Tuesday, December 9, 2014

before they move away

When you live in Southern California, you get accustomed to certain parts of life: June gloom, celebrity sightings, incredibly un-functional fashion. And people moving in, and then moving away.

Another of my good friends is moving, and the decision came quickly (though the option was simmering for longer than I knew). It's not just one friend who's moving, actually, but a family - a woman, her husband and their dear nearly-one-year old son. I've been rooting for them to stay, but even more I've been rooting for their joy and nurturing. For now, moving to a place with some better job options and more family is that.

So I'm doing what I've learned to do in my ten years of living in a transient city: helping them wrap up their time with us as best I can.

Last night, that meant watching their son as they packed. I was really looking forward to this because, have you ever been around a one-year-old? I mean, getting them to eat or take a nap can be tricky, but all I was tasked with was being with him so his parents could get some things done. I was told this might include some snuggles, and I knew there would be some giggles, so I was all in. After arriving and catching up with my friend, I was led to the little guy's bedroom where we'd hang out for an hour or two. And then my friend closed the door and I was like, what the heck am I doing?

I mean, we read two books, played with his basket of shoes, found a few blocks. I found some tickly spots on him. I tried to talk to him because I heard that's a good thing, and tried to help him clap. But for that first stretch of time I felt a little bored, and then felt bad for being bored when I was with this incredible little guy. The thing about a one-year-old is that most activities don't last too long, so I felt like I was constantly looking for something new to entertain him with. And then I was trying to entertain myself. I reached for my phone but remembered I'd left it in the other room (and was then grateful for that).

Eventually we settled in. We played alongside each other, and I tracked him as he crawled to see what it was that he saw, what he was crawling toward. He made a few grunts and I imitated. We danced around a little bit. I treasured the moments he wanted to touch my face or be held or laughed. Soon I was done trying to distract him and myself. I was close to just being with him.

And then his mom came in and like that it was time for bed. He and I, we gave each other a snuggle-hug and I said goodbye (though not for the final time, that's not until next week). The good thing about living here is definitely not the seeing people move away. But the gift of having them move in, even if it's not forever, is something that can last.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

that special kind of light

"... in your light we see light." - Psalm 36:9

So very grateful for many things, but especially the light -- the kind in which we see things as they really are. Happy thanksgiving, and may you enjoy light today, whereever you are.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

grown-up christmas list

No, that title isn't a riff off of the Christmas song that Amy Grant sings where she altruistically asks for gifts like world peace and food for the poor. This is a real, indulgent list of things that will make me wake up giddy like my 5-year-old self on Christmas morning when my parents rolled their eyes and told me to go back to sleep until the sun was up and they'd had their coffee. Family, I hope you're reading this.

Lots and lots of books. Yes, those words are all separate links to books I want. And yes, I need them.

The KeepCup. I have been driving to work with a regular mug half-filled with lukewarm coffee in one hand (on the speed-race-track that is the 110 freeway). I have also been buying a lot of coffee in paper coffee cups. This will help me kill two bad habits with one stone.

Madewell Zip Transport Tote. Two things that are ideal in a bag: big enough to hold my journal, my Bible and at least one book (oh, and sunglasses, my wallet and a water bottle). And a long strap to wear it messenger style. This has both, plus it's beautiful.

The Ostrich Pillow. This showed up in my facebook feed. I'm touched by how well facebook has gotten to know me over the years. I basically do this with a hooded sweatshirt and a blanket whenever I can, so having a pillow ready-made for this purpose would really help me out.

Monday, November 17, 2014

today being a woman

Today being a woman was*:

  • Being told my one of my (very kind and also very silly, male) running mates that I have two secret admirers on Skid Row
  • Being told by a (not very stable) man who I am pretty sure is one of those said admirers that he "likes my neck" (not, "you have a nice neck" or "you're neck is pretty" but "I like your neck.")**
  • Having a slightly confusing interaction with a man whom I realized was trying to hold the elevator for me and my (female) coworker
  • Receiving several lingering looks from a man at Starbucks who looked to be with a girlfriend (at the very least, a girl friend)***
  • Feeling empowered when I walked into the auto parts store and found the head light bulb I needed, which feeling soon turned to frustration and a little bit of foolishness as I cracked a minor part, struggled to detach the old bulb from the power source, then couldn't get my hood to close right when I was finally done
  • Deciding not to ask my apartment manager or another (male) neighbor for help (and going to the internet instead)
  • Seeing my male neighbor minutes later**** and receiving his compliment on my boots, which, along with my dress, I still had on from work  

*I recognize that this list isn't all of what it meant to be a woman today, but these interactions seemed representative and poignant, especially juxtaposed with each other.

**Necks are a thing?

***Men in Los Angeles take more liberty to look than in other cities, I've noticed. There are probably other aspects to this list that are determined by place, too.

****Where were you a few minutes earlier, buddy?

Monday, November 10, 2014

one really ugly pie

At a time when the internet feeds us such beautiful images of food, bodies, homes, most of which have been made to look effortless but which in fact cost much time and money, and which images were likely photoshopped or filtered or altered in some way from the original... at a time like this, I bring you one really ugly pie.

I made this pie last night. You may not be able to tell, because it is so ugly, but it is a pumpkin pie with a gingersnap cookie crust. I spun the cookies in the food processor until they were crumbs, added sugar and butter, then flattened the mixture into the pie dish. While the crust baked, I mixed home-pureed kabocha squash with sugar, eggs, milk and spices. Then I poured the pumpkin mixture into the shell and let it bake. I'd made this pie before, several times, so I really wasn't that worked up about it.

The poor thing looked a little iffy when I pulled it out of the oven, but I thought I'd let it catch up with itself. I checked in on it after it had some time to cool and I grimaced, even made some sort of audible noise, though I was alone. That is one damn ugly pie. (I don't like to curse, but this one deserves an expletive.)

I am trying not to reach too deep with this pie. I'm trying not to think of all the things I've baked or cooked recently and how they haven't turned out great, how I feel like I'm losing my touch (if I ever had one). I don't want to analyze too deeply what is happening for me when I'm rushing in the kitchen even though I have no place to be except on my couch (which was the case last night). I don't want to sit here and wonder for too long how many of these kinds of pies are in the kitchens of bloggers and food critics but don't find their way to the internet (this guy can't be the only one out there, right?). I am also trying not to wonder how much I judge myself by such inconsequential productions  - soon this pie will be eaten (at least I can hope someone will eat it) and may never be thought of again.

Except that now I'm posting a full reflection of it, along with a photo, so I guess this ugly pie may last a little longer than I'd intended.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

these posts are my scraps

A week or two ago I finished a heartbreaker of a book. Those are always the hardest to follow, so I waited on what I should read next. Some kind of presence nudged me to a book I've had on my shelf for a few years, one I bought at a used bookstore because I'd heard good things about it, and there it was, gently loved and only $7. It's called The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers. I'd been thinking about this book a lot over the past few months, but it's one about writing and I try to be careful about these books because they can lead to procrastination without a whole lot learned.

But this book is renewing my confidence in books about writing. Every chapter is exactly what I need to hear to the very hour. Last week, for example, I had been revising an essay in which my former housemates are mentioned. As a courtesy, I'd been planning to send them the essay to read before I submitted it, but as I got closer to finishing it, I became more and more anxious about having them read it. I made a few last changes and sent it off, hoping I'd explained myself well enough in my emails to them. Then I drove home from the coffee shop where I'd been working and finished reading the chapter called The Wicked Child, which is really about the risks of writing about your tribe, your community, your family. This essay wasn't about them per se, but it involved my time living with them, which makes it about us. The author had a bunch of helpful admonitions for me, many of which I'm still chewing on. This one sticks out:

I can't think of a risker business than writing. Not only because so few succeed in conventional terms, with publication and some payment, but because it almost certainly requires banishment. First, there is the literal act of removing oneself, of choosing solitude. Then there is the psychological separation, holding oneself apart. And finally, the potential rejection of friends and family, critics and publishers... But you cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes about through half-measures.

More on that another time - maybe. What I really wanted to write about is what she starts with, which is answering the question about why one should write. She calls the chapter The Ambivalent Writer. She's an editor, so she knows how many of us are just that. Most of her advice is reminiscent of Rilke (a la "must I write?') but in modern and straightforward terms, and taking it a step further to encourage us to unearth not just an obsession to write but what our obsessions compel us to write. Finding form and subject is like finding a mate, she writes. "You really have to search, and you can't compromise -- unless you can compromise, in which case your misery will be of a different variety." She writes about honoring the forms and subjects that invade our dreams and diaries, of mining the scraps of what we write, and of listening to the voices that keep calling to be written.

As you might gather from my erratic posting, I struggle with knowing what to write about. That's part of the reason my job works well for me -- they tell me what to write about, and usually I'm able to do it with some enthusiasm. Though let me tell you that they day they took me off Urology as one of my designated programs, I was a happy woman. Even that tells me something -- I enjoy writing about my organization's efforts to address spiritual or emotional challenges and support patients beyond the bedside, or studies about how cancer affects large populations of people, or the disease's impact on women. Sorry men, my writing heart is not beating for your prostates, not now anyway.

But something I'm hopeful about is that some of the most random or messy posts here could still be useful because they can point to write I notice and what calls to me. They tell me what I care or notice enough to write about. They are my scraps that I can mine.

Monday, October 27, 2014

leaving sisters

requisite Charlie's Angels pose, taken weeks before I moved to LA

When we were young, my sisters and I all slept in the same bedroom. Eventually, Lori left for college, which meant that I moved from the mattress on the floor to the big full-sized bed with Andi. Two years later, she left, too. I had the bed to myself. I set my own picture frames on the dresser we used to share and spread my clothes out in the closet.

During those years when we all lived together with my parents, that one bedroom was our shared private space, we laughed and fought and co-existed. Lori lost it when Andi and I teased her about liking a boy named Carl Long, whose name we found on the covers of her text books or in notes we found of hers. Andi begged Lori to wear some of her clothes, which always escalated to screaming fights in the early morning before they walked to the bus stop - Lori insisting that she didn't want people to see them wear the same thing, and Andi being stubborn and manipulative (as we all were at times). When the screaming started between them, I hid in my parents' room and willed them to like each other again. For me, Sunday afternoons were some of the best times to pick fights, because I had my church shoes on. The hard, pointy tips could bruise shins with one strong kick.

Our story is the same as many others. When Lori left for college, she somehow morphed from distant older sister to insightful mentor. I still have a note she wrote to me at the beginning of my sophomore year with advice about guys. Andi chose the same school as Lori, where their friendship grew, and where I visited on Friday nights and met their friends, slept in their dorm rooms and ate with them in their food court. By the time I was in college, we all made efforts to visit each other, to email and call. We talked about God, about our parents, about boys. Andi started dating the man who is her husband now. Lori moved to Virginia, then back. We became adults, and friends.

I loved being close to my sisters. For a few years during and after college, I lived in the same town as Lori, and then even went to the same church and shared friends. Then, I decided to move to Los Angeles for two years, a decision I assumed would be reversible at the end of that time if I didn't like it. I didn't know then that two years and a move across the country are things you can never reverse.

And here I am, ten years later and still living three thousand miles away from them. They've moved, too, which means that I see them once a year, twice if I'm lucky. The last time the three of us were all together was nearly two years ago now.

Tonight Andi texted me about the new Taylor Swift album. I told her I'd burn it and send it to her if she wanted. "Yes please!" She texted back. And just the thought of showing her my love by sending a CD felt so precious and at the same time not nearly enough. I don't know if she knows, if Lori knows, that I would do anything I could for them. I love them more than anyone else I know, to be honest. And so texts like that one make living this far seem ridiculous. I don't want to burn her a cd, I want to sit down on the couch with her while the cd is playing, or make dinner to it, or drive to it, or dance with her kids to it. For the thousandth time this month, as every month, I asked myself, "Why am I living here? Why don't I move closer?"

And that same verse that I've heard and read and recited these ten years came to mind, unsummoned but stuck in my heart: Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold in this time...

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.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

they filled our cups

in Meru


That was Albert's greeting to me every morning during our stay in Masai land. To others he offered tea, but he quickly learned that I preferred coffee in the morning. I would grab a tin mug, pour in a few scoops of instant coffee and wait for Albert to bring me heated water or milk. He filled it to the brim, gave him my thanks, and sipped while watching the morning fire or predicting if the clouds would hang all day in the sky.

Albert always knew when to come back with hot water or milk to fill up my cup again, and I gladly accepted more.


During the second half of our stay, our team stayed for two nights at the up-country home of Mercy, the leader of Girl Child Network (our nonprofit partner). Her home in Meru was set back on a bumpy dirt road, with a view out the back of hills filled with banana trees and a baby goat trying to eat scraps of leaves on the ground. We had a clean tile floor and latrines and showers and home-cooked meals. After nearly 10 days of camping and then staying in a hotel, it was good to be in a home.

On our first night there, after one of our busiest clinic days, we ate dinner with some of the GCN staff. After dinner, we gathered in the living room, and eventually two of our Alabster teammates performed a piece they'd been practicing for the group, Sam on his violin and Jeff singing along. The GCN women returned the favor and sang us a few songs in their rich, bright voices, as beautiful as if they'd rehearsed for us. Then we all sang a few songs together, ones that were familiar to most of us. And then Mercy, our host, decided, "It's time for tea."

When the trays of warm tea and milk, and the cups and drinking chocolate and sugar was all brought to the table, our teammate Veena offered to serve everyone. She quickly poured into the first mug, only about half-way, and handed it to the person next to her.

Mercy laughed her deep, melodious laugh. "Oh, you have to fill it up all the way!"

Veena, always bold and direct, laughed along and answered that she was being cautious to be sure there was enough. I don't remember the words that Mercy used, but her short lesson in Kenyan hospitality taught us that, in Kenya, cups are always filled.


My cup overflows with blessings...
                                                   - Psalm 23:5

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

surprises in Kenya: meeting Salaash

Salaash treating a Masai patient at our Shompole clinic

One of the many wonderful things about Africa is that it is full of surprises. We received our most valuable one on our first day on our drive to Masai land. About 10 miles from the school at Endonyo-olasho, our destination, we stopped at a dispensary in Oloika. Some of my teammates knew about this small village from a stop there last year, necessitated by a flat tire. But they hadn't seen the dispensary, and they hadn't met Salaash.

For maybe the tenth time that day, our team climbed out of the van to get a sense for what kind of services this dispensary is able to offer to patients, and to meet Salaash, who would be helping us at clinic the next day. After showing us his small two-room clinic and telling us a few details of his work, we all piled back into the van. It was getting dark, and we still had to set up our tent and make and eat dinner. We knew we had a long day of clinic ahead of us.

Early the next morning our team slowly emerged from our tent, wiped down with baby wipes, put on our scrubs. We walked the 200 meters or so to the fire pit to drink coffee and eat our breakfast of bread, peanut butter and nutella. There were no patients in sight yet, just the brown horizon against the still, cloudy sky. After breakfast we walked back to the school to set up, and Shannon assured us that patients would start appearing out of nowhere. And she was right: as we pulled desks out of classrooms and hung clinic-station signs on them, children and their parents appeared in the distance, first as small red or blue dots moving closer and closer to us. We pulled a few desks from the classrooms for our first patients to sit on as they waited, and hoped the clouds would stay to keep us all cool.

As we started to see patients, I hopped around from station to station, trying to observe how clinic worked and understand how I might gather information today. At one point I saw Shannon assessing a patient. She turned to Salaash and asked, "what would you do?" It was at that moment that I began to understand that Salaash wasn't there just to interpret medical terms for patients. He was a necessary partner in caring for patients in a way that honors and understands their cultural context.

Our whole team also began to understand that our presence there was meaningful to Salaash. Because his clinical training was paid for by the Kenyan government, he was stationed by the government at the clinic in Oloika. While he seemed to receive joy and fulfillment in serving his tribe (Salaash is also Masai, though from a different area of Kenya), it was clear that he also experienced the loneliness and fatigue that come from serving in an isolated community. We were able to provide him companionship and the opportunity to learn from colleagues - a common and integral part of the Western health system, but rare in Kenya, where the provider to patient ratio is something like one doctor per 10,000 residents.

Salaash stayed with us, for a vaccination at a nearby homestead the next morning, and the whole next day, too, for another clinic in a nearby village. Some of the Masai who came to this clinic insisted they be seen by Salaash, showing us how trusted he is in his community. He is tall and extremely lean, like most Masai, and with a soft voice that might belie his intelligence and conviction. As each patient came and sat in front of him, and he asked them why they had come to clinic, Salaash leaned forward, occasionally touched them on their shoulders, held children who were sick or would be vaccinated.

By the end of the day, we were all tired. Shannon asked Salaash about skin lesions on a child's head, which she thought might indicate something fungal. Salaash looked at Shannon with a smile in his eyes and said, "No, it's just dirt. Shannon, are you tired?" They laughed together. "Are you making fun of me, Salaash?"

The next morning, it was time for us to drive back to Nairobi, and for Salaash to return to his clinic in Oloika. He rode in the pick-up truck with our luggage, while our team rode in the van. We drove through the village in Oloika, past men standing in front of their small shops and a child waving frantically, joyfully with both hands as if the harder he waved the more we might remember him. Our van pulled up next to the truck, then turned around and drove through the village again. And it dawned on us that we were leaving Oloika, and that we hadn't gotten to say goodbye to Salaash. We made Chris turn the van around and drive back through the village, past the men at their shops and the child waving with both hands. We piled out of the van and ran in to meet and hug Salaash, who was already seeing patients who had been waiting for him during his three-day absence.  

Salaash photo bomb

Friday, August 29, 2014

somewhere in the middle of nowhere

on the drive out to Masai land

"You drive out to the middle of nowhere, and then end up somewhere."
- Jeff, Alabaster teammate, reflecting on what it felt like to be in Masai land

I wish you could have made the trip with us.

From Nairobi it was a six hour van drive, they said. So when we agreed to leave at 10am, I figured we'd make it there by 4pm, or maybe 5 to account for a lunch or potty stop. Though we'd just arrived in Kenya, I'd already heard some of my teammates who'd been on this trip before use the phrase "TIA" (this is Africa) to explain the unexpected and out of the ordinary that seemed to be very expected and ordinary here. But I wasn't yet applying it like I should have. Meaning, I ought to have known a 6 hour van ride was not a 6 hour van ride.

Before we left Nairobi, we all got out of the van and crammed into the tiny chemist (pharmicist) to pick up and repack more vaccines for the Masai clinics. Next we stopped at the Girl Child Network (GCN) office. This is the nonprofit we partnered with on the ground. All out of the van again and standing around in a circle, we met a few more of the staff, including the deputy director, which led to the first of many spontaneous conversations I wished I'd been ready to record (more on that later). Then back into the van and to the mall to pick up some food and snacks.

It was about 1pm, and finally we were on our way out of Nairobi.

At first the road was smooth, though there was traffic to navigate and the smell of exhaust to bear with. We all happily dug into our lunch and snacks, Shannon passing out freshly-fried samosas we'd bought at the mall. I opened a bag of chips and a coke, not realizing this would be my last cold drink for a few days (and not realizing that I would care). About an hour into the drive, the rode turned more narrow, more curvy and, eventually, filled with potholes. Chris, our driver from GCN, swerved all over the road and off the road to avoid them, but bumps and jerks were unavoidable. It reminded me of the drive to Hana when I was in Maui last summer, and the landscape, quickly transitioning from green hills to flatter arid land, was similar, too. This was part adventure, and part understanding: this is the way to the people who are in need.

Another hour or two, and we were in Magadi. This small town was built around a salt lake that an Indian soda company now owned. Buildings that looked like dorms were clustered together, and I assumed that's where the workers lived. We pulled up next to a canteen with a swimming pool and all got out of the van for our first potty break (read: the first of many holes I peed in). When we left, two Masai men jumped on top of our luggage that was piled into the back of a truck to make the rest of the journey with us. I don't remember if they were with us at clinic or if they just needed a ride, my mind so full of new ideas and details by that point in the day.

The next leg of the journey turned from potholed roads to off-roading. Evenutally what lie ahead and behind and to both sides all looked the same: brown dusty ground pocked by low, brown trees or bushes. No roads or paths or distinguishing features. I couldn't be sure how Chris knew the way, but I trusted he did. We looked eagerly out the windows for animals: a heard of zebras ran off in the distance, and we scared a pair of ostriches from behind and saw them run off in different directions.

Another stop in Kiserian to pick up a teacher for our clinic. Then another in Oloika, where we learned there was a dispensary. The clinic worker was coming with us, we also learned. Our team wanted to see the clinic, so out of the van again, and again another conversation - about government funding for the clinic and what kinds of needs they're able to meet - that I wish I could have recorded.

By now it was getting dark, which meant it was probably close to 7pm. We had added four people to our traveling group. Only about 30 more minutes of driving out in the middle of nowhere until we arrived. I felt lost with no road signs telling me how many km until the town we were headed for and no other markers to suggest any kind of life besides the animals we'd seen.

Like most things in the bush, eventually it just appeared: there was the small school building where we'd hold our first clinic the next day. Now it was dark, and we were tired from the 6 hour van ride that had turned into a full-day adventure. New solar panels on the school provided light for us to set up our tent, and a little while later Albert and Chris called us to the fire pit for our first dinner of rice with cabbage and carrots. Afterwards Veena and I peed into the dirt by the light of our headlamps, then wiped down with baby wipes and changed for bed. Even after such a full day, once we settled into our tent I couldn't fall asleep. Jetlag, excitement, disorientation kept me awake most of the night.

Do you understand now? Have I been able to tell you what it was like to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere? I'm still not sure I understand myself.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

their names inscribed in my notebook

 "... I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands..."  -Is. 49:15-16

School was on break, but still nearly 40 children and a few parents came to hear our health training presentation. They crowded into the dim classroom whose windows weren't allowed much sun. The clouds and tightly packed buildings - if you can call them that - made sure of it. Outside, along the muddy paths that dilineated the villages of Kibera - one of the largest and poorest informal settlements (euphemism for slum) in the world - people busily rolled chapatis and fried samosas and stood solemnly at their little market booths. I wondered how many thought today could be different from the day before. Garbage lined every path and sewage stream, more abundant than the flowers in the average American town. A mix of feces, sour garbage and exhaust filled the air.

Inside the flimsy walls of the Urishika Children's Centre, it wasn't so easy to remember what I'd seen oustide. Here, the paved path had little trash on it, and the accosting smell wasn't so strong. A new structure was being constructed - a latrine, library, and kitchen, designed in such a way that the biogas from the latrine would power the kitchen - which hinted at the capacity for change, and for hope. I saw the same hints in the eyes of the children who showed up for our training, and in their raised hands and quickness to "repeat after me."

After a little while, we split the girls and the boys for a short sex education talk. We had about 10 girls and a few adults walk with us to another classroom, where we talked briefly about what happens to women's bodies during puberty, and how to say no to a boy who wants something you don't want to give. The girls were mostly quiet but attentive and polite. As I looked around at each one of them, I was struck my how much beauty and joy I saw in these young girls who had spent their lives in one of the poorest, least secure, and probably most dangerous places in the world. I wanted to remember these girls.

Evelyne sat right in front of me. I had remembered her from our large session, when she volunteered to do the timed wall sit. She was a small, ten year old girl with large beautiful eyes framed with thick curled lashes, in stark contrast to the camouflage sweatshirt that she wore with the hood up. On another girl, this might have been a sign of intended toughness, but on her it simply indicated need, resourcefulness. At the end of our session, when we handed out pens with the slogan of our organization, I asked her to read aloud what it said. 

"You will not be forgotten," she read in a quiet, clear voice. Then she looked up and smiled at me.

"Here, write your name in my notebook," I said to her. I flipped to the next page and handed it to her. She wrote in methodical script, her first name, then her last. A few of the other girls were sitting nearby and crowded to see her write, and so the notebook got passed to each girl, and each one wrote her name with their new pens.

My first instinct was to have Evelyne write her name because I couldn't be sure that she had ever used a pen like this before. And more than that, I suppose I wanted to show the girls that the marks they make - their words, their names - matter. I wanted them to know that they are not forgotten.

When we said goodbye, I gave Evelyne and a few of the other girls a hug. I had a strange feeling that my connection with these girls wasn't over. My urge was to stay, to see how they might grow in the next months or years. Back at our hotel later that afternoon, I opened my notebook and saw the girls' names in their own handwriting and felt that I'd unknowingly gathered a treasure from them. I have their names written down permanently, and in their own handwriting, a kind of souvenir of themselves. They will not be forgotten.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

after Kenya

map of Kenya painted on Light Rays School in Kingemi slum, with pupil

instant coffee, roasted goatmeat, Albert's tomato rice, soft ripe papaya

breakfast and dinner around the fire in the bush

communicating through smiles instead of words

shy giggles and hand-covered mouths of Masai children

learning from amazing, committed, intelligent Kenyan clinicians, community workers, and advocates

doing things together

green hillsides filled with banana trees, dirt red as fire, flat arid land that stretches open and empty and still hides so much life

asking questions, and learning how to ask the right ones, in the right way

the most meaningful conversations when you least expect them

improving my squat and aim (yes, I'm talking about peeing)

joy forceful enough to overcome days of dirty feet, hair filled with the dirt of the bush, growing up in the slum, generations of poverty

the beats, the dancing, the singing, the voices

many plates and cups and a heart filled to overflowing

being left wanting more

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


For me, finding stories is all about taking the time to stop and follow your curiosity whenever something sparks it. That’s sometimes harder to do than it sounds (you’re busy, you’re tired, you’re doing something else, etc.), but it’s so essential.
Rebecca Skloot, via here

Sunday, July 20, 2014

a little bit homeless (if there is such a thing)

I've got the routine down now, so that when my fellow runners ask me, "Do you shower at work?" I know how to answer them. The question comes up every time I tell another non-res member (i.e. not a resident in a transitional living facility, i.e. not a person who is homeless) that my office isn't too far from skid row, and that I go straight to work after our early morning runs. They usually relate stories of cleaning up somewhere after a run, using baby wipes or something. One person said something about febreeze, but I think she was being facetious. I couldn't tell.

So here it is: after I stop for coffee, I pull into my parking garage, park my car, and gather all of my things: purse, food bag (breakfast and lunch), getting ready bag (deoderant, change of undergarments, shoes, makeup, etc.), and my clothes on a hanger. I take the elevator to my floor and walk fast to the bathroom, hoping that nobody sees me in running clothes and quickly-caking sweat. I open the door to the bathroom and find it empty, since only a few colleagues are crazy enough to start work at this hour (about 6:45am). I unpack my getting ready bag, plug my curling iron in, and get to it. Washing my face, rinsing my whole body, putting on clean clothes, blow-drying the sweat out of my hair (gross, I know), putting on lotion and makeup, then putting the finishing touches on my hair (usually hair up, bangs fixed with the curling iron).

The routine doesn't end there. I lug all my stuff to my office, and hang my washcloth and sweat-soaked sports bra (yes, it's only 3 miles we run, but I sweat a lot, ok?) on the hook on the back of my office door to dry during the day. The first week I laid them out on my back counter, hoping nobody would look carefully enough to see what was back there. But my boss did, and tactfully suggested the hook idea. Unfortunately, I hadn't planned ahead for the days when someone might come in and close my door, thereby seeing my dirty washcloth and sports bra. The first time this happened, my coworker and I were interviewing a candidate for an open position. I tried to laugh it off, but my cheeks turned red. The second time it was two male coworkers who came into my office with a question, and before I even knew what was happening, they closed the door behind them. Their eyes moved together from the washcloth and sports bra to me, puzzled. Then, as if one queue, we all burst out into laughter. I tried to explain, but they shook their heads like they didn't want to hear it. "Do you live here, Betsy?" one said through his laughter.

The irony isn't lost on me: for that one morning every week, after running with some homeless guys around downtown, I feel a little bit homeless. But I am not. I laugh with my coworkers, pack my bags at the end of the day, and throw the wash cloth and sports bra in my wash basket at home.