Saturday, May 30, 2009

i haven't written here since india, really.

i haven't written much at all since india, in fact. this is my way of writing poetry again. the goal is a-poem-a-day. postings will be less frequent. probably writing will be, too... but i think this will be good for me.

लव तो यू।

(love to you.)


p.s. starting june 1st

Thursday, February 14, 2008

lavender lady

If you are humble nothing will touch you
neither praise nor disgrace
because you know what you are.
If you are blamed you will not be discouraged.
If they call you a saint
you will not put yourself on a pedestal.

- Mother Teresa

I remember this one particular kids tape we used to listen to when I was a little girl in Kenya. We used to play a lot of story and song tapes. Like the ones with Nanny Bird. She was my favorite. Whoever had to do the voice for that probably permanently damaged her vocal chords. I appreciate the sacrifice. Anyway, this particular song went a little something like this...

"it is more blessed to give than receive, Jesus said long ago. Remember these words if it's joy that you seek..."

Sometimes, though, I use giving as a form of condescension. And as a way to maintain status. I wish it weren't true. But I have come to realize that if I am always the one "blessing" my friends on the street, the one "ministering" to the poor, the one coming to give, then it can always stay look-at-me, and aren't-I-great. I give out socks and conversation on Wednesday nights, and just conversation other days of the week. And maybe something warm to drink. If it's about what I'm offering, then it's nothing special. I don't know how pride became such a part of this. I find motives are really sneaky things. They start out good, and turn yin-yang pretty quickly. Leaving me trying to unfurl them, and asking again for an unsoiled heart.

I wouldn't have met the lavender lady had I not, in typical fashion, parked over fifteen blocks from where I needed to be and decided to walk them. She was sitting outside a cafe, in a blue fleece jacket. Her son had her same brown, half moon eyes. I could smell her before I could see her. Her little table of herbs were scenting the block. Lavender? she asked me. She had bundles of dried flowers, and sachets in mis-matched fabric pouches. She is homeless. She sells lavender for a living. I don't know her story.

I didn't need the lavender. I dried some one summer, and still have more than I know what to do with. But she needed my money. At the time, I knew I would be helping her out... doing her a favor. But all day long I could smell the lavender in my purse, and on my hands. I see it sitting on my bookshelf still. And I'm remembering something. That I needed what she had to give me. The gift of her work. I gave her two dollars, and she gave me a bit of her livelihood. Hers is the weightier exchange. To see it as a favor is to defile and degrade it. To see it as one giving and the other taking... well, that only serves to sit my pride down on a booster seat and stuff it full of cake.

I heard this story: a homeless man, standing in a public square was offering each passerby a drink of his coffee. Another man, who happened to be a famous speaker and author, observed the scene for a few minutes, each person hurrying by in confusion or disgust, ignoring the standing man's offering. (We won't even drink out of the same communion cup as others in church, we're sure as heck not going to sip some bum's coffee.) When the well-known observing man walked by, he reached out and took a drink of the unknown standing man's coffee. Thanks, he said. The standing man replied: all I have is a cup of coffee. I just wanted to have something desirable to give.

When you have nothing, your offerings become so much heavier. The gifts of my friends on the street are their widow's mite. Their love is more vulnerable, a riskier offering.
Mine, if I'm not careful, more closely resemble the obnoxious and up-front giving of the rich. And sometimes do even when I am careful.

I need to make sure that I don't become a consumer of social justice.
God, save me from using my friends in a twisted desire for purpose.
From buying t-shirts for a cause but not grieving for the ones involved.
From creating a new form of legalism, not through moralism, but through loveless advocacy.
From thinking dollar bills are worth more than lavender.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I don't know about that, being also a lover of words. I do think we absorb pictures differently, though. We can't help but connect with what we can see, and understand what we can't ignore anymore. Here are some pictures of the aftermath. Although, sadly, it still isn't over.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

where do we go?

When I close my eyes to remember Kenya, I see a dear friend sitting with her black slip-on shoes pointed outward, a scarf wound peasant-style around her head, picking the tiny rocks and bugs out of the uncooked rice. I'm playing somewhere in the yard, and she looks up long enough to yell at me, "Hannah... mommy's calling you!" in her sing-song Kenyan English. She's always been tenderhearted, always gentle, always fearful. And I fear for her now, scared, her oldest daughter separated from her by the unrest. She raised six children alone. She was married young, the third wife of a much older man who impregnated her and left the financial and emotional burden of raising the children up to her. She was abused and raped by a gang of corrupt police, who answered a robbery call to her home. Beautiful Sella, round-faced and quick to laugh. I have much to learn from her.

We haven't been able to talk to Sella since the elections have started, and threw Kenya into a teetering state of unrest. I know a conversation with her would be an echo of what so many across the country are calling out right now, "where do we go?" Some are crossing the Ugandan border. Others are fleeing to the bush. Still others take refuge in churches and prisons. One church this week had filled with seventeen people seeking shelter, thirteen of them children. It was barred and burned to the ground. The red cross estimates over 200,000 Kenyans are displaced already, and 300 have died. Tonight (PST) there is going to be a rally. Odinga (the opposition to the current president) has called for over a million people to march in Nairobi. The city is already without fuel, and food shortages are beginning. Many people haven't eaten in a few days. No one knows how long this will last. The current and re-elected president, Kibaki (whose re-election is claimed false and rigged by the opposition,) has shut down all live media within the country. Accusations and corruption on both sides are what is causing the unrest, and the fact that the political parties are each made up of one of the two largest tribes in Kenya. Despite International request, Odinga refuses to stop the rally, and Kibaki refuses to back down. So far the International Community has released statements urging the unrest to end. The head of the AU, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who was supposed to come in and mediate called off his visit this afternoon.

The call of God is not so hard as we often make it, I think. Although I cannot speak for Her, nor can I claim to understand Him, God asks us to love each other as sisters and brothers. To care for each other as we would care for Jesus. Because that is where Christ dwells. I find this easier in a place I've lived and loved then one I've never seen. This is one of the curses I bring upon myself. How spotty is my compassion. I choose when and where to put it. And sometimes, I close my eyes really tight and stick my hands deep in my pockets, because I know that if I watch, if I give the hurting a chance to grab my hand, then I become responsible. And I usually don't want to respond. I constantly ask for mercy in this. Today though, I look at pictures of the cities and villages whose names are so familiar to me, and the slum where little Mary Munyange lives, and I shiver and ache. She draws me pictures of flowers and cats in the letters she sends. Her family dwells in Kibera, the largest of Nairobi's slums. One third of the cities 3 million people call these now burned and raided slums home.

It is illegal for Kenyans to have guns, which doesn't mean they aren't being used there now, being fired from one tribe to another, but it does mean that more have machetes. Long and old, with tire rubber wound round the bottom, or smooth wood that rubbed its roughness out and onto calloused work hands. Instead of cutting corn now, these tools cut down people, children even. What desperate sadness it causes to see faces of a gentle people contorted with hatred, and wielding weapons that were once tools of sustenance and growth.

As much as it is safe to lump sum an entire country, you would call Kenyans peaceful. Non-confrontational to a beautiful, sometimes extreme degree. Feelings of anger are held beneath the surface. To show negative emotions in public marks you as an unkind, bad person. Kenyans are community oriented. Their tribe is their rootedness, their understanding of belonging. Your tribe is your family, and yourself. What a beautiful sense of togetherness that brings, and what quick and volatile lines it draws. Suddenly neighbors are enemies. Friends are killing each other. And a country is torn apart by the seams it has sewn throughout itself.

Tonight the million will gather in the square to riot on Odinga's behalf. I don't know what will happen. My family and friends are holding a prayer vigil throughout the night to beg for peace and to cry with those who watch loved ones bleed. For the dying. For the unrest. That the country will not end up with the split governments it is now forming. That volatile tribal issues will not explode into more violence, or into the civil war that is being whispered about in fear.

Pray with us if you can... if you believe in prayer. Feel with us, all you who hurt for the sake of compassion. Sometimes we have to soften our hearts, simply because across the world so many have grown hard with fear and anger, and because, frankly, we don't know what else to do.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

the brown chair

This is the story of how (or perhaps where) I found Advent this year- in a sort of soft, unlikely place. A place of waiting.

In my house there is a brown recliner. All tufted and worn down in the seat like the velveteen rabbit. It sits in foot warming distance to the black wood stove, and stares out the paneled window pane. What it sees is a scene that I carry in my mind like a proud parent photograph. Ask me and I'll show it to you. Don't ask me and I'll probably show it to you anyway. You'll see the field lined like an eye by the road and the creek. Decorated with blackberry bushes now lying dormant. And the hills that make the low places a valley. This is the view. And this chair is called the Brown Chair. Bet you weren't expecting that one. We talk about the Brown Chair with a sort of serious jest and a mutual understanding of frailty. Because for those of us living beside it in the little blue house on Hardscrabble Road, the Brown Chair is more than chocolate-coloured. It has more than a sudden, familiar twang when you crank up the foot rest like a jack in the box. It has also become our metaphor of transition, the epitome of helplessness, and the most sought after seat in the house.

I remember almost exactly two years ago when my sister sat in that chair on her wedding day and with the most childlike voice she owns, said only "weeeeeeell...." and continued sitting and staring despite a million things that needed doing. It's become a family joke. A funny remembering when one of us sits in imitation of her and croons "weeeeeeell..." We all understand. Because we've all sat there, and watched over each other when it was someone else's turn to sit in the Chair.

Today my dad was giving me a brief history of missions from Perpetua to Whitman (a summarized version of the college course he just finished teaching,) and sharing with me the excitement of being a graduate school student. I, of course, need to first figure out the excitement of being an undergrad student. Like father like daughter? I could see all the wheels spinning in his head as he talked, like the innards of the grandfather clock he made mom. They rotated in the unique way they do with him- metal parts unlabeled and in perpetual overdrive, but solid and steady anyway. He's using himself in the way that burns every calorie and brain cell and leaves him feeling spent and purposeful. For humans this way of spending ourselves is hit and miss. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we just sort of... float. And our exhaustion then comes from a feeling of airyness, and a deep fear that we are a figment of our imagination... or worse yet, of God's. It's been awhile since I've seen my dad this charged. He moved out of the Brown Chair. Which is a good thing, because a few days ago I came home from India and I needed to move in.

When you're in the Brown Chair people make you cups of tea and build you fires. When you sit on its hollow and let it hug you in the way a wall does, you don't mind that you're eating breakfast at what was dinner time only two nights ago. You don't mind that you can't find the words to tell people how you feel because words come from something, and there is nothing inside you. You don't mind that for some reason every person you've ever loved has come to mind and you haven't missed them or laughed at old jokes, but just held them with you, there in your confusion. Maybe it comforts you when you're too numb from the sting of change to realize you're hurting. Maybe it tells you again who you are when you're too jet lagged to remember. I may be in the Brown Chair for awhile. Until I can get my "feelers" back, as a good friend calls his feelings. Until my words come from something, even something undone.

Leaving the Brown Chair starts small. Baby steps, they call it. Tonight I got out of the Brown Chair to thank a few courageous high schoolers for loving my friend Imagination who lives on the street in Kolkata. They are fighting for her by providing for her. They humble me, because they haven't even seen her pain, or the way she welcomes you and draws you in. Not just you, but every stranger and random by-passer. They love because they're seeing with their hearts instead of their eyes. Tomorrow I will get out of the Brown Chair so that I can wear high heels. One can't very well wear them in that chair, but to go to the ballet I find bright red ones are best. Soon I will get out long enough to go walking in the rain that's hardly stopped since I got home. I might even cry. And then I will come quickly back to the safety of the Brown Chair, and try to give myself the grace that others must right now.

I'm glad Christmas is almost here. This captive Israel has gotten a little tired of half singing, half begging, "O come, please come quickly, Emmanuel." But today, from where I sat writing this in the Brown Chair, I could see on the mantel a tiny manger made of banana leaf. In the midst of my recent quivering I remembered a journey longer than mine. I remembered to wait with baited breath for something that has already come. And that now I sing in expectant hindsight.