Wednesday, August 31, 2016

this is a story about desire

On a cool fall day when dry, brown leaves skittered across sidewalks and clouds lumbered across the tired sky, Jen and I sat in a car together. She was dropping me off, or I was dropping her off, I don’t remember which it was. We had probably just had coffee together, and I likely filled much of the time talking about Geoff and dating and how hard it was at that moment. And had been over the past few months. Jen was my mentor and from the very beginning of our relationship seemed to know more about my heart than I did. Looking back, I think it was that she knew her own heart, and God’s love for it, and therefore knew the nature of hearts trying to find that kind of love. So the question she asked me should not have been surprising, but it was.

Betsy, what do you want?

I remember being annoyed that she was asking me this. It’s obvious, I thought. She’d been listening to me talk the last hour, the last year about dating this guy. I want him. But even as that thought came, I knew it wasn’t all of what’s true. Yes, I had grown to love him and the times when we felt connected. But in the space of time between my initial response and trying to decide on words, I realized what I most wanted, really, was to be loved and to be free.

Outside the car window, trees were letting go of leaves and allowing themselves to be laid bare for the coming winter months. It would be another two months before Geoff and I broke up, but I think I knew it then. I needed to let go.

But this is not a story about giving up. It’s about desire.

That question got in to some crack in my heart that dating Geoff had opened. Up to that point, I knew I had many wants, many desires, but mostly I felt clumsy in the way I went after them, or assumed most of them were too big or not right. So I spent a lot of time hiding them or feeling stupid when I couldn’t. (Even now, when a desire rises so strong that I cry, I will say to myself – or, now more and more, to God – “I don’t know why I’m crying,” as I shake my head and wipe my tears and try to control my emotions.) 

Jen’s question that day made me realize that my desires can be named, and that they are likely much deeper and truer than whatever shallow form they might take on the surface of my life. A boyfriend, a husband, loyalty, humor – yes, I want these things. But more true is that I long for love, connection, being partnered, speaking into another's life in a way that realizes and sustains a deep vision, joy that trumps disappointment. Eyes that truly see.

What Jen gave me by asking that question was the opportunity to recognize these desires, and also to name them in the presence of somebody who could hold them before Jesus. There's a story in the Bible where a blind beggar hears that Jesus is passing by, and he decides to cry out for Jesus’ attention. Jesus stops and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Give me my sight, the beggar says. It was seeing, and also that deeper longing for restoration that he asked for. 

And it’s that last part of the question, the part that Jen didn’t ask me (because she couldn’t) that grabs my attention lately. Bringing desires before Jesus, who can do for me what no one else can (who can give me my desires), transforms them from random wishes to real, tangible seeds that contain all the fullness of what I’ve already been promised. Give me my sight...

Friday, August 26, 2016

what's happening inside and how to like it

If I were to be honest with you, I’d tell you it started even before I went to Kenya. But I keep using my trip as the before and after, the reason, the tipping point. The start of a season of transition. Because it was after I came that I found myself strolling into work later than usual, forgetting about important things and not really caring about others, wanting to eat more sugar than I have been lately (and not exercising much restraint). It was difficult to muster up much energy do things I don’t like doing or have much discipline. I cried at odd things, including in front of my boss. Strange things were happening.

I felt unfamiliar to myself, which is a scary place to be in, at least for someone like me who thrives on control and structure. So I searched for a metaphor to give me a picture or framework for what was happening. Unable to understand it myself, I asked the Spirit and the thought that came to mind was those early stages of pregnancy, when a woman’s tastes change so dramatically. I once worked with a woman who could only stomach McDonald's in those first few months. Another friend had craved only Swedish Fish. I get it, I thought. I knew that not all my behavior was helpful or healthy, but I had so little energy to redirect myself. They both told me they ate what they could to just keep going. I understood that what they were saying is this: You might think that living with respect to the thing growing in you means eating healthy, but sometimes it means, at least at first, just hanging on. Because that thing growing in you is going to change everything.

This morning, when I was turning some of these ideas around in my head, I kept confusing the word transition for transformation. Maybe that word is more fitting anyway. It’s not so much a moving from one thing to another but instead, being changed inwardly, taking on a new form. The metaphor is overused: a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. But I can’t get away from that idea of being able to ride the wind.

I’d like to tell you that this transition/transformation is the result of circumstances around me. There are changes at work, new friendships, some after-happenings from Kenya that have me busy and excited. But I go back to that metaphor I was given and remember that pregnancy speaks of something new inside. It is the inner shifting and growing that I want to follow and allow to shape the circumstances, not the other way around.

I started this post thinking I’d put together some kind of fun or smart list of things to do in transition. Good habits to keep, things to consume, things like that. I’d share the podcasts I’m listening to or the dietary habits I’m (failing at) keeping. But I’ll be honest with you – I’m still in that McDonald’s-Swedish Fish stage where I’m keeping down what I can, not sure when I’ll feel as if I’m being tossed around on a boat in the middle of a storm. This thing growing in me, it’s hungry with desire, and I’m following it, trusting that it knows what it needs. 

(photo: pennsylania farm, taken a few days before Kenya)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

friends, here are some books i read

Friends and books: two of my favorite things. I like to read with friends, about friends, talk about reading with friends. Today, as I play catch up on blogging books I've read, I see a theme and I'm going with it. These books reminded me of how good writing will sound to you like a friend's voice, how friendship will inspire our reading choices, how good friends will give good books, and how one of the most enduring stories we will tell is how we found our friends.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Well-known memoir by a widely-loved writer. I read it on the way to the writing conference I went to back in April because I knew he'd be speaking, and because I found it for five dollars at a used bookstore a few weeks before. The book was good. Here is my favorite quote: All my life I had recognized almost at a glance those who were meant to be my friends, and they have recognized me. Yes.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

About a week after my birthday, I came home to a mystery Amazon package on my doorstep. It looked like books. I got excited. In it was this book and another - both books I'd been wanting to read. They were sent by my sister. The woman gets me, even if she doesn't often understand me (which is probably the case a lot of the time because I can be crazy and text her a string of emojis that I expect her to interpret). That might be my new definition for friendship.

The book sat on my coffee table for two months until I decided I'd pack it for my trip to the east coast and Kenya. I started reading it in a Starbucks with my nephew. He wanted us to close our books and play cards, but I kept telling him to read another chapter so I could keep reading, too. It was good. Then I read it on the plane flying over the Atlantic, and in the van weaving in Nairobi traffic and struggling over the rocky, dusty roads that led to Maasai Mara. I read it while America was arguing with each other about why police were still killing black men and in between long looks out the window traveling around Kenya, trying to understand the country by what I could see.

I don't have the book with me (it is already lent out to a friend). If I did, I might give you a quote. Instead I will say that I loved her writing about Nigeria, and wondered what I could learn about writing about Kenya. I also loved her insights about Africans in America and how they relate to African Americans and to America in general, about what they love and what they find strange, about the ways that language and accent and hair and clothing and weight and food and love and the way air feels on skin all make moving to a different country so disorienting, and coming home, even after so many years, like encountering an old friend.

The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward

One thing I love about books of compiled stories or essays is that, if they are well-edited, reading them can feel like sitting around a table with some really smart friends. That's how this book felt. The writers invite us readers around their table to learn from them, to start a dialogue, to acknowledge our shared humanity. Each essay highlights the specific voice and experience of the writer, which makes the books feel like a collective, a community - a gathered group that, together, is something more than just the sum of its parts. My favorite themes were writing to remember and the emphasis on the physical experience of being black in America (and, really, our world).

I can't choose just one quote to share with you. Not one thought or sentiment would sum up what the book made me feel or think about. But I am still thinking about it, which is good, and I hope I will be for a while to come. Mostly, I hope what I read will stay with me and help me be a better friend to some very dear people in my life, and to people I have yet to meet.

(photo: books! though not the ones i read)

Monday, August 15, 2016

learning their names

I make it a priority to learn about names on this trip. I ask names and look hard at faces to commit them to memory. I listen to names and try to understand how people here understand their names by how they use them, by how they respond when called. But whenever I start to ask questions, I feel as if my words come out in a backwards language. Maybe it is because the people here always return questions with a shy smile, which makes me thing they’re amused by me. They likely are, but I know they are also shy, and probably unaccustomed to my direct inquisitiveness.

Maasai are given both English names and traditional names? I ask, even as I realize that it might be more appropriate to call them Christian names, like James and Jemima and Jonathan. Both of those terms carry tricky connotations and I don't know if one is better than the other. Yes, I learn, they have both. The Christian names are easier for me to learn and remember, but I want to learn the Maasai names, too, or at least allow my ear to become accustomed to them. Where do these names come from and what is their meaning? are questions I still have and will eventually learn at least partial answers to. 

During our introduction session, in which my plan is to get to know the students and, yes, learn their names, I decide to have them write their Christian names on one side of a piece of construction paper, their Maasai names on the other. Settled in the classroom, nearly fifty tall, lean students with dusty feet and ankles cram three to a desk with the colored paper before them, a bright contrast to the mostly monochromatic world they live in during the school week: wood beams, brown floors, dark skin, faded and dusty blue uniforms. (A day later, Saturday, I would see them again in their Western clothing – all yellow and red and blue.) When I give them the instructions, they start to write their names small in one corner of the paper, and I realize I should have made an example for them. Bigger, I tell them. Take up the whole page with your name.

Then I tell them that we’re going to line up outside the classroom in alphabetical order by our Christian names. The teachers lend order to the activity, sending out the As and Bs while I indicate where they should stand and shift the line up when we need more room. Then I see it: the line of students holding up their papers with names written across. It hits me that I have spent a few months thinking about these kids and wondering about their names. Call them out, I tell them. I want to hear you say your name loud, I say, because even though I know this is a people who speaks softly, I have been waiting to hear these names.

Ann. Dickson. Elizabeth. Esther. Isaac. Jacklyn. James. Lillian. Titus. I'm still trying to remember them all...

First draft from a longer essay about names and being named.

(photos: learning their names; because I couldn't pick just one) 

Monday, August 8, 2016

literary, lately: what in the world edition

I'm back in LA but my heart is elsewhere (mostly, still in Kenya). I jump between trying to snap out of it so I can get on with life and looking for ways to transport myself back. Maybe that's what a lot of us are doing now - simultaneously busying ourselves with both remembering and forgetting. Here's some wonderful and beautiful and touching and powerful stuff that's helping me remember (because that's usually the way to go).

Read this story. It's about refugee poets, about not remembering but trying to remember, about the intricacies of language, both tongue and heart, about empowering young people, about so much more.

How could anyone look at Trayvon's baby face and not see a child? And not feel an innate desire to protect, to cherish? How? ... I needed words. It's been an(other) difficult summer in America. I have few words for it, but thankfully others are strong, bold and fearless enough to write some. I read this essay and am now reading the book it's from. Good stuff.

A poem by a friend in East Africa. Yes.

For hope, listening to these words. Truth.

Watching this to keep feeling Kenya. I will always love the melody and poetry with which they speak the English language. (Without thinking too much about the history or politics of it anyway...)


(photo: bringing in the goats for the night, Kenya 2016)

Friday, August 5, 2016

what do you do with more

Emotional jet lag is for real. I texted this to two of my Kenya-team-sisters and we commiserated about how hard it’s been to muster up the motivation to get back into our normal routines. Work feels dull, regular schedules are burdensome, and – the worst – making small talk about our trip seems impossible. “So how was it?” is a question without an easy answer.

I’ve been hard on myself about all of this, partly because it’s just made life difficult and I wish I could snap out of it and just get on with things. Instead I find myself moving around my apartment without really getting anything done and sitting in front of my work computer staring at open files, not remembering why I opened them. My journal has been mostly untouched over the past week because I can’t find words to put to anything. I need to make time to sit and stare at a wall, is how I followed up that first text to my friends. Ugh, me too, they both texted back. At least I’m not alone.

More than we ask or imagine is a phrase that, leading up to the trip, repeated as I felt prompted to pray and ask for things, and that now I use to describe the trip. I got to do things I never even thought to ask for: interview a young Maasai girl around her boma (homestead) for our documentary, and shape her story and that of another boy we’re featuring into scripts for a monologue and coach them through reading it for our audio. I looked at photos taken by students I’d met just hours before in a school in an informal settlement and felt such intense pride and honor at the opportunity to know them and watch their creativity at work. I sat at a table with my friend and our mentor who leads our partner nonprofit in Kenya and while at this moment I don’t remember her specific words, I remember what peace and power I sensed in her presence and know that I gained something from just being with her. I received a new name: Nosotwa, which in Maasai means peacemaker, and also means that a people with a strong and isolated tribal culture has welcomed this tall white girl to be part of their community. I learned a deeper love, the kind that trumps all the half-good things I was somehow able to pull off and lasts after I leave a place and a people. Yes, is all I could say in response to each of these things. This is what more feels like.

Now, afterwards, more feels like this: disorienting. The ways I learned to move in Kenya don’t fit the paths I know here. Everything is still getting re-routed. Because more than we imagine is a greater good than sometimes we’re ready for. My friend keeps telling me that all she can do in this phase is give thanks. Yes, I think, although there’s so much I don’t know where to start. So much more than I imagined…

(photo: writing monologue script with Benson, Kenya 2016)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

called by my name

Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name…Isaiah 43:1

We walked out of the airport in Nairobi, pushing our carts piled with bags and treasuring the feel of cool, fresh air on our skin after hours in an airplane. Our Kenyan friends stood by the curb to greet us with warm, eager hugs. Mercy was among those waiting for us. She is sixty years old and wears her decades advocating for young girls across Kenya in a deep, dark scar on the right side of her jaw and in eyes that bear both kindness and an unknowable depth. My friend who leads this trip calls Mercy “mom,” and the more I know Mercy, the more I understand how true this name is. She is one who labors, bears, nurtures, releases.
Mercy’s voice is a melody, so that even her most piercing questions carry within them the comfort of a light blanket. After our hugs, she asked about our travel, about the drone and video equipment one of our members carried in his bags, about our day-long drive to the rural area the next day, where we would spend a week of our time and do the bulk of our programming. I don’t remember now what I said to her about the activities I’d been planning for the youth, but I must have conveyed some of my anxiety about how my new ideas would take shape over the next few days. “You are Betsy!” she responded. “It will be wonderful.” And then she moved on to the next person, wanting to hear more about our plans.
I hadn’t moved on. I stood still and let her words sink in. it was as if, in calling out my name as reason enough for our programming to succeed, Mercy summoned something yet to be realized - but which she saw a glimpse of. What was so moving to me is that she doesn't know me that well. Empirically, she had no way of knowing whether I really had what it takes. She also had no way of knowing how much I had struggled leading up to this trip. How much I self-doubt I had wrestled against. How deeply I’d felt that I didn’t have what it would take to pull off the things God was putting on my heart. There was too much I wasn’t familiar with, and too many ways in which I’ve known myself to fail or give in to fear in the past.
It was as if, in saying my name, Mercy knew it to hold what is most true. She called me Betsy as one who is able to do good things, who is able to grow, one who is filled by the Spirit. One who is known and becoming known by her and by this country of people I love.

(the words are coming slowly and a bit rough. more to come, i hope... photo: girls with whom i learned more about the meaning of being one who is called by name, Endonyolasho Primary School, 2016)