Living in this World

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

#65 The Commute


Hurry down the block
miss the trolley
head on, then stop
trot back home
retrieve the missing wallet
miss the trolley yet again

Catch the third one
come across
a long lost friend—-
no longer missing.


Early evening
and the trolley is crowded.

A mother and little girl
given a seat
A very tall man in the back
head almost touching the roof
holding a small baby
relaxed, content
The arm of a man around a woman
the woman’s around a baby
in close circles of caring

Love is present in this house.
Peace prevails.

#66 To the Bone

Bone weary after two night flights
we step off the plane in equatorial Africa
refresh ourselves in the cool of a colonial hotel
(I fret, impatient for reality)
then set off in our ragged little bus piled high with baggage
for the north.

Twenty years of civil war, unspeakable atrocities on both sides
have cut the north from normalcy.
The trip had seemed too risky till last year.
A shaky peace now holds.

Shake off fatigue, the war--here all is new.
Past the city center open air shops line the street
beds and chairs made and sold, car repair, food stalls
bikes piled high and wide, a multitude of taxi vans
then countryside—palms, big cactus trees
women walking, balancing their loads.

The road gets worse,
what used to be a three hour trip now stretched to five.
We slalom around potholes
veer off to the shoulder, try the other lane.
Relief at signs of road repair short lived--
stretches of graded earth and smooth new surface
have endless little piles of sand to slow us down.
Come almost to a stop, ease over one
then pick up speed in time to slow down for the next.
One section is like lace,
deep rounded potholes in a filigree of macadam.
Both lanes have been abandoned,
drivers opting for the rutted shoulder
as the quicker way.
Is there a plan to make this journey so bone jarring
so achingly slow
because it’s headed north?

Five hours pass.
My hopes pin on the Nile, the border of the north
they say it’s not far after that.
On and on and on till finally
we pass a town of refugees
safe below the river
hundreds of walkers line the road
first visible signs of war. I wonder how they live.

We crest a hill, catch sight of water.
Not my image of the Nile
cutting a wide green line through Egypt’s sand.
This is a raging torrent, crashing round bends and over rocks
full of wild and dangerous beauty.
We slow for a picture, are stopped at once by soldiers.
Holding this bridge has kept the rebels pinned above.
The peace is not yet strong
and all our friends within are from the north.
Some of the soldiers strut and ogle, others talk
our friends respond, and helplessly we wait.
Money is passed up front, more talk
more money, and we’re free to leave.
The young Americans who choose the Nile for kayaking
seem very innocent and far away.

We bump and jar into the night and the unknown--
and suddenly there’s fire.
My mind is filled with war atrocities and burning huts
but no one screams or runs.
The fire burns peacefully
my fears a faint echo of those bone chilling times.

Gulu has become for me a town of dreams,
one to drive toward for eternity and never reach.
Then, abruptly, from one moment to the next
it takes shape, we’re in its midst.
Nine hours, weary and wrenched to the bone
I step from the bus
see our friend’s dear smiling face
look up to old Orion in the sky
and know I’m home.


#65 Consigning Discouragement to the Past

Here's a new way to think about discouragement. What if the most potent part of it is already past? When we face hard things now, the feelings of discouragement that overwhelm us are from our childhood-when we really were little and our best efforts often failed-and they really don't belong in the present at all. It's a hard concept to wrap the mind around: there's a way it makes sense, but surely there are discouraging things in our world in the present. Indeed, isn't most of our world pretty discouraging? Isn't that one of the things that takes the shine off our enjoyment of life?

I decided to investigate. When I tried conjuring up the discouraging messages from my childhood, I heard a plaintive little voice saying, "This is way too big, and there's nothing I can do to change it." Then I tried to think about the most discouraging thing that I'm facing in my current life; what came to mind was the possible financial failure of an organization to which I'm deeply committed. When I listen for the sound of my discouragement about it, it's that same plaintive message I hear inside my head: "This is way too big, and there's nothing I can do to change it."

But when I reflect on it, I see that this message really doesn't fit the current situation. The problem is big, for sure, and there's no guarantee of success. My efforts, and the efforts of others, may ultimately prove to be inadequate. On the other hand, I'm big now too. And I'm smart. And I'm surrounded by other smart grown-ups who want the same thing and have a chance of making it happen. When I erase the old message, when I drain out the old discouragement, the whole tone is different. What I'm left with is basically just a challenge. And who would want to live a life without challenges? Of course this is more easily said than done, but there's something about the shift in perspective that I find very hopeful.

In a way, we have it backwards. We say, for example, that the environmental crisis makes us feel discouraged. But, if we're really honest, we've felt discouraged for a long time (way before we knew about global warming) and the crisis gives us something to attach those feelings of discouragement to in the present. If we consigned them to the past, if we drained away their old potency, we'd just be left with a situation. And we'd be in a much stronger position to size up the situation, gather others around, and think about what we want to do.

#66 Night Watch in Gulu

I can't sleep. The first two nights the fan kept us cool enough, but the electricity has gone out, and I lie here sweating. I've known hotter nights at home, but there I have a big breezy corner room and a fan, and if it's really bad, I can always find relief in a cold shower. Here, wedged in against the wall, to go anywhere I'd have to feel my way over my husband, under the mosquito net, then over my son who's taking up the rest of the space on the floor of this tiny room. In this strange house in total darkness, the bathroom seems an impossible goal.

I'm happy to be out of the hotel, happy to be crammed into Abitimo's house as part of her extended family. What a privilege it has been these last two days to meet with a group of young people who are eager to learn peer counseling, eager to play a role in healing their region from over twenty years of devastating civil war. What an incredible set of circumstances that has me, on my second day in this African country far from home, sitting in the late afternoon shade among ten or twelve groups of three, each listening intently as the others tell their life stories. One young man in my group touches my heart as he speaks shyly of past troubles. I find out later that many of these young people are orphans, most have lost loved ones to the war, and some had been abducted to be child soldiers.

It's so still. I can hear the sound of distant drumming. I wonder if there's been drumming on other nights, drowned out by the fan. I think of how the fan serves as a buffer to other noise, just as our distance and affluence buffers us from the lives of so many others. It's good to be able to hear. I wonder if this is just somebody's music, or if these drums are sending a message that is being received and understood.

There are atrocity stories here, but I don't have any to tell. Those are all other people's stories-stories of those who suffered and survived, of those who have to live with the unspeakable things they have done. There is an urgency about the trade of these stories. I understand the urge to tell them-to try to shatter complacency, shock people out of lethargy, spark outrage, make something happen. There is also the urge to hear-a fascination with horror, a compulsion to confirm our despair, or stoke the fires of inner guilt. But knowing the worst doesn't make anything better. We need to have our own stories.

The sound of a vehicle startles me. There is hardly ever a vehicle on this road, and it's the middle of the night. It stops very close to our compound. A series of scary possibilities race through my mind. But nothing happens. Again I'm alone in the night. I try to relax, discover that if I press up all the way against the wall I can feel a little coolness from the concrete.

My own story is a story of friendship with Abitimo, of loving her goodness and courage and vision, of following that thread of friendship, of one thing leading to another. I also have a story of meeting eager and open-faced young people, so ready to do their part to heal their beloved Acholi land, which has been caught for so long between a brutal rebel force and a national army eager to crush a troublesome ethnic group. They carry so much responsibility on their shoulders, so much love in their hearts. I get to tell a story full of hope.

A cell phone rings in the bedroom next door. Abitimo's son Patrick and his three children have traveled here with us from Philadelphia; his wife was held up at the airport with passport troubles and missed the flight. Days later she's finally close to boarding, panicked that something still might go wrong, heedless of the hour in Uganda. His voice is steady, reassuring. It's not been easy for him either, not having her here. His shoulders are broad-they've had to bear a lot. I'm grateful for his presence. Abitimo was the beacon for us, but he provided the bridge that made this trip seem possible.

I'm still awake. I don't know why. I wonder if I will sleep at all tonight. I think of all that the people here have endured, and one sleepless night on my part doesn't begin to compare. As I think about it, it's a ridiculously small price to pay for the access I've been given to the heart of this community, for the opportunity to stand with this people, for the chance to be of use.

I hear Abitimo coughing, then the sound of drowsy contented talk-the two grandchildren who sleep in her bed. The murmers die down, and all is still again. A cock crows. And finally I sleep.