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August 8, 2011

A Heroine’s Journey: Turning Straw Into Gold


Years ago I thought about writing a book about using life's challenges as a way of embarking on a heroic healing path. I even had a title: If Pain is the Teacher, Joy is the Reward. As I wondered if such a book would be meaningful and helpful to others, I thought about my own life and how facing painful moments instead of hiding out in addictive behavior has made me a stronger and more aware and compassionate person (Admittedly, I am a late bloomer, but over the years I have achieved a modicum of awareness). At that moment, a perfectly formed yet tiniest of all acorns fell at my feet. I took this as a sign that all that I needed to write this or any book was within me and just needed to be nurtured to grow. While that particular book was never written, I am happy to be in the process of writing another about a subject close to my heart: synchronicity journaling. I saved my little acorn and pasted it in the journal I was writing in at the time as a symbol to remind me that given the right conditions for growth – focused attention, love, dedication, and time – the books I do choose to write will take root and grow and, hopefully, be sources of sustenance, warmth, and shelter for those who choose to use them.


Thankfully, others have successfully written about using life's challenges as sources of healing. One of my favorite books on this subject is Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart. I have recently begun reading it for the second time, and I am mining more nuggets of wisdom in it than the first time around. In the section titled “Turning Straw into Gold,” Kornfield writes, “What freedom this attitude [of the Dali Lama toward the Chinese, whom he calls my friends, the enemy] shows. It is the power of the heart to encounter any difficult circumstance and turn it into golden opportunity. This is the fruit of true practice. Such freedom and love is the fulfillment of spiritual life, its true goal…”


A few days after reading Kornfield's words, I was looking for a Netflix movie to watch and chose “I Dreamed of Africa,” primarily because I’m drawn to stories about Africa lately. As it happens, the universe had different reasons for me choosing this inspirational biography about Kuki (pronounced cookie) Gallman, a woman of courage and heart who turned her own intense suffering into a golden opportunity to help the endangered animals of Kenya and educate future generations of Africans about the joys of conservation. Since I’m going to tell the gist of the story here, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I suggest you quit reading now and come back after you’ve had a chance to do so.


Kuki was born to an Italian family of wealth and means. Although, she had everything she could ever want materially, she dreamed of leaving Italy and living a more meaningful life in Africa after having spent time there with her father in her teens before he passed away. In 1972 Kuki, her husband Paolo, and son Emanuele moved to Kenya where they acquired the farm known as Ol Ari Nyiro. In the farm's idyllic setting they raised cattle and began an anti-poaching initiative to save indigenous animals from extinction. In 1980, Paolo died in an auto accident transporting a crib for their unborn daughter. Three years later Emanuele died from a poisonous snakebite. The movie spent much time building up family's love of Africa and the loving relationships between Kuki and the two male loves of her life. At Emanuele’s death I was beside myself, wondering how a woman goes on after losing both her husband and her son. But Kuki is an extraordinary woman. She has continued to find meaning in her life by writing the book I Dreamed of Africa (made into a movie) and starting the Gallman Memorial Foundation, dedicated to the memories of Paolo and Emanuele, to protecting endangered species of wildlife in Kenya, and to training young Africans about the importance of conservation.


I found the heroine's words at the end of the film quite moving: “Finally, all we can do is let the days instruct us, and know the only gift worth having is the Grace to go on. There’s a job to be done, people to love, and knowing what we love we can never lose. There is no holding on in this world. We came to this extraordinary place, and Africa let us lead extraordinary lives. Then, Africa claimed an extraordinary price. That was Africa’s privilege. And now it is my turn to look after Africa.”


Wow! That’s what I call turning straw into gold!

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