I learned today that in 1917 the novelist E.M. Forster was in Egypt for the first time. As a conscientious objector in World War I, Forster served as a Chief Searcher (for missing servicemen) for the British Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt.
Fate kept making him look for what was missing. It was during this time that Forster, who was openly gay, fell deeply in love with an Egyptian tram driver, Mohammed el-Adl, an affair that changed his life.
Eventually, Forster had to return to England, but the two men kept a faithful correspondence, even after Mohammed married. Their love sustained, despite being interracial and gay and despite living a continent away. When Mohammed died in 1922 from tuberculosis, his wife, whose name is impossible to find, sent her husband’s wedding ring to Forster. It is this deeply tender gesture from a woman whose name I’ll never know that stopped me, that made me want to know the center of this love: the love between the two men, the love between Mohammed and his wife, and the love of this woman for her husband’s lover.
What deeply human pain and release allowed her to be so giving in a time of such grief? This is the wisdom I want to learn. This is the story I want to piece together from the smattering of affections found like feathers in the rain.
In the center of our pain and beyond what we can comprehend is a release that heals, when we can endure the pain and give over to its release. I felt this pain and release during my struggle with cancer when I was young. I felt this pain and release during the dissolution of my second marriage when I had to leave in order to live the life I was given back. I felt it when my father, staring into Eternity, held my hand before his death. And now, across the years and miles, I feel it in the small drop of Mohammed’s ring into an envelope that his tender wife sealed and sent to England.
It is the unexpected gesture that binds us. It makes me think of my dear friend Robert scattering seed for the ground feeders in his yard. It makes me think of my dear friend Paul rowing the empty boat of his life now that his sweet wife has died. It makes me think of my dear friend George sanding the shelf of a bookcase he is making for his granddaughter. It makes me think of my dear friend Don adding dabs of red to a painting he created almost fifty years ago. The moments that keep us connected are like the drop of that wedding ring in its envelope. It makes me think of my dear wife Susan holding our dog’s head during a thunderstorm. It’s all we can hope for, really, to hold each other through the storm and share what’s left.
P.S. Mark will be offering a 3-session webinar in Aug 2022 called Pain, Fear, and Grief: The Deeper Teachers (Aug 7, 14, 21, 2022, 1-2:30PM ET). Registration for this webinar is NOW OPEN at live.marknepo.com.
Mark Nepo is an MEA faculty member, poet and spiritual adviser who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over 30 years. He’s well-known for his New York Times #1 bestseller, "The Book of Awakening," which Oprah chose as one of her "Ultimate Favorite Things" for her farewell season.