Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Interstate Interlude

*Taking a break from the short story......
I was in the middle of nowhere, on my way to the edge of the world when I noticed the sign for a rest area a few miles ahead. Normally I don't like to stop too often on long distant trips, and my gas tank had a hundred or so miles left in it and my bladder had at least sixty. But something compelled me to stop, perhaps I was just bored of the dismal gray interstate I had been travelling for more than six hours.  The trees were barren, everything was damp and all the other sojourners were plodding along about the same speed as I - I suppose I just needed a distraction.  I eased off the ramp, and as I dutifully followed the car not the truck signs, I was sort of surprised to see the brand new building, shaped almost like a star, a big shiny glass and brick star. 
I drove past some promising spaces, and was a bit irritated when I discovered I had drifted down to a dozen or so handicapped spaces, making me park quite a distance from the door of the rest area, given the steady drizzle that was descending from a depressed and frumpy cloud.  I hurried as fast as the leather soles on my dress shoes would allow, and reached the entrance relatively undrenched, moist, but not saturated.  I stomped my feet on the first rug I found and surveyed the spacious and clean foyer for vending machines and a masculine yellow sign indicating my path to relief.
I noticed two people working on a few open machines, and a dog resting across the space against the wall near a dolly full of soda pop. The man was fiftiesh, well groomed and wearing a nice insulated vest. He had a very sophisticated vending apparatus open and was steadily feeding large plastic bottles of pop into the tractor-like belts that would feed them to the dispensing area robotically.  I was fascinated by the mechanism, and he either didn't notice me gawking, was used to it, or just didn't care. I turned my attention to his counterpart on the opposite side of the restrooms. She was his age, long reddish hair, also dressed in nice outdoor apparel. She was filling the older, standard machines and I wasn't as curious about her labor.  I did notice she was standing very close to the flimsy plastic cover covering the front of the bulky Pepsi obelisk, but I didn't think much of it.  She was staring right at one of the Mountain Dew tabs and deftly twisting the keyed lock that opened the hinged door. Not intrigued, I pressed on into the Men's room.
I didn't dawdle, as was my custom, and after rinsing the last of the bean burrito I had wolfed down a county back with a quick toss of water from my hand up into the roof of my mouth, I made my way back out of the impossibly white tiled and marbled lavatory.  When I emerged, I was looking at the other side of the open central area where I noticed several large maps with all sorts of cute emblems and objects placed about indicating what I supposed were meant to be points of interest.  I wondered if anyone who stopped at one of these places to take care of business really were going to redirect their journey based on a few colorful tokens pined to a large map underneath a clean but plexiglass shield.  Accordingly, I averted my eyes.
As I looked down, stubbornly refusing the best efforts of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, I saw the dog again, and in an instant, saw the whole scene differently. I was amazed how the situation had flipped, and I was reminded of a fictive variation, something I had learned twenty years before in a philosophy class.  I had been taught you can never really know or apprehend something unless you could see it from every angle, all 360 degrees simultaneously; when you don't, your mind fills in details. This dog changed everything.
It had a scarf around its neck and a harness for a blind owner. It was a Labrador mix of some kind and it was just sitting by the pile of pop patiently.  The dog looked at me briefly, then returned to its solitary vigil. I paused before I turned back to review the scene behind me.  Knowing that she was blind would change the way I looked at her, would change the tenor of my perspective. She was still at the machine, slowly and carefully packing cans into the long vertical slots.  The man, her husband I supposed, was finishing at his station.  He drifted over to her, and I watched as they communicated silently as she finished her task. He would touch her gently, then direct her hand to a different stack of soft drinks. He stood there for awhile just watching her and occasionally softly redirecting her. After a few minutes, she closed the door deftly, then they both turned and walked over to the dog. As they approached, the dog perked up and leaned towards her hand as she slowly lifted it, palm upwards.  The man had her arm as they reached the dog, then the three moved gracefully towards an open door, a storage room I presumed, and disappeared.  I am not sure how long I watched them, maybe for a few minutes, but the whole play transpired as if I wasn't there. I appreciated my anonymity and the ability to stand and watch the simple but beautiful exchanges between the three.
I wondered if they were retired, or if that was their life, travelling around maintaining vending sites.  I decided it didn't matter, I decided they were very happy and that I envied the three of them.  I went to the fancy dispenser and watched amusingly as my Vernors Diet Ginger Ale made its way up, over, then down to the slot.  I reached down to pick it up, then turned to leave feeling very good, better than the weather and the drive ahead of me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


He used to know how to dress for these things, knew where he was going and why. He would go out tonight with an increasingly nagging ambiguity, feeling trapped between many things.  He would meet his friends as he should, but he wasn't sure he was up for another night of football and over priced coffee. This unease was as unwelcome as it was unexpected - his life (most of it anyway) was coming together just as he had hoped, but something wasn't right, he wasn't happy. Still, he knew he would feel better in an hour or so, even if it was just a reprieve from the loneliness that was starting to seep into his dream.
He grabbed a cab, and not feeling very chatty, decided to forgo his customary conversation and unofficial status as the sole representative of the city of Maan's Chamber of Commerce. Normally, he would have found some connection to the driver even on the shortest of fares.  He loved talking to people, loved talking about their homes and heritage, and mostly, enjoyed testing his hypothesis that he was connected to anyone in the world by only three degrees of separation, half that of the normal human being. Tonight though, he was too preoccupied with the analysis of another evening of cafe carousing, for the first time wondering why he was going out.
It was a short trip, and he jumped out of the cab, eager to get inside and find his friends.  He was feeling better now, able to drive away the early onset of angst he had been experiencing earlier. Once inside he saw his three mates milling around the restroom, waiting for him to go in and find a table.  He walked up smiling, and waited for the friendly barbs that would assault him.  They wrestled invisibly for a few moments, then turned seriously together towards the task of finding a table - a critical task  if they were to have any chance at an evening of whimsical adventure and squandered romance. 
He knew the owner of the cafe, he knew every owner of every establishment he ever went into.  He looked around for his friend, not seeing him, began to survey the tables.  It wasn't half a glance before he saw them, and he almost immediately dismissed them as not being table-view-worthy. The two he saw were exactly what he hated about these places, Ammani women who would have nothing to do with him, and seemed to be perpetually bored with themselves, bored with everything.  He wondered why they even bothered, but he supposed being nasty and disgusted here beat being nasty and disgusting at home where they had long lost any capital they could trade for attention. He caught himself frowning as the third caught his eye, then the frown opened up to an unspoken "wow."  If he had known better, he would have let her seen the expression, understanding the confidence of temporal vulnerability.
With determined speed, he calculated the appropriate vector and found the optimal table a suitable distance away.  Close enough to watch her when he could, far enough to mute the nonsense the would be engaged in for the rest of the evening.  The table would have been perfectly vacant, if not for the obligatory space savers awaiting their owners' return.  There were two drinks and four chairs, a perfect invitation for usurpation - space optimization (four vs two), and the sanctified mission of love he was now undertaking trumped all other proprietary forms of dominion.  To be safe though, he would place the larger of his friends nearest the men's room, figuring the previous occupants would return from that direction.
With a quick glance and nod at the waiter (whom he knew, and was almost a third cousin to), he signaled the removal of the drinks, erasing all claims to his vantage point.  Impressed, his friends joined him, and in the midst of the revelry of his conquest, almost lost THE chair to one friend he didn't want her to see.  An abrupt grab followed by an easy grin got him his seat, and the four of them sat down for the evening.  It was a few minutes before he looked over at her, as a matter of fact, he was trying not to look anywhere until he was sure that any adversaries seeking redress had returned and surrendered.  They must have seen the folly in regaining their territory, as no overt challenge came. He took it as a very good sign.
They conversed boisterously about football, each oddly having adopted a different European team, a different European country. There weren't a lot of matches these days, so the arguments tipped precariously on hypotheticals piled carelessly on hypotheticals - if they did play, so and so would do this, his counterpart would fade like a little girl and die in embarrassment, and so on.  The game used to be more fun, but he knew it well to fuel it a bit longer as he steadily grew more bold in his surveillance.  He wanted to watch her, but he didn't want her to know, his friends, her friends, anyone else in the cafe.  Tough work for a novice Lothario, but he was determined.  She was very pretty, and for once, he could sense a petite and kind personality penetrating her makeup and her I'm here but not really interested face.  No, she wasn't pretty, she was beautiful.
He found himself broadcasting a smile that was not appropriate for the prattle of the table, and he immediately tried to erase it and replace it with something more suitable.  He couldn't, realizing smiles were not his to manufacture about the time he felt the terrible flush reaching his soft cheeks - death if the others saw it.  He cleared his throat, took a drink, and resolved to get his head back in the game at hand, vowing to let her alone for awhile.  He calmed, and his colleagues hadn't noticed, another sign he mused.  When he had built up enough composure to return to his primary interest, he was a little more than dismayed when he looked up and noticed she had moved back a bit, almost totally obscured by one of the two harpies flanking her.  Undaunted, he continued with his dual intrigue, vowing to walk away from the evening with more than a caffeine buzz and nicotine tang - the absence that had tinged the confluence of his recent achievements now had a face and a figure, and he couldn't imagine the rest of his life without her.
To be continued.....

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


She was pleasantly surprised when she allowed herself to realize what a good time she was having, aimlessly chatting about all things she cared little for, probably just glad to be out and temporarily relieved from her mirror,  its inhabitants, and their inverted reproaches. She was somewhere in the midst of her third coke, already bored with the silly little straw, when she took the time to appraise her neighbors, despite the fact she had detected their attention a half an hour earlier. There were four of them she saw, catching two at a time with a pair of stolen glances. Typical Ammani guys she figured, laughing at the observation, knowing exactly what she was, what she thought but had not transcended. Fair was fair though, and she would manufacture enough intrigue to acknowledge them eventually, perhaps when she switched drinks and lost the straw and its lingering indictment of the lip gloss no one was supposed to notice.
Yes there were four of them, and they seemed to be having a good time, judging by their volume and a steady diet of hand-slapping and alternating looks of mock indignation. They were silly, but they were having fun - she always admired that about men and boys, the closeness they shared. Given half a chance, they would be off playing at some sort of game, jostling and prodding each other, secure in the knowledge that once the activity was over, once they disbanded, there would be no betrayals, no shifting of alliances, no temporary yet vicious subdivisions of the clan.  Her thoughts returning to her friends, their loyalty, there were times she really wished she was a man.
She picked up her tea (it was time to change tactics) and slid back a few inches in her chair, far enough for the taller of her two friends to provide just enough cover for her to survey the nearby table and its occupants.  There wasn't an immediate point to this impending exercise, more than the dispassionate intercourse of the residue of boredom and a little bit of pain. This wasn't a Western cafe, there would be no prolonged flirting, no eventual awkward interchange, no feigned reluctance over the acceptance of a phone number hastily scribbled on a bordered napkin, bisecting the damp ring of his last drink. She wasn't sure what she was thinking other than she had seen too many movies.
They were still laughing, the four of them, and probably aware they had caught her attention. Her colleagues were somewhat annoyed that she had violated this law of disinterest, but she didn't care - it wasn't hard to maintain the steady pall of their dialogue and people watch too, might even be fun. She wondered what her father would think, knowing she was even looking.  It had taken her a quarter of a century, two college degrees, and a fairly decent job to dissuade him from arranging a matrimony, but she doubted he would slide any further to the left of these ancient and staid conventions.  Nope, her husband had better be a Jordanian of the right family and profession, and the union certainly could not be conceived in the chatter and buzz of cafe stuck somewhere half way between Amman and Amy Winehouse.
Back to business, she chided herself, time to take a good look, engage in some playfulness.  She dismissed two of the four immediately as not her type: one looking as if he spent more time at his mirror than she at hers, though she doubted his ever gave him any lip; the other she recognized as being perpetually seventeen, frozen in the midst of his last great match, offering no future promise other than a couch full of his football mates anytime the satellite beamed down an event from any of the four corners of the earth.  Nope, they were definitely out - the other two would require more scrutiny, perhaps even another potpourri tea.
She settled on a double subterfuge, letting neither her partners nor the two young men at the other table know that she was up to.  This required that she pay enough attention to the inane babble of her friends in order that she could keep defraying the gossip, keeping the ball bouncing between the two while appearing engaged so that her cautious but intrigued appraisal proceed undetected by her subjects.  It was almost getting too clinical she thought, almost to the point of spoiling the whole activity, almost. She pressed on, and brought her full attention to the remaining duo, noticing immediately how different they were.  The first was her type, spot on!  He was a little taller, but not as thick as the footballer, neat and well dressed, not obsessively so, not like his GQ cousin.  He was confident too, she really liked that - he was the leader of the group she could see, whether or not the others would admit it. He had an easy air, and had cast a quick but approving smile at her once when she let her gaze dawdle irresponsibly. She was smiling, she realized, and he probably knew why. His would be a fun fantasy, long walks, moonlit nights, reckless journeys to wonderful places - fun, but not something she would entertain tonight, she didn't have the fortitude for the fiction of a prolonged romance and the abbreviated divorce. 
That left one, the smallest of the four, the one with a little patch of something on his chin. He didn't appear to be very athletic, nor did he look like he spent any particular time in a men's store. He didn't dominate the group, yet he navigated it with silly smile and probably a subtly sharper intellect, she thought, marked by a smaller set of hands and a tiny twinkle dangerously poised to produce a wink, lodged in the corner of his soft and puckish eyes. She liked him she thought, in a warm and uncomfortable way. It wouldn't be an abrupt and crushing crush, more like a slow dance; each turn peeling back a layer of prohibition, softening the edges of the embrace, 'till her head surrendered to his shoulder and he carried her through the rest of the song, slow and silently. She had seen too many movies, and now, in the course of a few seconds (maybe minutes, maybe an hour, she really didn't know) she was feeling decidedly vulnerable, with nowhere really to go. What if anyone else knew what she was thinking, what if he did?  What was he thinking?
Almost as if on cue, she looked up and over at him and found him looking at her, far more assertively than she could have imagined. She felt the immediate gravity that dictated she lower her eyes and turn down the smile, and the nuances of a balmy blush rising that even her carefully constructed makeup could not suppress.  But she did not avert her eyes, nor did she tighten her cheeks in the absurd gesture that seemed to ward off emotional effusiveness - she simply looked at him. And he looked back. Her friends were gone, his evaporated. The music had stopped, and the room had cleared of smoke and the tedious decorative debris of dozens of other humans made inconsequential by the soft promise of his self conscious style. She held his gaze as long as she could, even as the world objected and rumbled back into her ears, attacking her periphery.  She did yield, breaking it brusquely, but brought it right back, determined to explore the safety in his eyes, the sheltering sanctity of his smile. Her world had cracked open, and he was staring straight inside....
To be continued.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The minor mental meltdown at the cafe wasn't the beginning of this speculative day - she had been around and around a bit with the mirror on her vanity a few hours before. She was preparing to go out as she had so many times before, but there was an unfamiliar bend to her mood today. The ritual had begun fairly enough with the marshaling of makeup dispensers neatly in two rows perpendicular to the mirror, dispassionately assembled in order of application. They would be layered, scribed, smoothed, powdered, and patted into a garrulous gestalt that would be her gift to the world.  She would meticulously make her way through them, in no particular hurry to reach the penultimate execution, plucking invisible hairs with a cheap pair of tweezers whose ridged grips had been worn almost smooth by years of methodical, at times, maniacal employment.
Tweezers was such an odd word she thought that day, an odd word for an odd job. And as she leaned into the mirror, one hand already applying pressure to the cheap tool, the other pulling down on that part of her chin that made her cheek taut and ready for harvest, she saw him again sitting on the bed behind her, watching. It would have startled her if she had really seen him, or if he had a face - but he was a familiar apparition, more like a thought really, a reminder of that future lost somewhere in her past.
What would he think, watching her each morning as she moved through these maddening machinations, contorting her face, unable to speed things up, seemingly lost and tangled into that mirror.  Would he be patient, or would he be jealous?  Would he feel betrayed knowing the face he fell in love with was false, was the property of every man whose eyes cared to fall on her throughout the day? And what would be his? Would he love what he saw in the morning as he turned to her and gently pulled back the careless and stubborn whisp of hair that always escaped her diligent scrunchy, laying defiantly across her cheek, watching her closely as she smiled and woke defenselessly? Would he love the eccentricities that were already defining her face after twenty-five years, after she had removed much of the moisturizers and clinique foundation (sand) that muted their notes, their melody? Would he prefer this song, would he love the morning music that what was his and no one else's?  Would the reflection she would see in his eyes be that which had always eluded her in her own mirror?  Would she see the soft and vulnerable parts of her soul that longed for expression, longed for his love?  Would he love her?
She ripped out the last phantom hair from her manufactured face forcefully, and dutifully relegated him back to her future. Moving on to her hair, her mood brightened as she picked up the brush and brought it down silkily through the lush and generous locks God had blessed her with. She thought of God when she brushed her hair, but not when she covered it, as maybe she should have. Her hair was her favorite feature, and she didn't mind hoarding it for now, protecting it as the precious gift it was from the mundane and base elements of her day.  She loved the juxtaposition of modesty and makeup that emerged as she assembled her hijab for the four thousand, eightieth time (mental math - twelve years or so), always choosing a modest tone, simple color. As she deftly applied the nearly microscopic pins, she smiled pedantically as she thought about the bright and bold scarves the younger girls piled high upon their heads, fringe and tassels carefully and playfully constructed to belie the tart and caustic eye liner that funneled their withering, perfunctory gaze.
Finally, it was time for the last of her self-indulgent sacraments, the subtle and delicate assignment of perfume, the reverent, redolent contribution to the composition. She let him back for this bit, even up to the edge of the bed behind her, silent witness to the only act that made her feel girlish and pretty -  as she held the small, smug bottle up near her neck and sprayed its mist into the air inches away, then gracefully sliding over into it, embracing it cautiously while letting it envelope her lightly and lovingly. She smiled and closed her eyes, knowing he would like this, knowing it was a simple and gentle act, much like the way he would kiss her for the first time maybe in the moonlight, maybe in a soft and silent rain.
She was in a much better mood as she left him there sitting on the edge of the bed.  She moved with more purpose now, out into the night, ready for anything, nonsense or noir....
To be continued.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Laws of Listlessness - First Installment

She almost had declined her friends' invitation earlier in the evening, indulging that special kind of boredom that seeks no relief, only passive compliance - ennui she thinks, is pink. After a suitable period of earnest refusal, she did manage to muster the energy to get dressed and meet them at the cafe, irritatingly though, too early in the Autumn Amman evening. The taxi ride was annoying, the Palestinian driver had asked too many questions, barely managing to keep his tone appropriate, and she wondered about his expectations - how many women had been in the back seat of the Toyota, adopting a terminally distant and cold demeanor for his benefit, grunting minimal directions, wanting just to survive the short trip without some sort of awkward proposal?
Stepping out of the cab, careful not to tip or make eye contact, she spotted her two friends standing plaintively near the door, perfecting she thought, the sublime Jordanian stare: harsh beauty etched in mascara, precision rouge, and the hint of a chimerical malice. No wonder she mused, she was probably lonely.  She stepped up to them briskly, and they mulled around a bit aimlessly, none of them braving the path to the entrance.  Finally, tired of this provincial protocol, she lunged forth to the door, and like that, they were inside the cafe - knowing her colleagues would be irritated, having been denied their stoic and disinterested ingress.  Fine with her though, as they would be able to find a decent table in an easy corner, close to the balcony with its merciful relief from the dank and ugly inevitability of hookah and droll exotic coffee.  Why again had she decided to come?
She found herself chatting lightly with her two friends, while wondering if they were friends at all. Perhaps they were her partners in diversion, her literary license to venture out and view the edge of the world far removed from her traditional home, her school work, and the general unease she felt whenever she pondered her future.  She wasn't unhappy, more like listless in the sense that she felt a pull towards an undefined and formless fate that had yet to make itself known to her. Patience had been bred into her, and she would wait out the ambiguity of her destiny as she had so many other things, but with a bit more impudence, a bit less prudence. Tonight for instance, she would smile if she saw a pair of soft eyes, defying the silent stricture of her stern and solemn sisterhood.
Her thoughts drifted up to the ceiling as she sipped her coke, wondering if any real Bedouin had actually decorated their tents like this.  She didn't mind the motif, but wondered why it couldn't be a bit lighter, a little less brooding and woven.  She became conscious of the dark tones and harsh pleats; why were carpets of some sorts on the floors, walls, even sporadically draped from the ceiling?  He parent's home had none of this, nor would she have it in her home, wherever that would be. No ancient and dusty rugs, no copper tea pots that looked like evil bloated birds. She hadn't noticed these things before, and truthfully, it was her favorite cafe if she had ever been pressed to admit it. Despite these feelings of temporary estrangement, there was still something familiar and compelling about the room. Perhaps the muted and dark hues were meant to absorb - to suck in the toils of the day, the insignificance of a hundred meaningless tasks, the pettiness of a dozen flippant desires squandered in a course of cigarettes and chai. Or maybe, the room knew her loneliness, maybe there was an empathetic entropy of sorts at work here, willing to wait to transfer some of the damp dolor that was creeping into her heart back into drab dark walls.  Perhaps there had been life in this room a long, long time ago before it became a vacuum of human inertia and malaise
She shook her head in short violent toss, startling her two friends. They giggled nervously as she forced a smile and an inward declaration out of this forlorn fugue.  Not tonight - tonight she would  laugh and watch the dramaturgical production that would unfold at her feet in this place. And if she would lapse again into introspection, she would fight through it, not wanting to waste the promise of the evening on old and tired litanies. Her mood brightened and the room lightened. She turned to her friends and payed attention to the conversation, decidedly buoyant and playful.  Caught off guard, they followed, and soon the trio were absorbed in a vibrant and visible but private deliberation, and time passed.
She hardly noticed the four young men that entered a few hours later, tactically usurping a table close enough and far enough from them that had been dutifully reserved by a half-drank espresso and a skinny sweating tumbler of orange juice. Their owners were unlucky, or perhaps too timid to confront the playful shabab, recognizing the efficacy of a warm October night and a tinge of testosterone, upon returning from the men's room. The displaced patrons slid over to a remote table, and the victors had a clear and viable path to the object of their evenings interest -  three women they would steal furtive glances at, and whom they would conjure up and whisper all sorts of intrigue and unrealized stratagems at.  The night was young, and the spectre of love was somewhere, obliquely ricocheting around the padded bounds of this Bedouin oasis.
To be continued.....

Friday, November 18, 2011

Back to Jordan

I am heading back to Jordan after nine months or maybe even a lifetime.  It won't be the same place.  I won't recognize the soul of Amman this trip, and the heart, if I find it again, won't be in Jabal Amman either. For the first time, the trip will be about my work only, a different kind of love.  I am so blessed for this though, so honored the people there value what I do, what we can do together. There will be friends there too, and I look forward to their company. There are three children who will make me smile and laugh, and a young reporter who I can chide almost mercilessly about anything.  But there will be a void, and I am anxious to face it, not avoiding it or filling it - just facing it.  From there maybe, taking back the rest of the world I gave away, place by place, bit by bit.  Amman first, a place I poured my whole soul into, rescuing the residue, reconstituting a city, maybe even my heart. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Sixth Prayer

I have been praying faithfully lately, and I have even been adding a sixth prayer each day.  When I am irritated, stressed, bored, or just distracted, I take a few moments and I pray. I begin by thanking God for the experiences I have had, the amazing opportunities I have enjoyed around the world working in humble conditions, working with nothing but my hands and my heart. If my life ended today, I would be proud of the work I have done, but I can do so much, much more.  That is what I pray for, not only the chance to continue this work, but to do so with great focus and singular vision.  To date, it has been sporadic and often serendipitous.  I want to hone my energies, minimize my distractions, marshal all my strength to this effect.  I pray for the strength to conquer my selfishness, my anger when challenged, the rewards my ego longs for, and most of all, the vanity I cloaked as selfless love.  I pray that God helps me put these things aside, that he helps me find the right opportunities to re-engage my heart and hands, that he gives me time to make a lasting impact somewhere, somewhere other men have no interest to go.  Maybe it will be that small open air classroom where a few blind students patiently taught me how to punch Braille cards in Zanzibar, or the Muslim orphanage west of Dar es Salaam where a group of young children serenaded me with sweet, shy songs; maybe it will be another dry, dirty refugee camp, where the kids will pester me late into the night to play music, teach them English, or just play with my western hair, whatever is left of it; perhaps it will be another Islamic school that needs help, or just one lone frightened girl lost in another language far from home.  This is my prayer, one that I would have never recognized a quarter century ago, maybe even a few years ago.  Finally, I pray that the people who know me, who care for me, who love me, understand.  Simple man, simple prayer.


I gave my strength away, I haven't been strong for a very long time.  Time to be strong again.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I did a friend a favor today and lectured for him in his philosophy class.  I talked about the Utilitarians, Bentham and Mills, and briefly discussed Marx.  It was a fun morning, we did a lot of discussing and role plays, and I thought they had a good handle of the issues conceptually, even if they did not absorb all of the facts and details. At the end of the class, a young woman approached me and asked if I could tell her more about being a Muslim.  I invited her to sit down at a table and we talked for a half hour or so. 
She was an Apostolic Evangelical Christian (a very conservative branch of Christianity), and had been very active in our discussions during class. She asked me very politely if I could tell her a little about my religion as she had no other Muslims to talk to.  I have recognized lately that I am uniquely poised as an  access point for many people here - being White, a teacher, and a Muslim. They find me approachable, and are not embarrassed to expose their ignorance, their true desire to learn buffeted a bit by a familiar face and friendly profession. We sat and began to talk.  She asked a simple question, "what does it mean to be a Muslim?"  I began with my standard caveat about my recent conversion, my infancy in the details if not the spirit of my faith. I explained my understanding of submission and obedience to God, the expectations of my faith, my love of the constant reminders in my day of my devotion to and faith in God.  I also shared other, less conventional perceptions of my religion dealing with some prescribed behaviors and the afterlife. She too admitted that some of her conceptualization of her religion wasn't always standard.  We spoke about the need to remain within certain boundaries while maintaining a degree of individuality, yet still being able to lay a legitimate claim to designations of our faith. She had felt repressed in many ways in her youth, and although she had not broken away, she had been on the fringes of some of the tenets of her brand of Christianity.  I shared that I supposed that many other Muslims would disagree with some of my interpretations of the Koran and God's will, but that my mind was open, and I truly did want to understand and lead a better spiritual life.  We both marveled at the tolerant and intolerant members or our communities, and how often small details were exploited for inappropriate reasons. We both recognized that our respective faiths had often been stereotyped by these excesses, and that it was a shame many people did not want to look past them, to seek the truth or at least a more consistent understanding of something so important at the core of our lives. It was as if I was talking to my mirror image, twenty years younger, more intelligent, much more mature.
Throughout the discussion, she acknowledged what I said and even found many parallels to her faith and her personal walk within it. She was very frank and open, and it was such a wonderful few moments, as our souls transcended labels, geography, and dogma while we shared our experiences, our common intersection with each other, the world, our families, our relationship with God, no longer comparing or contrasting - sharing. It was a beautiful way to end a mediocre lecture!  I am blessed.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Surah 3:92

"Never will you attain the good [reward] until you spend [in the way of Allah ] from that which you love. And whatever you spend - indeed, Allah is Knowing of it."

I love these two statements, as they sum up perfectly what I have so awkwardly been trying to articulate for sometime.  In the past, I have selfishly tried to love and thought I was doing something good.  When I have failed, I have been stunned by the fact that the good I put forth did not ultimately return to me as reward or benefit.  But what I put forth was self-serving, it wasn't like the good I did in other aspects of my life. I gave with heavy and sometimes unspoken expectations of return.  When  those rewards did not come, I felt betrayed, and threw away some of my dignity as only a self[-pitying man can do.  In the process, I hurt those whose love I wanted at all costs.  I see it very clearly now.
I am focusing on redirecting that area of my heart that I reserved for affection and commitment from others to the ever-increasing swell of altruism I am feeling now.  Every hour of each day, I can see or imagine something good I can accomplish for others, something that I expect no return for.  In turn, the pettiness in my heart is decreasing, and all those lessons I have focused on from Ramadan to now are returning, fortifying my ability to be better.  The silent, gentler rewards resonate more vividly now, and I can imagine the wonderful things I will do with the rest of my life.  I feel so blessed.
I have always admired Albert Schweitzer, and I reread The Decay and Restoration of Civilization every year.  Now, I read it with my Koran, a human example of God's grace and patience.  I am reaching out to more people, smiling more, and rethinking what I used to consider necessary yet cruel remarks.  I will think of this Sura often, as well as a small but wonderful quote from Dr. Schweitzer, "A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint." I am blessed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

TZ Friends

I lived in Tanzania for just year, but I made so many great friends there. I was working with the US Peace Corps supporting volunteers teaching Math and Science in schools all over the country (the size of Texas and Oklahoma).  I spent a great deal of my time travelling from Dar es Salaam to Arusha (near Mt. Kilimanjaro) across the Serengeti, in and around Lake Victoria, on Zanzibar (Unguja and Pemba), south through game parks the size of Switzerland, and in and out of dozens of small villages.  While at home though (about a week a month), I lived a few miles from the center of Dar es Salaam on a long peninsula in Oyster Bay.  It was a few miles to the office, and I often drove my motorcycle.  I would always stop though at this little shop on the dirt road halfway to my office.  The older woman owned the modest market, and she employed the young woman beside her. After a very short time, once they learned I was on my own, they became my mother, wife, sister, nutritionist, and I was never quite sure who was who from day to day.
I would stop, we would chat, I would promise to eat whatever fruits and vegetables they recommended that day, to marry one of them soon, and to stop travelling all over the place and settle down. We always laughed, and I never would have dreamed to pass by without stopping.  They were both always there, probably seventy or more hours a week.  Frankly, I bought much more than I could consume, but I had two security guards that became the beneficiaries of my daily fruit, vegetable, and courting indulgence.  I don't know what happened to these two - I returned ten years later and sadly the whole area had been paved and the open shops were long gone, replaced with a gas station and a subway restaurant. I haven't taken care of my diet adequately since.....

The gentleman on the right is Kitare, a language specialist I worked with at the PC headquarters in Dar es Salaam. He was very interesting man who had studied religion and politics, and who loved to debate. His keen intellect was tangled up a bit in African spirituality and Soviet socialism. We had many lively discussions, and I admired him as one of the few true pure thinkers I had ever met. From the beginning, Kitare repeatedly invited me to his home for dinner and to meet his family. I was so busy, that I didn't get around to my visit until the week before I left the country, but I was not going to forgo the courtesy. As you can see, I made it to a lot of last minute banquets, about thirty pounds heavier then when I arrived in country :)
It was a wonderful evening, though I was surprised by the relative modesty of his home - I guess my biases about his intelligence were betrayed by this, perhaps some sort of unconscious expectation of karma on my part.  It was very humbling thinking about a man who would have a very easy life in my country with absolutely no guarantees there.  We had a wonderful meal, and stayed late playing games with his family (from left to right: Dolo,the house girl; James; Evansi; Severa, his wife; Kevin; and Aidani).  Kevin, the youngest was very shy and quite wary of me. We laughed a lot, and I don't think they had ever had an over-the-top American in their house before.  I left Tanzania a few days later.  Some months passed and I got a letter from Kitare with this picture in it.  It came with a very polite note thanking me for visiting his family, but with a wry postscript:  "And Kevin is ready for you to return as he now believes he can withstand your humour!"

This is Mzee (Respected One) John, one of the PC drivers who travelled across the country with me.  John was with me during a school riot (see the post below), and other grand adventures. John was a very wise and gentle man, and we had a great deal of fun on our long trips (our last trip was more than three weeks traipsing around northern Tanzania in a Landrover).  We literally spent the entire days together as we were often driving for six to eight hours, eating together, and he would be with me when I went into the schools. It was such a simple matter to treat John well, as he was a very kind and humble soul.  I was truly shocked when I learned later that the Americans that followed me the next ten years in the post seemed very capable of screwing up the equation to the point where the drivers and staff felt very alienated.  On this day, we were waiting for a ferry to take us out to an island on Lake Victoria when we challenged these children to a fishing contest (I think they let us win). As I said, very simple to be with John.  I am very proud that I had earned his respect and that of the other drivers and staff during my stay there - doing so did not diminish the quality of my work or corrupt my relationships with other constituents.  Simple.

The owner of this beautiful smile is Jumapili, named for the day he was born, Sunday. Jumapili was a tremendous resource for the organization as he was very intelligent, extremely compassionate, and quite funny. He was fabulous with the volunteers, young and old, and his enthusiasm was infectious. I interacted with him occasionally my first nine months, but really got to know him my final three.  He is a great example of a host country professional who has to work extremely hard, often patching together multiple jobs and opportunities to make ends meet. Despite all of his industry, he was always upbeat and positive, and never failed to meet his obligations for us, even going the extra mile often. Before I left the country, I decided that I wanted to take some accelerated Swahili lessons to maximize my efforts there, and the director let me hire Jumapili to give me one-on-one lessons.  It was a blast!  We worked together late in the day after work when I wasn't travelling.  He teased, cajoled, pushed, supported, admonished, and praised me through those lessons, and I learned a great deal about tutoring with him (something I thought I was fairly proficient at prior to our lessons).  I think of him often when I am down or a bit dejected that things aren't coming together for me as I would like.  When I do, often on Sunday, I smile and feel very foolish for discounting my many blessings. 

This is John again, sandwiched between two of my favorite women in Tanzania (apart of course, from my two fiancees at the fruit and vegetable stand), Esther and Grace. They worked primarily in the north in Arusha with the new volunteers we trained there.  Esther supervised the language training and Grace directed the health services. John and I stopped by for tea one day, and we had a wonderful day chatting with them both, then I went outside to play with Grace's autistic son Eric.  Grace was such a lovely soul, but lovely in only the way life can wear down the sweetest of souls with burdens and a heart too big for her chest. She had hoped I could work with Eric and draw him out a bit.  Eric didn't often interact with strangers, but I had experience with other children buried within themselves by this awful disease, and I was up for the challenge. I looked around the area behind the house, and I spotted what I needed to find a way into Eric's reality. He followed me at a distance, cautiously observing me until I came up upon a sprinkler at the edge of the property feeding a furrow of an adjacent farm.  He slid silently up beside me, mesmerized by the pattern of the water spray as the sprinkler head rotated slowly around, shooting water in a slow tumbling arc.  Eric smiled broadly as I leaned down and twisted a small valve on the unit changing the dispersion pattern.  He clapped wildly and ran around keeping himself inches away from the encroaching spray. He made a curious guttural noise that seemed to be in time with the spurts, and I was intrigued by the coordination of the whole thing.  I joined in, trying to keep up but got soaked to Eric's delight.  We stayed out there for a few hours, intersecting around the geometry of that sprinkler, but when Grace called us in, Eric frowned and again became a silent sentinel following me back to the house. Eric disappeared, and as I walked back up to the house, I looked up at Grace's lovely face, tears streaming down it.
Esther, on the other hand,  was a force of nature!  She was the head language teacher, had written the training book, ran an extended family on her own, and loved to corner me and pick my brain about all things educational.  I never saw her in anything lower than fourth gear! She wore people out, but I never tired of her enthusiasm and passion, as it was the rare kind born of love for the world rather than her own adulation. I kept track of Esther, narrowly missing her a few years later in London, and then again a year or two later back in Dar.  I will catch up with her, I will let her know how much I respect her and miss her. Esther's last name is Simba, Swahili for lion - a perfect name for this beautifully strong woman.

Thomas Msuka was my counterpart (we shared the same duties) and my best friend in Tanzania.  No two souls could be much different, other than their love for the future of the children of that East African country. He was every thing I was not: humble, patient, diplomatic, soft spoken.  He had been the headmaster of one of the best schools in the country and then later a Ministry of Education official.  Near retirement, he had taken a more lucrative job with PC - another reminder to me how even the most talented professionals in a place like that had to struggle to raise a family and make ends meet.
Thomas and I quickly learned how to work together, each aware of the other's strengths, each respecting the motivation of the other, each seeing room to learn, and Thomas probably doing a lot more accommodating.  We laughed, argued minimally, and found that we both loved the volunteers, the schools, the teachers, the students, in different ways, but that we support each other against any adversity.  When we went to Arusha to train the new volunteers, we spent a great deal of time together.  At the end of each day, Thomas and I would break away from the rest of the mixed Tanzanian-American staff, find Simon Mahai an old crony of his from the ministry, and grab a taxi to go to Rumboshine, our favorite "dive" of a dinner on the edge of the town (we really didn't break away, no one would go with us).  We sat there for hours, flirted with the waitresses, talked politics where Thomas would let me battle Simon somewhat rigorously before he would gently indicate I had gone too far.  I would give the world to be back there, at the foot of Kilimanjaro and Meru, eating beef kidney, laughing at life and its ironies with those two men.
Thomas' gentle nature was well tested through the years as he lost children and parents and saw so many other heartbreaking things with his wife of so many years, Prisca.  When their daughter Rose got a Fulbright Scholarship to teach Swahili in New York, I went and fetched her back to Akron to spend long weekends with my family.  My daughters loved her, and ask about her often. Thomas and I are still in touch, and I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting up with him a few years ago in Dar es Salaam at a very nice tourist hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean.  I squealed (for possibly the first time in my life) when I saw him enter the lobby with his Prisca, Rose and her three children and husband.  We invaded the dinning room and ordered just about everything on the menu (on the tab of my billionaire boss of course) and caught up.  For two hours, I was Baba Kesho again (another story) and I was lost in the company of beautiful souls and rambunctious kids. Rose introduced me to her husband and asked questions about my family, insisting I greet them for her.  The kids slowly warmed up to me and we made a big mess - my boss left a big tip.  When we parted, Thomas and I hugged and I knew I would miss him like no other friend I had ever had.
There are dozens of other friends I left there in Tanzania, these are just a few that really touched my heart.  In this holy time where I am constantly reminded of sacrifice, I think of these people who had so little, gave so much, and loved me like a brother.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Beautiful Things

Despite the wars that rage sporadically in my mind and chest, I have seen and felt things in the world that taught me that I have a soul - that place buried deep enough inside me that shuns the ugliness of experience but absorbs the wonders of God's creations and the smallest of bits of human kindness. I have seen very beautiful things.
Last week, I walked out late into the cold evening and looked up to see a large, singular orange star.  There was nothing else in the heavens at that moment, just the constant unflickering light from this object shaped like a simple snowflake. I stood there beside my truck just looking at it. I didn't know what it meant, didn't care, just stood there admiring the stark contrast between this orange beacon in the black/gray sky and my impulse to rush off to nowhere. I don't know how long I lingered there, but I was grateful for the chance to think I alone was privy to this sight, it was my star, my God putting His hand on my shoulder slowing me down, cracking open the night to smile at me.
A dozen or so years ago, I was literally in the middle of nowhere in southern Tanzania doing a site visit at a girls school, checking in on Mona a young Peace Corps volunteer teaching there. I didn't know Mona very well, and I had just completed a very difficult visit to another volunteer a hundred miles down the road (road used liberally here) and the residual unpleasantness had not faded during the three hour trek. The volunteer, Jim, had been fine - it was an issue I had with one of the Tanzanian teachers that had upset me.  Jim had shared with me that he was very concerned that this teacher was known to extort sexual favors from his female students, and had even beaten one recently.  Jim reported all of this to his headmaster who seemed to dismiss it.  As an middle-class American liberal, Jim was outraged and had a difficult time dealing with the actions and the subsequent disregard of the the administration.  He could not understand why the girls' parents hadn't taken action, and he was very frustrated. I talked to him for a bit, then went and spoke to the headmaster. Things were a bit more complex as I suspected - the teacher had strong connections in the Ministry of Education that the entire community was aware of.  The families of the young girls knew that any protest could jeopardize the slim chances these young women had at a meaningful education. I did my best to explain this to Jim, to let him know I empathized with his suffering and that he should respect the pain of the girls and their families.  It wasn't my best ever attempt at support, but he respected my effort.  I resolved to leave things as they were and leave, perhaps to check back in a few months.  I didn't make it out of the school compound though, as other more primal, ugly instincts prevailed.
Although I had visited with most of the teachers that day, I hadn't seen the teacher Jim was so upset with.  As we drove through the school to the main road, I saw a thin, haggard man sitting on a chair outside of one of the teachers' houses.  We were driving slowly as students were all about, and I noticed a young girl emerge from the house with a glass of water, shyly offering it to the man on the chair.  We were just passing them as she turned to look at the Landrover when I noticed a large bruise under her eye.  I barked at the driver (a lovely young man named Morris who I spent a lot of time with) to stop and startled him.  He did, then looked over at me, saw my rage, and grabbed my arm as I was about to climb out. That simple gesture gave me a bit of perspective and composure, but I was still getting out and I was going to at least have a discussion.  Morris followed me over to the man, a few feet behind me.  I walked up to the molester, looked at him, smiled, then reached over and grabbed another small chair near him and pulled it up beside him.  I sat down and greeted him in Swahili.  He grunted and Morris grimaced.  I realized the teacher was drunk and that only fueled my anger.  I worked hard to smile so that the students and teachers that surrounded us did not suspect a problem.  He looked at Morris though and knew nothing good was about to happen.
I leaned in towards him, said a few things in English to ascertain if he could understand my language and that he wasn't too drunk to appreciate my next few words. I paused, thinking carefully about the next minute and even thought of abandoning my plan when I glanced past him and saw the girl. She was several yards away and looked terrified.  A million thoughts raced through my mind about him retaliating, her suffering, other girls being molested, and I wasn't aware that I had begun my short speech to him.  I remember I was still smiling, perhaps channeling John Wayne, and I said "I have heard you have put your hands on some of Jim's students.  If you do again, I will leave him (Morris) in Dar es Salaam and I will come down here by myself and I will kill you." I could tell I had surprised him, and I could see a deep malevolence in his eyes, but also a portion of caution despite the alcohol.  I asked him if he understand, and he made the most subtlest of nods.  I stood up, turned back to him and said "part of me hopes I get to come back to see you."  Morris, the only witness who overheard the conversation was horrified.  He knew this could cost me my job, he knew I was taking a terrible risk and that other innocent people could pay for my selfish indulgence.  We got in the vehicle and started our long journey to see Mona later in the day.
Morris and I never discussed it, and a familiar feeling began to wash over me - a dirty, filthy sense of my ugliness that could not be abated by any amount of rationalization about chivalry or justice.  Honestly, I often wondered (and still do) why God put those feelings of protection in my heart as well as the subsequent realization of guilt and remorse. I have had many conflicts over the years, often in defense of others, and no matter how blatant I felt the actions of their aggressors had been, I always, always felt bad afterwards.  I was feeling particularly worthless when we pulled into Mona's school later that day, not really up to the pleasantries and protocol of the visit.  That all changed the instant I saw Mona trotting over to the Landrover.
Mona was a beautiful, energetic young woman originally from Pakistan who was teaching science at the small rural school in Tanzania. She was bright, probably destined for a productive and respected career in science after she returned from her simple and wonderful gift to the girls at the school.  She was excited to see us, and immediately began to chatter about all the things she wanted to show me, all the wonderful things her students were doing. I walked with her to the headmistresses quarters where we sat for an hour or so talking about Mona, issues at the school, and the possibility of sending her more volunteers.  I was so excited - there was a perfect synergy between these two women, what we always pray for when we send a volunteer into a village.  I was so jealous!  Mona and I then went to her classroom where I watched for another hour as she floated through her lesson, demonstrating chemical reactions, smiling, responding to her students who were beaming and excited. It was the single best hour I spent in the country, watching her grace, her passion, her unyielding expectations for her students. When she finished, I became a school girl!  We sat there excitedly discussing the lesson, the kids, her plans for new lessons, her gratitude for having the opportunity to be there in that place and time, living a  blessing.  Finally, we got up to go visit other parts of the school. When we walked outside, Morris must have seen the change in my face, for he gently put his hand on my arm and smiled as Mona and I passed by. 
Later in the evening (the school ran two shifts) Mona and I were talking about other challenges and she mentioned that she was concerned that some of the other teachers were practicing corporal punishment, particularly with belts. Almost on cue, we both turned when we heard a girl yelp as a teacher was slapping her extended arm with a belt.  I had a sickening feeling of deja vu as I was already moving towards the scene across the courtyard.  As I calmly walked over, I thought of Mona and my earlier mistakes.  The teacher saw me coming and stopped hitting the girl, but did not release the opposite hand she was grasping.  I walked up to the woman, put my hand on her shoulder and asked her as gently as I could to stop.  I then asked her to please not hit the child when I was there.  She was shocked at first, but then let the little girl's arm go.  She turned to me and I intimated with a small head nod that she should walk with me.  We walked over towards a building and I apologized for interrupting her.  I then told her that hitting students upset Mona, and asked again that she not do that when Mona was around.  The woman was silent, but kept walking with me.  I asked her name, introduced myself, and we talked about her subject (math) for a bit. After a few minutes, I smiled, shook her hand and excused myself.
I walked back to Mona, who thanked me visibly upset.  I talked to her for a long time explaining that the teacher was doing what she knew, what she had been exposed to. Mona knew this, but had such a beautiful heart that she still couldn't deal with no matter what the explanation.  I took Mona and Morris to a local restaurant (once again, the word used extremely liberally) and we chatted late into the evening.  Morris and and I then drove a few hours to our next school, spending the night in a Catholic monastery.  Fittingly, I felt like praying - I prayed for forgiveness and thanked God for Mona's grace. I slept very peacefully that night.
Sometimes beauty emerges from and vanquishes ugliness, a dance that has choreographed itself hundreds of times in my heart, usually in places tucked away in forgotten corners of the world.  A few months later, when I read Mona's quarterly report, how that visit had been the highlight of her first year at the school, I remembered my gratitude to God that day and I thanked Him again.
I have seen so many other beautiful things - a woman bent over toiling, rubbing oil into the planks of her dilapidated stairs outside a shack in Jamaica, lovingly taking care of her home, taking time only to turn to smile welcomingly at a big white stranger walking by; a young Muslim woman dressed in modest and austere black, working silently in a plain and drab kitchen delicately creating gorgeous flowers and designs on elegant cakes; a security guard in a London school walking down the hall with a young man, gently admonishing him for some transgression, maintaining a degree of dignity the boy could feel and respond to; my daughters playing together then as babies, now as grown women learning to appreciate each other; African children running down a narrow, winding road to school, laughing and jostling each other, in order (as Morris told me) to stay warm; every lonely tree I saw in the plains of the Serengeti, stoically and silently opening upwards like umbrellas to cloudless skies; UN teachers from Palestinian camps playfully practicing learning techniques in a swank hotel in downtown Amman, refusing to relinquish their dignity and hope to the sins of an indifferent world; the smile that spreads proudly across a student's face as he factors a difficult trinomial while I chide him telling him it was mere luck; the boardwalk of a little dive village on the eastern side of the Sinai at night, paper lanterns, gaudy signs, persistent Egyptian pitchmen, wild cats, a Red Sea breeze; Mohammed and Karima sweetly nurturing Ryan despite his protests and slightly sour disposition; watching my newborn daughters grasp my pinkies in their impossibly small hands minutes after their birth; a million other miracles I have witnessed, whether I appreciated them at the moment or not.  They are all still here, treasures from my God, perhaps in deference to all the mistakes and errors I have made with a misguided but ever hopeful heart.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sura 30:60

"So patiently persevere: for verily the promise of Allah is true: nor let those shake thy firmness, who have (themselves) no certainty of faith."

I read this admonition before I began my month long introspection in Ramadan, focusing on "patiently persevere" particularly. I keep revisiting those posts, not wishing to lose the lessons, the inspiration, the vows and goals - and even though I have taken a few steps back, I am still progressing.  Lately, my attention has been shifted to "the promise of Allah" as I contemplate my future.  I don't interpret this as the promise of heaven, rather the promise to fulfill the potential he has put in my heart. This is a constant theme for me now, putting things together, leveraging everything I have to go out and change some small corners of the world.  When I do figure this out, when my heart is pure in this regard to service, I will be ready for heaven for it will be an extension of this spirituality.  In the meantime, I have a lot to do.
As for the second piece of this passage, I really don't have people in my environment who "shake" my firmness; on the contrary, most are very supportive.  I do live in a wonderful country -most of the people I meet accept my right to practice my faith, and are often very sensitive to it.  This always warms my heart. My risk comes from another kind of uncertainty, that of being around people that don't understand my drive, my need to create and uphold a higher standard for myself. I want to be a good Muslim, a good man, someone who can make a difference for others.  I am not sure that the others around me know how important this is to me, and therefore may be tolerant if I let up, if I don't reach my goals.  To complicate this, I don't really broadcast my goals, their intensity, my urgency.  I have expressed it ad naseum here though to a few folks.  I also don't want to become or appear as a self-righteous Muslim either.  The world becomes much more interesting but complicated when you realize you have no interest in balance!
Finally, related to a few previous posts, I have to be honest with myself about this promise I am trying to fulfill. I think some people recognize this energy and desire inside of me and are drawn to it. The problem is that it will never be truly theirs - this is the realization that I think I have been dreading, but that may be inevitable.  I sometimes share some of this passion, not intending to lead anyone on, honestly thinking I would be able to redirect it in a relationship (of any kind), then finding that it does not work. I have the competing desire for companionship and the solitude that my career path seems to be taking me down. I do know that I am not upholding any covenant with God when I hurt people or are not honest with them.  This will be an intriguing walk for me I think, but being aware of my weaknesses is the first step to solving or avoiding them.
For now, I really do feel God's power and grace in my goals and needs, and it is such a special feeling I don't want to jeopardize my potential to realize His promise.  Things are complicated, but I feel blessed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


 There was a time when I loved this bed.  I sat on it every day for more than a year and a half.  As a matter of fact, there were many times when the little girl peering over the edge was the one nestled in the makeshift hammock, and I would sit on the edge of the bed and gently rock her back and forth with my leg as I chatted with her family. It was an open room with three or four of these beds lined against the wall under open windows begging any semblance of a breeze against the still dead heat of the Tihama.  I stopped by this small shack each day on my way back from teaching ESL courses in the local village school. Two of the children were my students, and they would race back ahead of me on the mile long trip to prepare a glass of tea for me, it was our ritual. We practiced English, played games on the dirt floor, or just hung out.  I would usually be there for an hour or so, and my favorite distraction was figuring out where I would leave a few riyals each week so that they wouldn't see me do it directly, but so they could find it easily to pay for my tea and biscuits.  It was the nearest experience I ever had to a regular family dinner or Sunday drive.
The bed offered another occasional activity, my delicate dance acknowledging and avoiding Aisha, a young woman who lived next door with her mother and sister (see link below) who flirted with me each time I walked through the camp. The window behind this bed faced Aisha's shack which was only twenty feet away.  So even if I managed to get past her relatively quickly, she could access me through the window.  It was all harmless (or so I thought), and her gentle teasing and taunting was flattering and just added to the odd ambiance of that wretchedly hot, unsanitary, and wonderful place.  There was a time when I loved this bed that doubled for a couch where I held daily court with some lovely children and a beautiful teenager with an incomprehensible crush.....
The small child in the hammock died a few months after this photo was taken, one of a few we lost to heat, filth, and dehydration.  One of the few things that did make its way into the camp was formula - life and death in a pale yellowish-white powder. We had no running water or electricity, and the well water was very salty as we were only a thousand or so yards from the Red Sea.  And although we got formula and other less useful things (i.e., refrigerated truck), we got no fuel or money to buy it - fuel needed to boil the water to keep the bottles and nipples clean. The nourishment was life-saving - the bacteria and other by-products of having nothing near sterilization capabilities probably killed three or four babies in the two years I as there. They would get sick, develop diarrhea, then it was a Herculean task to keep them hydrated.  There is a particular kind of horror when you stick your finger into the belly of a baby, and her flesh and skin do not bounce back with your hand.
Eid al Adha is approaching, and I am contemplating sacrifice.  I think about the types of sacrifices we bargain for and accept, much like Abraham who was willing to give his son Ishmael to God.  Sacrifices we choose to make at terrible costs, for the benefit of others or the glory of God. Until recently, I thought I had made sacrifices in the past, and I was probably encouraged by others to think that way.  I contracted typhoid shortly after arriving in Yemen, malaria three times while in the refugee camp, and I even managed to pick up hepatitis b right before I left.  I lived with dirt, insects large enough to carry away my lunch, salty well water, intolerable heat, and the loneliness of the only native English speaker within a hundred miles. But in retrospect, none of these were sacrifices at all!  Watching others suffer, watching them sacrifice is no sacrifice at all - I have allowed my self this incredibly immature indulgence for too long.  It is theirs not mine!
God has blessed me indirectly with a strange malady - I like things others don't. No, I am not saying I like to have tropical diseases, but I do love to be in the places one is likely to catch one. The disease is just an occupational hazard, a week's long inconvenience that I didn't really remember afterwards anyway. I loved sitting in the dirt with some children, working with their mothers learning rehydration strategies, watching a few old men build a boat from virtually nothing, and most of all, teaching and laughing with these dignified people dressed in modest clothing living in desolate circumstances. I'd rather be teaching in barren brick building with the thatched roof in that camp than in any ivory tower here in the west.  I would gladly trade my cozy office for the space I had in Jamaica with peeling paint, a banged-up desk, and leaky windows. I can't tell you what I'd give to be back on that rope bed/couch swinging a little Eritrean child back and forth in his mum's wrap, spelling crazy words with his older brother and sister, watching them scratch the letters in the dirt floor.  No, I haven't sacrificed anything, but others have to subsidize my very selfish existence.
I have never done the right thing at any great expense to myself or my self interest!  I realize that now - I have done what I wanted to do, and through no merit of my own, these actions have sometimes intersected with the welfare of others (but not all others, as many of my loved ones can testify). I have this great strength, this great passion inside me, so when I work hard, when I put myself in difficult, challenging situations I am not suffering at all. I have lived in a refugee camp, I have toiled there, I have sweated and spent weeks in feverish states, but I have not sacrificed.  I knew I was leaving, I had a future, I wasn't trapped there, I didn't watch my little girl shrivel up and die.  As a matter of fact, I returned to the comforts of the States and I have leveraged my experiences and slight inconveniences quite nicely - very gentle souls have even given me awards.  I am an impostor, I know that now.
I think about Abraham, I think about the mother of the little child swaddled in cloth above, I think about my daughters, I think about others who have loved me. I have so selfishly lived in two worlds, dragging beautiful people back and forth, in the end giving none of them any substantial part of me. I don't know why I am built this way, I don't even know what I should have done differently - I just know that I have missed something, and I want to spend some time this holy week reflecting. Perhaps my sacrifice should have been to stay put, raise my family responsibly, putting their needs before mine. Most of all, I want to understand what it is I am to do from here. There is a certain kind of torment reserved for those of who feel love but cannot express it to the people we care about most, creating the horrible illusion that we don't, and actually are more concerned with strangers.  But strangers don't know who we are, what we have done, aren't privy to the the things we cant forgive ourselves for......... I cannot fix the harm I have done to others, and my passion is not waning, it is surging. I am lost.  I am not lost in a terrible, desolate way however. Just lost.
I will pray this week, ask Allah to give me guidance. I am not looking for some sort of authentic sacrifice to run to either, that would be absurd. There is more to my duty to God than praying, fasting, behaving, and it cannot be as simple as I have made it these past decades.  I need to find a way to quench this fire inside me in service to others without hurting those around me that don't need my help or assistance, only my love.  There is a stark notion steeping back in my brain - it maybe that I can have one and not the other, and it should be that which I do better.  If this is the case, my sacrifice must be to stop playing with the love and affection of others when I do not return it as they need. Most likely this will be my task this week, to decide if I can change my equation to accommodate both variables (forgive me, just finished teaching a math class), or if I need to give in and just go and feed this fire without dragging anyone along with the false promise of a substantial piece of my heart.
*Postscript - many of you have so kindly given me wonderful and caring feedback, and at times I am almost embarrassed as it was not my intention to beg your compliments and praise. Please, please, please understand that this post is not some sophomoric appeal for sympathy!  For once, I would not appreciate any feedback, just leaving a trail of where I have been and where I am going, an act of caring on my part.  I will emerge :)  Eid Mubarek

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Living around the world, navigating in and around dozens of cultures, I have learned to appreciate gestures - those moments when we allow ourselves to love openly and honestly, even if ever so briefly.  We offer these gifts to strangers with open hands and oblique eye contact, and to our friends and lovers with a casual disinterest belying the underlying endearment of the act. The universal condition of these fugitive intimations is that they are offered without language and received either mutely or with minimal response.  This fleeting and intimate intersection is as prolonged and manifest as our unconditional love for each other has evolved in a few million years. Nevertheless, distilled as these platonic trysts may be, they continue to have a powerful impact on me, and may be the one thing that reaffirms my notion that the world still cares about itself.
Letting someone in ahead of you in traffic, lingering at a door holding it for someone several yards away, helping a woman with a stroller down a set of stairs, stopping to let a pedestrian cross in front of your car, helping someone with a heavy load, picking up a check at a restaurant, etc., all are simple acknowledgements of each other's existence, each other's awkward path through a shared universe.
In Tanzania, I supervised Peace Corps volunteers working throughout the country teaching math and English. They came to the country in groups once a year, where we trained them for three months before we sent them off for a two year adventure in their villages.  We trained them in Arusha, a small town near Kilimanjaro in the north, far away from he hustle and bustle of the main office in the capital city of Dar es Salaam.  We had a small training complex there with seasonal staff who helped with the thirty volunteers who were stationed there doing their training sessions, practice teaching, and health care checks. We employed a few cooks and three custodians, as well as a dozen or so language and culture trainers.  Although the volunteers stayed with host families during the training stage, they spent a good deal of their day at the center. I didn't spend the entire three months there, but I came and went with some frequency. When I was at the center, I made it my habit to rise early and have breakfast with the Tanzanian staff - the men and women who cooked, cleaned, and looked after the site and volunteers.  At first they were a bit tentative, but after a requisite amount of teasing and jostling (by me), they welcomed me into the breakfast club where I had a lot of fun despite understanding only about 10% of the rapid fire Swahili flying by.  After my initiation, I returned to the capital for a few weeks to take care of other business. When I returned a fortnight later, I was not prepared for my reception - I climbed out of the Landrover as we entered the guarded gate and heard a shrill vibrating but friendly noise and saw two of the women rushing out to greet me.  I had heard this noise before at African weddings and celebrations, and I was nearly knocked down to my knees when I realized it was generated for me.  Both ladies curtsied and then did the unthinkable, they grabbed my bags. Now I am a German-American male, and it was everything I could do to tolerate this act, but I did and meekly trailed behind as they toted my belongings into the main room and respectfully laid them up on a table. I knew I needed to let them do this, but it was very, very hard.  A dozen years later, I am still humbled by the gesture, and I wouldn't trade it for a hundred awards, a thousand accolades from my peers.  I did have my revenge however, and I was absolutely delighted as I watched them squirm in their own tolerant juices as I stepped into the kitchen one day to take over dish washing duties when they were short handed.  This was an terrible breach of European-African hegemonic protocol, and I loved every moment of it.  Despite their horror, they got used to me washing dishes, as I invaded the sanctity of their kitchen every other day or so, and we laughed continuously - they didn't realize I could translate "how can a white guy get that much water on himself?" These small communions, graceful and dignified, defy the social constructions and manifestations assembled all around us protecting one from another.  I love to look into another open heart, even if it just a glimpse, fleeting and ephemeral - the warmth rivals the center of the sun.
There have been other small gestures that have stuck with me through the years, like the way Mr. Cowell, one of my literacy students in Jamaica always "comped" me a free skyjuice when I saw him out and and about selling the sugary-sweet mixture from his cart.  Or when little bits of chocolate magically appear on my desk after I not so subtly let those in my environment know of my proclivity for it, the only weakness I divulge. When American coworkers quietly scold their peers who bring food into the office space in deference to me during Ramandan, thinking it will provide some unendurable temptation for me.There have been thousands of these gifts over the years, and I am so blessed - I can remember watching helplessly in a malarial fever as a few students (even those I disciplined) reverently reached into my tent and deposited small packages of cookies, knowing I was unable to move.  After a nearly a week in that cot, I was finally be able to stand, devastated by the huge pile of these food gifts stacked in the middle of my tent. Sometimes it is just a "thank you" from a student exiting my class, or an email from someone in Jordan thanking me for coming to work with them, or hearing the word "usted" (teacher) softly and respectfully uttered as I walked through my village in Yemen.  There are a million kind and wonderful people in the world, and they have enriched my life with seconds long gestures nearly everyday of my life.
I was thinking about my childhood the other day, silently lamenting that I have no artifacts from those days - no photos, old toys, family heirlooms,  nothing.  The only physical possessions I have before the births of my daughters are the gifts I have received from students and coworkers.  I have them from all over the world, most would be deemed cheap trinkets by my more cultured associates, but all are inestimable treasures for me.  I do have these tokens and a thousand wonderful snapshots of beautiful gestures that have been given to me over five decades.  My new mission is to learn how to reciprocate, how to make sure I am bestowing similar moments, similar philanthropic presents to others - I live too much in my own head, and I am very good at thinking about issues in larger contexts and I often miss those instantaneous opportunities to express the side of me so few see.  I have been entirely selfish in this human exchange - I need to work on this.