking cough, fart, or moan to be heard by everyone in the entire wing.

As I walk into my grandfather’s room, I quickly glance at the 5 other beds and their occupants; a young man sitting in hospital pajamas reading the newspaper casually next to his bed. An old man looking quite sick, reaching to over to grab a glass of water, a middle aged man wearing a breathing tube under his nose fast asleep, an older gentleman wearing reading glasses sitting up in bed eating a yogurt, and a charming little old man who has fallen sleep while sitting in a comfy chair next to his bed.  And there among the very sick and the not so sick, lay my grandfather, 92 years old, fighting what is certain to be his last battle against pneumonia and a body that is starting to shut down on him. Without his glasses, his teeth, and his loud greeting- I hardly recognize him.  But as I approach he greets me, making a quiet little joke about how more days in this place and his beard will be just as long as mine.

The next few days this became a ritual. Take the long drive to the old hospital and sit with grandpa. Tell him stories about what vegetables we have managed to grow in his garden and who called to send him kisses and wish him a speedy recovery.  Eventually it would be jello time, the only thing my grandfather seemed to take pleasure in – “It refreshes me”, he would say, as he slurped down another spoon of the trembling red treat, which would usually be followed by a coughing fit.  Day after day my mother and I would do this, and with each passing day he would speak less, open his eyes less, and eventually lose interest in the refreshing afternoon snack.

In just one week in such a place, you notice everything going on in the rooms and beds all around.  Who seems to be getting better. Who gets lots of visitors. Who screams and moans in pain in such a coarse voice that you find yourself running outside to escape that horrible sound every 30 minutes. And above all, you notice who disappears and why.

Hospital“The man who was sitting up in his bed yesterday breathing heavily with the machine hooked up to him, where did he go?” I asked a nurse.  “Where do you think he went?” the man answers me in very matter of fact “use your brain” tone.  The man who had been in the corner bed for only three days had held court on his first day, sitting in a chair not attached to any machines as numerous visitors came to chat with him.  By the third day he was in bed with an oxygen mask, not chatting to anyone and only his daughter and son-in-law by his side.  That night, he died.

This story happened three more times that first week. One was an pale looking old man I had helped to reach his water. The next day, his bed was empty, clean sheets awaiting the next patient. I didn’t need to ask the nurse, I could tell by everyone’s behavior what had happened. By the fifth day the gentleman with the reading glasses, who had so often been walking the halls in his slippers and often seemed concern about the well being of my grandfather, he was now in bed with an oxygen mask. His pajama top was opened, revealing his bare chest pumping in an out like it was out of control.  He sat in bed for hours, it looked as though any minute he would finally get a handle on breathing, but that minute never came.  As I said goodbye to him that day, I smiled and wished him a better day tomorrow. He answered with a stale look in his eyes and gave me the thumbs down.  Again I shouted to him and put my fist in the air, “you can do this, I wish you strength!” Still breathing heavily he shook his head no – pointed to himself and then pointed solemnly towards the ground like things would only be getting worse.  The next day his bed was empty, the nurse was busy gathering some of his personal items in a bag.

Strangely enough the weakest looking person in the room is the one who is still there, my grandfather.  Everyday he is a little less there, and every day a new person takes up whatever empty bed there is.  The charming old man who often fell asleep in his chair was sent home.  On his way out, still wearing hospital pajamas with his dress shoes, he mumbled best wishes and good health to all as he ran towards the exit. My grandfather, now heavily medicated and rarely lucid, did not even notice. Maybe its for the best, as he told me on his first day in the pulmonology wing, “I this place mark, you either get better or you go crazy.”

Ahmad and Karam: A Syrian Message for the World

by bicyclemark 8 Comments
Ahmad and Karam: A Syrian Message for the World
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Deir ez-Zor in April 2013, photo credit Karam Jamal.

In 2011 Ahmad and Karam, two university students from Deir ez-Zor took to the streets as part of the mass protest movement demanding an end to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.  Their protest was met by violent reprisals, mass arrests, and soon war broke out and the government undertook a full siege of the city.  Since that time, these two friends have become a reporting team, collecting videos and still images as their families and their community have been decimated by war.

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Destruction in Deir ez-Zor, April 2013. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Mhidi and Karam Jamal

Last month I had the pleasure of spending time with Ahmad and Karam in Turkey, as they briefly came over the border to participate in a media workshop.  Over the course of several days, they explained in painful detail, the reality of life in Syria today. The tragedy, the struggle, and the absurdity of the war zone that their home has become.  Despite grave danger and personal injuries they have already suffered, they two men remain dedicated to their mission as reporters with a message about their country, in the hope that people around the world are listening.

Links:

If you wish to get in touch with either Ahmad and Karam, find them via those links or contact me directly.

The Coincidences and the Big Picture

by bicyclemark 0 Comments

I’m probably a very annoying person to deal with on a daily basis, especially when I’m doing my typical “big picture” speeches and appreciating the life I’ve carved out for myself knowing full well how many do not get to enjoy, travel, try… as I have. I’m not sure what turn of events, what influential person or piece of media that I ever heard/read/watched, that made me someone that continuously comes back to one conclusion: despite some slim odds and all the factors that could have played out differently, I have arrived (as have so many of us) at this point in my life doing things I love to do, having people in my life (near and far) that I’m honored to know, and in reasonably good shape as far as the essentials of life go. Although much of the world seems so busy and eager to move past these types of observations, just as quickly as someone might be about to click away from this text, I think the ability to see it – especially at difficult moments- is something that needs nurturing.

Can everything change suddenly? – Of course. Are there worries? -I’m a citizen journalist in the year 2012; there are worries. Have there been set backs and tragedies? I think we’ve all had them, though again I feel fortunate having learned about and seen how bad things can be and are for so many in this world. Beyond all that – is it enough to just dwell on the big picture of fantastic coincidences that have led to a certain degree of satisfaction on a personal and work level? Probably not.

But still, as so many astute observers have stated, there is much beauty to be seen and experienced in this world. Sometimes it is right there in front of us, and we choose not to look or we lack the ability to see it, especially during moments of weakness. Think about the series of events that took place before you read this text today, and all the other factors that could have stopped you from reading it, but somehow didn’t come in to play this time.  I believe there is something to be said for the good chain reactions of life.  Maybe it is the power to recognize them and enjoy them, that helps us individually and collectively, find responses to the many challenges and problems of our world.