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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."