Inspired by the life of her son Dan Eldon, a Reuters photojournalist who was stoned and beaten to death in Somalia in 1993 when he was 22 years old, Kathy Eldon co-founded the Creative Visions Foundation. It is a hub where creative activists (like her son) turn ideas into positive actions to build social movements that impact the world. (Disclosure: I am a board member of Creative Visions Foundation.)
Kathy is also the author of In the Heart of Life, her memoir that was released this month (Harper One). After I read the book, I immediately sent Kathy an email filled with unedited thoughts straight from my head to the keyboard:
“I finished In the Heart of Life late last night. It is a gift and will be a gift to all who read it. I was moved, touched and unsettled. I cried, smiled and thought. I felt lucky to be let into your life – a real and raw life – a book that is authentic and transparent. I felt your pain and suffering – the pain and suffering that happened years before your son Dan’s tragic death. I tried to stay removed – to not internalize it – but that was impossible. It brought up every emotion, made me think, took me to places I had thought were buried and gave me permission to always live my life. You’ve inspired me…”
I asked Kathy to answer this question: “What are the top five calamities, catastrophes, disasters and disruptions that were critical in your growth and enabled you to become who you are meant to be and live a life of joy? Lessons others can learn from.”
1) Apartheid South Africa
When I was 16, I was thrilled when selected for a seven-month stay as a foreign exchange student in South Africa. However, marooned in an Afrikaans-speaking school in Bloemfontein (which bore an uncanny resemblance to my hometown, Cedar Rapids, Iowa), I spent my time learning a language that sounds like you’re spitting up phlegm. Even worse, meeting black Africans was strictly prohibited in Apartheid South Africa, and my host family was under surveillance by the secret police because “Oom” Bram, Uncle Bram, had defended Nelson Mandela and freedom fighters during the notorious Rivonia Trial. He managed to save those convicted from execution, although they were condemned to life imprisonment. Tragically, Bram was also punished for his radical beliefs. Accused of being a Communist, he was also sentenced to life imprisonment and died as a result of the harsh treatment he received in jail.
Living in South Africa shattered my Midwestern illusions about life, but the experience prepared me for a lifetime as a journalist, author and filmmaker, determined to tell stories about courageous individuals like my first hero, Bram Fischer, whose fearless stand for justice forever disrupted my life.
I was only 24 when I had my first child, Dan, an unexpected development for a determined Wellesley grad whose only ambition was to get out of college and change the world. Suddenly, after marrying an Englishman and moving to London, the only thing I was changing was diapers. Living in a dreary British suburb, with no money for babysitters, and another baby on the way, I had to reinvent myself as a creative hometrepreneur, creating work I could manage without leaving the house. I sewed my clothes, wrote children’s books and produced toys and jewelry to sell to my neighbors. When the kids were in nursery school, I worked as a substitute teacher at the American School in London, overseeing noisy middle-school kids who thought art class was recess.
A loud voice, eyes at the back of my head, as well as a creative approach to problem-solving and the ability to deal with just about anyone are qualities that have served me well since my frustrating years as mother, teacher and wife.
Removed from all that was safe and familiar, in search of a self I had somehow lost along the way, after leaving my husband I developed a devastating blood condition that nearly killed me. After slowly recovering, I was still filled with guilt and shame, and faced a bleak and uncertain future. But then, by chance, I met a remarkable Ismaili woman, Zarina Dyer, who introduced me to Shakti Gawain’s book, Living in the Light. By page three I was hooked on the author’s description of a place that “all of us must pass through at one time or another, what mystics call ‘the piercing of the veil of illusion.’”
“It’s the point when we truly realize that our physical world is not the ultimate reality and begin to turn inward to discover the true nature of existence. The moment may co-incide with a sense of reaching rock-bottom, but then we may fall through a trapdoor into a bright new world, the world of spiritual truth. “Only by moving fully into the darkness can we move through it into the light.”
Over the next few weeks I met frequently with Zarina, who urged me to be patient with myself. “Everything happens in its own time,” she said, adding, “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”
After my serendipitous encounter with that unlikely teacher I realized that I had to find the trapdoor and allow myself to fall into it. After a terrifying
descent into profound darkness, one day I was able to emerge again, blinking in the unaccustomed light, aware that once again, my dreams of hope, purpose – and even love – were possible again.
4) Death Of My Son
My son Dan became a photojournalist for Reuters in Somalia, where he covered a devastating famine and a bloody civil war. When he and three friends were murdered by a mob, I descended into a downward spiral. Wracked with guilt at having encouraged him to become a journalist, I knew I was to blame for his death at the age of 22.
My journey to understand why my son died to tell an important story – and why I had to live to tell one – was to shape the next 20 years of my life. Over time, thankfully, I have discovered that Dan’s creative, activist spirit, as transmitted through 17 journals he left behind, has inspired countless others to believe they, too, can lead more exciting, adventurous and purposeful lives. Because Dan was killed, we launched the Creative Visions Foundation which celebrates “creative activists” like Dan, who are telling stories that need to be told about problems that need to be solved. Since 2004, we have worked with more than 200 artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers whose powerful, positive spirits ignite sparks in others, bringing new light, life and purpose to our world.
Recently, after a long patch when my husband had to deal with a deadly form of cancer, and then the after-
effects of the harsh cure, a new chemo treatment resulted in remission for Michael, a delightful disruption from the endless round of blood transfusions and weariness that has accompanied him for more than three years. Now, we don’t take anything for granted, instead we focus on creating vivid memories of moments, hours and days that will remain with us always, a reminder of the joy of now, and the preciousness of each second we have on earth.