Friday, January 8, 2016

Juneau Journal Day 3

Day 3: One Australian Shepherd puppy acquired. 900 miles driven. One pee-drenched homecoming completed. We watch him and squeal with delight like young children when he chews his foot or squeaks his chew toy. We dote on his every move with high-pitched tinkerbell butterfly voices. We know we're idiots. We cant help it. Then, during the first 24 hours at home, he barrages us with a powerful artillery attack of urine. It's the yellow wedding. In front of his crate, on the floor, on a T shirt, on my pants, on the carpeted stairs on the way out the door. Operation dribble is underway. Puppy urine - its the gift that keeps on giving.

Day 5. First day at work. We all wake up early. We are on 24/7 urine alert. When he's in shared spaces (like train platforms) he must either be sitting or be carried. Otherwise, sniper piddles are a near certainty.

Hurdle 1. Getting him to potty outside. Obviously. When he squeezes out a few drops apathetically I gesticulate wildly and jump up and down like a teenager meeting Kim Kardashian. Which promptly encourages him to sit when he hears my praises (what a good boy) right in the middle of his pee puddle. No matter. That smell has already permeated my entire wardrobe at this point, I have more important things to worry about.

Hurdle 2. Train ride downtown just after rush hour. Potty threat level orange. He does amazingly, meets many nice people and sits for treats as we rumble toward the office. Happiness ensues. What a good dog we have. Carry him to the street.

Hurdle 3. The Mid-Market Tenderloin din draped in all its glory. Complaining trains, filibuster horns, backfiring crusty old buses, angry drug addicts, and hoards of cooing women in heels. He skitters here and there but makes it through relatively unscathed, yet not unburdened, it turns out. Believing that four times was enough pee to empty the tank, he ambushes me in plain sight on the carpet within minutes of entering the building for the first time. I stand corrected and vow to keep him within a foot of me the entire day. Here begins our puppy stair intervals - which mostly consist of me carrying him down 3 flights of stairs to pee every hour. A nice balance of cardio, weight training (all 15 lbs of him) and speed training.

Hurdle 4. Meetings. I carry him and a pee pad around all day, arriving to all my meetings in a jumble of fur, desperation treats and high pitched reinforcements. There is no doubt in my mind that these grand, sophisticated entrances buoy my credibility as a competent leader considerably.

Hurdle 5. Coworkers accepting him. This goes swimmingly. It sure doesn't hurt that he's got dewey blue eyes, a mountain of soft fur, and the cutest paws you've ever seen. Beyond that, he is sweet and relatively quiet. Pretty much all you can ask for from a coworker. That is until I walk away to the bathroom. Then he turns into a gargling, whining mess as if he's being tortured.

Hurdle 6. Getting him back home. At this point, I'm singing his praises and thanking my lucky stars. Naturally, it is now pouring down rain and his sandy potty spot turned to sludge. He relieves himself and we forge onwards.
Two hours and 4 delayed trains later, plus 20 minutes waiting in the pouring rain, we walk into the apartment building. He pees on the first step, 20 seconds after his fourth pee outside. Excellent. At last, we tumble in our front door thinking we've reached the holy land. Until I reach the kitchen to feed him.

Hurdle 7. Ants. A long, black, winding trail of them from the hallway, across the kitchen, up the wall and into... his food. The whole bag, the whole room for that matter, is crawling with ants. He is pouncing on them and play barking, convinced that this is the most fun game ever. Crouching to investigate, they are crawling up my legs. At this point, I have two choices. Calmly feed him an ant infested dinner (extra protein), then crate him to whimper while I commit mass murder as best i can with one bottle of ant killer. Or sit down on the floor and cry. I decide, strategically, that I will choose choice number #2.

And so ends day 5, in all its glory. 1 puppy fed. 3 more puddles cleaned. Thousands of ants murdered in cold blood. I should have saved money on the ant spray and just used the endless supple of urine I've recently come into.

Normally a clean, sanitary, normal human being, I consider for a moment taking a shower to wash off the puppy pee and ant carcasses that cover all my extremities. But soon I forget that the thought ever crossed my mind and fall asleep haphazardly in front of his crate, my clothing damp from rain or pee (who really cares which) like a broken down homeless dog lady. And so are the days of single puppy parenthood. May tomorrow bring drier skies and floors.

Monday, January 4, 2016

November 15th, 2015

Theres so many ways the world can break a heart. Some days its just about which way the many pieces fall.

In Paris, in Beirut, in Syria, on the Hungarian borders. And everywhere else that suffering is flouting its immortality in our world. This week has brought empathy, mortality, morality and menace to the foreground. It has asked of us a thousand micro-decisions every minute about who we are, who we think we should be, and who is our real enemy. It has forced the whole world to look in on itself. And we look with bleary, confused eyes.

Those who look close enough will see the faint outline of ugliness that lies within each of us. To recognize it by name, out loud, in whatever moment it shows itself is to see what being human really means.  You might see an innate xenophobia, the flickering, moving borders of your "Tribe", or the raw, reactive fear of "other"ness that has kept us alive in packs in the jungles for the last few million years. You might see thin lines of your own suffering worn down over the years into underground trenches amongst the complex maze of your human experience. Whatever you see, I am now certain that it shows itself in all of us. We shoulder it all on a journey toward a better human race without looking it straight in the eye, except in eyes that don't resemble ours. Who are we tonight? Where can we be safe? What can we possibly do with the pain of the whole world over?

I scan the headlines of my world and I agree and disagree with everyone, all at once. I try to find an argument or an opinion that eases my immense sorrow for all the pain in the world tonight. I try to find the answer but I can't properly frame the question. I try to find hope but I don't know what exactly to hope for. I try to milk fearlessness out of anger but find it to be thin, sour and full of empty promises. I try to educate myself on every possible point of view but realize that most of them are out of my reach, like the true shape of the universe seen from my small corner of it. I try to imagine a solution that would make everything better for everyone - and when I see nothing, all I can do is hold a space for this whole sweet, sour, struggling world. Every picture of a Syrian refugee child, every poem from a Parisian widower, every cry from a civilian in Raqqa, every unwritten story that plays out far beyond the narrow fringes of my daily awareness - they all have found me here in darkness tonight.  I can only nod to it and say "I know you're there, I see you in my heart, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry for and on behalf of us all."

Monday, February 16, 2015

Waking up to Words

Been a while. I know.

I'm looking for excuses for why it's been so long. And even I can't find them. The words that usually come so easily just kind of, hit a hard part in me and veered off the trajectory of my consciousness into a long drifting winter of...silence. Which is all I heard when I thought I should write again. The longer I put it off, the farther away those words sounded, the ones that used to fill me with the meat of every moment. As "normal life" once again bought and sold my every hour, the writing wilted from my life. Every year that passed slowly sapped the joy and confidence out of it. And I was so wrapped up in winning this level of Angry Birds, the entitled-life-in-San-Francisco edition, I couldn't even see the damn shame in it.

Maybe it was because I thought I'd run out of things to write about. Maybe I thought that Africa was the zenith of what you wanted to hear, and after that, no whitewashed, silicon valley inner monologue would ever hold up to the old glitter and bone I could weave and spew in years past. Had I lost my touch? Had I become so average that I lost my backstage passes to being a writer?

Maybe that stage of my writing was like going to a romantic comedy. All the magnified scene changes, colorful crescendoes and gut-wrenching conflicts of the movie's main relationship end hastily at the alter, after which you smile at the credits, wash the popcorn grease off your hands, scrape your car off and go home to sit in front of your spouse, wondering how to get that feeling back. Everyone loves a good shrink-wrapped Odyssey that ends in under 2 hours. It's what happens after the alter that threatens to change you, mold you, ask the hardest questions of you in the most unexciting ways. But nobody wants to watch you struggle with the true meaning of your life as you sip coffee and silently wait for the postman to deliver your credit card bill.

Enter, stage 2 (or perhaps 8 or 9) of my writing journey. I can't promise you non-stop international epiphanies or interludes with deaf yet joyful African orphans. But I can promise you to show up here and tell it how I think it is as I stumble through the most mentally and emotionally taxing epic journey I've been on yet...getting older.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Every Days

The symptoms are unmistakable. Multiple yet fruitless trips to the coffee room. That lurking shadow of apathy around the eyes. That sallow sag of your attire that hints at an impending identity crisis. Irritability at being irritable. Acting like an alcoholic when you aren’t one. But you sure are considering it. I know you’re wishing you had the guts to hit “Abort” on your week, your life, and slide shouting out of the office on an inflated emergency slide like that flight attendant. But your mortgage has you in a chokehold and its all you can do to just stare back at it blankly and blink a few times as it squeezes the life out of you one day at a time. Yeah, I know. You’ve got a case of the Every Days.

Some people avoid the Every Days marvelously. Some people have it chronically. But it all starts with that question in your mind as you’re chewing on your toothbrush in the morning—what do I want to do and am I doing it? What am I contributing and what could I that I’m not? Am I settling or am I just complaining?  For those of us who are lucky enough to work in climate-controlled environments with drinkable tap water and a sanitary medical facility within 10 miles, a life 500 feet above simple survival can sometimes lose its luster. Gratefulness, even for the most conscientious of us, is something that sometimes needs to be mustered up as a reminder on our calendars. And that’s ok, that’s all part of the contract. Just keep reminding yourself. Like flossing. I recently saw my brother walk into the mouth of mortality hand in hand with B-cell, T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia and bargain for his life from inside. And I still sometimes forget to remember.

The biggest question that the Every Days begs is simply a matter of perspective. What about life are we all fighting so hard for? And when my number comes up, what is that I’d fight for? Some people want to give you the piece about only worrying about what “really matters”. And I think that’s great. If they can achieve that kind of mental gymnastics 24/7, then I’d be the first in line to take a meditation class from them. But for the rest of us, well, we not only sweat the small things, we live them. We eat them, we memorize them. We do them for a living.

So on this morning, when I met myself in the mirror with the clear marks of the Every Days, I knew that this was one more day I couldn’t turn my back on my destiny. And its not that kind of destiny that merits a two-page spread or a non-profit named after me. It’s the destiny that only I am accountable for. And in fact to be precise, the first day of the rest of my life passed months ago. This morning I was a writer with nothing to write about. Well. Here’s something. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Goodbye to Africa

Douala airport smothered under the heat of a hot and stormy summer night. The earth outside was sliding with mud under the stamping of the hot rain, which clapped against the windows. The storm wore on into the night, as we contorted in our seats in a pathetic attempt to stay awake and monitor our nearby bags through the night. The rows were speckled with sleeping forms but no sound came from them that could whisper above the storm. The whine of rabid mosquitos would graze our ears intermittently, but swatting is of little use when sleep is tugging you numbly away from your body. No concern for our bags or malaria could keep me fully awake now. Hours and more hours waned on toward early morning. This was our last night in Africa.

Right around 1pm, as expected underfoot of the rain, the power cut and the airport terminal swam instantly in darkness. The Africans around us didn’t stir or exclaim, so usual and everyday was this occurrence to us now. In the sweltering darkness, under the overture of lightning bursts, we recounted our past months on the continent and waited for a slow-drip departure back to a world that so few here would ever see. The fatigue of those many months made my teeth chatter in the wet-hot heat of the buzzing room. The figures of those I had met and the moments we had spent together made me question myself - my origins, my former life, my reality and that of the world over. The seen and the unseen. The known and the very, very unknown. And still. I slept.

The yellow sands of Bagamoyo with its sticky coconut breeze and smooth, oily, delicious bread. Tanzania’s oasis of friends, western and African, who made room in their sun-baked lives for us. Saved us from naivete, from boredom, from disease when we might not have saved ourselves. The empty school room full of our 30 primary school kids holding hands in a circle, who, led quietly by the lovely voice of their new Tanzanian teacher, erupted into a full chorus of giggles and song. Each one lit-up and big in the eyes and bobbing their heads in ecstatic enjoyment. It may have been a little out of key sung by six-year-old voices, but it was an Aria to me. I could hear them still now, in my half awake state of sleep. And remember the weight of my Josephine’s soft little head in my lap during storytime. It had been months since I had seen her and it would be a whole lifetime before I did again, which meant most likely never. And even if I did, she might not remember. All she might see of me then would be old and white and unfamiliar. But in this lucid dream in a dark airport under the watch of another tropical storm, I can grasp that eye-welling spark of what I imagine it might be like to be a mother.

The crunching snows of Kilimanjaro came to me next, of which I have yet to write down in words. The high moon in its clear, dark doorway watching over us as we crawled toward the summit. My small breath that came less and less, my lungs that were filled with the fluid of illness, my head that was afraid for where on the ascent I would give out, and my heart that liquefied in sheer desire to reach the top. Now we are on our way back from the frozen and lifeless eyelid of the summit, skirting the black and icy rim of the crater. We are beginning our descent just as we watch the thin lip of the horizon spread slightly with pink and then split with orange as the sun begins to rise. When I saw the crest of its red-orange head break over Kenya, I knew I had really made it. Just in time to be sick behind a rock.

Late night laughter with friends in Uganda. The grating voices of the roosters and the children playing in their bucket baths outside. A night dancing feverishly and foolishly until the early morning hours in Kampala. Dust rising around our boda boda motorcycle as it winds around the dirt roads and through the rambling bush on our way to the next town - an unruly and freeing experience worth smiling about. Cold baths from a bucket, crouched in a lutrine whenever there was water. The bright expressive faces, unhearing cries and loving arms of the deaf children at the little school a few miles down the red road, their eyes clinging to every detail. The unknown little patch of sandy earth where they live under the sun, a place that I was both honored and aghast to visit. They run through my dream just as they did in life, springing with joy on bare feet during a silent but happy game. They have defined for me the barest, most essential meaning of life - and proved that it can be lived without words, without things or without means. But hardly without friends. Gargoyle storm clouds out over the open hills of Uganda, ready to fall.

Relief and rest in Rwanda. Silent towns gathered in annual mourning over the remembering blooms of a 17th spring. The glittering pool of Hotel Rwanda, Kigali city lights reflected in its smooth and uninterrupted visage. A long journey through the green hills that never stop growing.

Cameroon at last. Rows and rows of sweet palms and great green plantains. Grey, rocky foot paths down to school and taxis stuffed with strangers whipping through the rain toward the coast. The bath-warm water of the sea, rolling over your ears as you lay under its gentle tides, black sand rolling up to the mainland. Classrooms of faces - if only I could remember each one. Malaria. Cold, sweaty malaria. Nights awake listening to the dogs fight and waiting for dawn. Cold drinks with friends in town on a hot and humid school night. Bus rides galore, watching the wooden market shacks pass. More storms in the night - the growling trumpets of the coming rainy season. And now, the end.

The power clicked back on and dim lights flooded Douala airport, chasing darkness and memory from the wire bench that had riddled me with wiry red sleep marks. Slowly, people began to line up in wait for the opening of check-in. This morning, our plane would inch out into the world in darkness and turn its nose toward our own world, that world glittering in lights, loves and small cruelties that were waiting to receive us. Would we follow it without thinking and never turn back to our current selves, these phantoms in transit between what we used to believe we were and what we aren’t so sure about now? Will we run, tired and thin, into its freeway arms under its skyscraper gaze and go right back to the way we were before? Warm showers, ready food, clean bed sheets, fine wine, new jobs - would these newfound delights soon become just daily assumptions for the unthinkingly privileged? What would we say to the friends we missed for so many months - or would words desert us? What would it feel like to belong again?

We walk side by side down the long, half-dark and empty hall to the Gate. Unsteady and unsure but full of new inquiries. Throwing ourselves on our futures and hoping for the best.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dictionary of a Dream

There is a pale light leaking through the curtains—legs of the leftover sunset dripping down the walls. I am at my usual post, one foot in front of the standing fan. Thank you God for reliable electricity in this place. Tin roofs, furrowed at the edges, slide into one another gently outside. Fat-fingered palm trees exhale happily in silhouette. My bare feet hang off the foot of the bed, a foot or two above a concrete floor.

Nothing in Africa holds its breath at night. I adore the carefully fringed houses of my neighborhood in Colorado - the sound of new spring winds from the high country and cars crunching through freshly plowed snow. But there is something tight around the throat when night falls, when everyone waves and goes into their big houses and no sound seems to make it out of there. In winter, even the trees stop their blustering and all heartbeats go underground. But here…here everything has a voice, especially after dark. Doors are open without screens, cooking smells carry, lush trees and gardens squirrel with activity. If it isn’t the dogs woowoowoo-ing each other or the rooster crowing well before dawn just to get a headstart, then it’s the crashing rain on the tin roof, preceded by unseparated rolls of thunder for hours. And if you manage to sleep past dawn, then the mothers and small children of the entire continent will do you the honor - cheerfully muckity mucking to each other, singing low and lovely as they hand wash their laundry and squawking to their children about this or that in between beautiful breaths of the morning. The early evenings are the quietest when everyone sweats out a day's worth of hot sun on their backs and enjoys the breeze frothing up from the sea.
This evening is such an evening. Just like the last and most likely just like the next. The American in me sometimes gets so bored I could read a physics textbook in one night. But then again, that is the same me that runs around in high boots trying to please everyone at once and holding my breath the whole time while doing it. I like that about myself – always burning up like hot oil over this thing or that which I'm hoping will lead to something meaningful. Crunching whatever sanity I have left between my teeth just trying to be something I can be proud of. Chasing everyone else's tail in the search of what I can work to the ground until it taps and feel like I made people's lives better. Something I deem worthy of remembering. But frankly, I’m surprised I’m not downright purple after 27 years of it. And like I said. Nothing holds its breath at night in Africa.

Tonight I am thinking about writing while I’m doing it. Trying not to delete some things that look imperfect to me and just feeling it flow out of me like hot boiling water through a metal strainer. Sometimes when I finish a book I feel jealous. Isn’t that funny? Every time I read a good line, part of me gobbles it up and wants to shake the author's hand—and the other thinks, damn, it should have been mine. Reading the author's biography is the hardest part. Especially if she was some hidden gem, some accountant or librarian that suddenly produced this golden egg with a Penguin Publisher stamp on it and now the world wants to know every little thought she ever had, everything she ever wrote and every fleeting feeling that passed over the pages of her life. I'm sure it sounds silly, ironic and rather obstinate to you to hear this. Those closest to me tell me I'd have a better chance of someday writing something worthwhile if I'd just get off my fanny (or get on it, in this case) and write more often. Of course they are 100% right. No one to blame except, well, you know who. Funny how cheeky one little dream can be.

See, I've been wanting to be a writer since I was five. You think I'm kidding. But I wanted to be a writer and an illustrator. The library at my public elementary school bought a little miniature book binding machine. And I was in the library pretty much anytime I could be. It was half to hide from the little boy I'd had a one-day handhold with who thereafter stalked me like an alcoholic ex-husband just out of prison (seriously, that guy was scary, even at the age of eight) and half because I was the smallest, shyest girl in school. Sounds like the perfect introvert turned dazzling young writer story, doesn’t it? Don’t get too comfortable. As I said, this machine – you could write and illustrate your own little story on printer paper and choose the patent leather color of your book's binding. Then after a few days, the library would hand you your very own book. And your name stenciled into the fake leather on the front cover, sunk into it like this product was yours forever. Wow, this was neat. I mentioned earlier that I grew up in an affluent, middle class town. Read therein that while inner city kids were on the subway selling candy to buy a three ring binder, I was fancying around pumping out my own little bound books faster than I could write them. I'd of course been encouraged to write since the day I was born, every story and picture I produced was treated like it was the Iliad of the 1990s. Not exactly the rags to riches story that gives many writers that knuckle-biting hunger, destined to be laid bare on finger-tingling pages within the kind of masterpieces we can only salivate over. This I know. But I remember those productions with more pride than I do any of my more recent professional achievements. Receiving every last one of them hot off the press was like getting married every month of the year. Nobody but me ever read them. But all of my little heart was in ‘em. And I guess in life, that’s all that really matters. That and how many hearts you have at your disposal for throwing into things like that.

Through high school and middle school I took my writing underground, lined up in secret stacks of bad poetry in my room. I liked keeping it away from the world because it knew me well by then. Knew me just how I wanted to be known. And it made me feel bigger, stronger than myself. Kept me from disintegrating into doubt or worst yet, complete silence. It had the worst job of all - being the keeper of the ugliest of secret feelings, none of which I knew how to label yet.

In college, it didn’t take me long to put the ingredients of the old dream back together into life again. I went at it hard again, bolstered by academic encouragement and post-pubescent confidence. I majored in writing in college and even though the critique workshops were like fingernails in my eyes, doing it was the only thing I could do every single day and feel all filled up. Never got sick of it. Not sure if I got any better at it. But that’s the nature of the beast. When it came time to graduate, I applied to every prestigious writing grad school program I could. Which of course is only a handful. I handcrafted, edited and reedited the short story for the applications. It was about a wild-hearted Latina and a stiff-lipped white southerner. Id never been to Louisiana. But I described it anyway as I imagined it. I saw pieces of my self in that story like I was looking back at my life in the sideview mirror. At all these new and interesting angles. I loved the characters, I loved the setting, I wanted to KNOW them. It was my best and I hoped that was enough. Colombia and NYU, of course, didn’t think so. So when a local company in my hometown offered their writing intern/restaurant hostess a job in marketing, I traded the dirty kitchen flats for high heels and hit the office, without thinking about it too much. Given the choice between making a decent salary to write press releases and going to graduate school in my hometown, the only place that had accepted me, I guess I chose what seemed most reasonable. They always said in my writing workshops, “write what you know”. At the time, I suppose I figured I didn’t yet know enough.  And who knew, I loved business too.  I liked business the way I like really honest and frank people – sometimes their blunt, objective observations can sting a little and won’t ever make them good at politics , but at least you always know exactly what they are thinking. The dream changed then – opened bigger at its edges to be just four words. Write for a reason. Make it matter. Book, blog, or newsletter…whatever.

Five years later. I am in Africa, sitting like a human crescent moon on the bed. My face is arching toward the fan with the heat of the laptop making my belly sweat. After a big move to New York City to carve out a new life, it seemed I had changed so much that writing was the only thing I still had in common with my old self. The monologue running in my head non stop just the way I’d write it down, with unacceptably long fragment sentences and far too many adjectives. So when my brother got sick and we all played the role of crisis negotiator for the 12 months that death held him hostage, it came out like a broken sewage pipe. The writing was a way to pass that terrible time, to feel the feelings from outside myself, a reprieve but also an ode to the experience in hopes of never becoming a eulogy. I thought for a while that this would be the story it was my earthly job to tell. This would be the turn the words had been waiting to take. But when he thank heaven recovered and escaped certain death with his life - by the skin of western medicine’s teeth I might add - it became clear that it was a story that belonged only to him. Not only that, but I wasn’t sure that I could hem in the feelings satisfactorily in a controlled environment of 200 pages, or handle the subject safely from the distance of a writer’s stethoscope. Cancer had changed him and it had changed us too. It wasn’t so easy as I had hoped to turn that into something we could all sign our names to and blow off like an eyelash from a fingertip.

I left my job in the silver tower over Ground Zero and started again. Yes one more time, this time with a backpack in Africa. I came here to volunteer, learn and crack open my heart wide, but most of all I came to write. People kept telling me it would be the inspiration for that book that was coming to me. This, they said and I told myself, was surely a story I could tell safely and passionately. Bringing global paradox to light and singing in a million unheard voices. Excavating everything in need of empathy and forcing it under the nose of the unconscious world.

There are nearly two weeks left in my trip to Africa. In an effort not to bore you, I wont list the things I learned, only highlight a few of the biggest ones in passing. Life is much smaller and shorter than any of us ever thought. Nobody gets out alive and so going out laughing instead of going out crying is a more enjoyable approach. Doing something that you love alongside someone that you love is an even bigger gift than living a long life. Home is where your heart is, which is not always where you are. True friends are everywhere. Life dreams are like teenagers - they only turn out alright if you let them grow and change their clothes a million times until you hardly recognize them. But you knew all this already.

I may not have helped the human race all that much - and whose to say it needed help, let alone mine. But I sure have come to respect it more. Respect in a love/hate kind of way. Which is the true nature of respect, I guess. If you’ve never seen a little something to hate in someone that you love, then you don’t love them all that well. After all these months, I’m sad to admit, there is no book, not even a short story. I don’t want to write a book about Africa. Africa doesn’t need me to write their stories - it is a job that I am highly unqualified for, from my small seat in the global amphitheatre. I respect the people I have met enough to realize I don’t really know them, their country and their lives - not to the level that they do. And the ultimate disrespect to anything or anyone is thinking you know what you can’t possibly. But sometimes, deeply sincere respect is good enough. And what’s more - I don’t even know if a book is what I will write at all. Its not the book binding or the cover art that I’m writing for.

So I will return these months later with pen in hand and ready to walk back into the life I was born into. With all its warts and childish misconceptions, I still love my country in that love/hate kind of way. Even watching it do what it always does, swipe at the world with a big clumsy paw like the biggest kid in the sandbox. This is who we are and we are always changing. I too am changed. A little younger, a little older. A little happier despite myself to walk into the arms of my friends and family. To take a seat back in my very small section of the global audience, from which perch everything on the universal stage of life will look just a little different to me from now on. That’s enough for me. Book or no book.

And as for what to write or do next - I’ll just have to wait and see what change tomorrow has in store for me. But this time, I won’t hold my breath while waiting for it to sweep me up in its current. As if in response to these words as I write them, the massive theatre of the African sky yolks up with night clouds and starts an overture of lighting flashes. A new storm is coming - coming for me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Circle of Life: The Untold Story

The pig hit the ground, stunned, and the red dust rose around it. The heads on the old bus swiveled in unison out the dusty back window. Stiff from arching my shoulders forward without the room to straighten them and my knees mashed into the wall of the bus, I struggled to turn enough for a clean view. It took a few moments to register as the driver rushed out into the red dirt road and crept up behind the pig, which sat dumbfounded and wide eyed on its haunches in a swirl of diesel exhaust and dust. At first I thought it had been in the road and we hit it. This curdled my throat. But then, I realized as the entire bus erupted into laughter and pigeon English, that it had been tied to the top of the bus with the luggage and the plantain bunches as cargo and had come crashing off as we sped around a turn.

Blood ran down its pink nose and it made no effort to escape as the driver approached but instead eyed us dolefully from afar. The roof was a good twenty feet high and we’d been thrashing around that dusty turn. The young pig made a good effort to casually gander off but it didn’t look to have the strength to run. The driver dove for its hind leg and carried it back to the bus, dangling its bloodied body from one leg while it squealing pitifully. It was then tossed up to the roof and lashed to it once again with a strap. The bus roared as the driver put us into gear and the sun hit on its hottest midday high note.

Its not often that those of us from the first world think about the source of things. The source of our water, our power, our food, our clothes. And all that is by design of course, because if we appreciated the source of things we use, we probably wouldn’t use or buy as much of it. I myself am a first class second-hand consumer. All I care about is what I get when I buy something that has reached the shelf but thinking any farther back into its history than that just irritates my conscience. I’ve been lucky to visit this continent because that, I can promise you, will change for me in the future. Maybe not so much the reality of my consumption habits as my thoughtfulness for what I consume and who made it. After all, sometimes it’s the thought that counts.

In Africa we have seen all kinds of interesting things that tend to stay out of sight in our own country, only one of which is the live animals grazing just nearby that end up on our dinner plates. If you want chicken or goat meat, you have to buy one from a local farm. You have to see it alive, kill it yourself, clean it and cook it over an open fire. If you want vegetables, you buy them from a local who grew it behind their house. What you eat is therefore much limited to what is growing or living nearby at the moment and so you don’t complain much for lack of variety. When it rains very little or very much, the power shuts off, most of which comes from fragile hydroelectric sources. When there is no money to build an efficient water infrastructure (or even when there is), you’ll be trekking with yellow jugs to the local spring to hand-carry everything from bath to cooking to drinking water. Kids as young as five can be seen with a jug in each hand bigger than they are on their way back from the spring each morning. And if you are unlucky like our current town, then things like cholera epidemics are a dark reminder of the source - or lack thereof - of everyday things. When there are no mystery trucks that come by like the tooth fairy in the early morning to collect your trash, you simply pile it in your yard and burn it. Sure burning plastic is a carcinogen but it will kill you a lot slower than unsanitary diseases living in rotting garbage outside your house. However inconvenient these things are when they are visible, they are also very real. The real causes and effects of human life, just like the life of anything else on earth.

In general, its difficult to see how most Africans treat animals. In fact, most of the time its downright disturbing. Barefoot children throwing rocks at their dogs for enjoyment while adults lead the way by kicking and beating their dogs until they become both skiddish and mean. I cried once at the deaf school for young children watching them mistreat their dog, who endured the kicks and punches like a silent martyr before following behind them obediently back up to the schoolhouse. I welled up and smacked the hands of the children who had hit the dog, but they looked up at me confused and hurt as to why this strange white person would be angry at them for doing what their teachers do every day. Dogs are things not people, right? And pigs are only food. The irony was sad and painful from a group of kids who are forgotten and stepped upon themselves by their own communities because they cant hear. Every day in Uganda we had the pleasure of hearing a pig get killed next door, the sound of which will haunt my every nightmare until the day I die--and here they do it much more humanely then they do it in secret at home. A dozen live chickens tied together at the neck hung upside down and carried on the back of a motorcycle on a bumpy highway. Cardboard crates of small yellow chicks stacked on top of one another on the ferry to Zanzibar with their tiny beaks bleating pathetically all at once. Goats tied to a foot of rope cowering under a banana leaf in desperation for shade from the midday African sun. These are things, and much worse, that I know for a fact happen in our own country. And it seems to me that the only way we Americans can afford to differentiate the treatment of our pets from the treatment of the animals we eat is by not having to see it before it ends up on our plate as a rack of lamb. But seeing it as a part of everyday life, seeing it as a source and a real live being, is a little harder to ignore. At least for me. And in that way maybe Africans are doing it right - earning the right to eat what they kill. At least they are consistent. The moral quagmire of it all can be hard for we westerners. And while the rest of that bus was laughing at the everyday comical nature of a pig falling off the roof, something in that pig’s eyes got right up in my throat and choked me. Because in my opinion, everything living deserves a little dignity. Even if it has to die.

I don’t see myself as an activist, a tree hugger (well, maybe), or a weirdo and Im certainly not about to throw red paint on someone coming out of Bergdorf’s. I don’t think that everyone should be a vegetarian, buy only used clothes or stop living life the way we want to, because the first thing you learn in Africa is that people gotta live and the circle of life is more than just a great Disney anthem to this great continent. But I do think that a little more respect is due from all of us here at the top of the food chain, the economic chain and the overall state-of-the-world chain. Even if its just a moment at the grocery counter, a moment over a bite of food, or a moment in the seat of our car to think about who it was that cut, cleaned, packaged and shipped it to our doorstep for us. To think about the massive global spider web hanging from the walls of our world stringing us all along together. Every small vibration is absorbed by its invisible fibers but still, on some level, it is felt by all.