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Mocha Musings: In honor of Kayla Mueller, embrace action

I recently attended the candlelight vigil held in Flagstaff, Ariz., in honor of Kayla Mueller. The morning I heard the news of her death, I dropped my favorite coffee mug to the floor. It just slipped out of my fingers. Hand-painted by an Alaskan artist, with a tiny log cabin set amid trees, it was unique. When I bought it for the princely sum of a quarter at a yard sale, I asked the woman, “Are you sure you want to sell this?” It was so lovely, so one-of-a-kind. She looked at me and said, “Only if you promise to take very good care of it.”

I promised, and I did take good care of it. But a few weeks ago, when Kayla’s death was confirmed by U.S. officials and her family in Arizona, my mug fell to the floor and shattered, broken into pieces that could never be put together again.

Kayla Mueller was the 26-year-old humanitarian aid worker and peacemaker killed while in the hands of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), having been kidnapped and held as the only U.S. female hostage for 18 long months. While the circumstances of her captivity and death remain unclear, the details of her life do not. An idealistic and intelligent young woman, she was deeply committed to the belief that one must go to the sources of poverty and suffering in order to solve the problem.

During her short life she worked with Tibetan refugees, the Save Darfur Coalition and Just Peace, started the student chapter of Amnesty International at Northern Arizona University, and volunteered with veterans’ issues and women’s shelters. She traveled to Guatemala, India, Palestine and Israel and studied Buddhism while volunteering at Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Plum Village in France. At the time of her kidnapping in August 2013, Mueller was working with Syrian refugees. Other than her immediate family, the rest of us wouldn’t even know she’d been taken hostage until much later.

The vigil at NAU, where she graduated, was attended by hundreds with speakers ranging from clergy and former professors to college roommates. They spoke of Kayla’s dedication to humanitarian issues and peace, of her compassion for the suffering of others and her willingness “to live life to its fullest.”

It is impossible to imagine the pain of her parents and family who endured almost two years of her captivity, and who must now face the grief of her death. How can one begin to comprehend the snuffing out of such young lives, of whom Kayla is but one? What remains for me is the realization of what Kayla, and James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig (just to name the American innocents) stood for: to “do” rather than stand back and watch.

We give speeches, light candles, read poems. We gather, cry, and rail against that which we cannot understand, that which so callously destroys vibrant, committed lives. Yet, those who knew Kayla insist to me that she would want us to look to the needless violence and killing, and to work for peace.

We can choose from a selection of blends at our favorite coffee houses, while on this same planet others must daily carry water in shoulder-numbing, heavy buckets and children die of hunger with bellies so bloated it would make you sob to see them. Where basic needs of life go unmet and cries for help go unheard.

I doubt we will ever know the details of Kayla Mueller’s long, dark months of imprisonment and perhaps it is better that we will never know exactly how she died. But the way she lived can remain a bright light. Time magazine named Mueller as an ideal role model for Millennials, citing her selfless desire to end suffering, her activism, and her humanitarian aid work.

Maybe it’s best to do what her former NAU professor counseled me, to look to Kayla’s own words in a letter she wrote to her family and which was smuggled out by another hostage. In it, she writes, “…+ by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free.”

And though Kayla and the others may now be “free” and can rest in peace, we can perhaps honor them most, as one student at the vigil said, by embracing their passion for “action over apathy."

Author, TV presenter and world traveler Susanne Severeid is an Ashland resident who enjoys making time for the important things in life — including mocha. For more, go to www.susannesevereid.com. Email her at susannewebsite@olypen.com.