By Stan Stalla | Dec 09, 2009
Photo by: Stan Stalla

Standing in a small crowd, drinks in hand, someone asked me yesterday what I had planned for post-Sri Lanka. I gave it a moment's thought, then started reeling off my usual wish list: fly a plane; write a book; compose music; explore southward into the African continent and northward toward Pakistan's border with China. To the list, I might have added: learn to cook; hold a grandchild in my arms; plant an apple orchard and till my own field of vegetables. They said, "Oh, you have your bucket list!"

However, with my 60th birthday only 18 months plus a few weeks from now, my sense of time is shifting. The other day, it dawned on me that my future is no longer a youthful realm of endless possibilities, but rather a finite set of to-be-discovered milestones.

Thinking about the mysteries of life, I'm reminded of two discoveries from recent travels: Ethiopian opals and Mannar Island spider conchs. If you go into one of the tumble-down bric-a-brac shops on the streets of Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, it's likely you'll come across, on a dusty shelf, a careless pile of irregular, knobby grey-brown rocks the size of goose eggs. A slight tap of a rock hammer, and the nodule splits to reveal its core. Sometimes, it's quite plain. Once in a while, that little hammer tap brings to light a breathtaking prism of natural beauty, kept secret for the geologic time it took to form.

Measured in decades, rather than geologic epochs, spider conchs also hide a magical interior. I spent one lazy afternoon on the beaches of Mannar Island in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. While my driver negotiated a purchase of dried fish with local merchants, I took pictures of sea birds and fishing boats. Strewn along the beach were a variety of seashells. Half-buried in a pile of wet sand and beach detritus were two spider conchs coated with muck. Back in Colombo, I set them on my balcony to cure in the sun. Now, four months later, the accumulated crust of sand and algae has begun to peel. The uncovered surface is a pearly pink on the side of the opening, while a pattern of whorls and ridges adorns the back. And, placed next to my ear, I'll be able to hear the Mannar surf for decades to come.

Though my petro-geologist friend Dave may think in terms of eras (Mesozoic and Paleozoic), I tend to focus on the 10.5 hours that separate South Asia from North America's East Coast. Sometimes, being almost half a day ahead of headquarters has its advantages. A Tuesday noon deadline for a report due in Washington, D.C., allows me to work into Tuesday night here in Colombo. Last Thursday, I was able to enjoy my Thanksgiving Day, then vicariously extend its celebration into the wee hours of Friday, as family and friends from Maine to Florida wrote e-mails about family gatherings.

Unless it's a déjà vu experience, for most of us, time is linear. Whether measured in millions of years (petroleum exploration and Ethiopian opals) or decades (conch shells and the passing of a human life) or hours (report deadlines and extended holidays), one can look in two directions: backwards and forwards, past and future.

Stirred by memories of a weekly ritual of bygone years, this morning I walked to the nearby Catholic Church on Slave Island. No longer focusing on the liturgical calendar, I was surprised by the priest's announcement that today was the first week of Advent. Emphasizing the "new beginning" meaning of Advent, several times he admonished his congregation to be forward-looking and not to dwell on past events.

I'm not sure that one can ignore history, be it geologic or personal. After all, there are shimmering opals and the sound of the surf in a shell to remind us of how far we have come. There are also the tsunamis and wars that form our nodules and encrust our surfaces. However, until the very end, I believe that life is ahead of us, waiting to be cracked open and peeled away, mysteries to be uncovered.

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