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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

There But for Fortune: nomadic travel during times of crisis (Travels with my Ukelele)

Updated: May 27, 2023

When you’re traveling overseas during a time of world crisis, it feels different:

  • You feel the privileges of your life very keenly

  • You feel helpless to make a difference

  • You understand that you have always been part of the world community, but you feel it more deeply now that you are traveling the world

  • Your friends and family worry, and contact you to see if you’re ok, even though you might not, objectively, be in any more danger than they are

  • You talk to a lot of people who are worried for the future

  • The victims of the crisis deserve your empathy and support, but you know others have also suffered other crises and you have not responded in the same way.

All of this is true, even though you are not in any more danger than you were the day before, nor more at risk in Lisbon, or London, than you would have been in Michigan.

In 2002, our daughter traveled to Latvia as an exchange student during the Iraq War, and a family member wanted to know if she was safe to travel there. I remember telling him, “She’s probably safer in Latvia than in the United States right now.” After she got there, she told us that her host mother was worried – after living in the aftermath of World War II era invasions, the Latvian woman was concerned that tanks would roll up her street. That seemed far-fetched in 2002, but I have more understanding now. And, maybe, I’m starting to feel an undercurrent of trepidation for our scheduled trip to Helsinki in May.

We were in Lisbon, Portugal when Russia invaded Ukraine. Family and friends wanted to know if we were ok. We were in a NATO country, over 2,000 miles away from Kiev. Nuclear missiles are pointed at the U.S. Objectively, we were probably safer in Lisbon than we would have been in the U.S. But our Portuguese host tells us a lot of Portuguese are angry that the world is no better now than during the 20th Century – war comes to Europe once more. We travel to London, where people are keenly aware of what it is like to lose a city to bombs. We hear more stories about the Blitz.

The memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral by Gerry Judah that recognizes the horror and destruction of war takes on added significance, to us and our British guide.

Research tells us that a lot of personal success, and personal catastrophe, is created purely by luck. My husband reminded me a couple of years ago that our own financial success was largely the result of lucky choices we made when we were younger. Sure, we both worked hard, but not any harder than lots of other people who barely had enough to get by in their senior years. Because of his appreciation for the role of good fortune in our lives, Paul started a personal grant program to provide modest seed money to people who wanted to create web-based content to further their creative aspirations. Paul found inspiration from Louis Pasteur’s quote, “Fortune favors the prepared mind”, hoping to help others become prepared for what the future might bring. You can see his thoughts on this at He found this video especially informative.

A family friend, Randy Schutt, has done research on how good luck can improve, and bad luck can impede, financial success in life. How Random Events and the Laws of Probability Are Partially Responsible for Wealth Inequality, CHANCE, 35:1, 18-25. He even has a website where you can experiment to see for yourself,

I could have been born in Ukraine, where I might be shelled on a daily basis or even killed. I might have been the mother of a Russian soldier sent to die in this war, or a person living on any side of the conflict in the Middle East, or one of 500,000 people who have died in the Tigray War in Ethiopia. These musings reminded me of a song I had put on my list to learn – “There But for Fortune”, written by Phil Ochs in 1963. You can see Phil Ochs sing it here, and a version I like a little better, with Joan Baez singing it here.

I learned and recorded “There But for Fortune” as a way to honor the people of Ukraine, and other war-torn parts of the world, and folks who have suffered from bad luck and misfortune. After I started working on this project, I learned of the death of a 22 year-old cousin of a member of my family. In their beautiful tribute to his life, the family asked that “In lieu of flowers, we are asking you to create art as a way to honor Clay and promote mental health awareness for others.” So this video is also for the family of Clayton Allen Speith, because there but for fortune, go I.


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