Passage II

There is a place where the weight of a boulder presses heavily into the earth, and where surrounding trees listen carefully for the faintest of stirrings beneath it. The crows pass by, occasionally alighting in the overhanging branches, and when they stop to release their coarse cry, I feel my breath slow with attentiveness. I do not know what lives beneath the boulder’s weight. I see the open throat of earth at its descending base and count the scattered footprints surrounding it. I listen carefully, but hear nothing. I sit in wait, quieting my breath and straining for stillness, but I see nothing. The snow is melting and the place is rife with remnants of decay still concealing the promise of new growth. I wait, knowing only, with keen curiosity, an imagined place I will never see.

I learned of my Grandfather’s passing while in transit; I knew he was dying when I left Malawi, it happened while I was in the airport in Nairobi, and I received news of it in Paris. By the time I reached Winnipeg, the funeral was already mostly arranged. I sat down for dinner with my family, having slept little more than an hour in the previous two days, and answered questions foggily, preoccupied and glancing furtively across the table at my Grandmother. She was still, and quiet, and only partly there. We moved around her stillness, and our voices moved around her silence, and I wondered what moved through her mind. I spoke reticently of tragedy in a far away place, and she, seeming farther away than even the Malawians I spoke of, remained quiet.

In Malawi, two weeks earlier, I waded cautiously along a flooded path to a small village called Naliwomba. Mud slid intrusively between my toes and I moved with unknowing steps through the dark water. It pooled warmly around my knees and relieved my skin of the sun’s harshness. Along with my friends, Samuel and Immanuel, I made my way through the flooded fields toward the village where we met a woman walking through the knee-deep water, her one hand gathering her skirt at her knees, and her other holding a bundle on her head. “No one has come,” she told us. Much of the village had been washed away, the school had been completely flooded, crops had been devastated, food stores destroyed, and possessions lost. People had died. Still, there had been no response from the government, no aid from any organizations, and no attention from the media. Even the chief had been killed when floodwaters suddenly rose against the door of his hut, pressing in from all sides until the walls caved in and overwhelmed him. His body was found several meters away.

There were many bodies lost to the floods in Malawi this year. In the coming months, many more will die as a result of malnutrition and disease. Some will be old. Some will be young men and women. Many will be children and infants. They will be regarded, in many cases, as tragic deaths, and to those who are left to mourn in sorrow and disbelief, these deaths will be tragic. But to the ones whose bodies die, the idea of tragedy will become meaningless, as will all their thoughts of sadness, suffering, and attachment. Their bodies will die, and their minds as well, and all that will be left will be the mystery.

My Grandfather was ninety-three when he died. He remained relatively healthy until the Monday before his death, when he went to bed mentioning a tickle in his throat. By the morning, he lacked the strength to stand. Two days later, he died. For a while now, I would ask my Grandparents how they were doing. Their response, curt, and delivered with a calm, tired smile was often, “we are ready for heaven.” Something had gone out of them in the previous years and as they watched many of their friends pass away, their attachment to this world seemed to diminish. Still, as my Grandfather lay dying, I imagine he experienced some fear.

Our bodies die. We know this. Our minds, at play within our brains, must also die. In the moment this happens, I imagine the circumstances surrounding our death will become irrelevant to whatever it is of us that remains. But before that moment, we too easily busy our minds with the myriad possible circumstances that could surround our deaths. We strive to avoid or prevent these circumstances, losing ourselves in the details, while avoiding death’s inevitability. The Chief drowns in a distant Malawian village and we assess his death as tragic due to the circumstances surrounding it. We occupy our thoughts of this man’s death with the events that precipitated it. My Grandfather dies in a hospital in Winnipeg, and we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, in a way, he had been waiting to die. We consider his health, but know that he was old, and, for an old man, the inevitability of death seems far easier to accept. We lose ourselves in the circumstances surrounding death, judging one as a tragedy, another as a relief. Some seem insignificant, and still others can seem cause for celebration. We lose ourselves in all the circumstances surrounding death while adamantly avoiding the reality of death itself, because at the heart of death we find a deep, resounding mystery that none of us can answer, and it is waiting for us. Our bodies die. But we are not our bodies. And nor are we are our minds. In death, our mystery is born.

I entered the room where my Grandmother stood dutifully by the body of her husband. I approached the lifeless face of a man I knew for his quiet distance, and, in later years, his subtle kindness, which, although readily available, was easy to miss. I wanted a simple moment with him as he had been, to tinker again with a leaky faucet, to throw a horseshoe, or to tell a joke worthy of one of his brief, soft chuckles. Only the body dies. I stood before this body, which had held my Grandfather for nearly a century, and I imagined my Grandfather’s gratitude for it, and the relief of his departure from it. His face, once alive with short sniffles, weepy, twinkling eyes, and soft smiles, was now static. And my eyes, unwilling to accept this stillness, played small tricks on me as I watched.

My Grandmother now waits to join him in Heaven. I do not know where that is. Meister Eckhart, when asked where we go when we die, replied, “nowhere.” Meaning, the dead are all around us. Free of their bodies, their thoughts, their emotions, and their futile ambitions, all that remains is the mystery to which we all belong. Our freedom in death is to simply be, not as our egos, composed carefully in our minds; not as our bodies, carefully regarded with criticism and vanity; but as our true, eternal selves, so easily forgotten amidst our temporal madness.

Having already carried the body of my Father’s Father to his grave earlier this year, I attended a second Grandfather to his final resting place. With quiet reverence, my siblings and I, along with my cousins, lowered the casket to the open hollow of the grave. We stood back and shook against the wind. Words were spoken, the observers slowly dispersed, and behind me, a man dressed as my grandfather would dress, standing as he would stand, leaned against the hearse and stated with frank assurance to the man standing next to him, “we all go the same way.”

The circumstances surrounding death are infinitely varied, but the rite of death itself is mandatory and inevitable. We all go the same way, but no one knows what happens next. No one knows where we go to, or what we go there as. And this is the mystery that informs us all, whether by our avoidance of it, or our deep contemplation of it. If death walks beside us, from the moment we are born, if death cannot be avoided or evaded, might we not be better off making friends with it?

The observers dispersed. The shiny metal frame of the hoist was collapsed and removed; the green, synthetic turf was rolled away; the plywood was lifted from the mud; the hearse drove off. What was left was a rectangular hollow, and at its bottom was the body of my grandfather, in a simple, wooden box. I waited, standing at the edge of it, regarding what I rarely have the opportunity to see, until, from behind a children’s playground, beyond a small hill, a tractor emerged from its place of hiding and made its indecorous entrance. I left the grave, and the cold pile of mud beside it, half-wishing for a shovel, and watched from a distance as my Grandfather’s body was buried.


Malawi Floods

Several weeks ago I was contacted by my friend Samuel Magombo from Malawi. I worked with him in November and December of 2013 documenting hunger inssues in Malawi and his efforts to address those issues. With the support of the work that I did for him, he has been able to find funding for the projects that he is involved with in Malawi. I was also able to raise $1500 for his projects this past summer during my Dollar a Day Diet.

Recently, the rainy season began in Malawi. The flooding this year has been extreme and has led to loss of homes, crops, and life. Samuel made a very ardent request that I return to Malawi as soon as possibly to document the current crisis, which will have a rippling effect over the rest of the year and likely longer.

He is able to cover my costs while on the ground, but I’ve had to provide my own airfare of $2000 and take a three week leave of absence from my work. To be honest, I do not have the money, and will be paying off my credit card for the rest of the year. This seems insignificant when compared to the devastation that Malawians are now experiencing in such an acute way; but it remains a reality for me. I will be leaving on February 17th and will remain in Malawi for 3 weeks.

I recognize that we all have our own financial burdens in addition to a responsibility to those that depend on us in a more immediate way. However, if you feel compelled and willing to support the work that I’m doing in Malawi I would be grateful. I am pursuing connections with organizations working in Malawi that may be in a position to pay for images, but if I am unable to establish any payment for my work I’ll be operating at a deficet.

Here is a recent article from Al Jazeera describing the current situation in Malawi:

Any other help in terms of connections would also be largely appreciated. If you are interested in supporting Samuel Magombo’s direct response to the crisis you can do so by following this link:

Thank you for reading,



Day 24 – Decision Fatigue

A few months ago my friend shared an article with me from The New York Times about Decision Fatigue. Essentially, as a person goes through his or her day, making decisions as they go along, their ability to make sound decisions eventually begins to diminish. This isn’t because of a lack of character. The brain just gets tired, like any muscle would. At one point, the article cites the grocery store checkout aisle, where stressed out individuals stand in line waiting to pay for the dozens of decisions they just made. Available to them in that moment of exhaustion is a special arrangement of chocolate bars and candy, just when their sense of judgement is at its weakest. The brain is ready to resign to cravings and escape. It wants relief. It wants to be reckless after so much careful scrutiny.

I’ve had a stressful few days, wrestling with challenging decisions, and trying to discern the next step in my life. Stress and hunger make poor companions and I’ll admit that I was tempted to abandon my Dollar a Day Diet in order to cope with the accumulative stress. Knowing that hunger – a temporary and merely physical affliction – was contributing to my levels of stress, did nothing to alleviate that stress. The decisions felt more difficult. The stress felt more unbearable. I did not abandon my intention but it did give me something to think about.

We all experience stress at various points in our lives, and I wouldn’t claim that one situation is more stressful than another. There are many factors, and there are many different methods of coping available to many different people. A person in my city earning $300,000 every year might experience more daily stress than a person in Malawi earning only $300 every year. They might experience stress for different reasons, but it’s a hard thing to quantify.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that stress is a lot harder to deal with when your stomach is empty and you don’t know if you’ll have enough to eat for the rest of the day. Maybe Malawians are used to these physical sensations and it has less of an impact on their feelings of stress, but maybe not. I know that I am not used to it. I get a little grumpy when I’m hungry. Sometimes I feel stressed out and then I realize after eating that I wasn’t actually that stressed out but just hungry. 

I don’t mean to diminish the stress that is experienced in the midst of affluence. Certainly there’s a lot of stress buzzing around between all of our heads. I don’t know that it gives much perspective to say that there are some who are stressed by much more morbid decisions, like whether or not they are able to feed all of their children. This doesn’t make me feel any less stressed out about my own life, but it does remind me that affluence or poverty do not determine peace of mind. Peace does not come from having more than I need. But in knowing that I have enough I can experience peace. And in sharing with others I can have peace.

I would ask this of you: if you are able, spend a day eating only a dollar of food. And, if you are able, take the money you would have spent on a meal out, and give it to an organization addressing hunger issues. Donations to The New Life Center, where I spent time in Malawi, can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar donated goes directly to empowering Malawians to experience the life of abundance we all deserve.



Day 14

As I reach the end of my second week I remain cognizant of my unavoidably privileged position. I’ve been eating less than a dollar’s worth of food for the last fourteen days and still I haven’t come close to the experience of hunger that the majority of people in this world experience every day. I know I will eat again today, I know I will eat tomorrow, and the next day and the next day and the next. In 16 days I could go back to eating whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m not starving.

On one hand, I think, maybe a dollar a day isn’t so bad. But then I note that my weight has dropped a few pounds. My energy has been low. I’m less able to focus. And I imagine what it would be like to survive like this if I had to spend ten hours in the fields each day, if I had a family depending on me, or if I was sick. A dollar a day might be survivable for a time, but is it sustainable? The truth is, I don’t want to return to eating in excess. I don’t want to return to eating more than my fair share of what this earth can provide for our current population and the generations to come. I want to eat what makes sense on a global scale, not what I’m privy to merely because I live where I live and was born to the family I was born to. I don’t know what this will look like, but I want to imagine what it might look like.

I will continue now as I am, eating less than I’m accustomed to, with the intention of standing in solidarity with the majority world poor, but I will not know what it truly means to be hungry. Even if I continued living like this month after month I would still not truly know how hunger, for many, is not experienced as a mere nuisance, but as a deepening fear, and a gnawing pain.

There are many reasons to understand why some are given their choice of food in excess and why others are struggling just to survive. But none of these reasons offer an excuse. None of them justify such a gross imbalance. Hunger is not some mysterious disease that we are unable to cure. It is not an enigma waiting to be solved. The problems around hunger on a global scale are interminably complicated, but when we have the power to offer a meal to someone who would otherwise starve, or, better yet, the power to enable that person to provide themselves with continual meals, we possess a simple solution to a simple problem and we have little excuse not to act. 

As I continue this experiment in hunger solidarity, intending to play my small part in improving the lives of other by living more responsibly with the excesses of wealth available to me, my hope is that others will also set their own similar intentions. To become involved with what I’m doing, send me a message at, or donate directly to The New Life Center in Malawi through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar goes directly to successfully improving the lives of Malawians who struggle with hunger daily.

Thanks for reading,



An Experiment in Hunger Solidarity

I’m taking a brief hiatus from my writing at Sons of Ash. I’m in the middle of a thirty day Dollar a Day Diet and I want to focus my attention there. I’ve been posting at and hope to raise funds for The New Life Center in Malawi.

I’ve written a little about my time in Malawi and my relationship with humanitarian work on my post Our Kin, published here at Sons of Ash.

Thanks for your interest.


Our Kin


I planted a garden in my yard by the lake. I tore up the earth, shook the soil and the worms from the roots of the grass, ran my fingers through the dirt until it was clean, and then deposited rows of vegetable seeds across the back of it. In the front of the garden I planted broccoli plants, tomato plants, and onion plants. I took water from the lake and soaked the soil until it was dark and muddy and when the mosquitoes became unbearable I went inside. The following morning I went out and discovered that all the broccoli plants had been eaten and half of the tomato plants were torn out of the ground. I was a little disappointed, but mostly amused. Half a dozen animals ran through my mind as I tried to determine the culprit. A chipmunk scurried out from beneath the steps leading down to the boathouse. I decided he was too small. I recalled the skunk that had passed through the yard a few days before. I sniffed the air. Nothing. I went back inside. The Internet told me it was slugs. I was doubtful. Later that day my partner alerted me to the presence of a deer standing contemplatively over the remaining onion plants. I ran out the door to chase it away, not mean-heartedly, and I watched it run into the neighbor’s yard where it stood, dumbfounded and innocent.

I live a privileged life. When I fail at gardening I can laugh at it, knowing that I am not at all dependent on success. I have access to nutritious food, clean water, and safe shelter. I have this every day and I never question it. In fact, I have access to such an abundance of food that I can regularly consume more calories than I even need. I can choose food that is taxing on my body and on the environment, and I can consume it in excess. I can let food spoil and then discard it. My home is large enough to shelter at least eighteen people. I live there alone with my partner. I have so much clean, drinkable water that I can fill my toilet with enough of it to keep a person alive for three to four days. I urinate in it, and then flush it away. I have so much clean water I can do this several times a day. In a week, I can use enough clean, drinkable water, just by flushing my toilet, to keep a six-year old child alive for eight months. This makes me privileged. Even before counting all the extras of luxury, pleasure, and comfort, I live a life that only a small percentage of the world will ever be able to experience.

I traveled to Malawi in November of 2013. It was not my first time in Africa. It was not my first time witnessing poverty or living within an impoverished context. I spent only three weeks in the country, during which time I traveled to several hospitals, rural villages, and urban homes to photograph, discuss, and hear stories about the effects of poverty. Malawi is ranked 170 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. Their GNI per capita is $320, meaning the average income is $0.88 per day. This is the average. Many live on far less and some have no income at all, surviving only on the maize that they can grow for themselves. For the 85% of Malawians living in rural areas, and for many Malawians living in urban areas, their crops keep them alive. When the rainy season is delayed or when drought replaces the rainy season all together, many Malawians do not survive. By the time the rainy season does come, the food supply is low and the hospitals fill with malnourished and starving children.

I grew up watching World Vision commercials with a sick feeling in my gut. When I turned nineteen I went to Ghana for six months where I lived in a small, rural village and did my best to experience the life of a poor man. I had a simple life and I loved it. And then I had the luxury of returning to the complications of excess wealth and living again in its familiar and comfortable context. I went back to Ghana twice in my early twenties, first to initiate a small, community development project in the village where I had lived, and later to document several stories in other parts of the country. The community development project had partly succeeded and partly failed by the time I returned in 2009. I sat in an honored place under the neem trees with everyone that had been involved and they nervously confessed their failures and expressed their fear of my return. I felt heartbroken. They feared that I would come back and see the vacant poultry farm we had built, that I would react with anger at their failure, and that I would demand the return of the money I had given them. They were relieved to know that I was not angry, that I was disappointed, but not with them. They were relieved, and my heart sunk recognizing the power they had given me, which I did not want. They owed me nothing and I owed them far more.

I have not been back to Ghana since then. I have wanted to, but have often been paralyzed by the confusion that fills my mind when I consider the word “help”. I always remember Dickens’ claim that charity serves only to further degrade the impoverished. My mind fills with all the reasons why helping others is an impossible task: handouts create dependency; NGOs are untrustworthy; money corrupts; my desire to help is actually selfish; it is arrogant to think that I can improve their lives; they are better off without our interference. These thoughts offer valid and cynical perspectives, and they fail to excuse my idleness.

I sat down at a small wooden table in a rural village in Malawi. Acts, the son of my host, sat with me. “Dear God,” he prayed, with a tone of sincerity that immediately arrested me, “We thank you for this food. We know that it comes from you and we are grateful”. His words were simple, but the depth of them went far beyond any feeling of gratitude I have ever felt. For the next three days we ate together and before every meal his prayer, and the tone with which he prayed it, was the same. Whether it was tea and bread or a roasted cob of maize, this young man prayed with an understanding of hunger that I will likely never know. His gratitude expressed an awareness of the necessity and the unparalleled value of food, which our privileged society has completely forgotten. I ate with him quietly and did my best to understand the meaning behind every bite we took, to experience it as precious life and not a means for pleasure and personal satisfaction. I tried to understand what food could mean to someone who had grown up in its scarcity.

Many of us have grown tired of poverty. The child starving in Africa has become a cliché for which we have amassed dozens of dismissive and cynical responses, which let us off the hook. We have become so involved in the dramas of our own lives and in the spiritual poverty that keeps us there, that we fail to see beyond ourselves. We fail to remember that although the poor may always be among us, the suffering of others is not something to resign to. Poverty exists and we, the privileged, exist to respond to it. The child starving in Africa is a cliché. But the actual, individual children, who are starving in Africa, are not clichés. They are real people in need of help. And our lives are inextricably connected to theirs.

I know that the clean, drinkable water in my toilet means nothing to a child dying of cholera halfway around the world. I cannot viably bottle it and send it on a plane to save her life. There is too much imagined separation, too much complication, and too much uncertainty to feel fully confident in my response to poverty. I have wondered, even in the moments when I am walking through their villages, even when I am looking at the frail body of a starving child through my camera lens, who am I to interfere? Who am I to think that I have a place here? I walk between their mud homes. I pass the night on their mud floor. I eat the food grown in their muddied fields. And I wonder what it means to help, and if that is even my place. I philosophize and theorize, plaguing myself with paralyzing doubts. I fear that I will leave an unsavory mark, or that I will make a mistake in my desire to help that is ultimately more destructive than healing, and while I remain idle and in fear their children are going hungry, or are severely malnourished, and many of them are dying.

The idea that my life is separate from the lives of Malawians, or Ghanaians, or any of the 54,000 children living below the poverty line in my own province, is a convenient and powerful illusion. It excuses me from action and responsibility. It permits me to indulge in abundance while others go without. It enables me to live my life in ignorance of the rippling effect that my life-choices are having on those around me and in far-off places. I flush my toilet here, or I do not, and still a child in Malawi is without clean water. But the fact that I have a seemingly endless source of clean water and he has none at all is a call to action that we would be careless to ignore.

Our separation is a convenient illusion. We have planted it in our minds like a hedge around our privileged lives believing that it will keep us from experiencing the poverty we have witnessed in the lives of others. But our imagined separation does not exist. We are as connected to the impoverished as we are to our own children, to our own mothers, to our own partners. Every child is our child. Every woman is our sister, and our mother, and our grandmother. Every man is our kin. So long as we continue to live under the illusion that we are responsible only for ourselves, our world will never heal. And if our world never heals, how can we expect to find peace in our own lives?

I have felt the sensation of hunger, but I have never felt afraid that it will result in my death. I have seen mothers holding their dying children, but I have not known their pain. Real hunger is something I have only ever witnessed. Real hunger is an idea that I can only imagine. When I get lost in the idea of hunger I do nothing. I become paralyzed or confused by the politics, or the potential of failure, or my own misguiding cynicism. I become paralyzed by possibilities of my own imaginings while the reality remains the same. I do not know the answer to this reality, but I do believe that it is more than idle disregard. I do believe that a real response is needed and not just by a few, but by everyone.

– C