Monday, July 30, 2007

More excerpts from my Africa journal

6/23/07 - My first day in Africa

On the plane 1 hour out from Lusaka, Zambia, the first country we visited:

Debi, a staff person from World Vision, tells my seat partner and I to open our windows. The colors in the sunrise are like something out of a movie. Or the cover of a William Gibson novel. The horizon is totally flat, the land brown tinged with orange from the top. From the horizon and working up, the sky starts deep tangerine, almost pumpkin and fades into lighter tangerines and the to the color of navel oranges then to a buttery yellow. The color of the fancy butter at Mom’s house, in fact. It transitions to a cornflower blue the a mom-jean blue then a navy, brilliant rather than dull and dark. The lights I saw on the ground were reddish and warm, like campfires although I’m sure we’re too high up for that and I’m just romanticizing.

In a very small plane on the way to Solwezi from the Lusaka airport

Looking down, I see lots of small garden with irregular hand-tilled rows. Many are circular with spokes of path splitting them. They look like hand-appliquéd quilts from this height, with rich browns and various green with hand-stitching serving as the rows between beds.

We pass a section of very large, very solidly green circles, as well. The look mechanically maintained.

Some classic round, thatched huts.

A dried riverbed, black with silt, I assume.

Interestingly, the land seems to be delineated between areas of dense trees and areas that look evenly polka-dotted with trees. I wonder if the roots of these trees give off a proximity toxin, like mesquite.

4 reasons why I feel like a dummy international traveler:

1. Didn’t get any cash before going through security in Chicago. Since I was told I’d only need $50 for two different visas, felt safe when there were no ATMs in the gate area. Figured I’d get spending money from local ATMs. Customs in Zambia (first country of entry): $100. Cash in wallet: $60. Local ATMs: non-existent.

2. Did not have watch at Heathrow. Nearly missed plan to Zambia. "Paging Passenger Murphy. We are about to close the flight." Ran so far, so fast that the words on the signs on the gangway after I had given them my ticket were blurry, even though I was just walking. Mantel was waiting at the door. Said my father would be mad at him if I got left behind. Told him I would be mad at me if I got left behind. Felt like I might die for the first half hour of the flight because I'm so out of shape.

3. Almost forgot to put my address on my luggage. Had sinking feeling as I handed it to TSA. Called it back and tagged it. Watched luggage carousel anxiously in Lusaka. Could see the man unloading the luggage onto the carousel through the plastic flaps. No Rube-Goldberg conveyor belts here. It doesn't show up. Local charter flight lady expedites filing a claim. Only consolation is that 20 other people were also luggage-less. I'm the only one in my group. Mantel tells me that it happens to him about every other trip. After that, it's all OK. Shane Claiborne lost everything he owned in a fire on Wednesday. It could be worse.

4. There is no boarding pass for me on our charter flight. However, once the manifest was checked, I was on it and could get on the flight. Again, I'm the only one in the group that happened to. Well, at least I didn't have to worry that I was 3 pounds over the 26 pound limit.

Turbulence in small plane. Stop writing. Start paying attention to slow, deep breaths. Eyes flit quickly in front and a little up for something to focus on. Find red switch over the pilot's shoulder. His movement makes this a bad choice. Roam around visually, somewhat urgently, bypassing a rivet in the seat in front of me, the bar of the sun visor, and the speakers as some instinctual not-quite-right. My animal brain doesn't even consider thing not shiny or not in deep contrast to the mostly white interior. Finally settle on the ring of the overhead light. Not conscious choice. My eyes simply felt like they could relax. Hear descending guitar chords in my head from some Allman Brothers Band song. Duhn-duh-Duhn-duh-Duhn-dadada. Duhn-duh-Duhn-duh-Duhn-dadada. Finally my body becomes less likely to rid itself of toxins at any loss of focus or rigidity and get to close my eyes and rest my face in one hand, pushing up my sunglasses with still-rigid fingers. As it eases, I remember my iPod. First song: Fire and Rain. Perfect. Second song: Boy in the Bubble. Also perfect. Can see smoke on the ground as James Taylor sing about Jesus seeing him through. Although close to the source it billows, in the air above, it look motionless, in stasis, like a picture.

On the road in Solwezi:

fences of long grasses instead of pickets
children younger than four standing in clumps, looking at our bus
children in hats - where are my knitting needles? in the luggage
much staring and waving - I wave back after Jim waves first
mud brick factories - bricks drying on small end in the sun
Chuck points out the anthills - What do I care about anthills? Show me the people
roadside stand with rice(?) bags for exterior walls
a mini-market with 30 stands on either side of the road - all of them selling clothes - physical necessity? or dignity in the face of poverty? where is the food?
the thought, "This is more than I can process" I cannot simply take notes on the little uniquities. It is all different and new. I will have to let it sink in before I can encompass it with words. Some concern, though, that this first experience of Africa should not be absorbed later into a generic description
three babies - 2 years old, maybe 3 - stand in a loose triangle on the crest above the ditch. T-shirts, short pants - the one in front has a bulky white knit hat with a slightly pointy top. All stare with two-year old intensity, like Leoni, a boy I knew on Orcas.

On the hotel veranda, 5:00 P.M.:

I am having a dress made! We were at a shop that had received micro-loans from the Harmos initiative. He had traditional Zambian fabric for sale and I asked Jenny (who works for WVI in Lusaka) to help me. She spoke with a World Vision employee named Victor who is here in Solwezi to bring a tailor to the shop to take my measurements. His name is Joseph and he has plump cheeks. When our plane landed this morning, we were greeted by 6 little girls in matching dresses. Jenny and I asked Joseph to make a dress like that. He could do it with 4 meters of fabric, so I got to choose my favorite, which has fish batiked on it.

Big day, no?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Test of Faith

This story of the religion reporter with the LA Times is worth the time it takes to read it. What a haunting testimony. I think it's going to have to sit with me for awhile while I let it filter through. I always say that it's human nature to call out those who have betrayed us to our friends and to the public: the guy who took "our" seat on the bus, the husband who cheated, the president who lied. So, the logic goes that if God betrays people's faith, we should have several high profile stories of folks who give their lives over to him and realize it was a mistake years later. Since those stories are not prominant, we can be more comfortable in making the commitment to turn our lives over to him. The author of this piece is not quite crying out betrayal, but his story gives me pause.

Probably, if we had assurances that all would be well, it wouldn't be a choice worth making.

Thanks to Scot McKnight for pointing me in that direction.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Midwest Emergent Gathering

Hans Christian Anderson tells a story about a little baby duck who lives with other baby ducks and who follows his mom everywhere. Everyone stops to make way for the line of ducklings, even the nice policeman.

Wait. That’s not it. Let’s begin again.

This baby duck never feels quite like the other ducks. Her feathers are white instead of brindle. Some of the other ducks even treat her like she wasn’t really a duck when she would trumpet when she was talking instead of quacking. This hurt the little duck. But she knew there was value in duck community because she had tried to spend her time with dogs and goats and never really felt at home walking on the ground and licking all sorts of dirty things.

Wow. This allegory is getting pretty corny.

But it’s not untrue. I’ve felt like the ugly duckling among other Christians since I was in high school. My gut has always told me that some of the things that people are supposed to believe in order to be a Christian just aren’t true.

I blame my dad.

I was probably 8 or 9 when I asked him how dinosaurs could exist when the only other mammals that existed were small furry creatures that lived in trees. (That’s what the giant picture book told me. I figured they lived in trees because it was safer there because the brontosaurus would be less likely to step on them, little as they were.) If this were true, then how could God have created people only one day after creating the animals? Didn’t the book also say dinosaurs lived for a bazillion years before they all died? In order for me to have actually looked to my father for wisdom at that age, this must have been one of those rare moments when I wasn’t mortified by Dad’s humor, pissed at attempts to “control” me or pouting. (At a later date, I also had to ask him to explain the Far Side cartoon, “The real reason dinosaurs became extinct.”) I remember that dad paused and then explained that because God was so huge and lived so long, that a day to God was like a bazillion years to us.

It would be rhetorically effectively to be able to write here:

That blew my mind.

But I can’t.

I simply accepted it and went back to doing whatever I had been doing in the driveway. It was an explanation that made sense. It fit into the logic of the other things that I already knew. Dad’s answer involved sufficient mystery (God is bigger than we can imagine) to satisfy that desire within small children to believe in Santa and involved enough sagacity (God:people::bazillion years:a day) to satisfy my brainiac tendencies, as well.

In one fell swoop, Dad had nixed any possibility that I would ever even consider Creationism as valid and set the groundwork for the idea that the Bible might not be entirely literal. In fact, the Bible might take a little puzzling to figure out how it applies to the current context of our lives.

This foundation led me to question folks who told me that the reason we do or don't do things is "because the Bible says so." I would talk about the fallibility of translation and the inconsistencies of the text, not just of "facts" but also of interpretations. If the new covenant of Jesus Christ commands us to love our neighbors, how can you tell me that it is your Christian duty to discriminate against gay people?

This type of common sense often led other Christians to view me as not-quite-Christian and to relegate me into the category of to-be-led-back-to-the-flock, rather than embracing me as a sister.

That hurt. Luckily, my youth director, Malcolm Davis, had a faith that went a little deeper than legalism. The example of the way he lived his life proved to be a magnet that kept me coming back to The Christians even though I felt like I needed to keep quiet about my "heresies" to be accepted. I guess I can't blame it all on Malcolm. Jesus is fairly compelling, as well.

This past weekend I attended the Midwest Emergent conference about creating missional communities. At this gathering of about 150 people, I found the other swans in the Hans Christian Anderson tale. This is not an epiphany story. I knew these folks were out there. I've been reading their blogs, communicating on their sites and reading their books.

But the experience of being surrounding by people with whom I do not have hide from was a relief. My shoulders let down and I simply basked. I didn't have to prove anything to them. I could just listen and converse and ask questions without a need to assert myself as different and unique, which is my usual defence mechanism against others naming me weird and un-saved. This comfort is an odd experience for me. If you'd like an example of some of the thing that I was listening to, audio of much of the conference is available here. Some highlights would be Nanette Sawyer (my new pastor), Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, James King and Alise Barrymore and Spencer Burke.

What is particularly exciting about these Christians-like-me is that they take my gut instincts about truth about ground it in scholarship and scripture. I'm astonished at just how tightly these folks stick to the Bible. I'll be honest, I have been starting to drift into a thought-process that considered the Bible anachronistic to our contemporary life experiences. But these folks in the emerging church have said, "Don't throw out the Bible. Go back to it and read it again. But this time, don't read it as a rule book. Read it as poetry and history and oral tradition and rabbinical teachings. Learn from it the same way you learn from art museums and stories but remember that the lessons are so much more because the art and the stories are created by the children of God and have the same insight that all children have of their parents: deeply intimate and full of uncomfortable truths but with the potential for misunderstanding." They call this letting the Bible's authority be descriptive instead of prescriptive. It describes what other people who want to live out God's plan for their life have done and tells us to go and do likewise, but learn from their mistakes.

Basically, this emergent movement changes the way we look at how church is done. They say that because so many of us live in a post-modern world and because the traditions and structures and languages of the church were created in a modern world, we have discover new ways of following Jesus that make sense for the new ways that we relate to one another. As Doug Pagitt said, "When people join the church, they don't just make it bigger, they make it different. Therefore, when new people join Christianity, they change Christianity." I know that can make some people get all huffy, but notice that Doug didn't say that Christ is changed in any way. Only the structure on which we follow him.

It's really exciting. I am particularly entranced by the shift in thinking towards talking more about transformation than about beliefs. This means that "faith" becomes more about trusting God than it does about which doctrines we must agree with.

Ack. Apparently, I can go on about this for hours.

The conference itself was well-run, with lots of time for deeper conversations with other people but also a set schedule so it didn't feel like chaos. All of the workshops that I attended were small or were broken up into small groups so that the dynamic was different from those of the main presentations. The first session that I went to was a little CCDA 101 but the second was about running cohorts, which are local monthly gatherings of emerging Christians. The Chicagoland cohort doesn't have a city branch and I'm thinking about running it. In this session, I got a chance to interact with Sarah Notton and Jeff Kusomething, who coordinate the cohorts, as well as a couple of other neat folks. Saturday, I met with the folks from Reba Place, an intentional community in Chicago, thus scratching an itch I've had every since I started trying to casually research island-style community in Chicago.

It was the big sessions that really made me feel at home, though. This conference was able to attract some of the major authors of the movement (for free) and that also impressed me. They talk about flattened social structures (as opposed to hierarchical ones) and they really demonstrated that they lived this out by being there. Tony Jones opened up his talk by claiming a lack of authority on the topics he was about to speak on. He said something like, "Of course, if we are not [humble], excoriate us on your blogs." I liked that no one needed to ask those of us who had blogs to raise our hands so that we could all look around and be impressed at how much the world has changed.

Ironically, my experiences with Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt were the only bleak spots of the conference. I LOVED their talks in the main presentation setting. I thought they set the tone for the conference perfectly. They were well-spoken and right-on. Funny, charismatic and intelligent. But I ended up walking down the hallway with them both after brief interactions with both of them in smaller groups and they struck up a conversation with me. I felt a little lost and I think they felt obligated, what with the stated goals of camaraderie and all. When we arrived at the counter to retrieve our box lunches, they had trouble finding mine and Doug's. When Doug said he'd go down the street to Chipotle and Tony said he's forgo his box and join him, I asked if I could come along, emboldened by their earlier outreach. They both said, "Sure," and promptly turned away to talk to other people. When I realized what was going on, I gathered up the box lunch they had found for me and went to sit with two woman sitting by themselves but at the same table. I gathered them together in a triangle and we had a great conversation. Neither Doug nor Tony ever asked what happened to me. Flashback to junior high, high school and college, anyone? Now, to be fair, I've done this, too. Often deliberately. I usually feel bad about it and then I usually justify it to myself with a little righteous indignation about the audacity of some people. I suppose I'll give them room to be inhospitible in the ways I have been inhospitible to others. However, I've read about how good that Chipotle lunch was from at least two of the folks that they DID invite along. Salt in the wound. Salt in the wound. But, the conference coordinator came over to sit with me specifically at that lunch because both he and his wife think I'm cool (thanks, Mike) and we then had a rotation of neat folks, including the author who was releasing his book that week, Will Sampson. So maybe fair is fair.

Later at dinner, I ended up seated right next to Doug. Again, I don't want folks to walk away thinking that I don't like these guys now or that I think they are not good leaders of the movement. In fact, one of the major problems that most people have with the traditional church is that leaders tell their parishioners to do one thing, but then fall short of those standards themselves. This movement finds strength in admitting that we'll all fall short of the glory of God most of the time. You can't fault a leader for living up to that, can you? I actually really enjoyed Doug's company at dinner. Like I said, he's funny, opinionated, passionate. How could you not like that as a dinner companion? I don't even mind that he tore both Presbyterians and CCDA new assholes. So what if those are major groups that I put my identity into? I mean it, though. I like hearing other perspectives on things I love. And, in fact, I couldn't disagree with anything Doug said about Presbyterianism. I did take some issue with his reactions to CCDA; I felt he was judging from a place of ignorance even though he dropped a few names. CCDA is constantly evolving, just like the emergent movement. It was like he had made up his mind on the subject 5 years ago and never looked any deeper into what we mean when we say, "Redistribution." But I love listening to passionate, funny, intelligent people talk. And what was more interesting than the content of his rants was his style of conversation. I'm an intelligent, passionate, somewhat funny person, myself. However, over the years, I've worked hard to incorporate conversational habits that make my partner feel listened to (the result being that, unintentionally, I actually listen more) and that don't make me seem abrasive and shrewish. I say things like, "That's a good point," or "I hadn't thought of it that way," or "Tell me more about that," or "I don't disagree with you but . . ." The other unexpected benefit of this stylistic shift is that I'm not embarrassed when I think back on the conversation and remember that as I got on a roll once firmly ensconced on my soapbox, I said things for the sake of emphasis that maybe I regret saying now. Also, I don't hurt people's feelings out of ignorance as much when I slow myself down and make sure that I'm hearing them as much as I'm loving hearing myself.

But based on my conversation with Doug, he's not worried about seeming abrasive or shrewish. I guess for men, the words are overbearing and boorish. Let me say again, though. I enjoyed listening to him thoroughly. He's affable and interesting. I didn't walk away from the meal with a bad taste in my mouth. In fact, just to stick it to him, I didn't tell him that my father is part of CCDA leadership until the very end of the meal. He took it well, laughing at himself and playing with me about it. I liked that.

I like complexity in people. Although I don't like being dissed as a lunch partner, I like that a man capable of that can also say such insightful and well-phrased sentences as, "In charting a "third way" between liberalism and conservatism, you are still defined by those two categories." He can be a leader of a movement, even when his complexity in known by the group. (And in talking to others, I'm not the first person to encounter this side of Tony and Doug.) It gives me hope that this group will embrace me, with all of my complexity.

I include these stories about Tony and Doug because I wanted to highlight that hope. Also, I thought people might worry that I was joining some sort of cult if every description were hagiographic. (Dad, substitute the word "rosy" in that sentence for the big word and that will help.)

Because I am ready to work for this movement. I want other people to feel this sense of "home" that I feel. My new pastor, Nanette, spoke to the group about our church and I felt way down deep inside of me that this was an effort worth putting my energy into. I've decided to quit my job entirely in the fall, instead of staying on for 10 hours a week, so that I can give more time to developing this church. We are doing new things that will fit like Tetris with the people of my demographic and we are healing the wounds that these same folks receive because they didn't fit in traditional church. We'll do it through art and mission and community. What could be a greater calling than that?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Poverty USA

I have long believed that one of the major barriers to wealthy people helping the poor in America is the question, "Why don't they just get a job?" or "With all the programs that exist, aren't they just lazy if they can't make it?" Although I know some people will ask these questions out loud, many more of us ask them in our heads.

I think this video is worth watching. It's only 3 and a half minutes and I think it very clearly shows that getting a job and utilizing welfare programs is not enough to break people out of the prison of poverty. It clearly shows budgeting decisions that a family of 4 living below the poverty line has to make. Remember that to make $19,000 in a year (the poverty line), one adult has to work full-time for $9.15 an hour. New minimum wage standards go into effect today, which makes minimum wage in Illinois $7.50 and the federal minimum is $5.85. Although there are graduated increases scheduled for the next 3 years, Illinois will only go up to $8.25 and federal will still only be $7.25. Having a second wage-earner in the family helps, but it costs an estimated $13,000 a year for childcare for 2 kids. Single-parent families and immigrant families that aren't eligible for minimum wage get hit even harder.

Watch the video. What does it make you think about?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Back porch musings

I was sitting on my back porch this weekend, reading my book, when I looked up and saw the same abuelo that I had observed a couple of weeks ago. He had the toddler with him again and this time he was also accompanied by a chubby 8-year-old boy.

The boy brought a bat and instead of practicing his pitching, like the toddler had a few weeks ago, he practiced batting. The distinctive ringing sound of an aluminum bat is what caused me to look up in the first place. Again, his form was pretty good for a kid using rocks instead of a ball. The grandfather wasn't pitching but simply watching. The toddler was standing near his legs. Every time the boy made contact with the rock, the toddler would cheer and clap, cheer and clap. If the rock made contact with any object in the alley - shipping container, I-beam, fence - the boy would drop the bat and run imaginary bases to the cheering and clapping of the baby. The baby never varied his enthusiasm for the boy's activity; regardless of whether the bases were run or not, his response was of the same high intensity. This went on for 10 minutes straight. One boy tosses a rock up and hits it. The baby cheers and claps. The grandfather watches it all, standing in the shade of the El tracks.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm staying in my neighborhood even though the commute to school to will be about an hour and I no longer attend the "neighborhood church" that I used to attend.

I'll be honest, the main reason that I have made this decision is that I hate to move. Really hate it.

Also, the apartment is very well set up for a stranger roommate, with lots of doors and very little shared living space. It's also cheaper than any single I'm going to find anywhere.

Finally, though, I think it's important to put my roots in a community. If I live two years here, then two years there, then two years somewhere else, how will I ever feel like a neighborhood is my home? How will I ever get to experience the rhythms of a grandfather returning to the alley with his grandsons to practice baseball with them?

As humans, we experience such delight when we can make connections between things, connections between experiences, connections between people. How will I experience these connections if I put a big schism in the geography of my experiences?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Africa journal

From my journal, 24 June 2007, 2nd day in Africa:

If I had written this several hours ago, I would have discussed a sense of apathy I was feeling. I wasn't feeling any terrible sense of jet lag or culture shock, but I also wouldn't say that I had any great excitement over the people and the landscape of Africa, either. To be honest, as we drove in the rural areas, it looked like the zoo. Both Chicagoland zoos - Brookfield and Lincoln Park - have holistic African exhibits that mimic the landscape and habitat of the African animals with round, thatched gathering huts, small square buildings of mud bricks, plastered over and decorated with geometric designs or random and poetic word combinations. "Sunflower love." This is what I saw. Most huts had little wooden stands - just sticks driven into the ground with more sticks lashed to them to make a couter top about chest high - at the sides of the roads on which they displayed for sale any vegetables that they had harvested during the day.

After a three-hour bus ride in which the only toilets that existed on the whole route were behind a newly built police station, we were told to exit the bus: first women, then the men. 20-30 African men and women were singing and moving joyfully, greeting us with smiles and words and wrapping us women in traditional wrap skirts called chitenge while we were still standing on the bus steps. The men received hats made of some fibrous plant and carved walking sticks. The hats were ridiculous but most wore them well.

The church service that began after our arrival did not really impress me. I have a stereotype in my head of overly formal welcoming ceremonies from the grateful natives to the white saviors, and the opening events of this church service fit perfectly into my uncomfortable expectations. After the exuberant welcome, we were ushered onto a raised platform that had a thatched shelter built over it. We faced 200 people, who were arranged in u-shaped bleachers. Western and formally dressed officials to our left, the high school students in their uniforms directly across from us and the women and children in their brightly colored finest to our right.

But then the children sang.

In high school I discovered Ladysmith Black Mambazo and fell in love with the harmonies of Africa. It was the perfect extension of the recognition and comfort I feel for the harmonies of gospel music.

These children sounded like the Africa that spoke to me as a teenager.

These children were not the zoo.

Something shifted inside of me, away from apathy.

Then, our trip leader, Larry, lined us all up to introduce us. A local government official was present and we were formally introduced. Larry displayed a keen understanding of African humor and made the group laugh several times as he mocked himself and us. I was blown away.
Then, I had to go to the bathroom and edged away from the crowd toward the mud-brick building marked clearly, dividing the flow by gender to one side or another. Inside was only a hole and toilet paper on a stick wedged in the high window opening. Luckily, because of my Orcas Island experience, I was not daunted by the hole. It was fun not to be daunted. On my way back from the hole, a little girl, about 3 years old, walked toward me, away from the service. I squatted next to her and talked to her a little. Babies never make sense so the language barrier wasn't an issue. I was charmed.

Then, the high school boys put on a skit whose plot I couldn't follow but whose actors were so talented, I couldn't look away. One boy shaved the center of his head and rubbed mud along his jawbone to make himself look like an old man. His talent for physical and slap-stick comedy was greater than any kid I've ever seen on the Illinois Forensics circuit. This was the realization of universality that made me finally trade in my apathy for empathy. My experiences are not mine entirely because of privelige. Children of poverty are talented to the same degree as children of privelige. I know this in my head but I didn't apply the knowledge to Africa until that moment. I was enthralled.

Then, I opened up. I flirted with every little girl that I caught looking at me, just like I used to do at the Renaissance Faire. As we were forming a parade to get from the assembly grounds to the half-finished boys' dormitory that was being funded by several of the members of our trip, one of these little girls fell into step alongside me. We smiled at each other while we walked and while we were both looking forward, I took her hand. 2 or 3 other girls gathered around her as we walked. To one of them who seemed to want it - rather that just to giggle at her friend's audacity - I held out my other hand. She took it. These two girls led me to the front of the parade, just behind the choir. I was the only "visitor" that I could see. The experience of being in the middle of everything is different for me; I'm usually on the edge observing so that I can write it down later. I had fun. I didn't even mind when Larry took my picture.

We rounded a corner of a school building a walked along the wall. The music of the teenagers bounced off the wall and surrounded me. This was the first moment that I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I thought I might cry. The girls continued to lead me but at some point when we got to the front to be honored, as visitors, to see the new dormitory, the first girl on my left hand fell back, absorbed into her friends. I looked at the girl on my right to see if she wanted to go, too but every time I smiled down at her, she gave me the most beautiful smile, all the way to her eyes. So, I took her with me on the tour. I kept looking down at her and she kept smiling back up at me. I think we fell in love with each other a little bit.

At one point, I felt her touch the skin on my arm with just one finger. I'm sure she was trying to figure out if white skin felt different from the skin that she knew. I looked down after I felt the touch and tried to encourage her to explore more but she just smiled, almost as if she had never done it. LAter I noticed that she would rub her little thumb back and forth in the web of skin between my thumb and forfinger. The red dust from her hand mixed with the sweat of both out hands to form a paint that probably looked very different with my light skin as a canvas than red dirt on dark skin has looked. I wondered a little, with a sense of silliness, if she thought she was rubbing off on me. I think she's probably smarter than that.

She stayed with me all the way to lunch, whne I had to let her go. When I left her, she showed such a reluctance to be left. However, it was a passive reluctance. Her body didn't respond to my hug and she continued to drift toward me as I walked away, almost like static cling. No one would have called it following but she certaining didn't stay put, either.

For lunch, many women had gotten together and cooked for us. I ate sweet potato leaves, nshima, beans, cabbage, and a hominy-type corn with peanut sauce.

When I came out from lunch, the little girl was waiting for me. I tried to ask her name but it was too African for me to process. I couldn't spell it in my head. Luz something. Larry couldn't process it either when he asked her. She was standing with only a few other children in the courtyard outside the school room in which we were eating. I took her hand again and we went back to smiling at each other. However, I was suppose to go straight to the bus and had to say good-bye to her a couple of times, because it was the first day and I thought that everyone would jump when Larry said jump and was fooled every time. Again, the passive reluctance when I would say good-bye. Not protesting. Not aggressive. A subtle physical hope that if she kept close, she might get to go with me. Once she actually made it onto the bus steps. Larry encouraged me to give her the beans that I had bought the day before at the market from a woman who had received micro-enterprise loans from World Vision. I went onto the bus and got the bag for her. We had been instructed to offer gifts with both hands and so I knelt to be at her level and held the beans out to her. As cliche-ed as it sounds, she looked lost. None of her facial muscles were flexed so her face looked slack, yet she kept eye contact with me as her arms reached out to take the beans. Then, I got on the bus for good and looked out the window for her. As the other kids crowded the bus, she stood 20 feet back, looking back at me with the bag of beans draped over her small arm. It seemed like such an insignificant gift. She waved every time I waved and followed the bus for just a little while as we pulled away. Tears welled up in my eyes as I took a picture and waved good-bye.

I want it to be clear, though. My tears were not tears of pity. I wasn't imagining how hard her life must be for her. I wasn't picturing the opportunities that she doesn't have.

She reached out for me hand when I offered it. I needed her to lead into the middle of the singing. She needed me . . . I don't know why she needed me but her persistence tells me that she did.

Isn't that what it's all about? Haven't I been yattering on for years now about community and how our need for relationships with one another is the only pure desire we have? How our modern, drive-through, suburban culture lacks intimacy? Don't we all just want to be known? And loved anyway?

This little girl wanted to be known by me. And it turns out that I needed to be known by her. Maybe this could only happen in the midst of what the Western world would call poverty. When then only wealth a child has is the people she interacts with, then a little African girl can reach out to a grown American woman and they can know each other to the point of tears.

Without ever saying a word.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Art from Artists

I love buying art from the people that actually make it. I know the feeling of having something that I made bought from me and I have always gone home after that experience feeling satisfied that someone connected with my art enough to fork over money for it. Art gets made out of our identities, so when that connection occurs, it's like finding another person who sees the world in the same way you do.

While in Africa, I walked through the craft market in Livingstone, Zambia. It was mostly full of buy-and-sell African tchochkes. You know, carved hippos, wire and bead figures, giraffe spoons. But then I came across the booth of Zacharia Mukwira. I found these gorgeous paintings. They appear to be almost embossed. I guess he makes the carving, presses the paper down into it and then paints it. They have such depth. I had a great time choosing these three prints. I didn't even barter with him because I believe that artists should be allowed to state their own worth.

While we were talking, he said that he wanted to get his name known in the United States. I told him that I would post his work on my website, along with his email address. If you're interested in purchasing works from Zacharia, he can be reached at I think that even if he sent an assortment to you blindly, you'd be happy with it. I loved everything in his booth.

Monday, July 09, 2007


So, pretend you are a 14-year-old American girl with Mexican parents who is about to turn 15.

What do you want for your birthday?

I have been invited to what will probably be a modest quinceanera (something like a sweet sixteen or debutante party) in a church basement by one of my co-workers. I think he will be embarassed if I bring cash in the amount that I would normally bring to cover the expenses of entertaining myself and my date. So, I think I need to buy an actual gift.

But it has to be perfectly what a 15-year-old girl would want. Any thought on how to make a teenager happy with $50 - $75?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How'd you let that guy jump the queue?

So, I don't know if you have been watching the news, but yesterday, after 10:30 am local time in London, only 3 flights got out of Heathrow because of a security breach. Man, am I glad I was on one of those flights. I didn't even grumble when we had to deplane, get our bags sniffed by adorable English dogs and then replane. I got home 5 hours later than I expected to and my head cold got much worse but I was so glad to just be home that it didn't even matter how miserable my body felt. Can you imagine how long it is going to take to get all of those people whose Chicago flights were cancelled slotted into the empty seats of the current flights? I would have been there for days! I wouldn't even have gotten to do any sightseeing because I am so sick.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A new morning? Is it really morning?

I am feeling better and just consumed a fantastic and stunningly decadent almond croissant and hot chocolate from Pret A Manger. As my family says, if you're eating, you'll probably be fine. Not so much puffy eye any more, just a little fever and stuffy nose and the world sounds like it is 50 meters away (still thinking in metric). My pocket is full of cold medicine that I got tired of politely refusing from my travel companions. The security lady here in London felt up that pocket to an indecent degree, in my opinion.

Just 10 more hours and I'll be home.



Monday, July 02, 2007

I fell weird calling it Joberg

I'm in the Johannesburg airport in Chicago with free internet access since several of my fellow travelers have fancy travel lounge memberships and we bum-rushed the door behind them.

Good news, Doug! Your book is in the book store here! How's that for globalization?

My trip was huge. I'm plotting out several essays that I'll post here as I get them written. I'm not sure if I can confirm or deny that it was the kick in the pants that I've been looking for until the experience is juxtaposed on my everyday life once I get back. I'll let you know.

Mom and Dad, I look forward to seeing you at the airport. I developed one of my swollen-right-eye head colds last night, so I might hang out at your house until I recover, if that's OK with you. Nothing is worse than getting off 30 hours of traveling and going home to a messy, empty apartment with no food when your sick. However, on the bright side, I'll have a whole suitcase less to clutter up the car than I did when I left.

Yup, that's right folks, I've been wearing the same two pairs of underwear for my entire trip. Woohoo!