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."