Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Stories of Serendipity Part I: The Yellow House
"All things are ready if our minds be so."
I've been thinking alot about serendipity lately. And I'm not the only one. I hear stories all the time about people crossing each other's paths, resulting in a significant exchange, leaving both people with the distinct impression that they were meant to meet, for reasons big or small. Hearing about these stories is serendipitous in itself. It's hard to deny that some intangible force, be it God, Allah, Buddha, the Universe, or wherever we place our faith, helps us work things out together. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that these events tend to occur in direct proportion to our current personal and global fragility. Times are tough and scary. Tragedies touch us either personally or distantly, but we hear of or read about them often. The good news is, if we listen, we will also hear about (or hopefully experience) chance meetings, small miracles if you like, that lend a bit of grace and purpose to our day. And so I would be so bold as to altar Shakespeare's quote to read: "All things are ready if our hearts be so."
Here is one such story, Part I:
The Yellow House:
There is a young Senegalese man who often sings at the top of his lungs in what I presume to be a mixture of Wolof and Arabic. Sometimes he wanders out in the bush behind our house, slowly weaving among the giant Baobob trees. But most often he can be seen outside a nearby uninhabited house, wedged into the corner where two outside walls meet. He sings every day, but always at different times. Most days, I'm ashamed to admit, I want to wring his neck, or ducktape his mouth. There is nothing beautiful or particularly comforting about his singing. In fact, it's rather annoying. But nonetheless plaintive.
This morning I went in search of eggs. As I was walking along the dirt path towards the village, the singer began to wail. I could tell by the direction of his voice that he was in his usual spot, a spot I could not avoid. As uncomfortable as I was, I would have to pass him on my way to the boutique. I have always avoided direct contact with this young man, preferring to glimpse him off in the distance. Afterall, anyone who sings that loudly in the middle of nowhere has to be a little off their rocker, right?
As I approached, he suddenly stopped singing, which for some reason made me feel guilty. I had always envisioned a crazed, desperate individual with frantic eyes. Instead, here stood a calm, if not a little embarrassed, young guy wearing surfer shorts and a Bob Marley t-shirt. I said hello and told him not to stop singing on my account. He shuffled his feet a little and looked down at the ground. It was if he knew I had mocked him. I suddenly needed to make it right between us.
"What exactly are you singing about?" I asked.
"My problems," he replied. "I sing to Allah, but only when there is wind. The wind carries my voice and the echo carries Allah's message back to me."
"That's lovely," I said. "Does it really work?"
As I couldn't think of much more to say, I asked his name.
"Nice to meet you, Moustapha Diouf. My name is Ellen."
He half-bowed but did not move to shake my hand, which I took to mean that we had gotten close enough for one day. As I turned to continue along the path, he said,
"Allah has a message for you too."
I stopped. "Oh, really?" O.K., I thought, so the loose screw diagnosis was accurate afterall. Maybe Jim Morrison's got something to say while you're at it, buddy. But I had stopped, hadn't I? I, the jaded Catholic who was hard-pressed to define her "beliefs", had been stopped in her tracks by the possibility that I had a pending message . . . from Allah. At the moment, if felt oddly comforting.
"What is the message?" I ventured.
"I don't know, but you'll find it at the yellow house." And with that, he took up his singing again.
The yellow house is an old, wooden, barn-like structure that is a small miracle in itself in that it stands at all. I don't know how old it is, but I often marvel at the fact that termites haven't devoured it. I pass it every day. It's beautiful in an inexplicable way. But, I thought as I walked along, if Moustapha is right, today it will have new meaning. I walk past the house slowly, peering towards the windows, listening. But I don't really believe, not really. I stop, continue on, circle back. Nothing. No one. I linger in front for a few minutes and then decide to try the door, which is around the back. There is no door. The house, afterall, is abandoned. No one inside, only fallen boards with exposed rusted nails, shreds of faded fabric. I am suddenly crying. It's like someone has just told me there is no Santa Claus. No Santa, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, no God, no Allah. No Magical Yellow House with even the smallest tibit of Wisdom.
I continue on to the boutique where I go every day to stock up on sundries. Abdou tells me he doesn't have any eggs yet and to try the boutique a little father along in the village. I trudge my way through a sandy street I am not familiar with and spot the boutique up on the left. As I am about to enter, a little boy runs up to me and sticks out his hand. "Bonjour toubab," hello, white lady. He is about four and offers me a sturdy handshake and huge smile. This cheers me up, so I buy him a piece of candy inside the boutique, but no eggs. They haven't been delivered yet. When I step outside, the little boy is across the street, leaning against the wall. He has a deflated bicycle wheel in his hand and is studying it carefully, trying to find the hole. He sees me and there is that big smile again. When I hand him the candy he throws his arms around my legs. I ask him where he lives. He points to the gate and says, "fi, kai fi", here--come with me," and drags me through the gate. Inside, there is a large courtyard filled with chickens and a few goats. There are plastic buckets filled with laundry in different stages of soaking and a woman in the corner, who I assume is his mother, busy packaging the fresh eggs she has collected this morning. She stands to greet me and says, literally translated, "you are welcome here." I finally take in the house behind her, which is small . . . and crumbling in places . . . but clean and bright. . . . and a lovely shade of yellow.
On my way back home, my eggs tucked into my knapsack, I look for Moustapha. I want to share what happened to me. I listen for his voice, but he is nowhere to be found. The wind has died down.