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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Often at night as I drift into sleep, my reflections are accompanied by native drums in the far off distance. They provide a rhythmic backdrop to my thoughts, a circling back over the events of my day. More often than not, they usher my worries about tomorrow into the night air as I focus on the “tah tah bi tum, tah tah bi tum” of two, four, maybe six palms sliding across tightly strung goat hides worn smooth by repetitive sweeps. Sometimes, I think about who the musicians are and why they are beating their tam tams. Are they communicating a coded message to the universe? Talking to their God? If so, what are they saying? Are they lamenting their hardships or celebrating their fortunes? Of course, the magic lies in the absence of words--the drums carry different messages for us all. I like to think they are offering up a prayer of sorts, one that says something like, “Life is hard at times, but thank you for another day. May tomorrow be bet-ter, bet-ter, bet-ter.” At least, this is what the drums convey to me and I try to heed their call, try to employ gratitude for the good things that have come our way. As the difficult stuff inevitably floats into my mind, the hard-put questions, the worries, there is something about the constancy of descending and ascending hands that answers back firmly: “stop, stop, stop.”

I went back to school recently. Not to learn, at least not directly, but to teach English to pre-schoolers at the Kalan International School here in La Somone. The night before I started, beckoning sleep, my stomach fluttered and my mind flustered and posed all sorts of doubts and apprehensions amid the distant drums. I was nervous on behalf of Jamie and Sunny, who would also be starting their first day of school in Africa. How would they adapt, culturally and linguistically, with new children, the French they barely spoke and two or three words of Wolof? And what about my new role? Was I equipped to teach small children? One ordinary day, an acquaintance had said, “I’m thinking of starting a new school here. Would you be interested in teaching English?” I can’t say why, but it was as if I had been waiting my whole life for this question to be asked. “Yes” was my answer, spoken with unwarranted confidence. But on this eve of dawning actuality, I began to question myself. Before raising my own, my experience with children was limited to semi-regular babysitting as a struggling post-college New Yorker. I remember being terrified on one particular evening when I arrived to sit for a little boy and was greeted with his two additional friends and a craft project that his mother had laid out: construction paper, scissors, glue, glitter, the works. A wrench had been thrown into my normal routine of Mickey Mouse and mac ‘n cheese. As she wove through the chaos of three grabbing, crying three-year olds and made her way casually toward the door, panic flooded every cell in my body. “But, what are we doing with all this?” I shouted above the din. “Whatever you feel like,” she called over her shoulder. “By the way,” she added just before closing the door behind her, “the TV’s broken.”

I don’t remember the specifics of how I got through that night, but the memory of feeling incompetent and unprepared rushed back at me as if it were yesterday. As I layed awake trying to imagine how I would feel in the morning as I greeted sixty-five children, the drums mocked, “knock, knock, knock” . . . “Dumb, dumb, dumb” . . . "thrum, thrum, thrum."

The air was cool and a light breeze flapped the flags around their small wooden poles on that first morning at school as I stood holding hands with Jamie and Sunny (perhaps a little more tightly than I should) waiting for things to start. The flags represented the various nationalities of the students: Senegalese, French, Belgian, Iranian, Lebanese, Spanish, Brazilian, American (my own two) and Guinean. In my mind, I rehearsed the simple song I had made up to initiate my students into the world of English: (to the tune of ‘Frere Jacques’)
Good morning,
good morning
Now it’s time to learn,
now it’s time to learn,
English, English.

I had finally allowed sleep to come after the song came into my mind the night before. I had been so satisfied with this simple ditty, which now, in the light of day, seemed inadequate to me. Soon, the children began filtering in, clinging to their parents. I stood frozen beside my children knowing that I needed to let go, just simply step into, my new role as teacher. And then someone tugged at my dress and a new part of my life was set in motion.

That first day passed in a whirlwind of tiny unfamiliar faces and chaotic attempts at structure amid the heart-wrenching cries of children wanting only to return home to their parents. Within twenty minutes of arrival, three children had set off a crying chain that quickly rose to a crescendo of utter devastation. Seeing my colleagues and myself as nothing less than prison wardens and the school as colorful captivity, the children’s resistance was exhausting. Our schedule for the day went out the window at 8:15 a.m. Any attempt at organization gave way to the constant need to pick someone up, pat them on the back, wipe their nose, whisper comforts into their ears, and hope for the best. The crying went in waves with small periods of calm interspersed between bathroom trips, snacks, hand-washing and one disastrous attempt at a craft project (which felt all-too familiar). The director of the pre-school division, a petite and lovely woman from Belgium, lost her color early on but never her composure. I watched her carefully as she moved easily and assuredly from group to group, handling each situation with aplomb, in hopes of learning something from her. Getting through the day became a question of survival. My biggest struggle became understanding the Senegalese children as they spoke to me in Wolof. At one point in the day, when no one was available to translate, I decided to wing it. Afterall, I wasn’t a complete novice--I had a solid base in Wolof. After I asked a little girl to repeat her request three times, I triumphantly handed her a glass of water. I discovered quickly that what she had really asked for was to be taken to the bathroom. The results of my mistake were disastrous, both for her dress and my left shoe. Never again would I mistake “saou” for “n’dor”!

I understood early on that first day, that for some of the Senegalese children, this school represented a world of new opportunities for them. When I presented a little boy with a basket of crayons and asked him to choose one, he looked up at me curiously and asked, "are they salty or sweet?" For many, this first day of school meant the first time they had played with a toy or held a crayon in their hand, heard a language other than their own, seen or touched a book, held hands with a white person. How much we take for granted, how much we have to learn.

As with all new experiences, the anticipatory anxiety, the way in which we play out scenarios in our minds, express fears, imagine outcomes, is always more stress-inducing than the actual event. I suppose this is our way of preparing our psyche for a worst case scenario, of exposing our insecurities so that we are prepared when faced with adversity. But somehow, when we are in the present, living the new situation, we always get through it, often exceed our own expectations. Maybe even surprise ourselves. And if we are lucky, laughter has been a component of our day and lightness allows us to continue with a new grain of confidence.

As the weeks have gone by, somehow, it has all come together. There is a familiar structure and routine, laughter has replaced the tears of the unfamiliar and learning takes place despite differences in skin-color, culture, capacity and language. Sunny and Jamie have adapted to their new school with astounding ease, communicating with their new friends in a myriad of ways. I have found an unexpected confidence and joy in teaching these children, who like tiny sponges, soak up all we have to teach them with endless thirst. Although my role is to teach, there is an inevitable symbiosis that has taken place. My French and Wolof have improved tremendously, my understanding of the nature of children has expanded, as has my patience, my creativity and my capacity for love.

While my days are ushered into night atop the slow, steady refrains of drum notes filtered by the wind and the waves, I am reminded of the undeniable strangeness of living in Africa and I in turn feel like a stranger. But the morning tells a different story. In the morning, as I stand holding the door open, welcoming sixty-five small children to school, sixty-five smiling portents of the future, I am reminded sixty-five times that there are no barriers to learning and loving. Sixty-five times, small fingers grasp my own and I am greeted by each small voice in English . . . “Good Morning, Miss Ellen.” And the message is clear and hopeful: we are one, we are one, we are one.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Song of Our Losses

I said goodbye to the earth house today. I wasn’t planning a farewell, just a short visit to assess the damage after a series of particularly violent storms. Just as quickly as Richard patched what the rain took away, another storm would beat against the walls, tearing down his work. We layed awake at night in our hotel, listening to the rain fall, trying hard to escape the vivid images of tumbling earth. Each loud crack of lightening represented further leaks in the walls, widening fissures in our hope. Unable to muster the courage to face further ruin, it had been over a week since Richard or I had driven to our land. When I arrived, the fence, woven of thin strips of wood, had been blown to the ground by the wind. I had to sidestep large, deep craters filled with water to get a good look. As I took in and made a survey of the sweeping damage, I realized it would only take one more hard rain before the few remaining walls joined the fallen sections melting away on the ground. An exquisite, small, black bird with a red breast sat not far from me, my only company, singing beautifully. I tried to shoo him away, but he was steadfast and stubborn, insistent in his dissonant song, content to bathe in a rain-filled hollow of rubble.

We learned recently that this particular rainy season has been the worst in fifteen years, causing major flooding in several areas including the city of Dakar, where children have drowned, factories have collapsed, and septic tanks have overflown into the streets. You won’t read about this in any newspaper, but I witnessed the effects firsthand earlier this week on a day trip there. It took nearly two and a half hours to reach the inner city due to road reconstruction (a trip which normally takes an hour). As we rounded a corner at the edge of the city, I saw a large open area where several small buildings had collapsed, now filled with small, colorful pup-tents. Laundry lines had been strung across and tacked to non-functioning electrical poles in neat rows, holding up the newly washed clothes of who knows how many. A tin roof had been erected over a common outdoor kitchen where women crouched over small gas tanks, humming (or praying, I wasn’t sure), working together to feed numerous neighbors. These were people recently made homeless by the storms, people who had gathered their resources together and organized a small village. I am often amazed at how the Seneglese have the ability to make their misfortunes a communal concern, coming together quickly and efficiently to, if not solve their problems, at least adapt to them as a shared burden. If many hands make light work, perhaps many hearts can hold hardships at bay. I often wonder if other African nations share this ability, if perhaps they have evolved towards the survival of the masses over survival of the individual. When things beyond their control overtake them, they simply move on, together. It felt strange, after dodging flooded roads and crumbled cement, to arrive at the “centre ville” of Dakar with its’ pristine palace walls drenched in bougainvillea, it’s motionless guards dressed in what looked like red velvet and white plumed hats (in this heat!). Downtown Dakar, with it’s foreign embassies and fashion shops, patisseries and French restaurants could have been any large city, and like any large city, the problems pool to the outskirts.

While we’ve watched the house slowly slip away, our relationship with Zorro, our only Senegalese friend, has paralleled the demise. Many expats have warned us not to trust the Senegalese, have stated in no uncertain terms that they will steal, lie, cheat and betray you the moment you turn your back. What an awful thing to tell a newcomer, what a sad prediction to fathom, what a vast generalization to make about a people so prone to generosity. The intricacies of this culture are still too new for me to condemn any new acquaintance and so I proceed with each individual, trusting until I have reason not to. In my short experience here, I have learned that what the expat “toubabs” say is not entirely untrue. However, they fail to understand their part, yes, their contribution to this relationship with the locals. If I were to voice this, these same said foreigners would be appalled, but let’s face it, there are always two sides to every story. The Senegalese are used to a history of transient relationships with foreigners. We come, we buy up their land, use their labor to build our homes, hire them for our ventures, promise lasting devotion and a steady stream of income. . . and inevitably leave. Sometimes, we leave for only a season, sometimes for years, sometimes never to return. And while we are gone, there are mouths to feed, children to cloth, and work to be found, money to be made, however it can, in order for them to survive. And hopefully, if they are lucky, we will come back or at least be replaced by a new wave of transient relationships. I have come to understand that the Senegalese live very much in the moment, day to day, week to week. Consequences are hardly a consideration (nor should they be?) when your children have nothing to eat. Arrogantly, I assumed we were immune to these types of relational faults. One French person, when he saw that Zorro was our constant companion, had the nerve to tell me, “just wait, he’ll betray you too.” My solitary thought at the time was . . . never. I was wrong.

I sensed it quickly after our return from the states, perhaps even at the airport. As we came through the glass security doors which separated us from our old life, he ran to us, practically knocked us over to take us into his arms and then just as quickly retreated into the more practical task of piling our bags onto a cart and pushing them towards the car. He was distant, reserved, unfamiliar. Or maybe I knew it even while we were packing up our belongings in Savannah but couldn’t face what it would mean to our relationship or to our future here in Senegal. The tone of his sporadic phone calls alternated between exuberant pleas for us to return to all the possibilities awaiting us (which he elaborately embellished) and accounts of how difficult life had been since we left. It was as if he was desperate without us and placed his every hope of recovery on our return, but knew that we would discover that he had done something in our absence that could hurt us. When we got back, he would promise to come help us, but would never come, never call. Then, unannounced, he would show up the next day with a meal that his wife, Ami, had made for us. He never stayed for long.

About two weeks after we returned, Richard tried to talk to him, but he refused. Thinking that my relationship with Zorro was somehow particular, Richard suggested that I might have more success. As I sat with my Senegalese friend in a dark room (the electricity had gone out), I asked him to talk, told him that we loved him. Perhaps because I couldn’t see his eyes, he felt safe. Like a small child, he laid in my arms and cried, relieved and anguished tears. All he could say was, “I just wanted you all to come back and now I’m afraid you’ll leave. I’ll talk when Ramadan is over. Then you will know.” But don’t we already? I realized he indeed had a confession to make, but needed first to ask forgiveness from his god, which seemed justified to me in that moment in the dark.

This afternoon, as I sat on the ground in front of a pile of broken walls, I let myself understand that Zorro had abandoned our house, had downplayed the damages prior to our return, fabricated a story about a musician who wanted to film his new video within our walls. He had used our car as a taxi, driven strangers thousands of miles to put food on his table and never once thought of the consequences. But had we thought of the consequences of leaving? And still, he wanted to ensure that we would come back, that things would be the same. But they aren’t, nothing is. He is still a part of our lives, knowing that he has proved both sides of the equation right. Sure enough, he did all those things the expat said he would. Sure enough, he still loves us. And so we rename this loss, molding a different form out of the odd remaining pieces.

I came to the earth house, alone, for the first time today. Each time we’ve come to face the truth here, I’ve held back my shock, my regrets, my fears and yes, even my embarrassment, all for Richard’s sake. How could I break down in the face of his courage, of his total conviction that he can rebuild, create an even better house? “At least I did it”, he said once. “ At least it existed.” But now, because I am alone, because I don’t have to be brave for anyone, I cry, relieved and anguished tears. I find it interesting that the joyous events in our lives ask to stand alone, to be revelled in and savored all on their own like an only child, while the losses prefer to keep each other company,. At our weakest moments, they call to each other to come forth and vie for our grief. “Hey, you think this is bad,” they say, “remember me? I nearly ripped your heart out.” As I sat there, finally free to cry for the ruin of our house, I thought also of how Zorro was slipping away from us, receding daily like these walls, followed closely by the pain of strained or lost relations, recent and past. I allowed my father’s long suffering from cancer to come forward (that most stubborn and persistent loss) and was quickly joined by Leah, the freshest of my losses, Leah, barely scabbed over, stolen in one short night. There were more that followed and I gave them each their turn, grieved anew for my collective absences until I was brought back to these crumbling walls and myself sitting on the damp ground. Some voice in me, the one that emerges when the calm catharsis sets in, borrowed from Richard, “at least they existed. At least they mattered.” Yes.

When I lay awake at night and think about how we will emerge from our setbacks here, I don’t envision a phoenix miraculously rising from the ashes. I know better. But maybe if we are lucky, there will be a smaller bird (or two, or four), not unlike the deep, red breasted one I saw today, one who won’t alight too quickly, one who can salvage the smallest of threads, steal a souvenir. One who can take it’s daily comings and turn them into something of a song.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Beauty of the Underbelly

A word of caution: this entry is fairly graphic and shows the raw side of Africa. If you have children who are prone to looking over your shoulder or if you like to share my writing with them, you may want to keep this one to yourself . . . or not, depending on your perspective.

This morning, as I was walking to the bakery along the dirt road with Sunny, something caught my eye to the right, a shiny something that refracted the sunlight overhead. I looked. And in that fraction of a second that drew my attention, a large machete sliced open the throat of a living steer. The two Senegalese, one holding the cow as it lay on its side, the other wielding his knife so expertly, both looked up at me, momentarily distracted. Their look was neither startled nor apologetic. It simply acknowledged my unexpected presence. I must have made a sound, some small leak of soul escaping through my fingers, although my hand instinctively flew to my mouth to silence it for Sunny’s sake. The animal, by contrast, lay very still and quiet, the blood leaving it’s body at an astonishing rate. I could tell this beast was still alive, it’s eyes placid and resigned, but still very much in the world. I willed it to Cry out! Protest! Accuse! because I couldn’t, not on it’s behalf. This was food, afterall, for many people. I wondered if it’s vocal chords had been severed on purpose to lessen the degree of assault on human ears or if an animal of this nature merely accepts it’s death with dignity, knowing that struggling against it wouldn’t alter the final outcome. Either way, in the end, I was thankful that my ears (and Sunny’s) had been spared the unimaginable sound of this massive animal’s parting.

A very different glint by our shared sun had thankfully attracted Sunny in that same moment to the opposite side of the path. While I had witnessed this animal’s initiation towards death, she had seized upon a scattering of sequins fallen from the loosened thread of a colorful prayer shawl. She hopped forward picking up the trail of teal, gold, fuscia and saffron and held them in her cupped hand like found treasure, oblivious to the scene unfolding to her right. For just a brief moment, I felt a selfish and urgent need to show her the cow so that someone, anyone, could share in the horror of it with me. But I herded her forward instead, shielding her from that particular reality. Had my eyes not caught the glean of the machete, just as it was raised, at that perfect angle where the sun could wink off the steel blade, I believe I would have passed unaware. The entire scene, the empty dirt lot, the fawn-colored steer, his earthy textured horns, the shells, straw, sticks and rocks, all melded together in a bland spectrum of brown common to a field of nothing in particular. Even the men would have remained in my peripheral vision, which would assume they were going about their business, whatever that was, as I went about mine.

But I had seen it, the slaughter of a cow, and I still needed to hold my daughter’s hand, admire her new-found sequins, walk to the bakery and buy bread, greeting villagers along the way. It’s not that witnessing an animal’s death hadn’t made an impression on me. It had. But not as much as I would have thought. In this context, given the surroundings, I knew it was a necessary action. I led us on a different route home, wondering what they would do with the cow next, how it would get “processed”, where it’s remains would be disposed. (Later that day, curiosity having gotten the better of me, I passed by the site. There was no trace of animal or man, only a small raised mound of dirt, the contents of which I could only imagine.) Our time here has slowly allowed us an understanding of basic needs being met, of a culture where everything from praying, to corruption, to basic survival, to putting food on the table is there for the seeing if we choose, or haplessly witness. There are also luxury hotels and an entire village rife with convenience, where the underbelly is hidden out of sight for those who choose not to see. I understand perfectly. It's sometimes hard to swallow.

The upside of the total exposure we've chosen is that my children now know that the chickens they chase down the road are the very same we roast in the oven. Jamie has assisted in the process of scaling and filleting a fish that he puts directly in the pan for me to saute. They know that the seeds we brought over in our suitcases will one day become the vegetables and fruits they will eat. I remember visiting a farm as a child, watching the milking of the cows and understanding for the first time that the cartons in the refrigerator at home actually came from an animal. We, as a nation, are so far removed from our food sources that we can easily ignore anything that took place before they reached the grocery store and eventually our table. Seeing a cow being slaughtered is not something I recommend, however, most people are unaware of the misery our steaks and mcnuggets went through before they got neatly packaged for us-- being raised shoulder to shoulder, fed antibiotic-laced grain, devoid of sunlight and an instinctive, genetically sound diet. I know I’m generalizing and that the trend towards food education, organic choices and fair treatment of animals is a growing part of the American conscious, however, unless you are a farmer or tend a flock of cattle, you will be spared the nitty gritty.

My children sit next to women with babies at their naked breasts and watch intently as they take this most basic form of nourishment. They don’t blink an eye, having so far been spared too many cultural taboos, while my eyes remain averted out of respectful and ingrained habit. They ask me questions that I might never have answered if they had only glanced a baby’s head ducked under a baggy T-shirt. Our whole family has become immune to most of what seemed shocking when we first arrived: people sitting cross-legged on the ground, eating from large bowls with their fingers; women herding flocks of filthy goats from their small yards; those same goats eating tin, plastic, filament grain bags, even glass; men walking arm in arm, or hand and hand, signifying nothing but deep friendship; women carrying large basins balanced on their heads filled with laundry, grains or fruits, babies bound tightly to their backs with brightly colored cloth; the devout lying prone in prayer on a woven mat in a corner of the grocery store because it’s time to pray. These are all things that are so foreign to us, to our ways of behaving and thinking, that they are hard to look at in the beginning, let alone understand and accept. After a time though, they become an important part of the whole beautiful tapestry of the Senegalese culture and it’s people. The way I was raised, the things I was exposed to are not better or worse than what we see here, just different. There is no shame in either. All I can do is try to work the two together so they make sense for my children and most importantly, not impose my own beliefs on the Senegalese. I’m trying hard.

I’ve even come to accept the groups of children who walk along the beach with sticks or rocks in their hands, ready to defend themselves against the packs of stray dogs that invariably approach them. When the two bands meet, the dogs bare their teeth, growl and lower themselves to the ground, menacing these children, who in turn will beat them with the sticks or throw the rocks at them until they part ways, sometimes calling a truce, sometimes leaving a wounded dog, other times a bitten child. Interestingly, I’ve noticed these dogs don’t approach or threaten us and have even been known to roll over submissively, leaving me to wonder which came first: the aggressive dog or the aggressive child? It doesn’t matter, this is their long-standing relationship and I don’t foresee it changing anytime soon. I tried once, and only once, to intervene, to gently tell the children not to hit the dogs, to just keep walking, arrogantly assuming that my adult (and superior) wisdom would break the spell. They listened to me in my broken Wolof, dropped their rocks and sticks and walked on slowly, glancing back at me for assurances. They were unarmed, but the scent of their fear still drifted over to the dogs who charged them from behind. In the end, it was me who threw the rocks. I have tended to the wounds of both a child and a dog on different occasions, wiping away the blood, disinfecting the marks, bandaging the aggressions. As an outsider, I simply cannot take sides.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Sliding Scale of Sacrifice

My friend Renee recently offered to send us books and popcorn in the mail, the two things that she knows will sustain my sanity and my children’s, respectively. It’s been two weeks now that we’ve been trying to procure a post office box in the nearby city of M’Bour, but like everything else here, you need an inside connection to make it happen. It turns out we have one. As fate would have it, our friend Zorro’s second cousin is the Assistant to the Manager of General Sorting, who apparently has some influence with the Director of the Processing Department. Score. Or so we thought. The paperwork alone involved in securing the right to send and receive mail in Senegal is downright mind-boggling. “We don’t want to adopt the P.O. box”, I told Zorro, “just foster it for the time we’re here.” Apparently, we’re still under consideration.

When I enthusiastically thanked Renee for the popcorn suggestion on Jamie and Sunny’s behalf, she asked innocently, “You have a microwave, don’t you?” The “PussshhHah!” that inferred my “are you kidding?” response sent spittle onto the computer screen (we were skyping). As I began describing what we were living with, or without, I realized we had indeed embarked upon somewhat of a survival adventure, albeit a mild one. There are many people here who live with much less than we do, in conditions far worse, and certainly less sanitary. What I did realize, as I was describing our necessary inventiveness, is that most of us humans are quite adaptable when faced with less than ideal circumstances and that we were among them. It’s not that we’re suffering. Far from it. We have three meals a day, comfortable beds and a roof over our heads which happens to pitch out over a breathtaking beach on the Atlantic, whose waves lull us to sleep at night. “You should really write about this,” said Renee.

Let’s begin with the hotel kitchen. “Le Rayon du Soleil,” (the ray of sun) as our small Inn is called, boasts a rather well-equipped kitchen. There is a large refrigerator with an adequate interior freezer compartment, several nice prep counters and a commercial-grade oven with four gas burners, a separate deep frying section and a pizza drawer. The day I first wandered into this homey kitchen with it’s quaint round wooden breakfast table, I knew I would willingly assist Daba, the cook, as sous-chef every night if she would have me. My culinary fantasies got fast put up in the larder when I noticed that Daba wasn’t setting foot in the kitchen. She was squatting outside over a low pot set on a small gas tank which was making more noise than a blow torch. While the smells emanating from that pot were undeniably wonderful, I couldn’t help but thinking of my dashed dreams of cooking in that kitchen: two women, one American, one African, side by side over simmering pots, dicing this, chopping that, exchanging techniques, recipes, small talk, united across continents and cultures by the universal act of nourishing our loved ones (and the occasional summer client who would surely savor the melting pot.)

“What’s wrong with the oven?” I asked tentatively.

“Nothing,” she replied defensively. “It’s an excellent restaurant-grade gas oven. No one else, not even the French restaurants, have this good of an oven.”

“If it’s so good”, I ventured, “why aren’t you using it?”

She narrowed her eyes at me. “Because last year when there were no clients we sold the oven furnace to get money for food.”

“Oh . . . Well, can’t we replace it?”

“Not unless you’re planning a trip to France any time soon.” So that ended that.

Now on to shopping. The aisles of the local grocery store (which are patronized almost exclusively by “toubabs”, or white people) serve as a good barometer for everything else that’s going on, or not, at any particular time of year. In the produce section this week, which in fall and winter hosts an impressive array of vegetables and fruits, I found only a few wrinkled potatoes, a smattering of bruised apples, some potent sprouted garlic bulbs and a small basket of large dates, I think, left over from the week before. The IMPORT section (OK, so it’s my favorite) was utterly void of triple cream French cheese, cured Italian ham and Swiss yogurt. Packaged cookies were nowhere in sight and milk was past it’s due date. “What’s going on?” I asked Umi, the impossibly beautiful Senegalese owner of our local grocery store. “Did the delivery trucks get stuck in the mud?”

She laughed at me and glanced around the store. I was the only patron there. In fact, she and I were alone. Her staff was nowhere in sight. “Ramadan starts today.” She explained. “Few people work during Ramadan, so nothing can be delivered. I only stay open for the few toubab clients who are around, like you. I can’t bring in a lot of produce because it won’t get consumed. We don’t eat during Ramadan. It’s a fasting period.” It looked like I would need to get creative with her offerings for the next several weeks.

For one month, the ninth month in their calender year, the Muslim people refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or any other such consumption from sunup until after sundown. This includes water. It is permissible to rise at 5:00 am, before the call to morning prayer, to eat a small meal, but the daylight hours are to be passed in quiet repose and contemplation of Allah. (Pregnant women and nursing mothers, the elderly and infirm are exempt. Children strive to complete as many fasts as possible.) The month of Ramadan is considered penance for all the sins one has accumulated during the rest of the year, a fast which theoretically cleanses the body, so that one is free to in turn purge the impurities of the soul. I hate to think of the general health consequences of daylight fasting. In the past few days, I’ve witnessed more marital arguments, fist fights (the Muslims are typically non-physical) and general crankiness than ever before. Even the stray cats and dogs are on edge, deprived of the left-overs they would normally receive. Blood sugar, it appears, is immune to religious dictates.

I knew girls in college who sinned aplenty during the week, only to head to church on Sunday to wipe the slate clean, the religious equivalent of “I’ll start my diet tomorrow.” Their means of recompense seems like a get out of jail free card to me compared to the austerity of Ramadan. I admire the Muslims’ adherence and dedication to written creed and respect their decision to honor Allah, but I am by no means prepared to follow the fast out of solidarity. However, I’m also not one to flaunt my exemption by religious choice and so I find myself sneaking the gas burner into our apartment pre-dawn, squatting over the burner to heat water for coffee and scramble a few eggs as the sun comes up. We eat sequestered indoors, quietly, hoping the smells and jostling of pans won’t set off contempt for our irreverently full stomachs. If I happen to come back from the grocery store (with my bruised apples, large dates and pungent garlic), I skitter back to our rooms quickly, head down, keeping my purchases discreet.

Coinciding with the austere month of Ramadan is the violence of the rain storms. While the mortals have been accumulating their transgressions, the skies have been storing up rage, heat and humidity. Into the silent void that is particular to lethargy and spiritual contemplation, the storms come fiercely, especially since they originate and gather force at sea. Since our windows open out onto the beach, the impact of the crashing, churning angry waves and the deafening thunder that accompany it, make for a pretty intense storm. Anyone who has seen a Broadway production which featured rain as an integral part of the plot knows what I mean. Cue lightening stage left, (the entire theatre up to the balcony lights up) cue thunder stage right (a clack, although you expected it, jolts you from your seat). Cue rain patter ( surround sound) and you want to open your umbrella right there in row 22C. Storms in Senegal have the same effect. They are a theatrical production.

The electric company also appears to be fasting during Ramadan, conserving precious gas during the day, (i.e. no electricity) and allowing it only at night when electricity may be needed to cook the one meal of the day and ceiling fans are essential if one wants to sleep. (Did I mention that airconditioning is a luxury known only to certain expats and luxury hotels who can afford the outrageous electric bills, despite the outages, in addition to a generator which is needed at least a third of the time.)

I spent this particular day of Ramadan outside in a quiet contemplation of my own--that of our dirty laundry. I wash it by hand in a large basin filled with water and suds and hang it to dry in the sun. Kem, one of the girls who works at the hotel, could certainly do it for me, but I hesitate to tax her energy during the fast. Besides, the whole process takes less time than most rinse cycles and is surprisingly satisfying. There is no sarcasm in my statement about contemplation. Washing clothes by hand with no distraction is a great way to be alone with your thoughts, spiritual or otherwise. An added benefit is the muscles that get used. Who needs a membership to the local gym (hypothetically speaking) when washing clothes, squatting over a gas tank and carrying heavy grocery bags has made me aware of muscles I never knew I had, or could hurt so much.

There are a few who do not adhere to the fasting rules of Ramadan, namely manual laborer, like the small crew working with Richard to repair the earth house. I asked one of them about it today and this was his response: “My commitment to Allah lies in my heart, not my stomach. If I don’t eat, I can’t work and if I can’t work, I won’t make money to feed my family when Ramadan is over.” Practically speaking, this made perfect sense to me.

My curiosity about Ramadan, my desire to understand these people’s willingness to give up basic nourishment in honor of their God made me take stock of the small luxuries we ourselves have given up. Ours are not sacrifices, just inconveniences and ones that have us thinking differently about energy consumption, both physical and practical. I suppose it’s easier for me to do things the simple way here both because I don’t have a choice at the moment and because its’ the norm. If everyone else had a washing machine, I’d surely feel put out. But I don’t, not here. The spiritual punctuation to witnessing Ramadan is that I am thankful for what we do have.

Zorro is the one person who I can talk honestly and openly to about the Muslim religion. I like to debate with him on certain issues, which always leads to a deeper understanding of something I might otherwise have judged superficially. I am certainly capable of getting up on my high horse and trotting him onto a soapbox, (which if opened would contain a rather terse op ed), in order to make my opinion known. But I am here to learn. Today I asked him if he thought Ramadan still made sense in the modern Muslim world. He said for some it still did and others not (I thought of the laborers.) I guess my need to challenge the concept of fasting is born of my personal fears not only about deprivation, but forgiveness. I wondered aloud if there might not be a sliding scale for Ramadan which correlated directly to the degree of one’s misdoings, as in, sin a little, partake in food; sin moderately, drink water and so forth. I even went so far as to suggest that one could reasonably and consciously fast reversely. Why not give up the temptations that might lead to sin or focus on doing good deeds throughout the year so that the penance of Ramadan would be unwarranted? He pondered this for a moment, his willingness to consider other’s ideas one of the things I love most about him. But finally he explained that sins, transgressions, whatever we choose to call them cannot be easily defined and the gamut is too wide to categorize and chart on my theoretical sliding scale. He told me I was thinking practically about a spiritual subject, which seemed incongruous to him.

“Plus," he said, "we are all human and therefore prone to mistakes. Trust me when I tell you that it is easier to abstain from eating than sinning.” Food for thought, I’d say.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Flight of the Ephemerals

There is a restaurant in the village that we take the kids to when they are in need of the kind of comfort that only a good pizza can provide. This establishment makes a respectable one: fresh tomatoes, black olives, ham, oregano and Emmenthal cheese, baked crispy and thin in a half-moon brick oven. To the delight of Jamie and Sunny, who are allowed to watch the preparation, this cooking method yields a finished product in less than ten minutes. Although they have a full menu offering a variety of options, whenever I inquire about anything other than pizza, I am told “we are out of that tonight, Madame.” So pizza it is.

The proprietor of this establishment is a 50-ish Frenchman named Jacques who has a thick shock of white hair and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and Pastis. On this particular night, he has clearly overindulged and is asleep at a table outside when we arrive. We approach gingerly, not knowing whether to clear our throats loudly, or turn around and leave. Thankfully (for us, not him), the young Senegalese waitress, Fatu, emerges and slaps him on the side of the head, shooting us a look of familiar disgust. He sits up abruptly, his bloodshot eyes rolling about, attempting focus. “Oh”, he says. “I was wondering where you were.” I can only imagine by “you”, he meant any clients in general--the restaurant was empty.

“Right ziss way, my Merican frenz” Jacques says with an exaggerated wink in my direction. Scrutinizing the room as though he is hard-pressed to find a table, he ushers us to one near the open door, hands two large menus to Sunny and Jamie and pulls out my chair to seat me. As he leans in, my nose is affronted by an afternoon’s worth of Pastis and stale cigarettes. He returns a few mintues later and places eight wine glasses on the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be needing all those glasses,” Richard says. Jacques looks at the four of us, then the table and finally says, “Oui, oui, oui, pardon,” removing one of the glasses. This man is clearly drunk. Careening to the bar, he puts both hands around the cup of coffee Fatu has poured for him as though it were a bouy in the middle of the ocean and letting go would mean certain death.

Several tables fill up over the course of our meal and the place takes on a convivial ambiance with layered notes of several languages. I can discern the two most obvious: French and Wolof, but also catch bits of Italian, a cockneyed British and Serer, the language of Cassamance, to the South. I love this about Senegal: the small cosmos that gathers at any given moment. Tonight it is unexpected in this rainy season, in this little-known eatery with it’s checkered table cloths and plastic palm tree salt and pepper shakers, it’s poorly rendered murals of Africans running to catch the bus with baskets of fish on their heads, their noses, breasts and feet large and characatured. But it feels comfortable at this moment, this one seemingly ordinary evening.

As night comes, several winged bugs begin drifting in through the open door. They are silent and delicate, resembling dragonflies, with a thorax and two sets of wings, but a short rounded body. Soon, there are twenty or thirty hovering around us, landing on the table, on our shoulders, taking off again towards the ceiling. No one seems concerned but us. Jamie, who is particularly bug-phobic, is standing on his chair, screeching and waving his hands about, ducking the onslaught. Jacques comes over and says, “don’t worry, it’s just the 'ephemerals'. This will all be over in a few minutes. Just watch.” Perching on his barstool, he gestures at the swarm, as though he has arranged this spectacle for our entertainment. Sunny wonders aloud if they are fairies.

Apparently, these insects are born during the rainy season and live for a single day. Not many people get the chance to witness their struggled, short life span. It takes them the better part of a day to hatch and they are fully formed only at dusk. Tonight, they have come to our restaurant, attracted by the single bright overhanging lamp near our table. They ascend slowly and purposefully, their wings beating furiously towards their beacon. Just as they reach the summit, they lose their top set of wings and fall fast to the ground, where they struggle for a minute or two, then exhausted, they surrender and die. The life cycle that we are witnessing is narrated to us by a man sitting at the table next to us. I ask if these insects exists elsewhere and he tells me he doesn’t know. He has never left Senegal.

We find ourselves riveted, cheering them up and on towards the light. “Go, go, up, fly!” As they fall, Jamie, who is no longer afraid for himself, but deeply sad on these creatures’ behalf, tries to catch them before they fall in hopes of saving them. But nature would have it otherwise. Jacques is right. Within minutes, these beautiful ephemerals have lived their short lives and their bodies lie motionless on the floor. Only their delicate, transparent wings remain, floating through the air, taking flight again, independant of their host, on the current the ceiling fan provides. They descend slowly only to be lifted again into the air.

As we leave the restaurant, we turn to see Fatu sweeping the remains of the ephemerals out the door along with the sand and crumbs of the day. We walk home through the village, greeting people on their stoops who hope to catch that last cool breeze before retiring for the night. Predictably, the electricity has gone out and the street is dark. But there are candles everywhere illuminating the dark path and the stars are bright and numerous. It strikes me that we all seek the light, all of us, to different degrees. It is essential to our being.

Jamie takes my hand in the silence and says, “Don’t be sad, Mama. At least they got to fly.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Return to Senegal: Tomorrow is Tomorrow

We have returned to Senegal in the midst of the rainy season, a time when tourists and expats flee en masse, escaping the heat and daily storms. These foreigners describe the summer months here as savage and unrelenting, both in terms of the weather and the mood. The locals remain silent when they overhear their most precious and abundant season described this way. I have even detected a smile or two, suggesting that it was perhaps they who perpetuated the rumour in the first place. Naturally, we disembark with both curiosity and trepidation. According to some, we are moving to Senegal at the worst time of the year.

It is still dark when we land, the air damp and hot at this early hour, portending a scorcher of a day. But for the moment, as we drive from Dakar towards the coast, there is a breeze that brings familiar odors through the window--bread baking, spices, car emissions, burning trash--which all combine to signal that powerful olfactory recognition of a place and a people I know well. I breathe in the acrid smells willingly as the morning sounds of a city coming to life join in and the light begins to peak on the horizon. As we drive from crowded Dakar along the coast towards La Somone, we pass workers hanging from overflowing communal buses, reaching down to take bread from the children who sell it along the roads. As the sun comes up, I hardly recognize the Senegal that I left behind less than three months ago. I was introduced to this country as an arid landscape, charred brown and void of vegetation, where only the hardiest of weeds dared make an attempt at survival. However, what I see now resembles a lush tropical island--the result of constant, torrential (and nourishing) rain. We pass tall, bright green palm trees and an acre or so of the most beautiful flowering ground cover--large frangipane-like leaves with delicate fuscia petals. “What is that incredible flower?” I ask Zorro, our friend/brother/assistant (who jumped up and down when he saw us at the airport, knocking over our baggage to get to us.) “It’s just a weed,” he says dismissively.

Locals on the side of the road are collecting the abundance of mangoes that have fallen from their overloaded trees. We stop to buy some (twelve for the equivalent of two dollars) and marvel at their size. Their mass is matched only by their luscious odor, a sweetness that cannot be contained and oozes from it’s shell, like the sweat that begins to bead up at my hairline. Even the ocean seems transformed, turned bright blue by the welcome overflow of it’s water table, it’s tides churning up waves quickly and confidently. Everything, it seems to me, has come alive. It is a bright and beautiful day, our first day in Senegal.

We stop first at the project site, a brave decision on Richard’s part, as we have learned that the rain has done extensive damage to one part of the earth house. When we pull up, our faces fall. The same storms that have aided such beautiful growth have ravished the house. One section, the pillar that holds up the majority of weight for the outside corridor, has literally melted to half it’s original girth. (Unbeknowst to us at this time, it will fall in two days, taking with it half the domed ceiling.) Was nature really capable of vandalizing our house this way? I can only tell you that what I saw resembled a boxer after eight rounds. Huge areas of missing plaster exposed the bare, bruised earth walls and thick layers of mud spread down from the roofs, staining the pristine white lime a muddy, frothy pink--the color blood turns under a running faucet. In painful contrast to the ruin we found were the seedlings we had planted in the courtyard. They had flowered and proudly showed off their flourishing. They had clearly taken round one. And if we didn’t act quickly, we would lose the fight altogether.

It took Richard, who is more resilient than I, only a few hours to turn what I viewed as a tragedy into a potential positive. I thought of our dwindled budget and wondered how we would possibly finance what needed to be fixed. I saw this situation as an impossible and cruel failure. He saw it as a learning experience. We had been convinced by a local mason to construct the pillars from earth bricks rather than using the rammed earth we used for the walls. This turned out to be a huge mistake, as these walls had remained completely intact and solid. No erosion was visible. Richard came up with a plan. This setback--four months of reparations--would actually speed our original goal of training the locals to build with earth. They will help us repair the house while we train them and then, borrowing from the Habitat for Humanity model, we will help each of them build their own earth houses. It may take several years, but it is the sole solution both from a practical and financial standpoint. For now, all we can do is protect the house from what remains of the rainy season, and begin rebuilding again mid-September. We have a few weeks to endure the storms. How bad could they be?

After we left the site, we headed to the hotel where we will stay for the next several months, a small, no-nonsense “campement” on the beach in La Somone. We arrived to find 30 or so young Senegalese who had taken over the hotel for a day and night of fun on the beach, a last bash before the month-long austerity of Ramadan begins. This is typical practice for the youth from Dakar to pool their money and escape the city fumes for the relief of the ocean. They had brought everything necessary--music, food, lights, bathing suits and were setting up a rather impressive stage for fun. At that moment, it felt like an annoyance to me. I needed to side-step their smiling faces and swaying bodies. They contrasted too strongly with my own mood, heavy with uncertainty and fatigue. I dropped Richard off at the earth house with tarps that we had bought at Home Depot and travelled with, not knowing that the majority of damage had already taken place. We had asked a friend to take care of our cat while we returned to the states and the kids were anxious to pick him up--the perfect excuse to stay away from the hotel. After we profusely thanked “popcorn’s” host, we headed to the car under darkening skies. Just as I turned off the main road towards the brush land to pick up Richard, the skies opened and a rain like none I’ve ever seen began to fall in heavy sheets. I turned on the windshield wipers only to have the rising wind rip them promptly from the car. The rain seemed to bring with it an extraordinary heat that fogged the interior windows, but we were far enough onto the dirt road that stopping would surely mean the car would get stuck. Puddles were quickly forming and the rain beat so hard I could no longer see. I grabbed a baseball hat which Zorro had left on the front seat and rolled down the window. With my head outside the driver’s seat window, I searched for the turnoff toward the house, but couldn’t find it. Mistaking other dwellings in the distance for our house, I made several false turns while the kids persistently asked why I was driving all over the place and the cat protested loudly at the rain coming in the back seat. I finally spotted the house and turned onto what I thought was a cleared path.

With the house in plain site, I slowly advanced, proud that I had managed to navigate the car in the storm. Richard came out and waved his arms frantically at me, sharing my relief that I had made it. As the rear wheels spun and protested, I realized it was a warning wave, as in “stop, you’re about to hit . . . a mud trench.” I was stuck, 50 feet from the house, in a ditch, with the rain pounding down and covering the rear left tire like an elephant in quicksand. After many attempts at digging the mud away from the tire, several locals passing by tried to help us. It was a valiant effort, but it was clear that the car was going nowhere on this particular night. We called Zorro who said he would try to pick us up in a taxi if he could find one willing to risk it. Then the battery died on the cellphone. As they were leaving, one of the Senegalese who tried to help us said, “Today is today. Tomorrow is tomorrow.” All we could do was wait. And wait. And wait. It was now 9:00 pm and Sunny and Jamie’s dwindling lack of patience and increasing hunger told us we should begin to walk the two miles back to town . . . with a bag of groceries and a mad cat in the pouring rain.

I have to say that it’s times like these when children really shine and show us that their means of perception and tolerance are far superior to ours. Knowing that Popcorn would not appreciate the pelting rain and try to run for it, I emptied the contents of my purse, a wooden handled clutch, and shoved him in, receiving several retaliatory scratches in the process. We walked, heads down against the diagonal rain, in the pitch dark towards town, Richard leading the way, gingerly guiding the kids around puddles and thickets with each hand. I followed behind with the bag of groceries in one arm and the cat-purse in a death grip in the other. I knew I had to get that cat back to the house safely if my kids were ever going to speak to me again. Proceeding through the mud, flipflops were lost, clothes got caked and a cat, wishing he had stayed with his interim keeper, got his head repeatedly shoved back into a space half his size. But all the while, the kids took this as an awesome adventure, hearing the loud croak of a giant African bullfrog for the first time, jumping through vast and deep rain puddles freely, trusting that Richard (Captain Africa) knew the way back. All I could think of was the bottle of wine in the bag I was carrying, at that point at least as precious as the cat in the other arm. As the muscles in both triceps began to scream with fatigue, I weighed the consequences of letting either one drop. They were equally unthinkable so I renewed my resolve to continue.

When we finally made it back to the hotel, exhausted and soaking wet, the party was going full force and loud music greeted us at the door. Several young men beckoned us to dance and a beautiful girl brought us rice pudding on a tray. I shook my head no, but she insisted on sharing, which she did with a smile. I suppose she saw in our bedraggled faces that this day had not been kind to us. “Kai lek” she said. “Come, eat.” I delivered the cat to his new home, poured myself a large glass of red wine and returned to taste what would be my dinner. The sweet creamy rice felt comforting and tasted of childhood simplicity. As we settled in, the music finally reached my ears with it’s authenticity and it no longer sounded outside the realm of our day. I thought of our house, of how we would bring it back to life. For now, I would have to let go of the questions, of the whys and hows. We had survived this day, and I suppose our new friend was right. Tomorrow is tomorrow.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Leaving the Shore: version II

I am not a risk-taker by nature. Most people would say that's a ludicrous statement. I am, after all, about to board a plane to Senegal, Africa, for a six-month family sabbatical. I have agreed, reluctantly, to accompany my husband, an auto-didactic architect, to a country where there are no building codes so he can construct an earth architecture house with no pedantic constraints. Though he has researched this alternative building method with passion and aplomb, I realize early on in his presentation to us that this is really about a basic need to play with dirt, which appeals wildly to our two small children. He has always tended to color outside the lines, which to him were blurry to begin with, however, this particular divergence seems to be the manifestation of a mid-life crisis, albeit an admirable one. Relieved that it hasn't involved a size two, twenty-two year old blond (my antithesis) or a long unquenched desire to play electric guitar (my nemesis), I agree to support him. I hear the adventurer that I long to be say, "Sure, honey, that sounds exciting. Let's do it." What I am really thinking is, "over my dead body." And that's exactly what I envision: my malaria-stricken form, sweaty and prostrate on the bed, surrounded by my teary children reaching out to touch me one last time, their small fingers widening the holes of our faulty mosquito net.

These macabre visions are unfortunately nothing new. Where Richard sees the beauty and potential in the open flow of living something unknown, I imagine the thickness, the dark what-ifs that we may not have control over. I can't help it. As hard as I try to dive into life the way my husband does, I am more likely to be waiting at the side with an outstretched fluffy towel when he resurfaces. But I trust him, his instincts and talents, and so I almost always acquiesce to the bigger decisions in our lives, like moving to Africa. I credit myself with at least recognizing the value of being led out of my comfort zone from time to time. It's the smaller, seemingly insignificant choices that always pose the bigger problem for me, the ones that are my decision alone, that don't effect anyone else. I tend to be the one who sits on the sidelines and watches, who stays behind (because someone has to), or if I do go, to be the slightly resentful designated driver.

For this particular adventure, I volunteer to pack for everyone, not out of kindness, but because I am terrified of what might be forgotten should anyone else do it. My knowledge of Africa has been authored, filtered and pre-packaged by the American press and I can only conjure up insurmountable images of sick, skeletal children, flies buzzing at their sticky eyes, razed, burned villages, women in dire need of a sympathetic god. But Richard assures me that Senegal is a diverse, democratic and stable country where we will be welcomed, a country of progress and equality. Everyone there is poor by our standards, but tragedies are managed and gorillas (both Pongidae and human) tend to exist in the more tropical regions of Africa, far from our arid and peaceful destination.

Two weeks after we arrive, Richard has fully adjusted, my children have nearly adopted, but and I am still somewhat adjacent to this new culture. We decide to take a short trip with six French friends to the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal's only functioning area of protected waterways. After surviving a four hour drive along the hot sand route to avoid traffic and vertebrae crushing potholes, I sit outside our solar powered eco-hut taking in the views while my husband and children nap. This gives me a chance to reflect on the arsenal I have packed. I run the list through my mind: insect repellent, anti-itch, anti-nausea, anti-diarrheal, sunscreen, snacks, vitamins, extra water, toilet paper, clothes, flashlight, candles, matches. Yes, I am comforted by the prophylactic protection I have provided for myself and my family and I begin to relax. As I sip on a bottle of filtered spring water imported from France, I hear laughter echoing from the river basin down below and decide to explore. Our friends have all changed into their bathing suits and are splashing in the river. Because it is low tide, there is an area of open shallow water and then a large part of basin lies exposed. I watch as they swim across the river to the delta and begin to walk among the birds and close to a large cluster of dense mangroves. Their distant voices call to each other and travel up the slope, reaching me long after the words have dissipated. On a whim, I run back to our hut, strip and search for my bathing suit. I will join them. Exhilarated, I pull out ziplocks filled with gels and creams, clothes rolled around glass containers, shoes stuffed with socks to avoid a potential hiding place for scorpions. I reach the bottom of the bag and then search through the second small duffle which I already know holds mostly food reserves. I sit down hard on the floor as the realization comes: I have forgotten my bathing suit. But this is Africa and so I uncharacteristically ad lib. Donning matching underwear and bra and a large beachtowel, I run down the path, descend the rickety stairs and come to a halt. By the time I get there, they have already swam back and are lying on the beach, panting out their enthusiasm. "SOU PEAR" one says as he passes me on the stairs. "C'etait incroyable" another rasps, wiping droplets from his flushed cheeks before bounding up the stairs with the others.

Oh, I think to myself, I missed it. Maybe next time. As their voices fade, Africa and I are alone for the first time. I let the towel go and walk into the river to wet my feet. I can't see the bottom. The air is starting to chill and I am tired. Dangerous, perhaps. My book is waiting. It's just as well. Still, I can't help but take one last look across to the wide expanse on the other side. Is the shore near or is it far? The flat bottom of the river is bubbling up visibly in the distance, birds hovering, some picking their way along the massive flats, mangroves swaying at the edge of the shore, waving to me. I look back down at my feet in the water, inch in a little further. Sun descending. A small current swirling and chirping. Something darting between my ankles. Feet in the water isn't much, I think. A small shiver. And I dive.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dream Catcher

We all have messages that we have carried forth from childhood, ideas that our parents repeated time and time again which infiltrated our consciousness and became like genetic myths, familial foundations. Like a dream catcher, I guarded the most important of those ideas and filtered them as I went through my life, letting the ones that seemed irrelevant or untrue fall away as I shaped my own opinions, made my own choices and discovered my own truths. The one message that stuck, the words that guided the first twenty years of my adulthood, came from my father. “Do what you love and success will follow.” It sounded simple enough. Only I got it all wrong. Not that the message itself was faulted, it served my father well--he was a successful businessman and hotelier. But I had assumed that, by “success”, my father meant money, and that his model of success would help shape my own. The only problem was that pursuing what felt natural to me wouldn’t necessarily bring me the paychecks I envisioned. Because my passions erred on the creative side, I was constantly at odds with myself. I wanted to be a writer, an artist. But I was young and my words were trite, my story ordinary and unformed. Young girl moves to New York after college and instead of creating art, sells it. Writes on the side, but doesn’t yet have soul or depth or material to draw from and the rejection letters begin to pile up. It was a fresh life, a struggled beginning. I eventually opened my own business, a textile showroom that specialized in hand-made fabrics. Ah, finally . . . success. It was a beautiful business with a shaky financial model and it failed, miserably, within three years, ushered gently to ruin by the financial repercussions of 9/11. What went wrong? Wasn’t I doing what I loved? Well, not exactly.
When I looked closely at my life, I had accumulated things, had a resume, was an entrepreneur. But I wasn’t happy and I didn’t have much money. And so I began to think about my father’s message, “Do what you love and success will follow.” As I married and had two children, I began to understand that success comes to us in many forms. For me it came with the realization of a dream and the subsequent learning that came from it's failure. It came as I saw my children grow into miraculously unique individuals and continues daily as I guide them, stepping gingerly out of their way. It came as I learned that being kind to others in the smaller ways that may not seem significant actually set us on a path to greater generosity. Our recent decision to return to Senegal in the hopes of building earth homes for those less fortunate than us came naturally but unexpectedly.
That first six-month venture took us by surprise. We left the United States with the idea that we needed to construct something solid and sustainable for our future. Our personal economic situation mirrored that of the world's global crisis and we saw the writing on the wall. We were fortunate enough to have gotten a small windfall from our textile business. It was a gift that held more promise than we knew. With that check, we had two choices. The first was to stay in Savannah with few pending opportunities and watch the money dwindle within months. Our lifestyle had been authored in more prosperous times and we knew we could no longer sustain our habits. Or we could take a portion of those funds, go to Senegal and build an earth house that would be all ours. No mortgage, no bills (off-the-grid energy and water meant a self-sustaining environment.) It would mean giving up small luxuries like a washer and dryer, dishwasher, TV and countless others we take for granted. But it would also mean discovering another culture, exposing our children to the "otherness" that could assist their world view. And it would mean that Richard could realize his dream of building something from nothing. So we left. And we built. And we learned that what we were doing could help countless others. We could train them to build with earth and solve an enormous housing crisis. Success had come to us in the form of a simpler choice, seeing that we could help others by doing what felt right.
What we didn't know was how rich we would become. Rich with a sense of accomplishment, rich with ideas, rich with support, rich with culture. A richness of welcoming greeted us in the Senegalese people and stayed with us daily, grew into friendships, partnerships and encompassed us with it's growing familiarity and hospitality. We were given an understanding of the true richness of the Muslim religion, of it's family-based value system and focus on selflessness, kindness and generosity. Too often we take what we are told by the press as "the truth", only to be shocked by the realization that we know nothing, that there is an altogether different truth that shares the stage with the extremist's version. Sadly, this more important and widespread Muslim truth takes backstage to our fears, which in today's world seem to be ravenous, insatiable and fed all too often. Our fears have become obese. But we are learning, I believe, to be hopeful once again, to re-evaluate our needs and let go of what isn't important, holding on to what really matters, like family, love, spending time face-to-face with friends, taking stock of our lives. We witnessed this hope in the response we got from posting our video, "A Turning of the Soil." The support and encouragement we received from friends and strangers alike was astounding and helped me to understand that we are doing the right thing, that I have achieved success and a sense of purpose in this venture with Richard. I have achieved fulfillment on my own in being able to write again. I have achieved a larger love in my desire to return to Africa. This is just the beginning of a nascent chapter in my life and how exciting that I have only an outline of what's to come!
Unfortunately, there are a handful of people who do not support me, who have criticized our choice to go back to Senegal, who don't (or refuse) to see that it really isn't a choice, but a responsibility to follow through with our ability to help others. They attempt to debunk the illogical reasoning behind the decision. There was no decision--Life has led us to this place. Finally I am happy and fully able to understand my father's message. More importantly, I am able to employ my dream catcher, holding on dearly to those who support me, fiercely guarding my belief in myself, in Richard's talents and the merits of this project and letting go of those who doubt and fear. In the center, where the eye of the dream resides, I will continue to hold my father's message "Do what you love and success will follow." And I will add to it and repeat to my children time and time again, "Live your dreams, both big and small. They are your greatest gift to the world."

Friday, May 1, 2009

Leah on a Cloud

Leah seems to be very present in my life at the moment and so she is permeating my writing, as well as my thoughts, memories, dreams, even conversations. I can't say why, but I trust that she is helping me work through her death in such a way that I don't feel her loss so deeply. She seems to be ushering me into a new phase of acceptance and I no longer push the feelings and memories down in fear that they will rip me apart. To the contrary, I welcome the visions. For me, they are keeping her alive. It's as if she's saying, "wait, see, I'm still here. I didn't go anywhere. I can still help." When she passed away, my children tried to comfort me and at the same time, make sense of death in a general way and of her loss in particular. Because death to all of us, children and adults alike, asks us to suspend all rationale and seek our own understanding of it's meaning, they each did so in a different way, befitting their individual personalities. They had met Leah and she had made a lasting impression on them. I remember very specifically that she had treated them like people, spoken to them levelly, listening as she always did with real interest and attention. I try to do the same for them these days. It's not my strongest quality, but it's a destination I will reach because I know how good it feels to know you are heard. Leah taught me that.
The following is a conversation I had last night with my 4 year old daugher, Sunny. I think it's worth sharing:

Sunny: "Mama, I don't want my kitty to be sick because then she might die." She begins to cry.

Me: "Oh, sweetheart, your kitty isn't going to die. She just has a little cold. She'll be just fine, I promise."

Sunny: "Will she won't die because she's just a baby and babies don't die? Is it not her time?"

Me: "No, it's not her time. She has a long kitty life ahead of her."

Sunny: "But it wasn't Leah's time and she died. She wasn't old."

Me: "Yes, that's true. She was still young, but her heart was sick and so she died."

Sunny: "Is she sitting on a cloud in the sky?"

Me: "Is that how you picture her?"

Sunny: "Uh-huh."

Me: "Then, yes, that's where she is. On a cloud in the sky."

Sunny: "If my kitty does die, can she go sit on the cloud next to Leah, so she can be petted."

Me: "I think that's an excellent idea."

Sunny: "Mama, will Leah come back in the Spring?"

Me: "Yes and no. She won't come back as she was before. We won't see her and talk to her like before. But when you see flowers bloom and birds sing, you'll know she's there. Her spirit is in all the beautiful things in the world and here in Senegal like the ocean and the baobab trees and our earth house. Leah's spirit lives in all the things we love."

Sunny: "Mama, I think Leah lives in pizza. . . and on a cloud in the sky."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Un pain, Deux Madeleines: His Independence Meant My Letting Go

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own.
And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go.”
~ Dr. Seuss

About fifty yards from our house in Senegal is a small boutique-- a shanty really--with a bright blue door. It is no bigger than my closet, but much better organized and filled with an astounding array of sundries ranging from matches and batteries to spices, detergent, clothes pins and onions. It has a small refrigerator filled with butter, milk and cold drinks, a dirt floor and a narrow counter behind which stands Boubakar, the young Senegalese man who serves us with a big gap-toothed smile. Flies buzz about, deranged by the current of air the single fan provides against the dusty heat, but no one seems to mind.

We wait in line every morning, lingering in the doorway, exchanging greetings with our Senegalease neighbors. "Naka suba si?" How are you this morning? "Dafa tung." It's very hot today. Several hours before any of us wake up, before the kingfishers and starlings begin their morning chorus, the bakery truck delivers fresh baguettes to the boutique, a flour sac full of them, to entice us from our beds. For me, seeking our morning bread, "le pain quotidien," spread with fresh salted butter and local mango preserves, is the ritual that starts my day. Madeleines, those light and delicate French cakes, are Jamie's morning preference. Plain and unassuming, not too dense, not too sugary. One is never enough, but three is always too much, so he has settled on two. He eats them with gusto, wakes up thinking about them even before he is fully in the day.

I began taking Sunny and Jamie with me to the boutique when we first moved here. Still in their pajamas and sleepy-eyed, they would hide behind me while I placed my order. "Un pain et deux madeleines, s'il te plait." One bread and two madeleines, please. Over time, the kids began to look forward to our morning outing, their comfort level and familiarity with Boubakar, with the boutique and with Senegal increasing daily. The hands that once clung to the folds of my dress now reached out to shake someone else's. The eyes once stubbornly lowered to the floor, now took in and reflected back their surroundings. The timid voices and resistant ears once tethered to their native tongue, now tested new words in French and even Wolof.

The six months that we have been here have allowed my children to venture out of their comfort zone and wade into, not just a new culture, but an understanding of themselves in the larger world, their significance as individuals. This time has given them a measure of independence and an appreciation of a world that is at once foreign and familiar. All we did was show it to them, but they have made it their own, taken possession of it, found their way into it, grown from it's offerings.

One day recently, Jamie woke up and got dressed on his own. He came out of his bedroom and announced that today he was going to the boutique all by himself. An early riser, he usually lingers the morning away watching the waves roll in and listening to the birds chant as they tree hop, while Sunny still dreams in the deepest hour. Today was different. There was determination in the air and a new sense of confidence. "Where are my shoes, Mama?" I found them for him and bent to help him put them on. "No, no, I'll do it myself," he said, as he took the shoes from me. Who was this assured little boy? When had he found himself and put aside his fears? I hesitated to let him go by himself, my motherly urge to protect him welling up inside like the tide rising against the shore. I took a good look at my little boy, his eyes fixed, his demeanor calm and confident.

"Can I have some money?" he asked next.

"Well . . . sure," I said, and handed him a coin.

"What do I say again, how do I say it?" I told him in French. "Un pain, deux madeleines." He practiced once, and nodded. "Don't worry, I'll be right back," he assured me. I suppose he glimpsed what I was feeling in my expression, a mix of pride and loss. Not a painful loss, but one that had taken me by surprise, one I recognized as the first of what I knew would be many small letting goes. My first born, my baby boy, woke up a little bit more confident today, with a direction in mind, a goal to be met and a place to go. And I wasn't needed, wasn't invited.

I followed him outside, but he waved his hand over his head, shooing me away, gaining distance. He didn't look back. Once he was outside the gate, I ran to the wall to make sure he was alright. I watched him walk slowly, purposefully, but without hesitation toward the boutique. From a distance, I spotted several people waiting in line. The heat from the morning sun was just overtaking the night's chill and as it penetrated, Jamie shielded his eyes from it's glare. The sun. My son.

Just before I turned to go back to the house, I heard his barely audible voice repeating and receding from my own: "Un pain, deux madeleines. Un pain, deux madeleines. Un pain . . ."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Keur Leah

Construction on our house is coming to an end. In a few short weeks, Richard and the earth team will stop the building process and begin the laborious procedure of covering the walls with layer upon layer of lyme and palm oil. The long awaited rainy season is imminent. It will give clues to it's arrival, they tell us, with thicker air, softer skin, fewer micro-dust tunnels whirling down the open corridors, and skies that will fade from blue to a full spectrum of grey. It will tease those who have planted their crops, anxious for the first drops to inaugurate the growing and feeding cycle. The abundance of produce will help relieve the absence of money from tourists. One day someone will say "today, it will rain," and inevitably, it will. We will be gone by then and so our job is to protect what we have built so that, when we return, we can continue. The growth will resume.
Now that the mounds of dirt and wells of mud have reunited to form their walls as Richard intended, I can see a real house, imagine walking from room to room, living a life there. Before we leave, this house, which started as an idea and now has a presence, needs a name. There are no street names or numbers to identify homes here in Senegal. The wealthy French give their large beach-front villas monikers like "Eucalyptus Shores", and their friends successfully pick their way along the sandy lanes until they see the large, bold letters on the surrounding walls outside the security gate. The locals simply identify their homes by their family name. "Keur" in Wolof means both "heart" and "home", so a typical Senegalese house might have a small sign outside the front door which says "Keur Diop" or the heart and home of the Diop family. We first started thinking of names for the house when it was still Richard's dream drawn up on paper, before we ever set foot in Senegal. But the hard lines of a computer rendered plan couldn't possibly have hinted at the soul of this house, couldn't have told me how I would feel standing in it's rooms, envisioning it's future.
When we first decided to come to Senegal, I remember calling my friend Leah to tell her. Senegal was a place that was important to Leah. Her love of Africa was immense and she wanted to discover as much of it as possible. Among her many accomplishments, she had served as Director of Development for Asheshi University Foundation in Ghana. She had done substantial fundraising from their offices in Seattle and had visited the University in Ghana as a strategic consultant. We had long, in-depth phone calls during which she reiterated her desire to be a political ambassador to Africa one day, a role I feel would have fit her perfectly. Ciss, her boyfriend of many years, was a native of Senegal (a lovely fact that has never been lost on me) and together, we concocted dreams of long visits split between his family and our house, converging the coincidences of her world. She was the most diplomatic person I have ever known. She was optimistic, pragmatic and yet a dreamer in the most extraordinary ways. That's why I knew she would be a champion of our project. In addition to her desire to experience Senegal, Leah was very sensitive to the environment. Her dream was to one day build an eco-house with a small footprint, a house that was a responsible reflection of who she was--solar panels, geo-thermal heating, a green roof planted with water filtering species. A house of her own that was comfortable and beautiful on the inside, discreet and unpretentious on the outside. Much like Leah herself.
"That is just soooo cool," she said when I told her on the phone. I could feel her smile. "An earth house, I'm just so impressed. When can I come? No, first I want to hear all about it." I knew she meant it. She was the person who taught me how to listen--patiently, lovingly listen. She interrupted me only when she couldn't contain herself and needed to know something in further detail. "Now wait. So explain how the bricks are made." After an hour, I hung up feeling like we had made the best decision of our lives, her support and enthusiasm lifting me up to a place where all my nagging doubts lay in a puddle in the past. I could only envision our future as Leah saw it--and it no longer felt scary. She had brought sense to it, extracted it's virtues and grandness and held them up for me to see. This was perhaps Leah's greatest attribute--her ability to break down what felt like huge barriers to our dreams and successes. How many people did she help realize their potential? I hope to find out one day. She made her living as a life and business coach, but those of us who were fortunate enough to know her as a true friend, or sister, or daughter, know that she served as a catalyst for great change in our lives at least once. Helping me put aside my fears about this adventure in Africa and promising it's success was her last great gift to me. She passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, on January 9th, three weeks after I arrived in Senegal.
There are days now, very few, when I don't think of her. That's what time and our ability to heal will do. Then there are those moments in the void, when I realize she will never come to Senegal, that I will never see her again, and I feel cheated, for me and for her. But mostly, I sense her spirit near, in the way I look at things differently since her death. I think less about what I have lost and more about what she gave me in the 25 years I knew and loved her. All those collective memories, conversations, shared experiences, inspirations that make up a friendship are like a pleasant aura that stays with me. All I have to do is turn to it and she is there, reassuring me once again that it will all be ok, that ideas and dreams are meant to be lived. I feel her spirit every time I sit down to write and the words just won't come. "Well, you can't just give up," I hear her say. And so I don't.
And neither does Richard when the work gets hard and the days get long. It all seems so obvious now in a way it couldn't have before we lost Leah. Our house here, with it's simplicity and bare beauty, it's openness to possibility, feels to me like the essence of Leah, like I could turn the corner and she would be there, admiring the openings toward the sky. It is our sanctuary, her sanctuary in Africa. In her honor, and with the promise that its walls will echo with her laughter and its doors will welcome with her arms, our house will be called "Keur Leah"--Leah's heart, Leah's home. It was built from the earth, and one day, many years from now, when it is no longer inhabited, it will be broken down to it's basic components, back to the earth. I think Leah would have liked that idea.
"When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die."
~Mary Elizabeth Frye

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Answer: a Follow-up to "The Broken Vase"

"Forgiveness is the needle that knows how to mend" ~ Jewel

When you live in a foreign country, cultural differences are often hard to surmount, especially when we come to a relationship with preconceived notions of how the world should function, of how people should behave. I am certainly guilty of imposing my own morals on others, of judging other's actions as either "good" or "bad" according to my deeply ingrained value system. But what if there was another possibility, a different way of esteeming others that allowed us to suspend our own beliefs and simply wait for an answer?
Aysa returned with Sorna two days after we confronted her with her theft. We welcomed her and all sat down at the table . . . waiting for her answer, the one we expected, the truth as we knew it. For me, it seemed like the only way to mend what was broken. I was obsessed with hearing her say it . . . that she had stolen from us. I felt like a juror who had all the pieces that led to a sure conviction, but wanted a confession to ease that sliver of doubt that plagued me in my sleep. But she didn't give me what I needed. She neither admitted her wrongdoing nor apologized. She trembled, she cried, she bristled at our insistence, our prodding for the truth. Bou, her accuser and best friend, remained steadfast, telling us once again what he had seen her take from our house. She obviously felt cornered by us and betrayed by Bou. And yet, she only explained her difficulties at home, tears streaming down her face, anger in her voice. Her mother was expecting again, a difficult pregnancy which only added to her depressive tendencies and kept her in a silent torpor. This will be her sixth child. At that moment, all I wanted to do was cross over to the other side of the table and sit next to Aysa in the witness stand, put my arms around her and retract my verdict. Instead, I told her that I understood how scared she must feel, that if she could find the courage to tell us what happened, there would be no consequences, only forgiveness. She remained silent. We asked her to consider her relationship with Sunny and Jamie. For their sake, we hoped she could learn, could move forward with a second chance to be a part of our lives. We told her that, above all else, she and Bou needed to work out their differences, preserve their long-standing friendship. Emotions were high, polluting the air above us all and so we decided to leave the table and let the day pass, unresolved. Aysa sat on the beach ten yards from Bou. They didn't speak. Richard was pensive. I felt sullen and frustrated. Zorro was emotionally taxed and tired from translating. Jamie and Sunny ran on the beach, unaware of our problems. I proceeded to plague Zorro with questions, certain that he had the answers. I was seeking his cultural and spiritual point of view as a Muslim. Surely he understood her better than I. Why had she stolen, why had she refused to admit it? What was she scared of? He explained that stealing is one of the worst offenses in the Muslim religion and is highly punishable. She was terrified of the consequences. More importantly, he wondered why it was so imperative for me to have all the answers. He suggested that perhaps there was no resolution, that the truth lay in our individual ability to just forgive. He left me with this, literally, and took Richard back to work on the house.
Later that day, in the afternoon, I saw Aysa and Bou talking quietly on the beach. I wondered about the shape of that conversation, about it's path. These were children who were calling to each other across their divide, a lie on one side and a betrayal on the other. Red rover, red rover, let Aysa come over.
After they talked, Aysa asked me if she could borrow a small woven mat. When I handed it to her, she took it outside and laid it on the ground. Through the open door, I saw her gather all the children--Sorna, Bou, Jamie and Sunny. She lined them up in two rows and led them to pray namaz together, Jamie and Sunny unquestioningly following their rhythmic movements. Stand, kneel towards the sun, sit back on your heals, touch your forehead to the ground, one foot up, then the next towards the sky. Their grace as a group, their uniform movements, their individual reasons, were like watching a slow dance: show your humility, ask for forgiveness, reconcile your differences. As the only witness, I stood watching silently, reverently. My answer had finally come.
"Allah Akbar," I heard Aysa say. "God is great."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Broken Vase

“Trust is like a vase.. once it's broken, though you can fix it, the vase will never be the same again.” ~ Unknown

I tried hard yesterday to recall the times I've stolen something in my life. I came up with two. It took a lot of searching through those shameful memories that we file away in a dark place in hopes that the good things, the souvenirs of honorable deeds and proud triumphs will stack up high enough to render those past mistakes inconsequential and powerless. But try as we might, the good sits only slightly in the forefront, shielding the bad like a dutiful, protective older sibling. Hide your darkness and you will certainly shadow your light.
The first time, at twelve, when my mother refused to buy me press-on nails, I stole some from the pharmacy. I remember vividly the intense thrill of putting them in my pocket unseen. Look to the left, look to the right, in your hand, now hide them. I'm breathing a little easier, shaking a little less. Now move toward the front door casually. No! buy something. A piece of candy, so you don't look suspicious. How daring. It's right here in my pocket and you have no idea. Smile. Pay for the candy. Say thank you. Leave. Keep walking down the street. No one following you. Freedom. Exhilarating! But now what? I remember crumbling with guilt half way down the street with the forceful realization that I'd stolen from the pharmacy that belonged to the parents of a good friend. And how would I explain my long nails to my mother? I hadn't thought this through. I had them, but I would never be able to wear them. At home, as I studied the small tube of glue and the beautiful, graduated sizes of milky plastic ovals through the unopened package, I hated my mother all over again. I couldn't win this one. So the next day, I took them back, or rather, snuck them back, reversing what I had done the day before--taking them out of my pocket, placing them on the hook, once again unseen. The single night that I spent with them under my pillow was torturous.
The second time, I was in my early twenties, working at my first job in an art gallery on Madison Avenue. I had helped edit our first published collection of 19th and 20th century paintings and the book was selling like hotcakes. One day, a client came in when the owner was out and bought three copies. He handed me $150 in cash and left. As I held the money in my hand, it felt comforting, it felt like a solution, like it belonged to me. It was me after all who worked tirelessly cataloguing, assisting the editor, typing, typing, always typing and retyping. And it was me after all who had sold all the books-- caressing the cover, holding the heavy book up to flip the pages, memorizing the most beautiful ones, saying something important about the oeuvre of each artist, then snapping the book shut and laying it on the table, always leaving the art lover wanting more. I had sold dozens and I was good at it. But I was underpaid and underappreciated. My rent was overdue. I didn't know how I would pay for lunch. This was a well-deserved tip, I told myself. I don't remember feeling overly guilty at the time, and yet this second and last memory of stealing had been stuffed way in the back of my mind, right alongside a small pile of painful regrets.
I had needed to conjure up these memories, this part of myself of which I am not proud, in order to see myself as human, far from perfect. I needed to remember that we are all weak at times, that situations can take over our animal instinct to survive, temporarily taint our principles. Mistakes can also propel us forward if we are willing to learn from them. I was trying to understand why Aysa and Sorna had stolen from us.
After months of building a relationship with these girls, the oldest of Jamie and Sunny's friends, we asked them to sit with the kids while Richard worked and I ran errands. It was the first time we'd given them such responsibility and they seemed so proud and eager to prove their capability. We went over house rules and safety and I left, feeling like our relationship had moved in an important direction. When I got home, the kids regaled me with details of a walk on the beach and a cache of unearthed kitchen tiles they had found on the beach. We counted them together and marveled at the different hues of blues--aqua, azure, sky. In the afternoon, Zorro drove the girls home and noticed a white plastic bag on the floor between Aysa's feet. He glimpsed containers of yogurt, a package of cookies, other items from our house. When Aysa saw him looking, she closed the bag quickly. He said nothing and dropped them off. Struggling with how to tell us, he spoke with Bou, who had also been at the house that day. Bou confirmed that he had seen them take things from our kitchen and put them in a bag, which they then hid outside. He said it wasn't the first time, and that money had been taken. We were astounded. The next day, we confronted the girls and Aysa denied all of it, going so far as to blame Sunny and Jamie for eating what was missing. She explained Bou's confirmation away, citing jealousy and child-like malice. I wasn't buying any of it . . . and yet there were doubts, sad refusals in my heart to believe. I asked them to go home, told them to think over what had happened and come back when they were willing to talk. I held back tears as I watched Aysa walk away, proud and confident, defiant, turing her head to look at me with disbelief in her eyes. I spent the rest of the afternoon turning the details over in my mind. Maybe Zorro had made a mistake. But hadn't I seen Aysa quickly put something down when I walked in the kitchen last week? No, it couldn't be, she would never do that. She didn't need to. For months now, I'd been giving her things to take home with her, food that I knew we wouldn't eat--a few carrots, greenbeans, leftover pasta, cookies, vanilla sugar, sachets of tea. I knew that things at home had been difficult for her. Richard had hired her father to help them make ends meet. We were doing all we could to help her and her family. Any yet, the things she had taken were not necessities, they were things that we had and she wanted. In the end, I had to succumb to the reality that these girls who I loved had betrayed us, had stolen from us and damaged what we had built together. It was true and it broke my heart. If only they'd asked, I would have given them anything, anything they wanted. Didn't they know that? Couldn't they feel it?
Now that the trust is broken, the relationship has also suffered, been wound back to the beginning, because I don't really know who they are, maybe never did. Instead of asking myself why they did it, I asked myself why I had done it--stolen twice all those years ago. I tried to put myself in their place, understand the motivation, feel the fear of being caught and the stronger fear of the consequences that would follow an admission of guilt. They were wrong, but they are also human and therefore forgiveable. But reforging this relationship, piecing it back together has to come from first an admission, first the truth, always the truth. By admitting to myself that I was once no better than they, I had found the first piece of the broken vase. If they come back to us with their own shard of truth, maybe we can move forward. In the meantime, I'll be waiting with my small tube of glue.