Sunday, July 31, 2011

When the Port Becomes the Storm


There is a certain singular danger in falling in love with a friend, particularly a good one. Friends and lovers provide love and support, and no one consort should hold all the keys to your  heart and provide all the shelter from your storms.
Having one person have so much access to you is comforting and natural,knowing where to run to in times of distress is invaluable. But it is wise to distribute some of that weight to other friends, other acquaintances. I have made mistakes in this area, and the result has not been good - not in the sense of personal pain it caused me, but in the unattractive defenses I have put up. Defenses I don't believe are part of my natural character, but in the end, the things I will be judged upon.
I think I made matters much worse by taking a very long time before I truly opened up to someone, let them in, put all my fences down. It was beautiful and it was painful, I knew peace and ecstasy, and I knew torment and pain. She became my confidant, and I talked to her about everything. She was the only person I had known that I could tell anything to, no matter how embarrassing, not worried that she would judge me. She was wonderful that way. Things were never perfect between us, neither of us was perfect, but we worked on it. Gradually, things began to erode, and we watched our relationship die over several years. When the time came to finally put it all down, I was lost. The person who I needed to run to for shelter was the storm that I was fleeing.
I didn't know how to deal with her. I was angry, and I was in love; I was hurt, and I continued to hurt; I needed her to be kind and soft with me, and I needed to make her understand how she had hurt me; I needed to have someone on my side, and I needed to be angry with her. It was not my best time.
Of course all this pushing made her more resolved to put distance between us understandably. I mistook that for callousness and I dug myself deeper in my self-pitying hole. Meanwhile, there were people all around who would have helped me, but I had no way of letting them in. I said things I didn't want to say, desperately trying to deal with my loss with the one person I had no business talking to. Eventually, I gave up, and did not contact her again.
She had developed a better support system than I, and had acquitted herself with more dignity than did I. I envy her for that. Before, I thought it was a measure of her lack of caring, lack of love. I know differently now. I am not sorry for the relationship, nor that it ended and she has gone to happier places. She may never believe I want the best for her, but I really do. I regret I didn't have the mechanisms to deal with things, and I will try to avoid the error in the future.


The Lure of Beauty, the Pursuit of Truth

Was reading Santayana this morning and came across this term, the lure of beauty, the pursuit of truth.  The symmetry and  disjuncture in this juxtaposition struck me immediately. The difference between being lured and to pursue caused me to think about both processes, and the influence of the destination.  We behave much differently when we are attracted to something than when we seek it out.  I wondered if we are drawn to beauty naturally, and have to work at getting to the truth, maybe even to want to get to the truth. What happens when we fall versus when we chase or climb.  Beauty is clearly not a choice, truth clearly should not be.
Beauty
A beautiful thing draws us to it.  We may not think about why it is beautiful, not need to know what attracts us, we simply feel the need to go to it, be with it, possibly possess it.  We don't get to choose what is beautiful to us, we can't make something so even if we feel we should. We seem unable to share beauty with each other - I don't know how many times I have shared a beautiful song, poem, even a movie with a friend and find myself baffled when that friend "doesn't get it."  I believe we do try to adopt a sense of beauty from others at times, but it is synthetic in that the beauty shared is really the extension of the common friendship and love that motivates us to enhance our connections, to magnify them.  We can connect deeply with another who has independently recognized the beauty of something, but often find that it is our only connection and it is so impalpable that we find little else to share, little else to connect us.
So beauty becomes a very personal thing, a very pure, singular siren that beckons us, and we rarely resist. 
Its call, so clear and compelling, creates an attraction that reconciles the irreconcilable - nothing can keep us from it, and we are abjured from any sin employed to get to it.  Nothing is so concrete yet so abstract; concrete in that we see it, feel it, know it; abstract in that we cannot share it, cannot communicate the attraction we feel, the attraction we are doomed to indulge. Beauty pulls us in, and we no more question the inevitability of our desire to follow,or our  path to get there than does a rock, dropped from a distance, questions gravity.
Truth
Truth needs to be sought, as if it is hidden, obtuse, or elusive.  We know at once that we should chase it even though we may not care for what we discover, and that it might not serve our needs and desires.  Truth is not beautiful, it could not be given its obscurity - beautiful things are drawn to the open, drawn to be admired. We rarely seek it altruistically, more often to support or rationalize a goal or ideology we have already created.  Truth, or the discovery of truth, becomes a task.  A pilgrim, setting out on the path to truth, prepares to humble himself and to be radically changed by the quest, let alone the final acquisition. He knows it will be difficult, and has to steel himself in preparation.  What does that say about truth?  What does it say about us?
Many of us will "seek truth" once we think we have figured out what it is, and by then uncovering it, can utilize it for our own advantage.  Few truly open their minds and hearts and prepare for anything in this quest.  Truth is necessarily relative when mankind relates to it with motive or malice.  It is not a tool to be wielded, but a blueprint to be followed. It is not beauty, cares little how you court it, truth dictates the path with the discipline of logic. One not only needs to come to it, one needs to come to it in the right way - there is no serendipitous passage.  Truth is a severe and meticulous mistress, quickly alienating many a sojourner who unwisely romanticizes her. 
Desire Then
We desire to consummate our attraction to beauty, not to slake it, but to yield to it faithfully.  Desire becomes the pursuit and subsequent communion with beauty, an unending intercourse where pleasure in process and pleasure in culmination coalesce effortlessly and beginning usurps end.  Desire for beauty is to be unleashed.
Desire for truth is less honest, less naive.  We desire truth to explain the world around us, often in a way that grants us advantage, puts us ahead of lesser thinkers.   There is a sublime power in the ability to point out a fact or a truth so cogently that it defies refutation, particularly when it reflects back on you, elevating you above the coarse and limited dialect of the unenlightened. This manipulation has been man's boon and his calamity since first he rested the construction of truth from mythology and its selfish gods.
Love - The Intersection 
We let love pretend to offer us the embrace of beauty and the asylum of truth.  Nothing could be further from the truth - there is no enduring beauty in love, and truth rises and falls in concert with the relative contentment of the relationship. Love is not a warranty, activated by vow or purchase. Desire for beauty and truth does not hasten love, it does not enable it.  Instead, love is the eventual evolution of beauty and truth to the state where two people find beauty in new venues imperceptible to the individual, and truth forged in the mutual sacrifice of two people determined to learn how to acquiesce ego and insecurity. Beauty transcends its adolescent fixations on physique and pulchritude, emerging vividly in the simple unsolicited gestures that hydrate a day. Truth, a devastating weapon in the hands of individual in a competition or rivalry, changes in the equity of love. Truth then, becomes the stubborn essence that survives the relationship, the loophole never engaged, the escape clause never initiated, the technicality never exploited. 
Love does not provide beauty and truth, it is the meridian of both, the reconciliation and purification of two human frailties tempered by the patience of a benevolent God.

A Couple of Murderers I have Known

In my life, I have known murderers and people who have been murdered - in one case, I knew both, the young girl and her mother whom she killed (It's a Small Sometimes Ugly World, October 2010). As far as the former group, I knew two well, Tom and Patrick.
I met Tom late one night while playing pool near the campus of my university in 1978. It was a small, friendly bar populated equally by locals and college students. It had a lot of pool tables, I enjoyed going in there on weekends and spending time. Eventually, I got to know most of the people who regularly stopped by, and I felt pretty comfortable there. I was playing pool one summer evening, when a small, dark haired man (more like a boy) came up and put his quarter on my table, challenging the winner of the game. He wore dated clothes, with a Native American necklace that looked far too big for his neck. He had a pack of cigarettes in his t-shirt pocket, and he looked like he must have had a rough life in his few years. I noticed that when he came in, there was a visible reaction in the room. The noise changed, it went from a happy buzz to a series of low whispers. My challenger didn't seem to notice.
I won the game I was playing, and he dutifully racked the balls and I broke. We played a few games, splitting the outcomes. All the while, I noticed that the other patrons were watching intently, not for the acumen of our game, their eyes hardly left him. Gradually I knew his name, and he told me had returned to the area after a long period away. When he went up to the bar for a coke, no one talked to him. I found this very odd later when I discovered everyone in the room but me knew who he was, what he was.
Tom didn't talk much, and he seemed just happy to be there playing pool. After an hour or so, he excused himself and left. When the door closed behind him, sound returned to the room. People were laughing strangely and looking at me. I ignored them and continued to play pool. When I went into the bathroom, an acquaintance followed me in, perhaps nominated by the group. I found it odd when he started talking to me, as he was violating a well known rule of conversation in a men's room. He was brief though, anxious to tell me who I had just interacted with. Tom had been a well known trouble maker in his early teens, and he came from a family with a very bad reputation. On one horrible evening, the fifteen year old had taken a friend out into the woods and slit his throat over a few dollars and drug deal. He was sent to a juvenile facility for several years, and just recently been released. My informant shared the story with a tone like I had been lucky to have survived the evening.
I saw Tom several times after that, and we usually played pool and sat together between games. No one else ever talked to him. Over the course of the two weeks, I learned more about him, as he slowly started to reveal his past. One evening, he started the conversation with "you know what I did, don't you?" I told him I did and he asked me if I wanted to know what happened. I nodded, and he told me the story. There were no mitigating circumstances, no excuses. He told me flatly why he did it, and the details his life since. I sat there amazed, not so much for the sensational subject and detail, but because he told the story with absolutely no emotion. When he finished, he asked me if I had any questions. When I said no, he added "you know, I would do it again in a heartbeat." That sent shivers down my spine. He then switched the topic to pool and we never discussed it again.
I avoided the place for a long time, not wanting to see him again, and not wanting to avoid him if I did. It was a cold lesson in evil that I learned that summer, looking into those brown eyes. I heard he had been arrested on another charge and he had returned to prison. Tom had fired the first salvo against my liberality, I never again supposed that all men were fundamentally decent, and were products of their environment. Tom was a killer, always was, always would be.
Patrick was a different story. He was a student in the first class I taught at the college level, and we stayed in touch for several years. On the first night of class, I knew he had been in prison after I heard him speaking to the other students. Many former inmates I had know employed the same sort of distorted pragmatic logic. He spoke again in class, and he must have noticed my reaction, as he came up to me afterwards and asked me very bluntly, "you know where I have been, don't you?" I told him I supposed I did, and he asked me if he could talk to me. When I agreed, we sat down and he told me his story.
Eight years before, he had been dating a pretty mulatto girl across town. He was young and wild, and their affair had been tumultuous. After an argument one evening, she told him it was over, and in his words, he lost his mind. He went out, got drunk and high, and returned to her house with a coke bottle of gasoline, a sock, and a lighter. He stood outside her house yelling, and when no one replied he hurled his Molotov cocktail up on the porch, igniting in a small explosion. No one had been home, and the fire did not reach the main structure. He stood there for a minute watching his handy work, then decided it would be prudent to leave. As we walked back up the street, he was accosted by an elderly Black man who angrily demand he return until the police came. Patrick hit him as hard as he could, and when he hit the ground, the old man was dead. Patrick fled, but was picked up several hours later and was convicted of arson and manslaughter.
He told me that story as he didn't want me to be uncomfortable wondering what he had done. I thanked him, and we didn't speak about it for a long time. Patrick passed the class but dropped out a year later. He got a job as a travelling salesman selling advertising in college catalogs. It was good work for him, as it allowed him to exploit his charm and frenetic energy. We kept in touch, usually when he called me late at night to discuss some political issue or philosophic point. He never lost his prison rhetoric, and his life followed suit. He did not return to prison, but he bounced around, wheeling and dealing, one step of what ever trouble was following him.
I got to know both these men, and it gave me a far more complex understanding of the human psyche and evil. One was an evil man, the other was a man who did evil things. In either case, I decided I would not envy the individual, program, or society that would endeavor to help or rehabilitate them, having no idea where I would start.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ramadan


The most beautiful Ramadan I have ever spent was in Tanzania, and it was before I converted to my faith. I had experienced this holy month many times before, and had observed it while in Yemen for two years, and a few other times when in the company of Muslim friends. In 1999, Ramadan occurred between December and early January 2000. It was a magical time - Ramadan, Eid, Christmas, Chanukkah, and the new Millennium were all overlapping - nearly everyone was excited about something.
It was a bitter sweet time in my life, and in the lives of all Tanzanians. They had lost their father, their first president Julius Nyerere a few months before. Baba Wa Taifa, Mwalimu Nyerere (Father of our nation, our teacher). I also counted him as a teacher, for when I was learning my trade in Jamaica (adult literacy), I had three books that I read constantly, one of them was "We Must Run While Others Walk" a biography about the great teacher. It had inspired me, and it taught me about many of the complicated issues involved in development work. I was so thrilled almost fifteen years later when I found out I would be supervising Peace Corps Volunteers in Tanzania. I would be doing development work in his country - education, girls' empowerment, and HIV/AIDs awareness. Life's inscrutable ironies have often shined on me.
By October of that year, I had been without my daughters for nearly three months, and I was depressed. While trekking through a very remote area one day, my driver abruptly stopped the car, and I looked up to see two women in the middle of the road on their knees wailing hysterically. The driver got out, and I intuitively stayed behind. I saw him gently put his hand on one of their shoulders, and I could tell he was trying to console them while figuring out what had happened. In the middle of a sentence, I saw his body stiffen, and for a moment I thought he was going to collapse, joining them in their misery. After a few more moments that seemed like hours, he turned and came back to the Landrover. He was crying, and as he opened his door to climb in, he uttered "Baba Taifa amekufa." He started the vehicle, and we drove in silence.
I knew the tremendous impact Nyerere had on the people of his country, but I did not expect to see level of mourning that occurred after his death.
The country shut down for a month, not as some sort of symbolic gesture, but because it would have been futile to do otherwise. Bars and discos closed that month, vagabond bootleggers who sold pirated cassettes on street corners played no music other than solemn hymns. The people reached out to each other, and the country grieved their loss. It was a very moving experience for me, and in a way, helped me cope with my daughters absence.
Now, just a few months later, the Abrahamic faiths were realigning, and I could feel the spiritual energy everywhere. The nation was waking from its grief, and most everyone had special reasons to celebrate their blessings. Me, I enjoyed Ramadan, as I loved the discipline of fasting, and respecting the world around me. That world was alive with joy and I was at the epicenter.
I did not get to go home for Christmas, but my daughters spent the holiday with their mother and my sister's family. They made a video of the day, and I watched it over and over gain the following week, and I was able to go back and visit a month later.
Midway through the month, I got to go to Zanzibar for a week. The population of the two islands is 99% Muslim. I was vising schools like the one above, seeing thousands of beautiful faces, all excited by the season. As I mentioned, I observed the fast during Ramadan, and it was particularly magical on that island (technically, I was on the island of Unguja, which paired with the second island, Pemba, to make the place we call Zanzibar). I would be out in the schools during the day, and return to the capital, Stone Town, at night. I would usually arrive at the time for Maghrib prayer and the breaking of the day's fast. The beautiful Adhan (call to prayer) echoed softly through the streets, and there was positive energy everywhere.
I would go down to the port to break my fast, choosing to ignore the restaurants and heading straight to the seafood barbecue set up on dozens of tables at the seafront. Each table had its own barker, usually a smiling native calling you to the table, extolling the virtue of his servings above all others. Beside him was the chef, who would collect the fish, octopi, vegetables, or meat, skewer the concoction and place it on a little grill. In five minutes I would walk away with a wonderful pile of food and sauces wrapped in a pita-like roll. I would then stroll up and down the beach enjoying the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen.
It was also very nice, for in general, it was very rude to walk and eat publicly, probably a prohibition meant to spare those less fortunate.
I loved the week I spent there during that holy time, and I believed it relit the inner spark that would eventually lead me to Islam.

Entropy

The nights were long in Yemen in those days.  It was December, and any light from the village refused to grace the camp, mercifully allowing the darkness to permeate the place, dampening the sorrow and despair, giving one more evening of respite to the women and children cloistered there. I loved the night. I too needed refuge, not from a war or poverty or disease, just from the emptiness inside me, just needed a place to thrive. I worked and played and plodded through the day, but I loved the promise of  each new night.
Typically, the evening began with five or six children romping around my shack, tustling over cassette tapes, pens, and exercise books.  Eventually, they would put aside their jealousies and unite in a harried demand - show them the same card trick they had seen dozens of times, sing my Arabic tea song, or go outside and jump rope for a time. On other nights I would read to them in a language they did not understand, or put four of them in my bathtub (a wheelbarrow) and tool them around the camp  till I tired.  Some nights they ignored me completley and played somber and contrived games, each taking turns at dictating capricious rules and engineering demands on the decorum of the event.  At eight or so, their mothers would call, and each in turn would rise, smack me gently somewhere on my body and skip on out the door.  I am still not sure how this ritual got started, but I did not mind it.
Once they had left, I slid into the greased groove of my evening.  I would boil some water for tea with cinnamon bark, cloves, and cardamom, and sit up on my bed drinking while I read a Rita Dove poem.  I would write a letter or read a bit more, then I would turn off the lamp and lay in silence for a few hours, praying for equilibrium.  Eventually, my mind would clear, the events of the day would dissipate, and I would gaze out the window at a million stars, lost in the silent serenity of space.  My schemes and hopes and dreary dreams would stubbornly evaporate, and I would nestle down and wait.  Wait for the warm, wet darkness to creep in, wait for it to envelope me in its brooding succored embrace. Then that which was inside of me, that nothingness of place, would draw itself out in intercourse with the salubrious vacuum of space. And for several hours afterward, be connected peacefully to time and heaven's fate, eyes closed languishing in an ethereal tranquil state.  I loved the night.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Culture Shock


I have lived in Jamaica, Yemen, Tanzania, and London. I have spent a great deal of time in Kenya, Uganda, Jordan, and Palestine. I have dated, been in relationships, even done both in multiple languages. I have taught all kinds of students, eaten all kinds of foods, even managed to listen to lots of different kinds of music. I have a Master's degree in Multicultural Education and I have published manuals on cultural diversity. I thought I was ready for anything, inoculated against any type of cultural shock. And true to form, the only place I suffered it was in the place I least expected it. Ooooklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain...........
I left Indiana to go to Oklahoma for college. I knew it was a good distance away, and that there might be some differences, but hey, it was still America. Thirty something years later, I think I might have been wrong about that. As I boarded the plane, my expectations were limited to cowboys, Indians, howdy, and heat. I didn't know I would have to learn a new language.
When I got off the plane, I walked past a very big man in a too tight shirt standing behind the counter of a fast food counter. He was the biggest man I had ever seen. My stare, and possibly gaping mouth, caught his eye and he smiled broadly, saying "jeeeeeetjetbiggin?" I stared harder, jaw dropped lower, as he repeated louder and longer "jeeeeeeeejetbiggggin." At this point I was frozen in my tracks, petrified as it were. His smile faded a tad to a look I often reserve for a three year old that is trying but not quite there yet. I was saved by a stranger, perhaps name Hermes, who stopped, looked at me knowingly and said "the man asks did you eat yet big one"? Wow! In seven years, I am not sure I picked up this language, something that has made me very sympathetic when dealing with ESL (English as a Second Language) students elsewhere.
Well, I hadn't eaten yet,  andI made my way to my parent's house (they had moved there a year before while I was in high school) and surprised them. I didn't tell them I was coming, or that I was planning on attending a local college. They were so excited, they took me out to dinner. My step-father told me about a famous restaurant, Big Ed's, only a few minutes away. We jumped in the care and sped off. We arrived at a small place, nested in a strip mall with a big sign with a big guy (yes, Ed) looming over the threshold. We went in, sat down, and my step-father ordered the specialty for me, a giant cheeseburger and fries. The deal was if you could eat it all in 45 minutes, it was free. I had never seen something like that before, and I was a little aghast. I looked around the room and saw several giants digging into their challenges, families and fans cheering boisterously. It wasn't Texas, but everything and everyone was bigger here.
My dinner came out on a giant pizza pan, The cheeseburger was really eight cheeseburgers topped with every condiment imaginable between two layers of bread that could have each doubled for a hubcap. Wrapped completely around this culinary colossus were about a hundred giant french fries. I wasted a few minutes of the 45 just staring at it. I eventually tied into it, and actually got it all down except one large slice of the cheeseburger. The patrons clapped politely, and Big Ed ambled over and patted me on the back saying something I couldn't understand. I was in the Land of the Giants visiting the Twilight Zone. As we took the scenic route (no such thing in Oklahoma City then) home, I noticed a dozen all-you-could-eat places, and I nearly got sick.
The next morning, I woke early and picked up the paper - it was not my habit to do so, but there was a big picture of a bottle of whiskey and man and a much younger woman holding it. I was intrigued. It turned out that the State Supreme Court was entertaining a case dealing with the inconsistent drinking age law in Oklahoma. It seems the legal aged for women (girls) was a lower than that of men. I assumed it was because women matured faster, the article provided a different attribution - it postulated that there were many men who married much younger girls, and the happy couples should be allowed to go out on the town together. I honestly thought it was a joke. It wasn't. I was even more perplexed the first time I went out for a drink, fully expecting to see a crop of teen aged girls. I got to the first bar I could find and confidently strode in. I was halted at the door and accosted for my membership card. I explained that I didn't have one and was refused entrance. The club was not private, it was just a mechanism to get around another quaint drinking custom of the day - liquor by the drink.
It was illegal in Oklahoma to sell liquor in a public bar, that's correct, you heard it right. You had to bring your own bottle in and then you paid for the setups. Your bottle went behind the bar, and somehow the honor system made sure it only feed you. In a private bar however, you could but it from the bar, therefore a lot of public bars behaved as private ones by creating a membership scheme which also brought in a lot of extra revenue, ie, membership fees. I asked about all of this that night when I found a bar that would let me in for a small fee. It was explained to me that it somehow had to do with the fact that Oklahoma was "smack dab" in the middle of the bible belt. I didn't understand the connection, and was doubly astonished when I heard that they allowed totally nude dancing in the state. Peering through the opaque glitter of the neon lights filtering through my drink, I tried to pull it all together. I could bring in an under aged girl, an open bottle of whiskey, and we could both watch nude exotic dancers, then perhaps finish off the evening at a swanky buffet place on our way home, waking up early of course to go to church. I was confused.
Besides the language difference, and the obtuse drinking etiquette, there were other issues that perpetually perplexed me. Coors beer was Keeeers beer there; everyone wore cowboy boots whether or not they had ever sat on a horse; the most popular dish at the college canteen was Frito Pie, a big would-be casserole constructed with the ascending layers of corn chips, chili, shredded cheese, and jalapeno peppers in that order; 572 Baptists to every Catholic (I counted!); a delicacy called Chicken Fried Steak; an annoying plethora of country and western radio stations; and a Mexican restaurant on every corner, adjacent to, off course, the Baptist church who eyed it closely having heard illegal Mexican aliens were all Catholics (extra-terrestrial aliens and Catholics were counted equally on the state cesus I believe).
I never culturally assimilated in Oklahoma. I didn't hate the place, I just never understood it. Every time I returned to Indiana, or any other state north of Oklahoma, I felt like I had landed back on Earth. Honestly though, I have never travelled anywhere else where I have been that "alienated", not even the remote village in Yemen where I lived  for two years. Today, when people ask me about my travels and if I ever experience culture shock, I sometimes just look at them and reply "jeeeeeeeejetbigggin?"

Riot



I was standing at the end of the walk in the threshold of the building above, talking to the assistant headmistress about the schedule of my sight visit, when the riot broke out. Minutes before, I had been admiring the new structure, noting how clean and bright the furnishings were. In less than a minute, everything had changed - the world turned upside down.
I believe something as chaotic, violent, and senseless as a riot ought to have a larger name. These four letters seem painfully inadequate. A riot has no master, has no form, has no dignity. It is a wave that gathers strength and spills out in unpredictable fashion. It is loud and crass, and yet curiously quiet. I can understand how one could be caught up, carried along, killed in a riot. There is nothing so surreal as this amorphous monster, I can see how one could be stranded staring in disbelief as the rules of man and even physics seem to evaporate in seconds. I have seen a riot, I have seen hell spill up and over a community.
I loved visiting central Tanzania for many reasons. Prince Charles had a tea plantation in the region, subsequently there were good roads. I loved the rustic country side, but being in Landrover three weeks out of each month made me appreciate the odd smooth ride. The two lane blacktop bisected a game reserve, so I got a free safari each time we travelled there. And finally, there was a beautiful lake that had been stocked with Largemouth Bass. I never forgot my fishing pole.
On this particular trip, I was checking in on volunteers, doing site visits. A site visit was fun but exhausting. I would arrive in the morning with my driver, visit with the headmaster/headmistress and other administrative personnel, observe the volunteer in the classroom, and visit and talk with teachers and students. Whenever I could, I would co opt a class, and have some fun with the students. We ate a modest lunch with the teachers, and I would finish the visit by inspecting the volunteer's living quarters. We would leave in mid-afternoon, and make our way to the next village school, sometimes hundreds of miles away. As I said, it was fun, but very taxing.
We were well back in the central highlands that day, making our way to visit a volunteer I was very concerned about. His name was David, and he was teaching secondary math at a small village school. I knew David had been drinking a lot in several months, and was away from his site far too often. I was prepared to bring him back to the capital if he hadn't made progress since last I saw him. I did end up bringing him back to Dar es Salaam, but through no fault of his own.
We arrived at his living quarters just after 7am and took him up to the school. David was awake, but not particularly coherent. John, our driver, pulled up in front of the school in the visitor's spot, and we prepared to get out. As I was unbuckling my seatbelt, I noticed a group of girls congregating for assembly. Two things struck me instantly - there were far less students than there should have been, and those who were there were milling about restlessly. Something didn't feel right. I had David get out, and then asked John to take the car back halfway up the hill and park it by David's house. He did so without asking any questions.
David and I walked up the gravel walk to find the assistant headmistress standing in the doorway. She ushered us in, and David went over to sit down on a chair. We started to explain pleasantries, and she was delighted with my Kiswahili - Shikamoo, Habari za asubuhi, Habari za Kazi, Habari za familia? (You are respected, how is the morning, how is work, how is your family). This sort of ritual was very hard for me to pick up, being a task oriented westerner - imagine my chagrin each morning I came into our head office and had to repeat this a dozen or so times before I reached my desk! As we finished greeting each other, I turned to her to address the odd behavior of the students outside. By that time there were more, and they were all obviously anxious about something. As soon as I opened my mouth to ask, I thought a tornado had struck the building. I was deafened by what I thought was the sound of thunder and breaking glass. Shards were spraying from the rear of the building, and I couldn't hear anything. Amazingly, the headmistress' first instinct was to grab David and pull him into the corner where she pushed him to the floor and protected him with her body. John came rushing in the front door and yelled "It's students, they are making a fight." I realized then that noise I had mistaken for thunder was the sound of hundreds of rocks hitting the corregated steel roof, and I  looked down at me feet to see dozens of rocks amidst the broken glass strewn everywhere.
The clamor seemed to subside for a moment, and I had John take David and his guardian out to the Landrover. I told him to back the car all the way up the hill and I would be right up. As they left, I made my way to the rear of the building, partly to see if there were any other staff about, partly to find out exactly what was happening. As I  peeked out through a broken window, I saw at least a hundred students either hurling rocks or searching for new  reloading projectiles. They were moving as a mob moves, irratically closer to the school, and I knew it was time to leave. As I turned to run out of the building, I remember thinking it so odd that all these children had bothered to put on their school uniforms the morning they decided to raze their school. Later I realized many of them had few other options (for clothes, not crimes).
I ran up to the car, embarrassed to be passing others, knowing I had to get David out of the area. I had John continue to back the vehicle up the road as I walked beside surveying the mayhem below. The students were no longer advancing up to the community, they were too busy ripping apart the school. A few of them started to turn their attention to the hilltop, where all the teachers houses were. I knew it was time to leave. We put as many people as we could into the Landrover and drove out to the nearby village a few kilometers away. John, David, the headmistress, and I then drove 25 kilometers to the nearest town, where would find the police.
On the way, the headmistress provided some insight into the situation saying the students were upset because some of their peers had been suspended for drinking "pombe" - beer. She also subtlety indicated that the Headmaster (who was in town on "business") had been very hard on the students for quite some time, and that this last incident was the thing that pushed them over the top. As a matter of fact, she believed the Headmaster was out of the school deliberately, knowing there would be trouble.
When we got into town, we went to the Ministry of Education department who then notified the authorities. Once there, I sat down with the local officials and the headmaster who was conveniently there. The meeting cleared a lot of things up for me. He was arrogant, almost gloating over the news at it seemed to reaffirm whatever he had been telling his superiors about the quality of his students. When I proceeded to detail what I had witnessed, he stopped me several times suggesting I had misinterpreted something. After his third interjection, I politely asked him to refrain from interrupting me again. The room stiffened. I concluded my statements with the observation that I did not believe the events were precipitated or actualized by a small group of malcontents, instead that there were systemic issues involved. He boiled, but not over - I delivered that last bit of information as a bonus with my eyes riveted on his. When I returned to the main office a few days later, I made the decision to place no more volunteers at that school until there were appropriate changes made to the administration.
I took the headmistress back to the school, and left David at a nearby hotel. I could smell the smoke miles before we arrived. I watched her face instinctively as we crested that hill again, and saw the heartbreak and sorrow pervade that beautiful, caring face. The school was gone, as were several of the homes of teachers and staff. No one had been killed, but several cows and pigs had been butchered, as well as many pets. There was debris, dust, soot, and blood everywhere, with only a few dazed witnesses milling about. It was incomprehensible. I made sure my valiant counterpart was ok, stopped and collected David's personal effects that hadn't been destroyed, and I left to regain custody of David, my primary responsibility.
As for David, well that is the rest of the story. David was completely unfazed by the whole episode - it was as if he had been catatonic. His affect was very flat and unemotional, at least until I mentioned that he might be changing sites. That woke him up. He became very excited, and even had a suggestion for me that I place him with two other volunteers at a larger school not too far away. He rambled on and on about that contingency until we arrived back in Dar es Salaam to sort things out. Once there, I delivered my report and stayed late to write out commendations for John and my brave headmistress.
David didn't make it to his new school, nor did he return to the scene of the riot. David went home to the US. We worked with him through the week and discovered that he wasn't adapting too well to the culture or his teaching experience, and that he had been abusing drugs and alcohol in his efforts to cope. He was very angry he could not join his friends, but admitted in the end that such a move would only exacerbate his problems. I was sad when I took him to the airport for his two day odyssey back home, he truly didn't know what he was going to do once there, other than receive some professional help he so badly needed.
I never did find out what happened to the school, the children, or the community. I moved on to other pressing matters, always present when supervising a hundred or so college-aged volunteers. Most of those matters were delightful and comic, a few were tragic. We lost two volunteers in the coming year, one killed by an elephant on a cheap safari (Natalie, posted here in August 2010), the other asphyxiating on his own vomit in a drunken stupor. By in large though, those hundred "kids" loved the country and its children, and did miraculous things for them. I am so proud to have been involved.
As for lessons on riots? Avoid them.





Thursday, July 28, 2011

Leadership Axiom # 5



Avoid Being a Solipsistic Supervisor
Solipsism in its true sense, is the doctrine that only the individual exists, and all other things, entities, worlds are merely creations of that individual's mind. As a matter of fact, the individual might be a manufactured element stemming from a mind only. No, no reference to the Matrix is coming......and no, I don't believe most people subscribe to a solipsistic sense of reality. Deep down, most of know we aren't the center of the universe.
Although we scoff at such notions, we very likely proceed through our day as if we did. When an employee comes into your office, and your first response is something like "oh no, how long will this take?" or "I really am not in the mood for this now", you are being solipsistic. When your first thoughts go to your own concerns, even when the issue isn't generated from you or your efforts, you are being solipsistic. When you fail to "see" the others around you outside the immediate context of your existence, you are being solipsistic. Think about it, how often do you imagine what your employees, students, even friends are doing with no reference to your personal needs or interests? Is as if they don't exist outside of your presence and attention.
Of course we have thought about these things before, possibly not with the big fancy word tied them. "Walk a mile in my moccasins before you judge me" is a perfect example. At the risk of adding even more awful argot, when we strive to really examine something as it is, we venture into the field of Phenomenology. Once there, we employ the epoche, or more specifically, the eidetic reduction.
Phenomenology is the study of phenomena in their true, real sense. To approach this type of analysis, we have to suspend judgement, biases, and expectations. This disciplined process is the epoche, accomplished though an eidetic reduction which works to filter distortions of perception so that we see the true object, the true element. Enough philosophy, you may have the basic idea - we need to apprehend things, issues, situations as they are, not as we want them to be, what we mistakenly perceive to be, what we may even need them to be. This would seem to be a priority of a supervisor, an honest and effective one anyway.
The first step toward this type of super-vision is the awareness that we are moving about in concentric circles with each other, each a sun (sol) in our own overlapping universes. We have to be the first to step out of our ellipses into those of others. Once there, our next task is to help them step out of theirs, temporarily at least, into the worlds of others. Eventually, as we learn to take other perspectives, we learn how to rip circumstances from the distorting gravity of their solar systems and examine them fairly and equitably. Once we do look at them in this bracketed sense (eidetic reduction), we can then bring them back to peripheral interests (our biases, needs, concerns, etc.), and find a balance.
An argument for instance, can be examined first for its disruption to the environment, its impact on productivity. From there, the interests of those involved can be dealt with as secondary concerns, not trivial, but not primary. And it certainly shouldn't be dealt with from the concerns of the supervisor either, e.g. quickly, efficiently with as little effort or trouble as possible.
When people learn to look at their interactions first from the perspectives of others, then as a more complicated intersection of many perspectives, they can better appreciate the efficacy of their own perspective. But when all is said and done, if a supervisor can keep the issue free of his or her own biases, selfish needs, and artificial concerns, situations will improve. It is that simple, don't look at things as if they relate primarily to you. Don't act as the center of your own universe, no matter how central or high you are on the organizational chart.

Kesho



Kesho is my oldest daughter, her name meaning "tomorrow" in Swahili. Her middle name is Lynn, after my mother's middle name. When her sister came along, I wanted to name her Kesho Kutwa (the day after tomorrow) but the idea was vetoed. Tomorrow is a good name for her, as she is very energetic, and has as much promise as a new day.
For quite awhile, Kesho was a daddy's girl. We were very close, and she and her sister went with us everywhere, whenever I wasn't working. She was always tall and thin for her age, and very shy and demure as a little girl. I remember taking her to her first day in Kindergarten, and I was so proud. I knew she was nervous but she pressed ahead, and didn't look back when we left the room. For the most part that year, she was a perfect student, her teachers' favorite. The only bump in the road came when she was confused about the bathroom arrangements and inadvertently opened an occupied stall. We got a call saying she had been "peeping" but she explained what had happened. She was horrified by the ordeal, and it was a decade or so before we got any kind of call at all about her. I should mention that she and her sister were terrified of public toilets, particularly the automatic flushing types. They once went with me to Cincinnati where I did a presentation at a nice hotel. When their mother tried to take them into the bathroom, they took one look at the ominous contraptions and made the joint decision to withhold things for the four hour drive back!
Kesho was also very bright and had incredible artistic ability. In case you were wondering, that is not her above - it is one of her incredible sketches, the artist resides below. One summer, she had bit of difficulty with her reading, and I helped her with some exercises. I was very tired and overworked, and I did so lazily. I had her read and do the exercises then bring them into my room. I regret not sitting with her more, showing her I really did care. She passed the subsequent tests with flying colors, a testament to her intellect and resolve. She was also always forgiving, even when I was too short with her or when I taught her how to ride a bike, not very patiently.
Our relationship changed dramatically in 1999, when she was only seven. I took a job in Tanzania with the US Peace Corps, and my family was to join me a few months later. My wife developed medical issues and that plan fell by the wayside. I left in the middle of my two-year commitment, but the damage had been done. She would tell me years later this had really devastated her. When she told me, she was angry, and I probably didn't react well, I probably dismissed it. But I don't now, I can't imagine how hard it was for her and her sister, though I do know how hard it was for me. Although I did not plan for the events that transpired, I am responsible.
Kesho was never daddy's girl again, and ironically, she became much closer with her mother, while her sister grew closer to me. Kesho did well in her performing arts school, and we sent her to a private school, Lebron's Alma mater. She did well there too, particularly in the arts. She is a very talented artist and could make a good living at it if she choose to. Instead, I think she wants to be an engineer like her mother, wants to flex her intellectual brush. She has just finished her freshman year and college and did very well - I am so proud of her! She works hard like her parents, and is becoming more responsible and caring by the day (there was a time though.......reminds me of the old joke: What is the worst two years of a woman's life? When she was 15 and then when her daughter was). I am looking forward to watching her plow her way through life. I am sure she will be successful at anything she puts her mind to. I also hope she forgives me my sins, and one day allows me to take a bit of credit. I hope.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Old Letter, Sadly Never Sent

My Sweet Mind, My Black Heart
You are gone, I know it now, perhaps far later than I should have. Gone, not that you just are no longer mine, but gone in every other sense. The pain is intense and deserved, a masochist's paradise I suppose. Driving away the pain has been an avocation as of late, an effort to find hope, to find a semblance of what I have lost. In this battle, I find my heart and mind perpetually at odds, thwarting my progress. My thoughts are beautiful and magnanimous, my feelings brutish and ugly. Neither seems to prevail.
I once read that it was good to think of all the negatives about someone, that that would help ease the pain. When I try, I fail for many reasons - there were things I resented, things I never reconciled, but they were never worse than those I perpetrated on you, and my sense of equity defeats the exercise. Trying to indict your love, trying to deny or defame it provides no utility either, for I have realized it is not the absence of your love that burns so deeply, it is the burden of my own love for you, no where to place it, no where to lay it down. You opened my heart, taught me how to love for the first time in my life - tragically, you never taught me how to stop.
My mind paints the canvas that should stretch my soul. It is a picture of you, with your new love, your true love. Happy that the woman I loved so much, is happier and loved so well. I see you together, smiling, walking through your days in wonder, as only two people who know they will be together eternally can walk. I want these things desperately for you, and I smile beautifully when I ponder them. But my heart objects, gnaws at the decency of my thoughts. It hurts and wants to hurt, but has no target, no relief. It is not smart, and cannot construct elaborate mechanisms of revenge or malice, I am thankful for that. All it can do, is temporarily derail that which I need to do, want to do.
The pleasure my thoughts bring me is slowly abating the distress my senseless heart interjects. Those perfect, pure images fade slowly now, and return bright and vividly ever more often. I will prevail, and there will be no more letters, no more affirmation of my selfish pain. When that happens, I will be a good man, worthy of the time you gave me, the wonderful gifts you shared with me. A good man.

Naivete'

I am frustrated at and blessed with my perpetual proclivity to be one step behind the rest of the world. I don't know if I am temporarily stupid, overly optimistic (yes my friends you heard that one here first!), or just forever naive. Here are some of my gaffes or misinterpretations of my environment:

Balms vs Bombs
Was really shook up one day in church when they started to sing, "There is a Bomb in Gilead"

Full of Herself
Thought my mother stuck up when I read the end of her note to my first grade teacher.
Thank you,
Mrs. Morsches
Didn't understand the function of the comma, thought she was thanking herself.

No Thank You to the 23rd Psalm
Couldn't get past the first line: "The Lord is my sheperd, I shall not want"
Why wouldn't I want the Lord to be my sheperd?

Yeah, Duh
"If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns"
Ok, then if I see someone who is not a law enforcement agent with a gun, then he/she is an outlaw and should be arrested" Honestly thought this was an anti-gun sentiment the first time I saw the bumper sticker.

Oops, I Guess it Wasn't an Inside Joke
For about a week, I giggled fevershly each time my biology teacher said the word "organism" He would smile pitifully at me, knowing there wasn't anything sexual in the term. Thankfully, the rest of my peers were pretty much tuned out.

Don't Want to Know What Freud Would Think
I was in sixth grade when I was informed that I would need to bring a jock strap (my international friends might want to do a google image search here) to PE class. My mother bought me one, and I put it on. She smiled as sweetly as only a mother could when she realized I had put it on backwards.

Oh Rats, I Should Have Known Better than to Think Music Class Could be Cool
Even though it was Christmas time, I still missed this one by a mile. I was so excited leaving Music class as I was told we would be singing "Joy to the World" the next day. To my great dismay, it was the carol not the frog.

How in the World Do they Figure That Out?
I heard the term "paid vacation" and wondered honestly how they would determine how much to pay - what if I wanted to go to Hawaii? Why wouldn't I go to the most exotic, expensive place possible if they were paying for it?

A New Day

Ramadan is around the corner, and I have noted that my past several posts have been less than positive. True, I am struggling with some exceptional loads right now, and I have found a dangerous rut lately. The pain I am feeling, physical and mental is overwhelming at times. Despite all this, I do have points of refuge - several wonderful friends, and my faith. My good friends distract me for a bit, and prayer clears my mind for a time. And although I quickly drift back to the blackness, I am drawn out more easily,and I have found I need to leave a few things there. As Faulkner noted, we cling to those things that rob us.
So I am letting go, and moving forward. I will refocus my energies on those who have supported me, and returning to the disciplines demanded by my God. I know it will be difficult, but in many ways, I have no choice left. I will not be a casualty of my own poor choices, my misguided sense of love and friendship. I need to go out and buy some buttermilk and dates................:)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nobility

I grew up watching noble things on a 13" black and white television. I didn't see them too often anywhere else, but I saw them in that box. I watched a lot of television growing up, particularly shows about honorable people fighting great odds, helping others. I loved older movies where right was right and wrong wasn't, and it was clear who understood and respected the difference. True to form, I particularly admired the selfless sacrifice, the hero that walked away with a hole in his heart, doomed to a life of penance for someone else's sins. Since then I have discovered that I have a fair deal of noble sentiments, that I can at times act nobly, and that I had no decent idea of the price one pays to be noble. No decent idea.
Lately, I am dealing with some serious challenges to my self-professed sense of nobility and dignity. I don't think I am faring too well though. It is one thing to think abstractly about sacrifice and suffering, it is another to invite it, court it, and live with it. As I write this, I have in mind three assaults on my nobility that I am currently battling, and I don't think I am winning. For the past two years, I have dealt with an affront to my character that might be spilling out of its banks. I am facing difficult situations at work, and I am not always taking the high road. And finally, I have walked away from a friend (not my idea)with no questions, no resolution, leaving just with the emptiness and pain of absence. I want to emerge from these trials with the knowledge that I handled them better, that I dealt with them with dignity. It's just that I am realizing what I have to do to foot the bill. Those long dead heroes don't look as attractive as they once did, they simply look worn, tired, and beaten.
My three tests probe three different aspects of my intended nobility: one demands that I do nothing, and simply buck up as the arrows fly, arrows people who don't know me or the circumstances, feel need to hit their mark. The second demands that I resist actions that might be cathartic or senselessly fun, check my ego, and perform with more diligence than might be embedded in the culture I try to navigate. The third demands that I leave a situation where I had little support, leave the person I had relied on for so much strength, and walk away towards nothing at all, no one to share my loss, no one to understand.
I will reorient myself and press on. I will embrace the embarrassment and shame, and I will not feel sorry for myself. But I will never, ever again romanticize a noble life, nor will I feel some sort of karmic affirmation. I will most likely be a lonely man with a tarnished name, better at my job, with a hole in my heart permeating my soul. So I am not Bogart or Tristan for that matter, but I am losing weight.
*This post is not intended to be melodramatic, nor melancholic. I am just trying to capture and express that which is tearing at the inside of my chest right now, giving some form and substance to the emptiness.

An Apology to My Brother and Sister

I have waited a long time to bring metaphoric pen to paper here, partly because I waited until several people had passed away, not wishing to hurt them, although I guess I am harming their memory. I try not to draw in too many living folks, having not yet secured their permission to publicly discuss my issues. I have detailed my life, particularly the earlier stages of it, and I have made mention of my brother and my sister. And even though I haven't gone into their personal detail, when I explain my childhood, I am violating their privacy. I would like to apologize for that. I would also like to apologize for the fact that what I write here is my perception, and may not represent their realities. It is like we all three went through a wash cycle together and came out in very different states. I will try to be more mindful of these things as I write, and finally, I would like to apologize for any future transgressions. I love you both and I truly do not want to hurt either of you.
Michael

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Not Killing My Step-Father When I Should Have

I am profoundly saddened that my step-father's death did not sadden me, that it still does not. No, not for myself, but for him. He did what was almost impossible, he forfeited the love I had for him, a son's albeit step-son's love. Almost impossible.
I remember my last conversation with him. It didn't end well for him, though I was just fine with the way we left things. He had been staying at my house for a month or so, and I had grown tired of his selfishness, his view of the world. We sat in the basement, talking about his plans. He was retired and he wasn't. The IRS had taken the entirety of his pension plan, and he was trying to get by on his meager Social Security check. Somehow we got on the subject of partying, his favorite, and the conversation took a bizarre turn. I suppose it was his last attempt to bully me or to humiliate me. I didn't work. It ended up with me looking into his eyes telling him that I would kill him. For the first time in his life, Big Jim backed down, he was gone in the morning.
I have written about my step-father before, and I won't repeat myself here. I will revisit my relationship with him, from loving him, fearing him, fighting him, trying to be like him, and finally, willing to kill him.
My step-father came into our lives when I was five or so, at a time when it would be hard for anyone to imagine our lives ever getting worse. They did, dramatically so. For a few years, his rage was pretty much directed at others - fights at work, brawls in bars, blow ups with friends. I didn't get hit properly until I was nine, and it was typically from behind. By the time I was twelve, he was getting older, and evidently wasn't the terror he once was out in the world. The bully then turned his path homeward, and I never again had even a week without some sort of violent conflict with him. I stayed five more years before I left, not realizing I wasn't leaving him, he came along with me.
I had no other significant role model growing up, and even though I hated him at times, his metaphor of a man was all I had. He had taught me how to work hard (later I would learn that he told me how, I don't think he ever worked hard), to be tough, how to drink, how to steal, how to stand up to the world unapologetically, how to throw away my life. I quickly became the one who could drink the most, work the hardest, and never ever back down from a conflict. Fortunately, his influence only manifested itself when I was drinking - something else guided me when I was sober, something clean and decent. Thank God, perhaps it was God.
I spent many years doing my best impression of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. People who did not live with me in both worlds found it hard to recognize my counterpart. I literally was two people, and I had no idea where the anger, destruction, and ugliness came from when I drank. I developed two peer groups, and kept them from each other. Rarely, a friend would follow me into both worlds, those friends didn't follow for long. So I went to school, developed my intellect, learned my discipline, drank, fought, and made drunken war on the world around me with blind malevolence. I still don't understand it all, probably don't want to.
After college, I continued to drink and had fewer episodes, though their severity did not wane. Unlike my step-father, most of my rage was inwardly directed. When I picked fights, I never really tried to win them. I broke my own bones, ripped my own flesh. I drove a car into a telephone pole at seventy miles and hour, spent two weeks in intensive car, and was back out drinking and raising hell a few weeks later. I was trying to out do that which I loathed, and I punished myself for the privilege. I cannot imagine what people thought as they watched this campaign, perhaps some recognized that part of me that was decent, and I am sure they pitied me.
While I was out fighting the world, my step-father had not ceased his sins. He mellowed and fought far less, but he drank and partied more, and desperately needed friends to join him. When the few friends inevitably left, he turned to family. Wickedly, his gaze fell upon my niece, and he had her drinking and smoking by the time she was a teenager. My sister and her husband did their best, but they were not prepared to kill him. My niece and her parents have paid a heavy price for that baptism, and it remains one of the few tragedies I have witnessed here in the United States that rivals those I saw elsewhere in the world. No they weren't willing to kill him, perhaps they should have.
I quit drinking when my daughters were born, and he died (inside me anyway) instantly. He has never returned, and the physical wreck of his body gave way fourteen years later. It was in the last few years of his life, long after I had killed his spectre, that he came to stay at our house. That evening, as we were discussing his options, he started talking about partying. I, no longer willing to listen to the profane, interrupted him reminding him that he was not to drink or smoke dope in my house or anywhere near it. He continued to argue with me, and my niece came up. I quietly and assuredly let him know how horrible his actions had been and he got upset. I went on to let him know that he would never have done that to one of my daughters. He grew bold and asked me how I would stop him, why it was bad for them to drink a little bit, told me everyone did. He was standing now, and I encroached on that dangerous distance I knew so well. I let my hands fall to my side, got very close to him, and told him I would kill him if he did anything at all untoward to my girls. I think I halfway hoped he would hit me, giving me the excuse I needed to end his miserable life. He didn't and I turned and went upstairs to my girls. He never said goodbye.
I talked to him a few times on the phone after that, but with very little interest and no desire to see him. He died a few years later, and I had no need to go to his funeral. I did, however, have to come up with a thousand dollars or so to help with the funeral. I considered it money well spent.
Now, four years later, I mourn the life that had no mourning. No human should abdicate a life with so little virtue, so little redemption, so little accrued worth. I think of the legacies we leave when we die, and I pray that my niece and others survive his, that they can kill him as I did. I also wrestle with notion that I should have taken his life literally, a long time ago. Perhaps I just didn't have the strength.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urDMG9OiymU

Fleeing and Other "F" Words


I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the Stern Fact, the Sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I know a great deal about fleeing, both from and to. I began the moment I was born - we moved from house to house, from relative to relative, from city to city, from state to state. I must have lived in thirty houses and apartments before I left home. I know a great deal about fleeing.
I also know a great deal about fighting. At first, I learned how to survive them, later to finish them, and sadly, how to start them. I never learned how to avoid them however, that is the sin. I didn't learn to avoid them, probably because I always lived in small houses with big problems, nowhere to run. Sometimes I think, "fighting is fun." At least until I remember a John Wayne quote - a man tells him "we were just having a friendly fight" he replies "never been in one of them." And come to think about it, neither have I.
Finally, I know how to forget. Learning not what to remember in my household was as important as learning what to remember. Maybe more so. I learned how to let things go, how to forget rather than forgive. Forgiveness was never a construct we were allowed to develop or embrace. For forgiveness requires processing, patience, and a degree of poise. We had no time for any of that. We fought but couldn't flee each other, couldn't really forgive either. We moved on to new places, pretending things would change. They never did. I realized this at an odd moment one day. Not really being allowed to discuss things about the dynamics, I never really thought about them directly either, for there was no point. My solution was to flee when I was old enough, that day came when I was seventeen. But one day, when I was younger, the rigid nature of it all became very clear to me when I was messing with the family dog, Babbet, a feisty toy poodle. Babbet was perpetually grumpy, and would often snap at everyone except my step-father. She would growl and bite very hard if given a chance. One spring morning, Babbet was on the bed having just received her quarterly hair cut. She looked so nice, so lady-like in a dog way, that I did what I normally would not do - I attempted to pick her up off the bed when she did not want me to. Somehow that new haircut lured me into thinking she had changed, that she was now kind and loving. She bit me particularly hard that day, and I went away with a valuable lesson. People, and their dogs, don't change no matter their appearance, no matter the circumstances. We were the same people with the same issues every time we picked up and left. It's just that we got a short opportunity to feel normal each time we moved on, to pretend we were whatever we wanted to be. It never lasted very long, the truth pried its way out quickly, and we would flee shortly thereafter.
Now, years later, a friend has observed that I have "itchy feet", something that made me think. I am still moving, but I don't know if it is fleeing or not. I wrote out some defense of my latest changes for him, and frankly, I believe most of it is fair and true. On the other hand, I am not sure I had to leave all of the places I have left lately, I could've stayed and worked things out (almost said "fought things out"). My guideline for departure seems to be the point when I am no longer learning from a situation, and I don't have a lot left to give. Usually seems pretty clear to me.
Moving and/or fleeing is also very easy for me as I still have a great deal of energy for my work, and I tend to read situations pretty quickly (a real benefit as a consultant). Starting a new job at the level I work at is thrilling, as it is imperative to get up to speed quickly. Often, I have to make important decisions, virtually as soon as I arrive. I have to learn new systems and the people that inhabit them. It really is invigorating. At times, I view this all as a pollination process: I take ideas, policies, programs with me from place to place, helping to improve the environment while building my own repertoire of skills. But, of course, there are drawbacks, and they are always the same.
I have left a lot of really good friends around the world, and although email and Facebook keep us connected, I don't have that longitudinal support group with me at each new job. I also believe that there is a certain art to keeping things running well, not just establishing them, carving them out of the wilderness. Although I have been in some jobs for years and years, I a cannot say that this long term maintenance is one of my best skills. I can say I want it to be. I can say I am ready to settle down and stay someplace for a long, long time. I am ready not to flee, I am ready to leverage the skills I have to build a new home.
I will need to do some serious soul searching soon. I imagine wherever I land next there will be challenges. My challenge will be learning the difference between those dynamics I can change over time, and those that might change me in ways I am not prepared to suffer. To date, I think I have defaulted to the latter concern too often. Perhaps it is time to stay, to fight fairly, to be willing to be forgiven and to forgive, and not to forget my goal. My goal to leave this world a better place than I found it. I have a lot to think about.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Forging Faith

My faith has been forged - it was not adopted, inherited, or romantically embraced, it was forged. The process took nearly half a century, after a few false starts, lots of petulant battles with Catholic priests, a misguided infatuation with the Baha'i faith, and a great deal of honest introspection. It fits so perfectly now, that I wonder if I had to be where I was, when I was, to accept it. This is not a good thought perhaps. Am I asking if Islam (or any other faith for that matter) was inappropriate for me before this time? Not very theistic! Is this an arrogant, anthropomorphic manipulation of religious doctrine? Should I have always been a Muslim, ready in my mind or not? These are questions that confront me now, not when I ponder simply living my faith, but when I contemplate my need/duty/desire to share it with others, especially my daughters.
Perhaps I had the wrong question in my mind all along. For I had been asking for something to decipher the world around me, rather than explaining what was inside me. The source of this answer I sought was not limited to religion; I queried history, logic, philosophy, and psychology for my Rosetta Stone. And until I was able and willing to look inside, nothing would have been sensible or cogent. I didn't need a faith that explained my occasional bad fortune, the misery of others, the mystical vagaries of the universe - I needed insight into myself.
My cousin and I had a very brief chat tonight about his ongoing literature project with his son. They read poetry and Shakespeare together. I asked him if his son had the schema necessary to "get it." I also wondered aloud if he really wanted his son to ever have some of the experiences needed to truly relate to some of those themes (having in mind the tragedies). He replied that there were other benefits, e.g. language, rhythm, syntax, grammar, and that his son would return to "it" later when he was ready to appreciate the context. I liked that, something to return to. I don't think I ever had something to return to. I think the sheer fact that I never had a faith to come back to is the precise reason I would share my own now. For if salvation is the like the context that cannot be appreciated by a child, then prayer, normalcy,etiquette, and morality are the language, rhythm, syntax, and grammar, the internal leaven that under gird the possibility, nay probability of building an internal, sturdy domicile, forever yours, forever home. Something to come back to.
At the risk of entangling myself in too many metaphors, my "home" was never built, and ironically, I never lived in a house that I or my family owned until I was thirty-five, the first house I bought myself. So yes, in many ways I have had nothing to come back to until the birth of my daughters, the realization of my faith. I have given my two girls a permanent literal home, but I did not help them with their figurative shelter.
Even more sobering (something I have been unable to say frequently since converting) is that I am not sure I would have done a good job with my daughters if I had converted decades ago. It has been my observation, that we as parents, often seek to shelter our children from the very experiences that helped forge our own faith, the very anguish that often creates context. We pray they need not be driven to the brink in order to turn back to the path. We may pray they avert these heartbreaks, but we know otherwise. Perhaps that is the best argument for the other benefits my cousin talked about, something to come back to when the tempest rages in.
My answer to the question lost somewhere in this fustian is that I will share my faith, in anyway for anyone seeking sanctuary from their spiritual homelessness. I will also share more and more of the serene and beautiful stability I have embraced with my daughters as they make their way in their worlds, forging their faith.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Art

I have studied and taught philosophy, and I have found I am very comfortable with ontological, axiological, and epistemological issues, but that I feel like I am on foreign, shifting soil when I venture into aesthetics. I don't love or appreciate art naturally, but I have always longed to produce it. I have made nice furniture, exotic pens, and I try to write. But these are not examples of art, more like applications of art-like algorithms with their jigs, templates,and thesaurus. I think art should be an exposure of your soul that manifests itself in order connect to the souls of others. We move through our universe bonded by and limited to each other through light and vibration, but connected by art. I realize that this lack of communion with art is a reflection of my enduring alienation to those around me.
Unfortunately, I do not have a natural affinity to art, unlike beer that I loved and understood immediately. I now adore Van Gogh, but only after learning about his life and the etiology of his expression. I read books and poems, watch movies, hear songs, see paintings, but I don't often feel that connection to my soul. I am, however, often touched and sometimes momentarily inspired, but not connected the way I want to be. Oddly, even unfathomably, I see art elsewhere in the world. When I see a woman on the streets of Dar es Salaam, crippled and bent over, dressed in rags, walking with two sets of flip flops (one on her feet, one her hands), I feel what must be art. When I see teachers working in refugee camps, smiling as they patiently, lovingly work with students, I feel what must be art. When I watch artists working on their art, I feel what must be art. I just don't make that connection when I see the product once removed from its creative process.
Yet still, I want to produce art, I want to release a part of my soul through my hands. I want to create something that eclipses the context of its creation, I want to be artistic.
So maybe it is not art I should conceive, but the articulation of the art around me. Even as I am writing this, I realize I have misspoke - there is more art than I thought around me that connects me spiritually to others. The United Nations supervisors working in Jordan against long odds, who give everything to the schools there, their students, faculty and community. My friend who makes beautiful cakes that touch so many hearts, her friend and mine who writes jealously about his country and culture, a friend who lectures brilliantly and passionately about the beauty of antiquity,my cousin who watches Hamlet with his young son, an older friend who is enthralled by the extrapolative possibilities of technology in math, my daughters who constantly forgive me, a secretary who nurtures an entire faculty and staff, and a million less fortunate souls who manage to fight through their days with dignity and courage. There is art all around me.
One day though, I will produce a work of art that will inspire people to consociate, something that will reify a communal bit of our humanity without the necessity of explanation or analysis. There is inspiration all about, artists everywhere. I am working on it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Flexible Bullets

I have spoken before about flexible bullets, those creative ways to kill oneself so aptly named by Stephen King. My mother used one, and I have seen countless others employ this ever-so-real literary device to end their lives. Alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, speed, are just a few of the calibers, some larger and lethally more efficient. These tools are utilized when the prospect of dying just slightly outstrips the moral and societal prohibitions on self-release. There is a certain comfort in inviting your own death I suppose, especially if you leave the timing and details to your assassin. Honestly, I have felt this urge in the past, and I can surely understand its allure. Pain, or its terrible absence,eventually erode hope, erode the desire to persevere.
As I try to rehydrate the agony of those moments,hoping for some insight, some mechanism to help others, I find that I cannot resurrect the despair, the emptiness necessary to put a bullet, flexible or not, into my brain. But I know I have been near the brink of that resolution, and I know how compelling the notion can be. I also suspect, in my rare glimpses into my soul, that I might have fired a few bullets of my own, a lifetime ago.
I remember launching out into the night, heading out to drink, heading out for the unknown. I remember not remembering the previous episode's consequences, almost as if each new foray was an amnesiatic adventure, full of promise and fun. But I realize now the convenient fugue was just a filter, something to keep caution from creeping in, something to inhibit any derailing of my self-destructive journey. And as I have mentioned before, I was amazed at the people that would follow me repeatedly into this country, knowing full well they had no problems with their memory.
I drank and drove, I drank and drove recklessly, I picked fights and barely defended myself, and I visited places I had no business being in. The stupider the enterprise, the greater the survival story. And unfortunately, in my body politic of the time, I was deemed a fearless brigand - even admired by some. All I needed to drive away the last vestiges of prudence or guilt. I honestly don't know how I survived.
I am not sure if those bullets are still on path, or if their trajectories have been
altered with age and reason. This uncertainty I feel is warranted, for although my faith has improved my sense of decorum, I avoid medical necessities, and I am still prone to wander out and into dubious circumstances without mitigating fear. Of course I have a hundred and one rational justifications for these behaviors, but I do wonder sometimes if there is still a bullet in the air, and if it has my name on it.
There is no lesson learned here, no words of wisdom. Just empathy and a resolved desire to survive, and in doing so, help others. What I do know is that I can relate to people who suffer with the promise that death relieves life. I would like to recognize the signs earlier, be able to reach people before they pull those triggers. If not, I would pray I could help them deflect those inbound projectiles,that I could help them find hope. For I miss David, Bill, Larry, and my mother, and I would prefer this list to grow no longer.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Drinking Dreams


I had my first drink when I was eleven or twelve, the day my step-father fed me gin for the amusement of his friends. I took my last twenty-two years later, the night my uncle and I met and talked about my mother's death, and I got a DUI on my way home. I shudder to think about all those drinks in between, and the damage they caused with my blessing. On that last night, I wasn't falling down drunk, as a matter of fact, the police made me blow into the breathalyzer three times to get the right level. Still, I had had too many, I shouldn't have been driving. I gave up alcohol that next morning, not because of the legal ramifications, but because I had an opportunity to break a terrible cycle before it could corrupt my daughters. My oldest daughter was just over a year, and my wife was pregnant with our second. I stopped because I never wanted either of them to see me drinking, to see me drunk. I haven't had a drop since, eighteen and a half years. I have not been a good father, but I did not pass on that curse.
Many people think I don't drink because of my faith - my conversion did not happen for many years after that fateful night when I was pulled over for driving too slowly. I didn't quit for a faith, but my faith makes so much sense to me, particularly as it knows the evils of alcohol, and created no imaginative rationalizations to condone it. I remember reading something attributed to the Prophet akin to "don't indulge in activities that have minor merits and terrible potential, it makes no sense." To this day, I cannot understand the vehement defense of this modern plague, killer of millions, destroyer of families, abater of conscience. All for some fermented juice that has long outlived its purpose, given that we can now store liquids safely without preserving them.
But this blog is about dreams, not about a social ill.
Since I gave up booze, it has visited me frequently in my dreams. Not constantly, but often enough for my taste (no pun intended). For years, the dream was the same - I would be somewhere and I would be tempted with beer or whiskey. I knew I was not to be tempted, but I always succumbed, and the experience slid to a nightmare. I would wake up in a sweat, initially disoriented then ever so grateful as I realized I was not drunk. It would be a tremendous relief, but I always emerged shaken. I had no waking urge to drink, but something was there, deep down trying to claw its way to the surface, trying to kill me.
Through the years, I was never really tempted to take a drink, but I missed its function. When I was low or depressed, I knew it would give me a temporary reprieve, despite the promise of a dark aftermath. I knew others would often be uncomfortable around me, as my sobriety indicted their revelry. My life changed slowly, as did my affiliations and my haunts. I had to learn to interact with the world without alcohol. Not as simple as it might seem. To be fair though, there were many friends and family who were very supportive.
My dreams changed abruptly after I converted five years ago. I continued to have the odd dream about alcohol, but I never again relented to the temptation to consume it. This may sound inconsequential to many, but it is very powerful to me. My strength, my convictions now pervade my consciousness, my inner core. The dreams are different, and I don't wake in a panic. I awake with the same resolve and quiet that I had when I refused the drink in the dream. It is no longer a portent of weakness or future failure, it is a testament to my faith, my God comforting me even in my darkest, most private places.
I don't lecture others about drinking, and I don't have to worry about leaving that kind of legacy with my daughters. I do continue to lament the fact that so many, even those touched foully by its embrace, consider the right to drink as almost sacred or as a human covenant with the same reverence as our freedoms of speech and religion. I only know that I will never drink again, awake or in my sleep. Alhamdulilah.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Keisha - Learning a New Language


I met Keisha one day while roaming around the countryside south of Montego Bay, north of Savannah La Mar on my motorcycle. I was visiting potential class sites for the literacy program, JAMAL - the Jamaican Movement for the Advancement of Literacy. I stopped by the house of a colleague, Mrs. Lightbody, who helped me when I visited the local rural schools. Mrs. Lightbody was a delight to work with, and I always looked forward to stopping by her place to chat. Her husband was a farmer, and they lived on the edge of their terraced farm. I had spent a day with him earlier, working out in the fields, learning how to graft lemon trees, eating boiled dumplings, conversing in patois. It was a fabulous day, and very poignant. I watched these Black men working their own land, where their not too distant ancestors had been slaves. I saw the lessons of their fathers in their hands as they expertly grafted the trees, working long and steadily throughout the day, free men. But on this day, I would meet another of her relatives, an amazing young woman named Keisha.
When I pulled up to Mrs. Lightbody's house, I noticed her standing on the balcony with a small child tucked shyly behind her skirt, peaking out curiously at the large helmeted man climbing off his motorcycle. I should mention that I loved Mrs. Lightbody's balcony that wrapped around the modest house, pulling the structure into the hillside. It was a nice day, and I was smiling as I pulled my helmet off knowing I would spend a good part of my afternoon sitting there, working on site plans with my hostess. As I bounded up the steps, I could see that tiny face peering from behind her aunt, wondering who this big white guy was. It was at least an hour before I saw her full figure - she exercised a perfect pivot with me on one side and her aunt between us. Eventually, she emerged and darted behind a chair, her eyes never leaving me. Keisha was a very beautiful girl with long braided hair, a simple clean dress, and a sad soft smile. Mrs. Lightbody apologized telling me the girl was deaf and dumb, and that she didn't interact much with strangers, or with much of her family for that matter.
Predictably, my secondary task for the day was to try to draw Keisha out and interact with her, my first being the literacy business at hand. As we talked and outlined site plans for several schools, I tried everything I knew to get Keisha to come out in plain view. After a bit, I noticed that she was no longer looking at me, but at my yellow helmet. I slowly pushed it closer to the edge of the table, near her chair fortress. When it got close enough, she gave her aunt a quick glance, who did not convey any prohibition, and she grabbed the helmet with both hands and ducked back to her safe place. I heard a strange sound that I knew was kin to a giggle, but oddly muted and flat. With all her might, she hoisted the helmet up and pulled it quickly down over her head and all those braids. Once she had it properly placed, she promptly walked around the chair, into open space, and right up to me. She was smiling broadly, and I wondered how all those teeth could fit into the opening of the helmet. When she got up beside me, I instinctively tapped the top of the helmet. She squealed. When I tapped the helmet again, she would bring her hands up and repeat the gesture, laughing and squirming. I increased the complexity of my thumping, using both hands. She matched anything I could conjure, pestering me over the course of several hours to continue the game. Mrs. Lightbody was delighted and noted that she had never seen Keisha behave like that, not even with family. I did manage to get some work done, often writing with my right hand, drumming with my left. When lunch came, Keisha refused to eat, caring not to remove her crown.
I knew it would be difficult when I had to leave. Keisha was not giving the helmet up without a fight, and I could raise no more than a half-hearted attempt to reclaim it. Eventually tough, Mrs. Lightbody gave her a stern but loving stare, and Keisha slowly pulled it off. She placed it on the table and promptly raced back to her chair. As I climbed back on my motorcycle, I did see a little hand waving goodbye, just cresting the top of the chair. On the way back to town, it struck me why the helmet had the effect it did - Keisha could "hear" with it on. For several hours that day, maybe for the first time, she heard another human being, even if it was just vibrations posing as language.
I didn't see Mrs. Lightbody for several weeks after that lovely day when two lonely people from different worlds chatted eloquently through polycarbonate and plastic. When I did see Mrs. Lightbody next, she was visiting the office for supplies. She came in and greeted me with even more enthusiasm than was her custom. Before I could ask how Keisha was, she informed me that every time a motorcycle came into view, Keisha would start running to the porch symbolically patting her head. When she realized it wasn't me, or that the owner was not stopping she would retreat back inside with a disappointed frown. I changed my plans for the day and took Mrs. Lightbody home on my motorcycle. Keisha met us halfway up the drive, wildly tapping the air around her head. I stayed a few hours to renew our conversation, and had a bittersweet departure knowing I probably wouldn't be able to return before I was to head home to the States permanently. Keisha gave up the helmet without much fight, and my leg got a beautiful hug.
On my way home, I had plenty of time to concoct a good story about how I had lost my spare helmet.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bayan of the Hundred Eyes

I am not sure she will appreciate the comparison, but my friend Bayan is aptly named, perhaps after Kubla Khan's greatest general, Bayan of the Hundred Eyes. Not that Bayan ever killed anyone or came riding in off the steppes sword in hand, but she could have been a general in her own right if she had wanted to. Instead, she chose to be a teacher and then a principal, thus crossing paths with me in London, our intersection between Ohio and Iraq.
My first impression of Bayan was a curious one indeed - she was far too busy too often, doted on most everyone, and took everything I said far too seriously. Dealing with her was enjoyable though, in the sense that I always had the enviable task of assuring her things were not as urgent as she imagined. She was conscientious and caring in a chaotic way, the kind of person who would always be busy even if there was nothing to do. But unlike so many other chronic scramblers, Bayan was not motivated by vanity or the need to be perceived as important or indispensable, she just cared about everyone around her. I always liked that about her, but I don't think I ever told her so.
Bayan was very intelligent, and she always tried to dismiss her intellect to the regions of intuition and experience, shying away from cerebral affirmation. Actually, I had a lot of fun with that. I teased her, trying to provoke some sort hiatus on her perpetual humility, and she eventually clocked in and coyly sidestepped my best efforts - just another indicator of her sharpness. Honestly, she just might have been the most intelligent person I had met in a long time. I never told her that either.
The best part of working with Bayan (other than her very genuine habit of praising me) was helping her connect that perceptivity to theory and research. She was very willing to learn and improve, a great compliment to her native abilities. I pushed her at times, and she always rose to the occasion. I was never so pleased as when I learned she was continuing her formal education. Humble, humorous, and hungry - the school, its staff, children, and parents are very lucky to have her. I think they know that, although that is another thing I never told her.
Like many other people in my life, I didn't part company with Bayan like I would have liked to. Before I left London, things at the school were changing (for the worse, I believed), and Bayan did what she had to do, what she should have done for her welfare and that of her staff and students. I let her know, not so subtly, that I was irritated with her, and that is a regret I will always oblige, for no one deserved my disdain less than she. Perhaps it was her forgiving nature and my ugliness that allowed it happen. I never apologized to her for that.
Bayan and I have remained in contact, and I treasure her friendship. For Bayan did something for me that no one else would have - she supported me in a personal matter when I thought I could find no support, no understanding. Ultimately, I was not successful, but she did more than her part, more than I could have asked for. Sadly, I am not sure I thanked her appropriately for that either.
But I am smiling as I write this homage, knowing that Bayan is in London taking care of the school I loved, nurturing the people I cared so much for, and will forever be in my corner, at least metaphysically. And as I think about it, Bayan of the Hundred Eyes is a suiting sobriquet for her, as she is always watching out for everyone, always where she needs to be for a friend, and is now adding so many new perspectives to her repertoire as she somehow makes time for her education. So yeah, a hundred eyes is appropriate, or even a hundred hearts......