Another Testament to the Power of the Imagination

Held Hostage in Sudan with Gabriel García Márquez

From Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog, a piece by Flavia Wagner.

Nearly four years have passed since I was kidnapped and held hostage for 105 days while working to bring education to the children of the war-torn region of Darfur, Sudan. In some respects my captivity seems all but a distant memory. The passage of time, however, will never diminish my fond recollections of my only trusted companion during those long, death-defying days—Gabriel García Márquez. With his recent passing, all of the harrowing and heart-tugging memories of our time together came flooding back.

On the fateful day my convoy was ambushed, I had the good fortune to have had in my travel bag one of the most magnificent novels of all time: García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Over the course of my own “105 days of solitude,” García Márquez (known affectionately as “Gabo”), the Buendía family and the town and inhabitants of Macondo became my refuge in a time fraught with uncertainty and hardship.

I lived alongside my captors in the open bush in the remote foothills of the Jebel Mara mountain range, moving by truck, foot and camel to countless isolated camps. A lone captive, I spent every waking and sleeping hour with dozens of armed and often inebriated men in an active conflict zone. At times, a cacophony of battle booms and blasts cracked and echoed through the night’s sky. The forbidding desert in which I lived was just as perilous: lions, hyenas and deadly snakes and insects roamed wherever the eye could see. Gabo’s magical tale provided the only escape from my otherwise dreadful reality and the constant threat placed upon my life.

By the time I was released, the book was irreparably worn. It never left my side, not even for a moment. I read from it throughout the day and by flashlight at night. I used it as a pillow upon the hard ground where I slept. Often, I awoke with it wrapped tightly in my arms like a beloved teddy bear. When I was certain I would die from a scorpion sting, I turned to the novel like one might a medical book to recall how Rebeca had fared when she was stung on her wedding night. It even served as a tool to teach certain captors English.

In the darkest days of captivity, Gabo’s visage on the book jacket was the only kind one I would see. I whispered to him that he was the most beautiful thing in the world while tracing with my finger the benevolent lines of his face. To this day, his amiable features remain etched deeply in my mind. Some mornings, when I was unsure whether I could endure another day, I invoked Gabo’s spirit to illuminate the heavenly words from his novel that read like divine providence designed to strengthen my fortitude.

I had earmarked the pages of many such passages, but I often returned to the one in which Úrsula shouted “I’m alive!” when her great-great-granddaughter thought her dead. As it happens, each morning I awoke in a profound state of existential awareness murmuring those same simple, yet miraculous words aloud. I was alive. Alive! Having suffered savagery of every magnitude, I was as astonished as I was revived by the precious gift of life afforded me. Knowing that each day could well be my last, I resolved to seize each moment, doing my utmost to treat my captors with the care and compassion I longed for in return.

So many of my experiences and fanciful visions in captivity were touched by the magical realism in Gabo’s book—the yellow butterflies that fluttered about me, my captors’ “tails of pigs,” the ascensions to heaven, the tormented and celestial apparitions. Mostly, though, it was the ethereal, enigmatic visions of Gabo himself that saw me through.

On certain forsaken days, Gabo sat by my side like a benevolent ghost to keep me company, his unfettered imagination inspiring my own wild fantasies. In troubled times he popped right off the page like a genie, his jovial face and words of encouragement cheering me on. In the midst of my greatest suffering, he wrapped his arms around me, pressing me protectively to his heart. Gabo’s presence was earthly impossible, I knew, and yet I swore that if I reached out I would feel the soft folds of his grandfatherly face that I knew so well.

“I’m so tired. So, so tired,” I once told him despairingly, my hair in a puddle on his lap. “I don’t think I am going to make it out alive.” Gabo looked paternally down upon me, uneasy with my foreboding. “Get those bad thoughts out of your head,” he commanded. “You are going to make it out of here if I have to carry you out.”

Indeed I did make it out. As I walked across the tall grassy field toward my freedom, Gabo stood waiting for me on the horizon. “We made it,” I whispered into the wind. “No, my girl,” he uttered affectionately, “you made it.”

It is years later and Gabo’s tattered novel still sits on my nightstand. The sight of it overwhelms me with gratitude and nostalgia for the otherworldly friend who roamed magically through the desert, appearing whenever I needed him most.

I realize that the spiritually liberating role Gabo played in my captivity was an invention of my mind, a way to cope with an otherwise unbearable situation. However, I like to believe that in another dimension— a magical one—he truly was there. Perhaps for a man with such unbridled imagination, no space is too great for his spirit to transcend.

A memoir of Ms. Wagner’s larger experiences in captivity will be released soon.

© 2014 The New York Times Company.

Art as Therapy: Alain de Botton on the 7 Psychological Functions of Art

Here’s a philosophical take on the therapeutic value of art. i don’t need any more convincing but its always interesting to get a fresh perspective. thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings-

Meditation Retreat

April 23, 2014


A few weeks ago I attended a three day meditation retreat at the Ligmincha Institute in Virginia. The retreat was awesome and I am sharing here a link to a video which was taken during this very retreat. It is an hour long so it does go into some depth and includes some guided meditation by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and an interesting question and answer session with questions from around the world via internet. Enjoy.

Click on a link above or find the video here:


Here is a link to an article by Christopher Clarey in the New York Times of February 22, 2014 that shows how imagery (visualization) is used by Olympians to support their skills. Notably, the use of imagery is widespread and effective for these athletes.


Emily Cook, a U.S. freestyle aerials Olympian, goes beyond “visualization” in her training. “You have to smell it,” she said. “You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.” Clive Mason/Getty Images

In a 2013 interview, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche explains his approach to teaching in the West and clarifies essential principles of Buddhism and Bon.

Here is a link to the Open Culture web site where they have a post with jazz piano great Bill Evans talking about improvisation. The accompanying video, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”, is about 45 minutes long. Worth the time and attention.

Beautiful, moving essay on fencing, poetry, and so much more. Here is the link to the original with the accompanying photos.


by Sarah Blake
The Los Angeles Review of Books – August 2, 2012


Picture the fencers. Picture them, without their gear, covered in bruises. All the weapons leave bruises, from thrusts, flicks, and the sabre’s slash. They leave welts as well.

When I fenced in high school, we were proud of the marks. Mostly, it didn’t hurt to get them. Hurt isn’t the right word because it feels good to hit someone, to be hit, in a bit of flesh that gives to the point.

I don’t mean to sound masochistic or sadistic, but the pleasure exists. And I was never interested in fencing for the grace or technique of it. I was competitive, physical, and enjoyed the fight.

Even now, some 10 years later, I remember how it feels to land the point of my foil in someone’s side, to turn my hand, to push so the blade bends out to the side, to understand the belly anew, as a soft target.


Some parts of the body are protected. Women wear a chest plate, made of plastic, and shaped like breasts, as if women wear perky Victoria’s Secret bras while they fence, instead of sports bras that flatten them. Even in the Olympics you can see these rounded cups through the lame and jacket.

As a poet, sometimes I feel this way, that I’ve geared up like a poet, but that my lines about motherhood, about sex, my method of engagement, my very words, have flagged me as a woman poet, and then I’m standing there with plastic breasts that are the same size and shape as every other woman poet.

But if our breasts matter at all, our breasts are different.


Only one person, that I know of, has died from fencing. Vladimir Viktorovich Smirnov. He was the gold medalist in men’s Individual Foil at the 1980 Summer Olympics. In 1981, he won the World Championships. In 1982, he returned to the World Championships and fenced with Matthias Behr.

During the bout, Behr lunged, landed his point on Smirnov’s chest, the blade bent, as it should, but then snapped, and Behr’s forward motion continued, driving the broken blade through Smirnov’s mask and into his brain. While death was not immediate, death did come.

Safety precautions changed. So changed the metals of the weapons, the mesh of the masks. But I know, maybe all fencers know, it could happen again. The full force of the body, the power of forward momentum, the frequency of broken blades, the mesh still only mesh, and our fragile faces.


Poetry is dangerous. It can be. We don’t typically use the word danger. We use words like risks and stakes. The risks of the poet and the stakes of the poem. But danger is implicit, sometimes explicit.

I’ve always valued the danger in poetry. I might value it above all else. Be it a weakness or a strength, it is a symptom of my fighting heart which led me to fencing in the first place.


When I fenced, I always felt the connection to sword fighting, to duels. The fights to the death, or just to first blood. A mere scratched arm. Honor and disgrace doled out at once.

Sometimes the Olympics, with its rules and lights and wired bodies, hides this connection to fencing’s history.

On July 30th, 2012, the rules required a young woman sit on the piste for about an hour while she waited for the results of an appeal. She cried much of the time.

Articles said she “broke down in tears,” “was reduced to tears,” “was in a flood of tears.” Some mock her and some defend her.

To me, she sat as if at the foot of the world and hid nothing from it. And while challenges of judges are common in most sports, it was still brave of her to compel the deliberations, to sit and continue sitting.

But for a time, her seated, weeping body, lit up on the piste, ruined my romance with fencing.


This year, I’m watching most of the games with my 14-month-old son. I’m happy to report that fencing had him transfixed, at least for one bout.

The first time I watched Olympic fencing was when my coach played VHS tapes of men’s Individual Foil. I thought they had special foils, different from my own, because theirs whipped about wildly as if they were not made of metal. But it is just the strength of the men’s arms. I was in awe.

I read today, “the tip of a fencing blade is widely considered the second fastest moving object in sport, behind a marksman’s bullet.” Awe is still the right word. And perhaps awe is what my son experienced as he watched that bout from my lap, quiet and still.


I pretended to fence my son with my finger. “Chh, chh, chh,” I said as I moved my finger between four and six. Then I poked him.

I asked him, “Are you going to be a really great fencer one day?”

And he answered, “Uh-huh” — a word, a perfect sound, that he’s only been making for a few days.

It will not be hard to encourage him. Peter Pan’s dagger against Captain Hook’s sword.The Princess Bride. When he’s older, The Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac.

It will be harder, I worry, to foster a love of poetry in him. But another part of me thinks he will find poetry as I have found it: threatening, urgent, and utterly magnetic.