The sun knows no favorites

By

Life has such gentle ways of taking care of us. Take my friend Maurice, for instance. When we first met I was hunting for an old hayloft in the canton du Valais in my native Switzerland, hoping to transform it one day into a chalet -- nothing extravagant -- just an old "mazot," as they are called there. I had been offered one by a rather wily farmer and later returned to inspect it with my mother and a friend. As I was poking round the thing, a quaint figure made its appearance in the doorway of a neighboring hayloft and approached us, at first hesitatingly. "The wood's all rotten," he whispered to my mother after a brief hello. "Well, you'd better tell my son," she replied," he's the one who wants to buy it."

So he came over to me, a middle-aged Swiss mountain peasant, his old, dilapidated hat askew, straw all over his woolen jacket, which was buttoned wrong. "This one, 'tain't no good," he said in the rich accent of the Val d'Herens. I looked rather surprised and a bit offended to have my abysmal ignorance of old "mazots" so blatantly exposed.

"When you take this thing'um to pieces, you'll lose at least 20 percent of the joints. They'll just break like matches.And the bottom logs, see, all rotten. . . ."

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Suddenly, he stopped and looked at me. Amazing blue eyes, crystal clear like a mountain stream, gentle, with that touch of modesty some older country folks still express in front of city people. "You and I," he continued, "might one day be neighbors. And I want to be able to look you straight in the eyes. If I'd let you get a bad deal," he added with his faulty grammar, 'well, I jus' couldn't look you straight in the eyes."

To him it was all so evident and straightforward that it became evident and straightforward to me.

From that moment on, Maurice and I became close friends. We wandered up mountains together; prepared raclettem -- that fabulous mountain invention of rich melting cheese grilled in front of an open fire and served with boiled potatoes, pickles, and other delicatesses;m sat up nights singing folk songs and playing the guitar -- a potpourri of melodies of English, Canadian, Indonesian, Swiss, American, Dutch, Italian origin, with an added dash of unrecognizable Maori to make it a little piquant; took part in the yearly fetem of the alpine pasturage, where Maurice had his cows, and drank the world's best milk; picked mountain berries and rhododendron.

I have described Maurice as a man of "apparently very modest means." This is true if you take into account only his 12 cows, nine goats, 15 sheep, 3 1/2 small fields (solely for hay), 500-year-old chalet (yes, in original untreated melezem redwood), four pear trees, odd hayloft or two, and three beehives.But what a Midas of human kindness, what a wealth of generosity and goodness, pure childlike simplicity and innocence, and instant hospitality -- rare in these high alpine valleys, which were virtually cut off from the rest of the world till the '20s.

Yet there was one great tragedy in this middle-aged bachelor's life: solitude. Twelve years earlier he had lost his mother, with whom he had lived all his life. When we met, he had barely recovered from the shock and he lived alone in a small abandoned hamlet where, in winter months, he spent long periods without seeing a soul.

One day a friend of mine from Germany pointed out to us that Maurice didn't need to live alone. After all, the stream offers its refreshing goodness to all alike, sinner or saint. The sun shines with the same warmth on hardened criminals, mountain berries, troglodytes, scuba divers, stern Calvinist pastors, and bumblebees. So, she concluded, there was no reason life should not bless Maurice with a special friend or companion. She was persistently, clearly sure of this.

It did not seem in the least ludicrous to her that this poor, mountain peasant living in a 500-year-old chalet, with all his front teeth missing and a rather protuberant belly, an income so meager he could barely survive on it alone, should not find an ideal companion. This might defy the laws of mathematical probabilities, but who had to be ruled by probabilities?

My friend just does not take appearances at face value. She sees what most people don't see, or, to put it differently, she rearranges her variables. Where others might have seen a configuration of socio- logical variables damning Maurice to eternal loneliness, she saw the sun shining impartially on troglodytes and bumblebees. As the Fox says to the Little Prince in St. Exupery's famous story, "It's not with the eyes one sees. It's with the heart."

We too began to look at him differently. To make a long story short, last spring Maurice went to buy some hay in a nearby village. And there he met Madeleine -- selling the hay.

She is 78 years young, a Swiss widow, and about the most lovable mountain woman I've ever met. She puts in a full day's work seven days a week (no respite from milking on Sundays!), climbing up steep fields, cleaning the stables, milking the cows, preparing meals.

Well, Maurice and Madeleine became such good friends they now live in the same building. Maurice's 500-year-old chalet. Friends.

I have traveled up and down three continents for 15 years. I have met a polygamous chief from Chad with 32 wives (they always knelt before him when they spoke to him); Calvinist pastors with sad-faced wives and Baptist ones with jovial buxom wives; troglodytes and their wives, wives of scuba divers, hardened criminals and their families, marriage counselors and racially mixed couples, Romeos and Juliets by the half dozen . . . but I swear I have never met such an endearing, lovable, incredibly funny, tender, utterly precious couple as Maurice and Madeleine. She has become his sister, mother, friend all in one. He beams at her, cares for her, and she for him. Being with them is so good that I have on occasion traveled 150 miles to the mountains just to spend a few hours in their company.

There's an important -- and an unimportant -- lesson to be learned from this story.

The unimportant one first. There are about as many chances of sociological statistics explaining or predicting life accurately as for a bumblebee to pull the ship Queen Elizabeth up Mt. Everest.

The important one. Why are we always trying to plan things, attempting to tell life howm to solve our problems?

Why can't we trust? Why can't we stop giving orders, stop straining, stop pushing the river which flows by itself?

Life has such gentle ways of taki ng care of us.

And in such unexpected ways.

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