Monday, October 5, 2015

when time is full

Jumping in and out of a person's life - as in, living a country away and seeing them face to face, skin to skin every six or nine or twelve months - has a way of creating snapshots without showing much of what happens in between. My niece and nephew grow up in a fragmented way before me, then they were toddlers and now all of a sudden (or so it seems) they are bigger little people - or is it little bigger people?  They are saying interesting things and cultivating interests I could not have guessed. How did they learn that, I wonder. Where did that idea come from? It's like planting a seed and coming back to found that it has sprouted when you still expected it to be hibernating in the ground.

My nephew Tayte is nearly seven and all boy. On this visit, he has punched, hi-fived, kicked, head-butted and farted on me. Wrapped in a blanket before school this morning (ie being a green lobster of course), he was unaware as I scooped him up into my lap and declared him my baby (not a lobster!) and rocked him in my lap. But the lobster spread his claws and tried to pinch me and found his way to the floor. Tayte expresses himself bodily, dropping to the ground when he is frustrated or hungry or tired. Although he uses words, too, which he forms into expressions that make me stop and wonder how he ever thought of that. For example, yesterday, in response to something unexpected and funny he did, I said to him, "you're so random!" He replied, with a taunting tone, "You're so random. You came out of nowhere." How he became so existential and whip smart, I have no idea. Maybe it's all the Star Wars he's watching.

Amelia is my niece. She just turned nine. We have talked about dying our hair funky colors, the art of wearing skirts over leggings (always with shorts, too, she explained, in case you want to do cartwheels), and she's impressed by my shoe collection. When she told me about some of her life goals, she explained it's between being an Olympic gymnast or America Ninja Warrior. Then, after thinking a minute, she realized she could do both, and I agreed. I tried to get information about her love life as she pointed to her friends in her school yearbook, but she just blushed and turned the page. (I was satisfied.) On my second night here, we moved my blow-up mattress from the play room to her room. She dragged her pillow and propped it against the wall next to mine, and together we read until we were sleepy. The next night, she told me it was time to read together again. Now I am wondering, can I be best friends with my niece?

These glimpses of who they are and are becoming always makes me a little sad about missing all the in between. I want to see how those ideas formed, how those desires got planted. Yet, there's something important about the distance and moving time that helps me to see the changes more distinctly. Time can feel like a thief that steals moments when we aren't looking, but maybe all those moments weren't mine to have in the first place. It was in those moments we had apart - when time was full and ours for the taking - that we got these crazy ideas that we can share when we're together. Farting and reading before bedtime and all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

how to live with hunger, or what could have happened if i hadn't quit basketball

Because I am tall, people often ask me if I play basketball. Usually, I simply say yes. But I feel like a bit of an imposter when I answer that way. I know they are probably imagining me powering through the baseline with the ball in my hand, shoving my shoulder into the chest of a defender who's planted herself to get the foul. Then I fake and pass to a teammate, or take the hook shot, or fall with the defender as the whistle blows to call my trespass. Or they see me jumping for rebound after rebound, hungry for the ball. They are reading athleticism and aggressiveness into my profile. 

Here is the truth: I tried out for the team in seventh grade without ever having played a game of basketball in my life. The closest I got was probably shooting a round of Horse in our front driveway with my best friend or older sister. During those early practices, I felt clumsy during the drills. It took me time to get the hang of dribbling the ball in a figure eight around my spread squatting legs and the coordination of a two-step lay up (lift off the inside leg, pull the outside leg up). 

I made the team, which I guess I wasn't too surprised about. My coach may have seen some promise in my game, but I'm sure he wanted me on the team for my height. I was already close to my full 5'11" in seventh grade.

But here's the thing - I never quite felt like I belonged on the court. I can't jump high, I'm not that aggressive, I usually choked and passed the ball instead of being eager to take the shot myself. At game time, I was uncomfortable holding the ball in my hands. 

I played for a few years, had some fun and convinced my mom to buy me some really hot black nike high top sneakers (they were so cool). But after tenth grade, I quit.

Since then, I've played intramural games in college with a stacked team of really tall friends and a few co-ed pick up games. I'm still not that great, but I love the pace of the game and the slap of the ball on the ground and the arc it makes headed for the net. I've wondered many times what might have happened if I'd kept playing. Would I have found my groove? Would I have gained confidence? Would I have learned how to live with hunger, how to allow it to move me forward and jump high and act like the ball really should belong in my hands?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

one of my favorite poets gets long-listed, and crying during poetry readings

The week-long announcements of the National Book Award long lists was created for book nerds like me. (And yes, I realize 90 percent of my readers just stopped paying attention with that opening sentence.) Each morning, I've eagerly scrolled my feedly feed for a blog entry to show me a new list of stand outs. Monday was young adult literature, which I don’t really follow. But Tuesday was poetry, which promised some new-to-me writers to check out. And at the very top of the list beamed one of my favorite (if one of the only ones I read) poetry books this year. I might have fist pumped while yelling the author’s name. I was at home when this happened, just so you know.

You see, I’ve actually been wanting to tell you, to tell everyone really, about this writer. Meet Ross Gay. I first encountered his writing through an essay, Some Thoughts on Mercy. It was waiting unassumedly in a magazine I’d subscribed to, and in an evening of disciplined reading I opened the magazine and didn’t expect much. Then, I started reading and was startled and also drawn in by his tone, which seemed to communicate an incredible amount of grace — for the police who profile him as a criminal for the color of his skin, for his country that has allowed this behavior to remain the norm, for himself and the wild range of emotions he felt in response. And then the ending. The ending is what got me because he starts talking about his early attempts at bee farming, which at first seems an odd way to reflect on the intense personal experiences he shares. But then you catch onto the emotions he’s describing in his encounter with these bees is so closely reflective of how he responds to the world around him. I can’t do it justice, you just have to read him.

The emotional power and fresh use of imagery in including that scene should have told me this guy was a poet at heart. And he is. But I didn’t really get into his poetry until just a few months ago. The writer’s name had tucked itself into the back of my mind because I kept that wonderful essay as an example of the kind of writing I’d like to emulate. Then, at a writer’s conference, his name jumped out to me when I skimmed the program for seminars to attend. He was doing a reading from his new book. I earmarked the page and put it on my schedule.

The reading included five poets. The first read her over-serious poetry in an over-serious tone that nearly lulled me to sleep. But Ross sat at the end of the table, his long legs splayed before him, his grown out hair tucked into two small buns like martian, his impossibly wide grin spreading the length of his deep jaw. His graciousness was written all over him. I listened as the other four poets read. And then Ross stood up and the energy of the room changed. He smiled and bounced slightly. He set his timer for his 15 minute time slot, and explained he would read one poem from his book, the title poem: Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. And off he went.

This wasn’t a reading, it was a performance, a full embodiment of the feeling he meant to convey, which was a joyful thanksgiving for things that most consider quite simple, but in which he recognizes a deeper gift. It was for the words he spoke, and also how intimately and fully he felt them, that I started to cry right there in the brightly lit convention center room. I was a bit embarrassed at first. I feel deeply, but usually not publicly. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and overconsumption of sugar, I reasoned. But then I realized that this is what poetry is: an invitation to live fully and be thankful for all you receive.

I wish you could have been there with me, but second best is watching a different reading of the same poem for yourself. Go here. Minute 23 is the good stuff. (Well, it's all good stuff, but you know what I mean.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

how much i still have to learn

Near the end of our stay in Endoynolasho, I asked one of our translators how to say the word "beautiful" in Maasai. I don't know why I hadn't thought of it earlier, when over and over I'd searched for some way to communicate with the mothers and babies who had come to our clinics. If I had learned the Maasai word for beautiful earlier in our stay, I’d have used it many times more. It would have been circling in my head when I sat in a room full of thirteen and fourteen year old girls from the school in Endoynolasho. This was earlier in our stay, after a full morning clinic and then a round of health trainings with students and teachers. The women on our team – four of us – had decided to extend our training with one more session just for the girls. We would give them the chance to share their experiences of being girls in this community, and a chance to ask us questions. We would share our wisdom.

We gathered the girls in one of the rooms of the small clinic. The girls sat on the patient exam tables and in chairs pulled into the room. A few put an arm up on the shoulder of a girl next to her. Each wore her blue-gingham school uniform and had hair cut close to her head. The girls were shy, and, unprepared, the four of us stumbled with our questions, which were likely culturally skewed to our American understanding (or misunderstanding) of what being a girl in rural Kenya might be like. Still, we wanted to make up for an obvious lack of female leadership at their school and in their community. All their teachers are male. The government will not post a female teacher in this remote area for safety reasons. And while the local community also sponsors a few young teachers at the school - young people who had come from and still live in that same community - no female in Endoynolasho had ever continued schooling past class eight. That means no woman in the area has an education past fourteen years of age.

Eventually, a brave girl broke their silence and our awkwardness by telling us, “We need sanitary napkins.” A few more girls joined in. We pieced together the story: the school provides every girl with a package of eight pads each month. But none of the girls had received a package since the beginning of May. Now, it was nearly August. We didn't ask them what they did without the pads. I’m not sure that any of us had expected to hear such practical concerns. I nodded slowly as one of the other women promised to work with the local NGO we partnered with, who would be able to provide the girls with a regular supply of sanitary napkins.

Here is what I might have been expecting to hear from these girls: boys try to have sex with me against my will. I am worried my father will marry me off young. I want to keep going to school even though my family tells me I should marry or stay home. None of these are concerns I have had to address in my own life, and yet we – the four of us women, all of us now middle-class Americans who were either born in this country or to immigrant families who successfully settled here with reasonable ease – we all assumed these worries were tantamount to anything else in these girls' lives. Instead, the girls expressed needs that are practical, bodily, universal among women: I need something to absorb my monthly bleeding. Now, I am pricked by my ignorance and wonder at their faith in us.

After we had talked a little while longer, all of us stood on the porch of the small clinic to have our photo taken together. Now, when I look at that photo, I think of how much I still have to learn. When the translator had tried to teach me the Maasai word for beautiful, I'd botched it. A few hours later, I realized I'd been saying the wrong syllables and sounds. Unfamiliar with having the language in my own mouth, I thought I heard letters that weren't there, and made it one word when really it is two. Later, one of these young girls wrote down the words for me. And when I look at the photo, I always think of the Maasai words for beautiful: ira sidai.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

write for joy

On our flight home from Kenya last year, I found myself seated next to a tall, handsome German man, whom I eventually found the courage to talk to. On hearing I'd been in the country with a medical team, he perked up and asked with increased curiosity, "Are you a doctor?"

I responded with pride, as I always do, "No, I'm a writer."

He seemed let down. The conversation lost its momentum. Eventually, we both put our headphones on and looked for a movie to watch.

I share that story first as an example of a time I've intimated conversation with a tall good looking stranger. But more, because I find not only pride but also identity in my pursuit of writing. Like most pursuits, it's more than a job; it's a vocation. It's how I make sense of the world, live out my desire and hopefully touch the lives of others. 

But I have days. Days when I'm not feeling it, when I am failing, when I hear feedback that convinces me I've chosen wrong. And it's on these days that I remember that writing doesn't define who I am. Whether I succeed to move people or make them laugh or think differently through something I've written isn't the thing that gives me value. If I write or if I don't write, I will still be who I am. I will still be loved.

Over the past few weeks, I've been noticing how much my mood depends on how successful or recognized I feel as a writer. I've been comparing myself to other writers and creatives and professionals to understand how I measure up, but this little game is dubious. This year in Kenya, on a team with some really gifted doctors, nurses, and a videographer, I got myself a little mixed up in this comparison game. The doctors and nurses were so skilled and helpful during clinics. I mean, they had a real, concrete, in-the-moment impact, and as a result, patients expressed their gratitude. Team members congratulated each other. And our videographer - he was shooting and uploading constantly, which meant there were photos to see and videos to watch, along with excited team members watching them. And I - had nothing except for a few ideas born in conversations with people, a few notes scribble down, and some dreams. Writing can feel slow, inefficient, unpractical, ineffective, laborious. In other words, don't go into writing if you're looking to feel good about yourself, kids.

I could tell you other stories from the past few weeks when I have felt like quitting and just living a small, normal life where I come home and watch tv on netflix after dinner every night. But then I come home and open my computer and try to find a few words to piece together, and I remember, I write because I love to do it.

So, my motto this week has been write for joy. Not for identity or value or proving my skill or impact in some grand way. Find the joy in it. And just keep writing.

(Tall, goodlooking German men on airplanes be damned!)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

just kinda hanging out

hanging out before church with the girl who wanted my sunglasses

During our 12 days in Kenya, we held only four clinic days - two in Nairobi and two in the rural area of Kajiado, what I lovingly (though maybe somewhat ignorantly?) refer to as the bush. What were we doing during all the hours in between? That's a question I'm still thinking about. Here are a few of the things we were doing: packing, planning, preparing, traveling, meeting, painting, cleaning, and celebrating (i.e. launching a bricks and mortar clinic).

The rest of the time, were just kinda hanging out. There was that Sunday in the bush, right in the middle of our time there, when we lingered over breakfast and then drove a short distance to have church under a tree. Some sat on the few backless benches staked into the ground, with woven reeds that served as seats. The rest of us sat on old plastic chairs that the kids had run to their homes to find and bring for their guests. We were the first to arrive for the service, along with our young preacher. While we waited for the handful of other church goers to arrive, we sat and played with the kids. One particularly bold girl took my sunglasses, which fell lopsided on her small face.

Soon the service started. There was singing and dancing and clapping, then testimonies and a short sermon. Afterward, we all walked to a nearby boma (a homestead where an extended family lives among a few small huts). The bold girl - who still wore my sunglasses - and another who had brought me a chair earlier grabbed either one of my hands. Children gathered around most of my other teammates, too, eager to connect with us in some way. After we visited at the boma, a whole group of us sat just outside by a tree where a baby goat had just been born. Some sat on rocks; I sat on a large tin can someone brought for me. The baby goat practiced using her legs and finding her mother's milk. We waited for our van to come to take us back to where we were staying, which it did about thirty minutes later.

That afternoon, we ate lunch together, a few talked about a hike. I took a short nap on a patient exam table, then journaled. Later, our team played uno and ate pringles we'd brought from home while we waited for dinner.

I could tell you about other times when we hung out: that time I stood by Nathan, a teacher, while he taught me to make ugali (a much loved Kenyan dish); that time a few of us joined the students for a game of soccer; that time I sat by the breakfast fire drinking my coffee while Tonny told me about his grandfather's travels around Africa as a freedom fighter. Being with our friends and partners in the bush was easy and delightful. They hosted us generously and welcomed us completely and forgave our ignorance (probably more than I even know). They helped us to be ones who didn't just hand out medication to people in their community, but grew to know it, even if just a bit, in the short time we were there.

That is what sticks out to me now. When I think about the ratio of medical-to-other time we spent in Kenya this year, it can feel like maybe we were inefficient. But what I know now is that hanging out was likely the most efficient use of that time. Hanging out with people in a place helps you to put roots down. It builds an affection that requires slow time and shared experience, a knowing that a task-only mentality skims over. I would argue that this hanging out time was the foundation of everything else we did. It helped us to see our patients as our friends, it helped us to ask deeper questions, and it gave us the compassion and joy to serve when we grew tired or weary. It is also what makes us want to keep going back.

So what did we do the rest of the time? We laughed and befriended and asked and understood. We grew in love.

Monday, August 10, 2015

holding pictures in my heart

Our second night in Kenya, I didn't sleep. I knew this might happen. In my experience, the first night after more than 24 hours of travel, exhaustion covers me like a lullaby and heavy blanket. Then the second night my body resists the cues of dark and night, insists on its own internal timekeeping.

I slept (or tried to) in a tent with the seven others on my team, pitched in the middle of nowhere, Kenya, near the Tanzanian border. We'd staked it in a clearing of dirt next to the new clinic my friend's nonprofit had helped to build, a small three-room building a few hundred yards from the teacher's quarters, and then the small four-room school a few hundred more yards off in the distance. The ground surrounding the clinic had been mostly cleared of rocks and stones surrounding the clinic, though some stubborn rocks remained. By the light of our headlamps, we carefully felt around for a space that was flat and clear so that our tent wouldn't get a hole, and we wouldn't get bruised during the night.

First, it was my bladder that kept me awake, though I had peed just before settling into the tent for the night. I woke my friend, and with headlamps and baby wipes in hand, we unzipped the tent door and stumbled just far enough from the tent to not disturb the others. Back in the tent, we tried to not trip over the strangling limbs and curled bodies of those still sleeping. I settled into my space in the corner and hoped I'd still get a few hours of sleep. But then the wind started whipping the side of the tent, and some strange alarm that only activates my imagination when I am overtired in the middle of the night told me that an animal might be making the tapping noises I knew I kept hearing. Just as I drifted off to sleep, another whip or tap woke me again and reminded me of my irrational fear. I started to give up on sleep.

I turned from my side to lie on my back. I looked up through the mesh ceiling of the tent and, without my glasses, saw what seemed to be bright blurry dots poking through the night sky. I found my glasses next to me and put them on. The sky was more full than I'd ever seen it before. It burst with stars. And I did what I had been doing for so much of the trip so far - I reached for my phone to take a photo. But the light of the stars was too far away for a camera phone, and the image came up all dark.

I put my phone down and just kept looking. My teammates snored and shifted in their sleeping bags. They all slept while I tried my hardest to imprint this view of the sky in my mind. How would I describe what it was like to wake up to this incredible sky to my friends at home without a photo to show them? And how would I remember it for myself?

The truth is that even our photos are too flat, too still to capture the truest things about being in Kenya. I worry that the same is true of my words. How do I say what what it's like to look out the van window and see the red red dirt, the green grass and fruit trees, the women selling bananas, the same huge sky that somehow, amazingly, seems to stretch even further here? How do I tell you what it feels like to be welcomed so warmly by people who are so different, who laugh when we say their words and give us goats when we care for their children and mothers and sisters? How do I make you understand how full a heart feels, and yet how it wants to hold so much more, after being in this place? I try to hold these pictures in my heart and describe them to you the best I can.