Tuesday, October 14, 2014

last fall

Pain is a fickle phantom. Our minds are (thankfully) able to forget the feeling itself, and yet traumatic experiences often stay imprinted on us. That's how last fall is for me. I remember each stage of grief I moved through in my clumsy, clomping way. It was the kind of season that, looking back now, I wonder why it had to be that way. Knowing what I know now, being who I am now, I know that it didn't have to hurt that much. It all seems a little silly to me. But what I remember is that tears could start flowing with just a simple question (of a certain subject). I knew a deep well was being tapped in me that I couldn't damn however hard I tried. This might be gross, but it's true: it was like an infection, and the only way to heal it was to let it drain and hope for the best.

But what I really wanted to write about was this: One weekend in what I know now to be toward the end of that painful season, I traveled home to see family. It was the time of year when darkness slowly creeps into our days, staying longer in the early mornings and returning to swallow the day before we were ready for it. The sun tries, but it gets weak. Leaves turn and fall.

My last evening of that visit I had plans to visit a college friend who lives about an hour drive from my sister's house. The journey took me out of the small city where my sister lives and surrounding suburbia, and then onto a single lane road that twisted and rose and fell among trees and alongside old homes with long driveways. The sky was impossibly blue, the leaves bright golds and crimsons. Every minute moving forward there was something new to take my breath away. It was old and familiar to me and yet I hadn't seen that kind of color, been in that kind of woods for the ten years I've lived in Southern California. (I've never visited during that time in the fall.) My deep sadness was still there with me, and yet I knew that it wasn't all there is. Things die and change and the world keeps going.

Monday, October 13, 2014

like breathing into bones: writing for non-writers

Several of my friends who aren’t writers by vocation want to write something. I wholly approve, because I believe they have something to say. (Doesn’t everybody?) They already have strong voices and compelling stories and ideas. But when we talk about starting, they wonder how to actually go about writing. Understandably, they feel a little overwhelmed or unsure. Is there a book I should read? they’ve asked.

A few of my favorite books on writing usually pop into my head, but I resist recommending them. This is because I know that my friends aren’t necessarily interested in the nitty gritty of the craft of writing, and I don’t know if reading a whole book is really worth their time. Because I know from experience how reading can become a form of procrastination, I tell them to get to the writing. Also, selfishly, I want to read the stories they have pulsing inside them.

So from those conversations came the idea for this little list of tips on writing for non-writers. These are some of the most basic and important things I’ve learned (and re-learned, and learned again) about writing. Mostly, I’ve learned that writing is like breathing into bones: messy, futile, and then, miraculously, alive.

To start, write like your door is closed. One friend admitted that since she tends to be such a perfectionist, she expects that what she writes will come out perfect. In other words, she’ll obsess about how it comes out instead of allowing herself and others to go back and edit. My advice to her was something I read in Stephen King’s memoir On Writing that has helped me tremendously. He shares that he writes his first draft as if behind a closed door. No one can see him do it, no one is able to peer over his shoulder and spy and snicker. Just let it come out, in whatever order or shape it comes out, and then you will have something to shape.

Allow yourself to cut. In the process of just letting the stories and ideas come out, some ideas or stories will pour out that don’t actually belong in what you’re writing. This is often the case with the first few paragraphs you write – in so many of my writing classes, and in my own writing, too, the first two or three paragraphs will sometimes be the warm-up. And though in our minds it tells some sort of background that seems needful, it often isn’t. Know that writing those paragraphs is what it took for you to get to the real meat (this will help you to not regard the writing as a waste), and let them go. If you really need to, copy and past them into another word document and save them for some other essay or story.

Ask your writer/editor friends to help you. These friends will geek out over structure and grammar and images. And I promise they won’t judge your writing, because they themselves are always sharing their own writing and learning how to take critical feedback. Their gentle feedback will strengthen your writing.

Let pen marks be like kind advice from a friend. Feedback can be scary, especially when the marks or comments make it look like your whole manuscript was a mess. What’s really happening when (if) your friend writes all over your copy is they are thinking out loud and offering suggestions and questions that will help you think more dynamically about your story and the way you’re telling it. And just as with advice, you are not bound to take any of their feedback. Ultimately, this is your story to tell.

If it sounds like writing, re-write it.* This is probably my most important piece of writerly advice for non-writers, and it sounds a lot easier than it is. Big words, extra words, making verbs into nouns – all of these things make us think we’re writing formally, but that’s not always a good thing. Make your writing simple, your verbs active, your ideas to the point.

Ok, so maybe writing has whetted your appetite, or maybe this short post isn’t quite enough. In that case, here are a few books that would be worth your time.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. This would be for the geeks out there.

On Writing Well by William Zissner. I’d recommend earlier editions just because the later ones have sections that are probably not that important to you. This is one where you could pick and choose chapters depending on what you’re interested in, or struggling with.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott. I think most people would enjoy reading this one, even if you’re not particularly interested in learning about writing. Some sections speak more specifically to writers of fiction, but her style and voice are entertaining enough to make you want to keep going with her.

Any book you like and might want to emulate. Take note of what you like, what tricks you think you could steal, what’s helpful about the structure or voice. Discuss this with your writer friends and you will impress and please them immensely.

*I think someone famous said this, but I’m not sure who.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

portraits from Kenya, part 1

I have been wanting to share these portraits I took in Kenya. I took them on our second day in rural Maasailand. We had driven a few miles from Endonyolasho to a homestead, one of the many that suddenly appeared as a collection of sticks and mud our of the flat dusty horizon. People from the homestead came to where we parked the van under the tree and brought their children for vaccinations. One of the girls saw that I was taking photos of the children to distract them from the needle aimed at their arms. In her quiet accented English, she asked me to take photos of her and her friends. I was happy to oblige. 

The shadow from the acacia tree covers parts of their faces. At first I was disappointed by this, but now realize that the shadows belong there. I think they symbolize a kind of hiddeness of this isolated tribe of people. There are parts of them we will never be able to see fully, and perhaps that's how it should be. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

once you go you can't forget

children at Endonyolasho clinic holding up their Alabaster bracelets

In Kenya, we saw a lot of things that had been forgotten. On our drive back to Nairobi, an abandoned tour bus sat crookedly in dried up tire tracks, evidence of a struggle to get it out what had once been mud. In Shompole, the dispensary showed signs of one-time investments that had been neglected: a broken refrigerator, an empty pharmacy shelf, a falling-in ceiling which bats flew out of at night.

It wasn't surprising to us, the things we saw, because Alabaster Mobile Clinic's mission takes its teams to those places where there has been forgetting. Shannon's vision for starting the nonprofit started nearly ten years ago with a conviction to not forget. She had lived in one of Kenya's slum communities for six weeks -- a short stint by some standards, but a lifetime when you're plunged so totally in a completely different way of life. She lived in a flimsy box no smaller than most American walk-in closets, walked the mud paths filled with garbage to get her water to bathe in, taught the women she lived around how to make spaghetti. Her "work" involved gathering stories and photos of women who made bracelets that would be sold in America. The story would be told on a tag attached to the bracelet to connect rich Americans to their Kenyan neighbors and, hopefully, cultivate not forgetting.

That kind of experience has a way of changing you. It gets into your bones. Shannon could not forget, and she didn't -- through nursing school, first her second bachelor's degree, then a master's program to become a nurse practitioner. Seven years later, she still remembered and started Alabaster Mobile Clinic. Its first site would be Kenya.

Shannon planned, raised money, found connections in Kenya, and went. Her first team included herself, two nurses and a doctor, along with two friends who took photos and video. That first trip and the next one a year later were so much about learning. She had never been to the rural Maasai communities that Girl Child Network (GCN), one of her nonprofit partners in Kenya, took her to. That first year, they slept under a mosquito net in the simple classroom of the school. Their only light in the deep darkness of night in Kenya's expanse of savannah were their headlamps -- to change at night, to see if bugs had gotten into their things, to find a place to pee. In its three trips, Alabaster teams stay in this area, in two different locations, for five days to run clinics and learn about people's needs. Few other medical groups have gone to this area to provide medical care for the Maasai. To GCN's knowledge, no others have stayed a night.

The thing that Shannon and her teams of medical professionals will tell you is that not forgetting is actually filled with much joy. Hearing about the conditions in some places in Kenya might make some people think the trip is just gritting your teeth and bearing it. But that's not the full picture because there are all those people there, and the things they are doing that you really can't forget. Like the school in Kangemi slum that started a nutrition program. At the side of the courtyard, beside the classroom buildings of blue corrugated metal painted with lessons (a map of Kenya, the digestive system, the alphabet) is a small garden of big black containers growing kale and spinach. And we met Celline, the young woman living in Shompole who is studying to be a nurse. She helped during our clinic and told us that she learned about how to assess patients better that day. And I really can't forget Michelle, the 10-year-old daughter of the health worker in Shompole who giggled a lot, wore my headlamp until the moment we left, and told us that she wants to be an neurologist.

That's the thing, once you go you just can't forget.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

cultural learning in Kenya: misunderstanding the advances of a moran

Taking photos with morans at Lake Natron

“Oh my gosh. We are going to die.”

Albert leaned close to me and took my arm as he said this. He motioned to the two young men just ahead. I looked and saw the lean Maasai, dressed more elaborately than the Maasai we’d met at clinic the day before. The young men both carried long spears, upright, as if using them for walking sticks. Both had longer hair that was braided and streaked with dark red dye. They were decorated with white beaded necklaces and arm cuffs, and wore just a short cloth skirt.

Our team was hiking along Lake Natron, which was really more like a few large puddles in a barren expanse of dirt and rocks. Foothills rose to one side, dotted by sparse bushes that flowered pink buds. The sun was strong and persistent. The thin clouds drifting through the sky gave us relief for a few minutes, then moved on.

“They are morans,” Albert explained, still whispering in a dramatic tone. I knew only that this meant they were warriors, that they had killed lions to earn the name. It turns out that young Maasai men live apart from their community, isolated in the bush to learn to be men. During this rite of passage, they are considered morans.

Albert ran ahead to talk to them on behalf of our group, explaining to us that we would need permission before we took any photos. A few seconds after Albert started talking with them, I understood that he had hadn’t been entirely serious before.

In fact, a few minutes later, Albert was posing with one of their spears and asking us to take his photo with the morans. Someone suggested that our whole team get in the photos. I walked toward the morans, and was invited to stand in between them. They both put their arms firmly around me, then started to pinch at the softness around my waist and hips, laughing to each other.

I couldn’t be sure what the morans were saying, or what it was about my waist that made them squeeze and laugh, but it was the first time since being in Kenya that I had felt truly uncomfortable. I started to feel subconscious about my size and shape, a feeling that's familiar in America, but that I didn't think I'd have to deal with in Kenya.

“Please stop,” I said, as I elbowed their hands from my waist and took a step back. None of the rest of my team had noticed the interaction; they all stood posing for the photo or chatting excitedly to each other. I backed away quietly, eager to leave and walk back to our van.

After a few more photos, our team was ready to leave. As we started to walk away, Albert motioned to me to stop. “They want you to stay and be their wife,” he said so everyone could hear, his eyes as big and his voice as dramatic when we had approached morans. Our whole group turned to look at me and started whooping and laughing. I felt myself blush, then joined in the laughter.

As we walked on, I told Shannon the rest of the story, how I they had made me feel uncomfortable and I had told them to take their hands off me. She laughed again.

“You just told off a moran,” she said with pride and amusement.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

the tv guy, and what he taught us about Kenyan leadership, Kenyan hospitality, and unexpected conversations

At Jimmy's, singing the Kenyan national anthem. TV guy at the far left.

He was there to fix the TV, and he slipped in while most of us weren't even paying attention. Our team was at Jimmy's apartment for dinner, our last one before we left Kenya for home. Jimmy was another gracious, welcoming Kenyan partner and friend. His 2-bedroom apartment was in a huge complex of 8,000 units near the airport in Nairobi, with gates and guards and fruit stands and kids running around the maze of streets and cul-de-sacs. When we arrived at his apartment, we smelled food and chided Jimmy's wife, Faith, for cooking for us when we'd insisted she not go to the trouble. They had already been so generous with their time and help. But of course we were not-so-secretly pleased to eat a last home-cooked Kenyan meal.

I was feeling sad and a little withdrawn, like I usually am in the last hours of a trip I don't want to end. Maybe that's why I didn't give much attention to the friend who came shortly after we arrived to fix the TV. In some ways, he was hard to miss - at least six foot tall, and built like an American football player. He took up space, especially in the already crowded living room. But he stayed quiet, focusing his attention on Jimmy's new TV that sometimes played in black and white instead of color. The rest of us waited for the food to be ready: Shannon on the computer to check us in to our flights, her husband helping her, the rest of us enjoying the alcohol Jimmy served us and recalling our favorite parts of our trip.

Soon Faith announced that dinner was ready, and the TV repair man stopped his work to join our eager line to pile the rice, beef curry, cabbage, greens and chicken onto plates. It was then, when he sat down to eat with us, that I realized that the TV guy was not just a repairman, but a friend and neighbor -- a distinction that doesn't exist in Kenyan culture (or at least not as often as it does in the West).

With empty plates and full stomachs, we all sat together -- the Alabaster team, Jimmy and Faith and Faith's friend, some of our GCN hosts, and the TV guy. Sam played his violin, and soon we were singing national anthems from all the places any of us had once, in some way, called home. That led to questions about Kenya's president, which led several of our Kenyan friends to start debating the most recent elections and whose candidate should have won. Which quickly turned into a passionate discussion of how Kenya can help its poor and isolated people get the resources and justice they deserve.

A few minutes into this conversation, I pulled out my small black moleskine and pen, and Shannon looked over at me and laughed. We had already joked that the most valuable conversations on this trip hadn't happened when I'd prepared for them. From our very first day when we drove to rural Maasailand, the things I really wanted and needed to learn about came up at unexpected times, when I had to rely on my memory to absorb the most important points or pull out my notebook and start scribbling furiously. (I had purchased a microphone for my iphone and a savvy recording app prior to the trip, but these things take a few minutes to get ready -- minutes that would have been wasted in distraction. It was also more conspicuous, a fact I was still learning to navigate.)

The discussion turned into a powerful lesson in African and Kenyan leadership. No matter which presidential candidate or party they supported, each Kenyan there was convinced that what Kenya needed was talented and committed local leaders who advocated more for what their people needed. The TV guy was perhaps the most articulate, passionate and thoughtful in his ideas. He explained that Kenya is in the midst of de-centralizing its government, which is good and needed. But leaders who are appointed to posts should be familiar with their communities and a good manager of resources -- not the "for show" politicians that, according to these men, Kenyans are all too familiar with. "They show up at cultural dances and then go home, and people are still hungry," the TV guy said. They spoke of a laptop program in schools, initiated by the Ministry of Education. But because solar panels and electricity are still lacking in some areas, politicians have used this an excuse to funnel the money elsewhere, showing a lack of integrity and genuine concern for the education of Kenya's children. This anecdote was a stark contrast to the head teachers and principals our team had met in Maasailand and in the slums throughout our trip -- men who had made great sacrifices, financially and socially and otherwise, to educate children in their community.

We had to cut the conversation short because it was 8pm, time for our team to leave for the airport. I had written down (or at least had tried to) a few things that the TV guy said, and realized I still didn't know his name. As we said our goodbyes, I shook his hand and thanked him for sharing so openly and passionately. He was helping us to learn, I told him. He smiled shyly and I asked him his name.

"Felix," he said.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

the joy that comes from dirty feet

muddy shoes, in the clinic line in Kangemi

I packed an old pair of running shoes to wear for clinic days in Kenya. For our first five days, camping out in rural Maasailand, they were on my feet the entire time except for when we slept. The night we arrived there, the dust started settling into the mesh and seems. By the next day, it had seeped inside and coated my socks. After our hike at Lake Natron, I found dirt in between my toes. At night, I used baby wipes to clean my feet -- balancing on one foot while wiping the other. But then I looked down and realized that the only place to put by now semi-clean foot was right back in my dirty, smelly shoe.

After a few days of no running water and the baby-wipe cleaning system, my feet were a mess. And they smelled. Even though nights stayed warm, and our tent could get stuffy, I slept with my feet tucked into my sleeping bag out of respect for my teammates. Albert, one of our Kenyan hosts, kept telling us that we would stop to wade in an alkaline hot springs on our drive back to Nairobi. "All skin diseases gone!" was how he advertised the detour. As soon as we pulled up, I was untying my shoe laces and peeling off my socks. Walking through the steamy water was better than a pedicure. I hesitated to put my smelly, dirty sneakers back on, but that was all I'd packed.

My sneakers went back on my feet for our next clinic at in Kangemi slum in Nairobi. As we drove, the cloudy sky let rain drops fall, and by the time we arrived at Kangemi the soft ground had turned to thick mud. Our van pulled as close to the school where we'd hold our clinic as it could, but buildings are packed tight in slums. Walking a distance was unavoidable. I rolled up my scrub pants and did what this trip was teaching me best: to embrace being dirty.

But even more than embracing dirt, this trip was teaching me to embrace joy. As we got closer to the school, we heard children talking, playing, laughing. I smiled in my heart. Relating to and caring for kids - no matter how dirty my feet were going to get - was just about the best way I could imagine spending my day. I walked around outside the classrooms, through the mud, to take photos of children, who smiled and giggled when I showed them what I'd captured. And I learned the names of the youth in classes 7 and 8 who had helped us carry our supplies from the van. Wilberforce, the founder and principal of the school, shared with me about his determination to help kids who didn't have the means for education, how the school has grown from 2 to nearly 400 pupils in just five years, and how he named the school Light Rays because of the way that educated children can illuminate dark places.

When I went back inside, my sneakers carried a thick layer of mud underneath that I had to scrape of on the cement step. I sat down next to Shannon. She was the last "station" of the clinic that day. As children came to her, Shannon read aloud each child's name from their registration cards as she handed each one a bright orange Alabaster bracelet and a piece of candy. The gifts coaxed a smile from most of them. The litany of names reminded us, again, of the joy of knowing and remembering people who have been forgotten by most of the world, their government, sometimes their own families.

At the end of our trip, I decided to leave my sneakers in the trash at our hotel. Part of me was compelled to keep them for the sake of remembering where I had walked in them and what it was like to get dirty. But I knew that what I really needed to carry with me was the joy that came from it, which I have in my photos, in these stories, and in my heart.