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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."