Walking Home

Today I walk home from the car mechanic, a road I used to walk regularly but since kids and a house on campus, I’ve been driving instead. I prepare a mug of coffee and settle in to the walk, no hurry to get somewhere, just all that time on the broken sidewalks, morning sun on my cheeks, details to notice. There are so many things I’ve never seen the million times I’ve driven down that road- how the sellers set plywood on empty paint cans on the edge of the sidewalk to make a small table for their cigarettes, bananas. The man (woman?) sleeping under an old masai blanket in a small space created with a scrap of tin and a gap in the fence.

I notice the number of concrete poles along the road that have been hit over by vehicles, and am not sure if they say more about the quality of driving or the quality of the cement. There are women bent over at the waist, pouring chai from brown thermoses for taxi drivers, shoe shiners. The shoe shine station has two chairs covered in white plastic under a small vinyl tent. Men carrying sticks tied together into brooms file into the UN compound, ready for another day cleaning the offices of important people strategizing about how to help the poor.

There are loose wires hanging in tangled swirling knots above my head from the electric poles, cab drivers scrubbing their hubcaps, a small red kiosk called Shamba Boy selling warm Coke in glass bottles. There are two stalks of corn growing out of a crack in the cement ditch, bougainvillea spilling out over the trees in extravagant fairy tale colours. Women in black buibuis step over gaps in the sidewalk, well-dressed couples lean against the trees outside the US embassy. Smoke billows from the other side of the hedge from someone’s garbage pile, birds hop on low hanging branches despite the steady traffic. People smile, nod, zip by on the backs of motorbikes, stare from the windows of their SUVS.

I am struck by the brutal beauty of this place, the outpouring of growth and colour, the hard edges of the lives unfolding on the sidewalk. I am mostly startled by the familiarity of this strange place, how profoundly it feels like my home.

Lenten Homily (an excerpt)

The awful, obvious truth of the matter is that any one of us could die on the way through Ruaka this afternoon, and yet we tend to forget how fragile life is, to pretend we’re in control and mostly invincible. We manage to convince ourselves that Youtube is better than walking under trees and that scolding our kids is more important than hugging them and that arguing about what we believe is more valuable than washing each others’ feet. There are plenty of things that snap us out of this folly eventually, and unfortunately most of them involve doctor’s reports and middle of the night phone calls and more grief than we think we can bear. There are wildernesses coming, you can be sure, and some of you are in the thick of them right now.
But for those of us mostly bumbling along in ordinary time, maybe we can choose to enter a mini-wilderness this Lent, clear away enough of the distractions and obsessions to see and feel the life we’re actually living, check in with the fragile soul hiding behind our ribs and our public faces, notice how lonely or sad or scared or disconnected we are.
Or maybe, just as importantly, see with a little more clarity how lonely or sad or scared or disconnected our kids are or our friends or our students or the teller at the bank. Maybe choosing to enter a wilderness of our own accord will reveal to us how many people are already wandering there without choosing. My guess is that if we’re brave enough to ask God this Lent to show us who is alone and starving in the wilderness, we’d find a steady stream of thirsty souls crossing our paths, and God-willing, maybe we’ll be fasting from the right things so that we actually are able to see them, hear them, bring them a drink of water.
And although I myself don’t yet know or understand what exactly it means, all the saints and mystics through the ages promise us that if we spend enough time there in the wilderness, eventually we may even meet Christ himself.

The Novel

(This is more of an aside than an official blogpost. I started posting chapters of my novel on the site under the Being Ilia heading, but because of the format I’m using, I realize no email goes out to people following the blog. So, if you’re interested in reading my novel, which is being ‘published’ as a serial with a new chapter each week, you’ll need to go directly to the site- no email will appear in your inbox. I’ll try to have it up by Friday each week. Enjoy!)

Home

I’ve been away from this virtual space for a while, packing, traveling, meeting far away family, returning home. I don’t yet know how to keep writing when I’m out of routine. I know that if you’re a “real” writer, you’re supposed to write every day, no matter what, that the definition of a real writer, in fact, is someone who has to write every day, who can’t live without it. I unfortunately do just fine spending weeks away from computers and journals, feel happy and content drinking coffee with my sister on the porch of a Spanish hotel, watching the sunrise from a Moroccan rooftop with my husband, napping whenever I have the chance. There’s a disappointment in this, I guess, a slight bafflement as to why it’s so easy for me to leave writing behind for so long, why I’m not scratching notes on foreign serviettes, recording beautiful moments on my phone, trying to squeeze some journal pages into my Christmas holidays, like a real writer ought to. Maybe I’m living freely beyond obligation and imposed standards, or maybe I’m lacking the discipline that would keep me grounded and growing. Maybe both.
All that to say, I’m in Nairobi again and finding my way back to words, though they feel like distant strangers. I forget what I used to write each morning, can’t fathom how I ever cobbled together a poem. Part of me wants to rebel, to leave the word documents closed and spend the morning reading, tidying up, going out for coffee. I look with some envy at people who feel no need to write anything, who are fulfilled and productive without writing a word. But I know that even though I may not meet the official requirements of a real writer, even though I procrastinate too often, have happily been away from this writing for too long, I can’t stay away forever. For me, these words are home, and for now, I’m glad to be back.

For now…

The crisis of being human refuses to resolve itself. In this seemingly endless existence saga, it would appear that we will be stuck in the “Conflict” stretch of the high school English plot graph for a very long time. It feels sometimes like things must be getting worse, now that ISIS is onstage, and school shootings, and plane bombs.  It feels like things are getting worse because  those of us who have always felt mostly safe are feeling less safe, but I don’t think total safety has ever been a common human experience. I’m pretty sure that whatever the time period or the geographic location, the vast majority of humans who have appeared on these pages have felt vulnerable to something- the Romans or the plague or the young warriors from the next door tribe. Somehow total security was never a prerequisite for living, and vulnerability most of the time was a generally assumed state of affairs. Which feels like a great relief to me, because if I don’t have to worry so much about trying to feel safe , I’m a little freer to try for other things- kindness, say, or generosity or the patience to sing another lullaby. After the Paris shootings last week, Anne Lamott wrote that the thing to do in response wasn’t to join Vengeance World (or, I would add, Fear World), but to pick up litter, return library books, pass a coat on to someone on the street. I love this.  The answer to fear is always love, the truth after tragedy is always to show up, weep, and bring casseroles.  The heroes have never been the people living in perfect safety- Gandhi, Day, King, Jesus all lived in absolute vulnerability every day, but they brought love and sanity to the middle of the chaos, and, of course, this changed everything. Which will have to be hope and truth enough for now.

Telling Stories

I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling with children. Reading books side by side is of course a priceless and transcendent kind of bonding. But it can’t replace the story, told face to face, round eyes to round eyes, over a big mug of warm milk or snuggled together under blankets. Storytelling, unmitigated by books and pages and the right amount of light, has a magic all its own.

The first time I really internalized the enchantment of stories was during the Kenyan rainy season when my two oldest daughters were still toddlers. The girls and I, spoiled by 350 days of sunshine and a playground across the lawn didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves when the rains came. We all became bored pretty quickly, which of course degenerated within minutes to grouchy and whiny. Our house was cold and damp and grey and we all slunk around like soggy alley cats in an abandoned warehouse. It wasn’t till the third day that I remembered to light a candle. It’s amazing what one small candle can do to bring some warmth and humanity to a house that’s feeling like a medieval dungeon. I brewed a bit of watery peppermint tea for us, sat us down around that candle and stared at those two shivering creatures across from me. Without really thinking, I announced that I would tell them a story. At which point I panicked, because who can actually come up with a brilliant- or even barely intelligible- story on the spur of the moment? I think it’s this moment of panic that keeps most parents from ever telling stories in the first place, imagining that all the other parents in the world have an internal Rolodex of fairytales and baseball yarns to flip through whenever the occasion might arise.

But they don’t. At least I’ve never met one. I’ve read books by people who insist they tell homemade fairytales to their children every night that they later go on to publish into best selling collections, illustrated by their gifted and imaginative children. But I tend not to believe those kind of parents. And probably wouldn’t like them very much if I met them. Most of my friends, who are smart and funny and caring, are terrified at the thought of having to come up with a story, even if it is just for their sleepy two year old who wouldn’t notice if the story was Mary Had a Little Lamb told in Pig Latin. The only difference between the parents who do tell stories and the ones who don’t is their response to the panic moment. You either give in to the fear and chuckle a little as you pull a book off the shelf and tell your children how their Uncle Charlie is a really good storyteller, so they should ask him for a story next Thanksgiving. Or you close your eyes and say a prayer that your children will never remember or repeat whatever it is you’re about to say, and begin.

I tend to include a time-buying step before this point. I tell my girls that I need to listen to my heart for a moment to see if I can hear a story that it might be whispering to me. I think I stole this from one of my hippy parenting books, but don’t remember exactly what the wording was supposed to be. Regardless, it buys me some time while the girls sit quietly, not wanting to accidentally drown out the story whispers. And, truthfully, in my own panicked way, I really am listening. I sometimes have to wait longer than other times, and sometimes I forget that I’m supposed to be listening and instead just wallow in all that silence, but inevitably M will whisper, “Have you heard anything yet?” and I’ll remember that it’s a story I’m after. Of course the whole story with a fascinating hook, suspenseful plot build-up and multi-dimensional characters never pops into my head like I’m channelling Hans Christian. But at least I can usually remember something we saw that day- a slug maybe, or a bird’s nest- and that’s enough to pull me past the panic and into “Once upon a time….” at which point I may not be home free exactly, but I’m in the river, and can at least hope to stay afloat while it pulls us all along for a while.

The guru in the playroom

This is what my seven year old daughter wrote this weekend for a friend. She already holds all the wisdom I’m searching for…

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(Be true to yourself.
Be brave in your heart.
Know that people love you.
Trust in Happiness with all of your body.
Take care of yourself.
True.
Brave.
Love.
Happiness.
Care).

My Pregnant French Summer (an excerpt)

This one’s for Kristen, the least paranoid pregnant mama I know.

The worst thing about Georgette, our otherwise dreamy house in the mountains of Western France, was the cats. There were at least two or three stray cats who apparently had been fed salmon steaks and caviar by the guests before us and were constantly lurking around and mewing for more. I’ve never been a cat lover and under normal circumstances would find them annoying, like hair in my dishwater, roll my eyes and step right over them to get on with the business of soaking in all that decadent peacefulness. The problem was a new little paranoia I’d adopted named Toxoplasmosis.

It all began a few months earlier when I was reading Adam Gopnik’s lovely and intelligent memoir about living in Paris, and had abandoned all fantasies of ever writing a sentence that didn’t sound like cave-dwelling drivel compared to the really smart writers out there. Just as I was considering funnelling my creative energies into finger knitting long yarn chains that could be wrapped into tea cozies, Gopnik handed me an even drearier fate to fear. His wife had become pregnant while in Paris and on her first visit to the doctor and been warned to never touch une salade, as though it was the French code word for cocaine. Apparently the French are highly concerned about Toxoplasmosis and therefore avoid all raw vegetables throughout their pregnancies. They pop brie cheese and red wine like prenatal vitamins, but vegetables are strictly forbidden. With the cultural taboos of every hemisphere accumulating in my tense little brain, my potential summer diet was dwindling to baguettes and Milka chocolate bars. (A friend of mine once told me that if you eat chocolate while pregnant, you’ll have a happy baby, and happiness is a very important quality in a baby so I try to do my part).

Before we left Kenya, I asked my obstetrician, Dr. Patel, about the French salad thing. He smiled and chuckled and said, “Sweetie, the French are very worried,” as though that ended the discussion. Mind you, this was in Nairobi where the World Health Organization supposedly imports milk from surrounding countries because the milk in the grocery store is so contaminated and void of nutrients it could cause more damage than help to undernourished children. Toxoplasmosis germs are probably always beaming up from my lettuce in thriving swarming colonies, but just haven’t made the media cut amidst all the other potential Kenyan pregnancy dangers, like say mass riots or malaria. “Just don’t spend time around any cats and you should be just fine, Sweetie.” In Dr. Patel’s dignified Indian Kenyan accent, it sounds like he’s calling me Sweet Tea. I realize in North America he’d likely get sued for sexist condescension or something, but it makes me feel safe, since no doctor would ever let anything bad happen to his precious Sweet Tea.

So I left for France, deciding I would stick to my familiar irrational fears and let the Toxo one slide. I wouldn’t be around any cats, after all, and would have enough to worry about with nitrates and Listeria outbreaks.

What Georgette’s enchanting online property description failed to mention, however, is that I would, in fact, be around cats. A whole colony of them. And like my friend reminded me ever so poetically,” It’s not just the litterbox you have to worry about. Cats put their butts everywhere.” You can’t argue with that kind of eloquence and sure enough, cats were running around putting their butts on everything they could see- the chairs outside, the lovely table on the terrace where we’d planned to eat all our meals, and so on. The nitrate count in all that delicious garlic sausage I had bought from the gentlemanly butcher didn’t even make the radar of my inner paranoia squadron. All my energy was devoted to shooing away those vicious stray cats. (One of the previous guests had written in the guest book that they’d named that “gorgeous marbled cat, Mimi” or something equally affectionate, but a mother’s fears can make Shirley Temple look like a demon if there’s a chance she might not invite your daughter to her birthday party, and there was definitely nothing gorgeous about those Kevorkian creatures). And so I shooed, and clapped, and made silly hissing noises while waving sticks and pouncing at the cats. The girls loved it. They’d never seen their mom quite so animated and flailing before. It made for quite the afternoon activity, after the joys of stickers and poking sticks into sheep poop had worn off. The girls loved to chase the cats and shout “Shoo cat, don’t bother me” down the winding lane.

I felt a little guilty about it all. I’d always taught the girls to love and respect every living thing. We’re the kind of people who put empty margarine containers over crickets in the house and slide them inch by inch toward the doorway, trying not to pinch their little legs while we scoot them to freedom. We tell spiders to “Go back to your home!’ as we sweep them outside with our shoes. Granted, some of the time the spiders are already squished and oozing by this point and have to be scraped off into their home, but we try not to let the girls see that part. I know a woman whose commitment to respecting all living things leads her to talking to the ants in her kitchen and requesting very sternly that they turn around and leave at once. This approach has never worked for me, but then again she’s not dealing with African safari ants. Or maybe the ants can sense which crazy women really respect them and which are just embarrassed but desperate.

My husband tried to balance my cat negativity by pointing out that sometimes cats are good to have around, all of Mom’s raging attacks showing evidence to the contrary. So one night as she sat on the toilet, having called for the bathroom for the third time after going to bed, M. asked me what the good things about cats were. I looked at her there, her fleecy zip-up pajamas puddled around her feet and her sleepy blue eyes squinting into mine, like Sleeping Beauty still trying to figure out who that funny face was in front of her, and all my impatience at another trek down those cold stairs melted to the floor. I crouched down in front of the toilet and leaned in so close our noses touched. “Well, they chase away mice sometimes.”

“Why do you want mice to go away?” Cinderella’s mice are, after all, the true heroines of the story. I realized my ethical stance on animals had some holes in it.

“Well, mice sometimes come inside and eat your food.”

She thought about this for a while. “And maybe cats shoo away the scary dogs.”

“Maybe, although dogs can be nice to have around too.”

“I’m all done, Mom. I’m ready for bed now.” We nuzzled noses one more time and zipped up her pajamas. I didn’t do a very good job of explaining the contradictions in my animal treatment, and she didn’t convince me to set out warm milk for Mimi on the front step. But I decided I could try to sound a little less hateful in my hissing, and occasionally try giving the cats a respectful and stern lecture to please go away at once.

The Aberdares

On Friday we pack raincoats into old shopping bags, popcorn and cereal boxes into our camping trunk, and drive to the Aberdares, leading a caravan of silver cars along the Rift Valley, through grey skies, past donkeys and wobbly matatus. The pavement disappears and we rattle over washboard dirt, through villages lined with roadside stalls and trees that reach above the walking school children, long rows of wild calla lilies. As we climb higher into the mountains, the vegetation turns greener, denser, crowds onto the road. At the gate to the park we talk to two rangers in a bare stall of an office, old binders piled in the corner, a map on the wall smudged to white by decades of searching fingers. One man sits at a desk and writes out piles of receipts by hand, hands us each a thick stack of tickets.

The land is mountains and moorland, low brush and tall trees, waterfalls slicing the distant landscape with thick silver blades. We drive slowly, waterbucks with long curved antlers stand in the road and watch us watching them. Duikers leap into the brush, bushbucks watch wide-eyed from the shade. There is a hill with wide horizontal stripes in different shades of green and brown. Later, when we are home, the girls will reveal that the striped hill was the most beautiful thing they saw.

When we arrive at the cabins perched in an open space of green at the end of a muddy road, the kids tumble out of cars, run through the rooms, claim beds. After the rooms have been sorted and luggage piled behind doors, we slide down narrow paths made by antelope to the river winding through the forest. The water is icy, rushes over rocks into small rapids. The kids kick off their shoes, wade into the cold river, feel the thrill of the current tugging at their legs. It starts to rain, but no one minds. We’ll worry about drying socks and runners later, about warming up in a cold mountain cabin. For now we help the little ones jump to rocks, warn the big ones not to venture too far.
The next day the river is higher after a night of rain, the current stronger. It is only later that I hear the stories of how little Y. slipped into the water, how M. tried to grab on to her but fell too, how fast the river carried them downstream. When M describes how scared she was, she adds that it was also fun, is grinning as she tells me that she cried after they found their footing, were drenched and shivering.

In the evening we light a fire, huddle over warm pasta, red wine. Some of us eat outside and watch shapes of small antelope, long mongoose, slip past us in the shadows as the sky turns darker shades of grey.

Phil gets out of bed early to watch the world wake up, and soon I follow him to the porch, unwilling to miss his show. We wrap red Masai blankets around our shoulders, drink bitter coffee. The sky grows lighter behind the clouds, rain falls on the trees, the valley. The birds sing over the sound of the river and the rain.

Later when the sky clears, I walk into the brush and startle a wild hare, its tail preposterous and white in that muddy place. It hops a few metres away, then freezes, stares at me with suspicion. There are too many birds to count, to name, they are like the crowds of people in a foreign city, scurrying by, ignoring the tourists.

We climb back into our cars in search of waterfalls. The roads are rocky, muddy, steep, not roads at all. Janey and I walk in front of the cars, throw rocks to the side and try to make a path level enough for passing. In our car the girls have figured out how to lay the back seat down flat and are lying on their backs, then stomachs, laughing and bouncing to the sound of Canadian punk bands. Finally we park the cars, hike down a narrow trail. A small river appears beside us, innocuous and unnoteworthy. Then without warning, the earth in front of us falls away and we are standing at the top of a thundering waterfall. We stand on a precarious lookout- a few two by fours nailed into a railing, which the children promptly climb and lean over, causing us to shriek and grab their shirt collars. The valley stretches out below us, the waterfall roars in our ears, sends huge clouds of mist into the air, filled with rainbows. In the distance there are more waterfalls, the highest in Kenya, and in the middle of it all, huge birds swoop and circle over a million shades of green. We spread a blanket out on one of the rickety lookout platforms- beside the sign that says Watch Your Children, Do Not Lean On the Rail, You Will Fall- pass out trail mix, take selfies.

At night the older kids tell ghost stories by the fireplace. My girls are tense, jittery, addicted to the taste of new fears, the reflection of the fire in the wide eyes of the storytellers. When we finally convince them to climb into bed, they are asleep within minutes, buried beneath layers of wool blankets, thick comforters. The adults stay awake in the dark, watch the fire grow small, talk about books, traveling, parents growing older.

Our last morning we drive to a different waterfall, one hidden in its own rounded jungle cathedral. We stand on the rocks beside the pool carved out by a thousand years of falling water, shout at each other over the fall’s roar. One by one, we walk along the slippery edge till we’re beside, almost behind the thundering downpour. The wind created by the falling water blows so hard we cling to the rocks, are drenched through our raincoats, our jeans. The smaller girls splash in the algae at the edge of the pool, M reads a book. Eventually we climb back out of that tropical hideaway, change behind car doors, lay our wet clothes to dry on the hood. We spread blankets and pull out olives, peanut butter, homemade hummus and melting chocolate. The kids play hide and seek in a field of brown grass, dropping to their stomachs and disappearing like small animals. Later their hands will be covered in cuts from the sharp edges of the grass, but they don’t complain as they play, their cheeks turning pink in the equatorial sun.

(If you’re interested: Aberdare National Park)

Today M. was sad, tired, weepy, irritated. I wanted so badly to stay calm, to not get angry. So I tried preaching instead, gently of course, leaning in too close, commanding in my fake calm voice that she could choose a different attitude, could choose gratitude and joy. Which may on some basic psychological level be true, but which, if I’m honest with myself, has almost never been true for me. When I am grouchy or angry or sullen, I have never managed to switch over to joy and equanimity because someone leaned in close and demanded that I do it. Even if I were capable of making such a choice in that moment, I surely wouldn’t want to, because when you’re mad at the world, what you want most is to be mad at the world. You’re not interested in techniques for snapping out of it. You want to wallow in it. And what I need to learn as a mother is to give my girls the space to be who they are, to feel all the big emotions that swamp them, to stand nearby and nod with understanding, maybe, or bring tissues or chocolate or whatever it is that I wish people would do for me when I’m sinking under those unnameable currents. And maybe if I’d stop preaching, advising, scolding, I’d be able to see who M. is each moment, what she needs, what she’s afraid of, what complex tangle of factors has brought her to this moment and this state of sadness. Forgive me, Daughter, for trying to fix you, you who are not broken, you who are connected to divinity in ways I cannot see.