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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.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Sunday With the Breakfast Club

This is a simple story about a Sunday that started like any other: coffee brewing, children sleeping, needing an extra layer until the day warmed up. Richard had left to fill another necessary day, building another necessary wall. As I was pulling flour, milk, butter, baking soda from the refrigerator to make pancakes, I dropped an egg. It shattered on the floor quickly, the yoke landing mostly on my foot, the sticky whites pooling around the base of the refrigerator. I leaned against the counter, already feeling defeated, and counted the broken pieces of mottled brown shell. There were seven.
Several weeks ago, The Breakfast Club, the seven children that lived behind us in Barbakar's house--Jamie and Sunny's compass point in a foreign world-- were abruptly separated. Four of the girls, Aysa, Sorna, Nabu and Jhimbal, all sisters, had moved back to their father's house in the next village over.  When we met them, they had been temporarily living with Barbakar and his children. Their father had been out of work, and having only girls, there was no son, no prodigy, to supplement their income. He had felt enormous shame at not being able to feed them, which led to arguments and the ultimate resolution that his wife and children should live with Barbakar (a cousin) until he could once again put food on the table. Barbarkar had resented their presence. Their mother was depressed, sleeping like a child, curled on her side most of the day. Displaced and lacking supervision, they had gravitated to our family and our house. I like to think they sensed the structure they would find, that the closeness they witnessed pulled them towards us, rather than the shear proximity of our houses. When we learned that the father was a mason by trade, Richard employed him to work on the earth house, a solution that helped Richard, provided money for this family that we loved and allowed the girls to return home. It was the right thing to do, and yet there were tears when I drove them to their house, their belongings filling two plastic laundry baskets. When they left, Barbakar felt relief, both financially and emotionally. We felt the void, the negative space, the absence of noise. Barbakar's children stopped coming to our house as well, sensing the bond had been broken, that worlds had shifted. Once a complaint of mine, I missed the mess, the maze of children that I picked my way through during the day, setting out crayons and paper, stooping to pick up wrappers, tripping on toys, the incessant washing of plates and cups. As a mother, I felt my nest had been picked apart, that I had guarded people who weren't my own and their sudden absence felt like too much room. Jamie and Sunny suffered too, but like all children, their resilience moved them forward and they found their way without their friends. We all did.
The egg got cleaned up and I was finishing my first cup of coffee when there was a knock on the door. Too early. I thought how strange it was that someone would be here on a Sunday before the sun was fully up and considered not answering it, but the knock was persistent. When I opened it, the four girls were standing there with huge smiles on their faces. They were leaving with Barbakar and his children that afternoon for a three day religious pilgrimage and had decided to spend the day with us. No notice, no warning, just there on our doorstep. Hearing their voices, Jamie and Sunny woke up and ran to them, disbelief in their groggy eyes. There were screams, hugs, lots of jumping up and down, hand-holding until the initial surprise wore off. Bou and Alisahn came over from Barbakar's house. Hunger ensued, and one batch of pancakes turned into three. They had never seen or tasted a pancake and at first were tentative. But who can resist homemade pancakes with lots of butter and raspberry jam, plates full of them, sticky fingers and red-stained faces. There was a walk on the beach and the building of a sand-castle, the children easily finding their familiar rhythms again. Richard and Zorro came home for lunch, which Aysa and Sorna had offered to prepare, and we all sat around the table, passing spiced shredded chicken and rice, green salad and bright orange clementines. Richard invented a rap song in Wolof, to which everyone added their own phrase and the laughter felt like deja vu, so familiar were the components of it. 
Next came the laundry, three tubs full of warm suds and dirty clothes, bubbles blown around, which became less about cleaning clothes than about hit and run splashing. They all helped me put the clothes on the line to dry in the afternoon sun, a gesture so familiar and precise that it took less than five minutes. Many hands make light work. Many children make life light.
We said goodbye to them in the afternoon as they headed off to Magal, a destination not unlike Mecca, for which they had dressed in their finest, most beautiful clothes. I hugged them goodbye and wished them a safe trip. They will be back in three days, but I have no idea when they will knock on my door again. I tasted tears on my lips-- a taste of something I am not ready to swallow. Soon the time will come when we take a plane. We've hinted at lasting commitment, offering to send them all to school next year, promising that we will return, that our relationships will resume, that we will not forget them. We have told them, showed them, that we are invested. They have made no such promises. They know from experience that it's not wise, that their world is the axis, and that we will come and go despite their stasis. They are impenetrable this way, and I suppose for their sake, it's best if they let us go with as little sentiment as possible.  I am all too aware that the time we are spending with them can never be repeated in exactly this same way, despite our assurances. So I will savor this Sunday and this photograph. Every once in a while, we are given the gift of a day that unfolds unexpectedly, nothing extraordinary, just a day that feels different from the others, a day that, as it is revealing itself, engraves it's essence onto our consciousness as part of a collection. Pay attention to these days, they are memories taking shape.

Note: For background information on The Breakfast Club, read my earlier post of the same title.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Policeman: A Little Story About Karma

My son, Jamie, has been fascinated with policemen since he was first able to understand the concept of everyone having a specific job to do in life. For a four year old, his sense of right and wrong is well-developed, and being a sensitive soul, even the slightest injustice is intolerable to him. He feels everyone's pain, and so being on the good side of life's struggles seems to bring him some semblance of control in his ever-expanding world. He spends a great deal of time searching out the proverbial "bad guys" that lurk in his imagination and around our house. He almost always ends up exterminating, or at least incarcerating them and letting us know that he has done his job well, protected us from certain and imminent danger. "Hi, I'm a polis. But Dont' worry, ok", he'll say. "There was a super-duper bad guy in the garden with an alien head and lots of goopy web stuff, but I got him for you. You're safe, ok. I put him in the jail over there and he can't come out until he says he's sorry." 
His fascination with the men in blue has been a consistent one. This past Halloween, when all his friends were donning Dracula capes and superhero leggings, Jamie chose to be a "polis" in his navy cap, gold badge and light blue button-down shirt. He insisted that I iron this shirt and that the top button be closed.  I watched him tuck the shirt in as best he could and lightly touch the neck again to be sure it was turned down. He smoothed his pockets, tilted the cap back just so and smiled that shy, proud, heartwarming grin he gets when he feels things are just so, that he has reason to be confident. Did I imagine it, or was he standing a bit taller, a little straighter on that morning before I took him to school? The New York cynic in me suggested he carry a styrofoam coffee cup in one hand and a stale doughnut in the other. The specific joke was lost on him, but knowing me as well as he does, he rolled his eyes, sensing my sarcasm, and explained that he didn't like doughnuts and he needed his hands free. Now there's a thought. 
The "Gendarmes" in Senegal took Jamie's admiration to another level and added to it a heightened awareness and understanding of their authority. They are formidable figures, with their very dark formal uniforms, shoulder sashes and berets cocked sideways on their head, a decidedly French influence. Resembling more military police than traffic cops, they are occasionally armed on the main roads, and, as we have discovered, almost all are on the take.
On a recent road trip, Jamie was on the alert, spotting them on the side of the road way before we could discern their forms. "Papa, I want to see more polis, show me more polis, is that a polis over there?!" This was his version of "are we there yet?" and it was an incessant, nerve-racking tick, one that drove me to actually say, "You don't want me to come back there, Mister! Just stop it. You'll know it when you see one."  We'll get there when we get there. The return trip was no less emphatic except that he fell asleep for a period of time. As we were turning onto a main road, what had been, until now, merely that mythical figure on the side of the road, actually flagged us down. Had we been speeding? Was the car registered? Did we have all our papers, passports? My heart pounded that strange, guilty-for-no-reason adreneline through my system as Richard rolled down his window to speak to the man. I wasn't listening, I was trying to discreetly wake Jamie up, less he miss this grand opportunity. Before I knew it, this hulking policeman had crossed in front of the car and was standing at my window, silent, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, Ray Bans burning my already hot cheeks. What? Confused and suddenly terrified, I turned to Richard. Through clenched teeth and in English, Richard explained that we had done nothing wrong, he just wanted a ride. Oh, I sighed in relief. A ride. No big deal. I got out of the car and pulled the lever for the seat to move forward, giving access to the back seat and stood aside. "Voici," I said and swung my arm forward, ushering him into the rear. Richard shot me a look that managed to convey this to me: This is Senegal, stupid, a Muslim country. A woman doesn't ask a man, let alone a possibly armed authority, to sit in the back seat! My own wide-eyed return look said: But, but, but, I was only thinking of Jamie, how happy he'd be to have a real live policeman in the back seat with him! To add insult to injury, Sunny pointedly refused to move over beside Jamie, forcing this huge man to sit in the middle, on the hump, with his knees pulled into his chest, between two small children. One, who completely turned her back to him and braced her feet against the door in protest, obligating him to cross his arms to accomodate her extended presence. The other turning his entire body towards him, staring up adoringly in his face. "Hi" Jamie said to him. "Mama, there's a polis in the backseat" he whispered loudly in English, smiling at me as though this was our secret.
As we drove on, the significance of this man in our car began to sink in and I discovered I was outraged. After asking the man if he spoke English and hearing that no, he didn't, I gave myself license to commence my tirade in that now private language. How dare this man use his authority to pull us over and then demand a ride. How corrupt, how rude, how unacceptable. And then to sit in the back seat in smug silence was just, just . . . Richard stopped me and pointed out that he couldn't possibly be comfortable, probably hadn't seen the kids in the back seat when he pulled us over, and that, to Jamie, this was akin to having Elvis in the backseat. I knew he was right, but nonethless sat in huffed silence for many miles, resenting this man's presence in our car. As I was rehearsing what I would like to say to him, should I ever muster up the courage, the steering wheel began shaking violently and Richard no longer had use of the gears. The clutch was out. He pulled the car to the side of the road and we all looked at each other for a long moment.  And then it hit me--karma was in play. Ok, now I get it. This is why the policeman flagged us down, so that he could help us when our car broke down! Wasn't karma wonderful! Wasn't fate structured so beautifully! Weren't we lucky to have the stars aligned in our favor! As relief flooded over me, the policeman leaned forward over the hump and told us in French that he would be leaving us now and catching another ride. The blood left my face as I realized he was abandoning us in the middle of nowhere and then it returned just as quickly as I realized HE'S ABANDONING US IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! Coward, opportunist, ingrate! With nery a "merci", he climbed out  and started waving down other cars. As I watched him climb into one of them and disappear from sight, I felt that life was just unfair, there was no such thing as karma and there were certainly no heroes. I was pouting like a child.  But Jamie kept on smiling and said with total conviction that melted my heart, "Don't worry, Mama. He's a polis, he'll save us."  I couldn't bare to explain the truth of this situation to Jamie, couldn't possibly derail his belief in the good within us all. 
Through the grace of a cellphone and a saavy mechanic who walked Richard through a simple rig-up, we were back on the road within fifteen minutes and life had floated back to it's familiar equilibrium, a breeze blowing in through the window, the afternoon air cooling us. My heartbeat was just returning to steady and we were nearing another populated intersection, when we were pulled over a second time by another policeman. This time, Richard, the level-headed one in this relationship, had had enough for one day and began mumbling unpleasant expletives in French as the policeman approached. This one didn't want a ride, he wanted to know where the fire extinguisher was. We didn't know, but it certainly wasn't in the car and we knew full well that no car in Senegal was equipped with one. This was a ploy and a rather obvious one. After examining our papers, he explained to Richard that this was indeed a serious offense and that he would have to detain us . . . unless we were willing to part with the equivilent of $30.00, which we didn't have. As he was asking us to get out of the car, another policeman walked around the back and began talking to his commerade. Double trouble, I thought. Until I looked closely at this familiar face and realized it was our hitch-hiker! Through some cosmic twist of fate, his second ride had just dropped him off at this same crowded intersection, right in front of us, at this very spot, and he had recognized our car. He explained to our arresting officer that we had helped him by giving him a ride and that he was to leave us alone and let us go on our way. As I was explaining this to Jamie, our policeman reached in the window and shook Jamie's hand, held it for a moment. Perhaps he had felt Jamie's admiration in the car, had understood that his presence had meant something to this little boy. "See, Mama, I told you he would save us." As we pulled away, taking the road that would bring us home, I realized this experience had taught me two things. The first was to have faith in people, to allow for possibility without proof, to believe in the way my son believes, that people are inately good, or at least redeemable, but not always on our terms. The second thing was that karma, divine intervention, however we wish to call it or define it, does exist. People do cross our path for a reason, and If you are open to the idea, their cause will have an effect, however big or small, lasting or fleeting. My own little polis, with his pure intentions and naive belief in human goodness, was certainly sent to teach me, certainly sent to rescue me from all sorts of dangerous misgivings.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Graceful Arches

"I'll bridge these hills with graceful arches"~ Frank Lloyd Wright

There are many reasons to build a house, to erect walls, provide shelter, house those people and those things important to us in life. I suppose we each have that one true thing in our life that we need to accomplish. Not simply an attainable goal that builds our confidence and our credibility, but something driven more by our soul's desire to create, to leave behind something worthy, something that reflects who we are at the stripped-down core. Whether that one thing, our personal thing, is understood and appreciated or otherwise questioned doesn't matter--it is the process and the result that brings our passion to it's satisfactory conclusion. For my husband, Richard, that one true thing is an Earth House, built of rammed earth and earth bricks, coming to life on a parcel of land in the brush of Senegal, Africa. His decision, the why and the where, was not sudden. When I look back on the progression of this project, I can see the seed germinating. It started with Richard's adolescent hand in refurbishing his mother's ruined farmhouse in Brittany and was fueled by his adult desire to lead a more sustainable life, to skim the extraneous from our lives. Land was purchased; books about earth architecture appeared; long discussions about the efficacy and merits of building in Senegal ensued; plans were drawn up.  His catalytic inspiration came from an Egyptian architect of the 1940's and 50's named Hassan Fathy, who was mocked and dismissed by his peers for building with earth techniques, but was ultimately honored for having instituted "architecture for the poor" on the continent of Africa.
One of the biggest problems plaguing the people of Senegal centers around housing. Land is passed from generation to generation, sometimes as part of a marriage dowry, more often as legacy. But because cement and iron are costly materials, they cannot afford to build homes on their land and as a consequence, many Senegalese find themselves selling the land for monetary gain, forfeiting their inheritance as well as their independence. This is one reason why households are overcrowded with more generations than their modest walls can accommodate. At one point, as is still true in more rural areas, building with earth was the norm. Those people who moved closer to a large metropolis found themselves caught up in the web of status, wanting to be accepted and revered by their neighbors.  French influences brought more sophisticated, but not necessarily better, building materials which were comparatively expensive and the "old ways" of building gradually became a chapter in history. They didn't forget, they chose as an urban society to move forward, as we all have, in every nation, following an integrated path that we were told was superior to the simple one we were on. And like the Senegalese, we are all beginning to understand that what worked so well before, what we abandoned in favor of "progress" wasn't so disposable after all. Cement holds in heat; earth walls keep the interior temperate. Modern toxic paints are expensive and require substantial maintenance; active Lyme costs nothing and repels insects and dust. Most importantly, the dirt that we excavate gets molded into the walls that surround us . . . using all, wasting nothing, costing little, lasting lifetimes. The prodigal French son has returned, and he's come to make amends, to resurrect the past, in the form of a modern mud structure. Richard hopes that this house will serve as an example to the native Senegalese that they can afford to build a house and it doesn't have to be round or utilize thatched straw roofing. It can make sense in it's usage and purpose and still be beautiful, breathtaking in fact. 
This is where Richard's one true thing bridges the gap between the needs of this society and his personal need to build something beautiful and lasting. This is the crossroad where building becomes architecture, where construction becomes creation and where a house becomes a home. This is where Richard's soul comes into the equation, where the individuality of his mind's eye intersects with the trajectory of the golden rectangle, where his calculations are made, not just to keep the vaulted ceilings from collapsing, but to make sure the afternoon light comes through the half-moon windows to reflect their rounded shape on the corner-edged floors. It is where the direction of typical winds is taken into consideration, so that breezes move the light linen curtains. It is where doors open to view their adjacent arches vined with Bougainvillea, where exterior abbey corridors provide a walkway that takes us from one room to another, but on the way, makes us stop and listen for ancient voices in their monastic slopes, to be humbled by their austerity. This house will endure, for us, for our children if they so choose. For now, at this phase, there are only half walls that hint at what's to come, but they are beautifully textured and sturdy, thick as trees, cool to the touch, smelling of the ground. I love to come on site in the afternoons to congratulate the team of twelve workers for the day's progress and to walk the paths between these arches that Richard himself has built. Their framed earth bricks, cured by the sun, climb up and lean on each other for support, in the way that we do in uncertain times. Sometimes I wish these graceful arches could stay as they are, their reaching silhouettes more like ruins than beginnings. When I look at them lately, I can see that they were always meant to be here, that we were always meant to come.