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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

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"Fragments"


            
      I finally gave in and started pulling on the thread sticking out on my yoga pants. I had been obsessing over it all morning, like an unsightly piece of dirt that needed to be rubbed off. But it wasn’t dirt, I knew that. Two hours prior, when my brain was online and fully capable of balancing the desire to pull on the thread against that of ruining my costly Lululemon yoga pants, I was able to successfully ignore the temptation. I only pick when I am nervous or afraid. 

            “Don’t freak out about the room,” my friend said in that way only a friend who knows your inner workings so well could possibly communicate. She knew I was freaking out. Any sane person would freak out. “Oh, wait,” I silently reminded myself, “you are where you are because... well...let’s face it, you are anything but sane!”

            I found myself sitting in an oversized gummy leather chair, strategically placed in the middle of a small, sterile windowless room, that frankly appeared and felt like it was padded, because my sanity was being called into question. A blinding interrogation light beat down on my head and in to my eyes, making it virtually impossible to see my friend, much less anyone else who entered my room. I was cloaked in the uniform, a nice smelling hospital gown carefully placed around my body by a large woman cooing accolades about bravery and optimism reminiscent of what I did with my voice, raising it few octaves, in praise of my child who performed some sort of activity that made him or her beam as if gleefully singing, “see mommy. I can do it all by myself!” 

            I thought it funny that she did not remove my black yoga pants. Maybe it was for the shear fact I was obviously experiencing paroxysmal shivers beneath my clammy skin. Filling in the dead space and time of uncertainty became a priority, so I began pulling so damn hard on that piece of thread that the line across my thigh became perfectly and irrevocably taut. I stared at it with fascination, trying to decide if I wanted to give it that with one final pull that would be the demise of my expensive yoga pants.

As I sat and waited for whatever was to happen next, my thoughts played back and forth between 2 embedded and insightful mantras— Norah Jones singing, “How much can a heart and a troubled mind take, where is that fine line before it all breaks; can one end their sorrow just cross over it, and into that realm of insanity’s bliss;” and the prophetic words that seemed to be a family favorite, when all else failed, “you are our mother.” Trust me, it was not meant as a compliment. 

             “Have you thought about killing yourself?” the kind doctor inquired in a half whispery voice that I am sure he learned in a medical school class on how to coax the undone patient into a not so violent disposition. I was somewhat distracted from his words by how much he craned his neck in my direction, bringing his face so close to mine that I found myself wanting to  count the fillings flickering as the interrogation light played in his open mouth. I maintained just enough mental acuity to know, that how I answered this question made all the difference in the outcome of the day—which would highly influence how I would be perceived, with the ever-real possibility that this event would quash my incessant struggle to do all things good, and well, so as to avoid the ever-waiting narrative my family clings to whenever someone demonstrates an embarrassingly unpropitious action. I knew this part of the script all too well. I have spent my life knee deep in the waters of mental illness, trying to hold many-a-heads above the water. 

            “Doctor,” I say between the sobs that sprung up as a result of such an intense and pointed question, “if you are asking me if I would take my own life, then no— for the shear fact I love my children too much. But if you are asking me if I want to die, I would say yes. There is a difference, you know,” I say as if I am giving him a medical school lecture. He silently stared at me for a beat longer than I was comfortable with, as I wiped my eyes and my nose on the corner of my gown. “Am I O.K,” I followed up after enough time had past? “No, I am not. In fact, I feel horribly and desperately awful.”

    There it was. The words flowed out of my mouth like that last bit of helium eked out of a partially deflated balloon. I sobbed some more. I was exhausted. I was broken. I was scattered pieces irretrievably broken. 

“Life is about making meaning.”



            
     The movement is barely perceptible, unless you give it your full attention. The to and fro and back and forth of the body in synchrony with the metronomic clickety-clack of steel wheels running across railroad tracks, is emotive—soothing comfort, safety and surrender. Add a light blanket, a sweatshirt to roll up as a pillow to wedge between the head and the window, and loose fitting, elastic waist pants that allow the legs to fold up under you like a purring cat, and you have the perfect set up for a sweet mid-morning nap. I love the train. If I had not been so comfortable, I would have made my way to the dining car and ordered a cocktail and sat at a table, staring at the passing scenery while I recalled every movie I could think of that had iconic trains scenes.

            I allowed my eyes to close. I had seen enough to spend a lifetime reflecting on it all. I needed to rest. I was on the first leg of what ended up being an epic 46-hour trek home from Africa. I fell into a half sleep as the train rolled from Mombasa to Nairobi, smiling with flashes of the brilliant wild, masterfully orchestrated by movements of the sun and the stars, and the direction of the wind. The lion, the cougar, the elephants and the rhinos, running along the plains back dropped by the looming snow peaked angles of Mount Kilimanjaro as she glimpsed over the top of the mounding white cumulous clouds, left no doubt in my mind that a master artist, desperate to share wonder and whimsy and beauty with all beings, designed it all out of love for our enjoyment. 

                        I rolled down the window of the backseat of the car that picked me up from the train station and would eventually drop me off at the airport. I wanted to smell the air, a combination of dust and roasting corn and animals hauling carts filled with fruits and vegetables to sell in the market. No matter where I traveled in Kenya, there was a consistent expansion of warmth—a dayglow of long grasses and endless plains dabbled in various shades of mustard and wheat and luscious greens of plants that can survive months without water. The fury and motion caused by the bumpy roads and cacophony of sounds emanating from wheels, sputtering motors  and impatient blows of high pitched horns by the crazy drivers of dust glazed matatus, boda-bodas and safari jeeps, no longer resulted in the white knuckled seizure of panic that owned me those first few weeks in the city. 

            We pass the city park. It is filled with families picnicking on blankets, eating Ugali and corn and mounds of fresh fruit from the open market. It is rarity if any of these families own a television, much less a gaming system like those that occupy the empty spaces of children and adults in the West who have long ago forgotten what it is like to freely play outside with a few friends and a large imagination. To the visitor invited to any one of these families’ homes, the wonder at how they manage to survive would be an understandable inquiry. But to see the smiles, to hear the raucous laughter as adults and children play, and to witness the glow bouncing off their breathtaking ebony skin, tells a story of fortune that many of us will never know.

            Before heading to the airport, we had to stop by the center, my home for the past 3 months. I had to retrieve my large purple suitcase that I left behind while on my week of solo travel. As the gate opened, I felt a lump swell in my throat as I watched Jeridda, in her lime green flowered head scarf, her red shirt and pink skirt, hold the gate open, with a large grin and a welcoming wave. I jumped out of the car and rushed towards her, wrapping her in a tight hug indicative of the intensity of love I felt for her. “Habari yako? I missed you. I missed your cooking,” I rapidly announce, in that excitable voice indicative of overwhelming joy.  She responded with her usual wide grin and laughing eyes. I’m sure she was taken aback by my bigger than life gesture of affection, since Kenyans rarely, if ever, demonstrate such open acts of fondness and love. 

             I rushed to the kitchen to get one last glass of water from the filtering system that, at the beginning of my stay, I avoided due to a fear of a bout with cholera, and rapidly drank it down with cooling delight. I ran up the 3 flights of stairs and down the hall to my room. I unlocked the door, and stared into the simple space. I took it all in with one deep and grateful breath. I walked in to the room remembering the culture shock I experienced my first night in this room, wondering how I would manage without all the comforts of home. In this sacred space of aloneness, I had the time and the freedom to integrate the challenges faced throughout the class, especially those I met at the hospital every day. I questioned boldly and out loud—tossing and turning, crying and throwing things in unquenchable anger— to the walls, and maybe God, if God is an essence that actually listens.

            I moved to the bed, giving the mustard colored blanket that served as my comforter a soft caress, thanking it for providing me the best sleep I have had in the past couple of years. I glanced out the window to the police brandishing those same rifles that made me feel uneasy those first few weeks, until I saw their quick and impressive response to the terror attack at the DusitD2 Hotel early in my stay. I learned to feel strangely comforted as I listened to the rifles being cocked every morning at 5 am, and quietly thanked them for their protection. I walked to the bathroom that smelled like Brussel sprouts and heat mixed with a generic, sweet soapy fragrance. I paused and took a good long look in the mirror. I was covered with the familiar coat of yellowish brown dust that required no less than 3 cleanser wipes each night to remove. My hair was a wild nest of orange and gray that had not been tamed by any sort of heating instrument for 3 months. I smiled at my make-up less face with the small creases and lines that, as Brandi Carlisle sings, “tell you the story of who I am, so many stories of where I’ve been.” No criticism, no reduction of pieces and parts to agonize over. For the first time, I was aware that I was quite fond of that woman staring back at me.

I grabbed my heavy purple bag. I did not discard anything. I discovered that all those fractured pieces, those ones I had  lost count of on that pivotal day, over 5 months ago, while I sat in the oversized sticky chair in my fresh smelling hospital gown, were essential parts of me. They are part of my story, my narrative, filled with wonder, fear, pain, mistakes, unchartered sadness, joy, adventures…everything and every dark and bright corner I have passed by. I finally admitted to being lost, as I continually tried to deny those pieces chiseled away into fragments. Over the past 3 months, I have learned that each piece, no matter how minuscule, had an  important and worthy story to tell, about who I am, and what I was to myself and to others. 

It was a pivotal point in my life, that day in the hospital several months prior. Like Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
I heard a voice, I will claim it was my father’s voice—all the wiser as wise may be, telling me it was OK to forge my own path, to let go of all that was and all that should have been. I reflected on his words with gratitude; those words he said to me as I lie in the crook of his arm, in the hospital the day he made the choice to die, “I will always be with you Mary, you just have to be quiet and listen.” If nothing else, I know Dad gets me now. 
Yes, it took a hospital visit to offer me the chance to find a new narrative, one that was authentically and wholly mine. I left the hospital determined to be the author of my own script. 

I have spent the last 3 months focusing on finding my broken pieces, polishing them off and gently and lovingly putting them back in place. I knew I had to go far away in order to succeed. The opportunity to do my last semester in Kenya presented itself, with a class I knew would guide me on this path. It was perfect. I was surrounded with others working on the same project for themselves. We held each other’s pieces with care as we learned to reconfigure the fractured pieces of self that we were intent on reclaiming. Through my work at the hospital alongside the immersion in the Kenyan culture, I witnessed atrocities, pain, injustices, love and unfathomable beauty that has forever changed and reconfigured how I make meaning. 

            I left with my purple suitcase. I stuffed the tube of red lipstick into the pocket of my jacket and headed to the car. Halfway to the airport, I laughed to myself as I noted the black yoga pants I was wearing, the Lululemon brand, absent of any loose threads to obsess over.

            As the plane reached a cruising altitude, I ordered a cold beer, wrapped the red Kenya Airways blanket across my legs, and closed my eyes. “I made it,” I smiled to myself as I drifted off under the fatigue of travel. Before I fully released into sleep, a whisper breezed across my mind, an awareness of something refreshingly redemptive and beautiful— “Yes, in many ways I am like my mother.” I had to say it to myself again, since this was a new configuration of a mantra I have fought most of my adult life. No, I am not my mother, but I have those parts of her filled with inquisitiveness and passion, intensity and longing, and the capability to witness the hidden beauty she saw in others, especially those who were different than what was deemed “comfortable and acceptable”—this was her authentic self. Unfortunately, creativity, passion and free thinking misunderstood can be interpreted as mental illness for so long that it becomes an inescapable reality.

            In the bathroom at the Nashville airport, I looked in the mirror, pulled out my red lipstick, and swiped it across my lips. I love red lipstick. It is daring and bold and makes some sort of statement of self-confidence. But my reason for wearing it now is different than it was 3 months ago. I wear it not to hide behind, but to walk in to the world wholly me.




P. S.   My last day with the children, the little beings I loved with the intensity of a mother, was the most difficult day. Life goes on, and the children will go on. Ronald, my little guy who I wrote of earlier, the child burned by his father, is fortunately physically healing well. But on that last day, when I brought crayons and paper, along with cheese puffs and lollipops as a “see you” celebration (I avoid good-byes with all I have—they are much too painfully final for me to handle without melting into a wreckage of tears), I watched as Ronald repeatedly struck a young girl with his little fists for the sole reason she ate one if his cheese puffs. She said nothing. She did not fight back. In fact, all the little ones around the table continued to draw and munch on their snacks, alarmingly unmoved by the violence at the end of the table. I ran to Ronald, held his little hands in mine, and said, “no Ronald. Stop! You may not hit anyone, for any reason.  “Samahani.Tell her” I demanded continuing to hold his tiny fists. “Samahani,tell her you are sorry.” I tried to get her to turn and look at him, but she refused and continued to draw on her piece of paper. I sat down in front of Ronald, looking in to those beautiful eyes that not a month ago screamed in terror, and told him it was OK to be angry, but he could not use his fists because of it. He looked back in to my eyes. I was at a loss of what his gaze was trying to communicate to me. 

            As I walked back to the compound, I thought about the incident. I tried to convince myself that the look Ronald gave me was one that said, “you are right Mzungu Mary, I should not have done that.” But he would not say he was sorry to her. Instead, he dragged his tiny green plastic chair out into the hallway, holding his pajama bottoms up over his bandages. He sat, turning his head away from me, refusing to look at me again. My heart gripped with pain knowing this will not be the last time Ronald hits someone. It will not be the last time that little girl will be hit and remain silent. It is what they know. It is what they saw and experienced themselves, in ways so atrocious that my telling him not to use his fists in anger seems somewhat condescending and out of place. His response, sitting alone in the dirty hallway in his green chair, is all he could muster. I don’t blame him. Maybe one day he will remember the Mzungu who tried to show him love, for a few days, before she flitted off to her country of wealth and plenty.

            I have his picture framed and sitting on my desk. It is a reminder to me of what I have, and what others will never have. It is also the reminder that I am not done with Africa. I don’t know when or how or what I want to do. All I know in this moment is, I will return.

Pictures taken during my last week:



























Friday, March 22, 2019

Last Day....First Day

Graduation Picture: Serious looking group, huh? From 4 counties: Kenya, India, Nigeria,  U.S.

                               
I tried to get them to have a bit of fun here!


I have just completed 10 weeks with these wonderful people.  A group of people from different countries, with different languages, ideologies, theologies and life experiences—coming together as strangers, leaving as family. We shared everything together: meals, class lectures, practicum, laughter, tears, anger, and frustrations. We broke down barriers with each other, committing ourselves to be trusting, trustworthy, vulnerable and transparent with our whole selves. We pledged to one another that we would accompany each person as he or she was challenged to walk through personal darkness, deeply held pains, and personal achievements that, unawares, influence who we are and how we live and love. Our goal for ourselves and for each other: personal authenticity and complete self awareness. At times I wanted to leave, at other times I held others who wanted to leave. I  guarantee there is not one of us who is leaving this place the same as when he or she showed up on day one. And that is truly what its about, isn't it—taking the step to simply show up!


I have dusted off my purple bag and laid it opened. In the bottom of my bag is my red lipstick, untouched since I arrived here. I have a day or so to decide what I am packing, and what I am leaving behind.

I thank everyone who has traveled with me. I have felt your love and commitment everyday while you have journeyed with me.  I have purposely not commented on comments, because I have tried to remain mindful and present to my time here. I have a tendency to get distracted when I start corresponding. But I want each of you to know that I have read all your messages, and they have fueled me to keep writing. The numbers have grown, and I am deeply humbled by it.

I leave Sunday for a week of solo traveling to beautiful places like Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Amboselli, Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mombasa. I am going to leave my computer behind, and travel with a pad of paper and a pen only. I have so much to reflect upon, so much to bring together, before I return home. I will write my last entry when I get back. I will remain grateful for every word I put on paper; for all the beauty I will behold; and for the ability to witness struggles that remain constant in a world filled with imperfect humanity.

Ninakupenda,
Mary


Tuesday, March 19, 2019




One of My Sweet Friends
I close my eyes, resting my head in my hands. It is mid afternoon, the time of day I escape to the back of the hospital chapel, retreating for my "holy nap." After a morning of presence and engagement with profound human suffering, I need time to crawl in to my metaphorical womb, the place where life begins and grows—lovingly caressed and nourished in the unsullied waters of life. I began there. You began there. The multitude of differences, pains and joys all began there.

While resting, my mind is drawn to the echoing of children's voices, small beings playing chase in a captured area at the far end of the hospital corridor. The sound is recognizable and universal–found anywhere children have access to one another. Excitement and laughter dance towards me, unbroken through their innocence and joviality. My mind lingers in this playful moment—mother and her child—awe and splendor dissected from the reality of pain and limitations. 

Familiarity—My mind is drawn deeper—called by a memory hidden in the recesses of time and place. It is summer. My children are young. Picnic basket, chaise lounge, warm pool deck cooled by the playful splashes of water. It is hot, and I close my eyes, confident my children are safely swimming under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. The corners of my mouth reflexively tilt upward as I recognize the exhilarated voices of my children at play, rising above the chorus of "Marco...polo...Marco...polo." Voices of carefree imagination and boundless abandon reverberate across the water, like the echoes of the children at play down the hall from where I rest my head. The sounds of summer rapture are as recognizable as the smell of french fries and chlorine absorbed in to the sun kissed skin of my children at the end of a playful day.  

The chiming of altar bells breaks through my reverie; yet I hold on to the echoes of the children down the hospital corridor.  I summon the bells to wait, I need to stay with these young children a little longer. A lump develops in my throat that I feel is going to rupture at any moment in to angry sobs, "Why God. Why are these children so alone?" But God won't answer. I have asked this question multiple times, yet the space I leave for a holy response continues to remain silent. I have to imagine that the answer lies somewhere in the weeps of suffering that the Universe tenderly holds. It is the only answer I will accept; or the work I am doing, the work so many people are during across this vast globe, is part of some sick game from a masochistic power that I would never choose to meet. 

I leave the chapel, stopping at the end of the hall before returning to work. I smile as I watch the children's frayed green sherbet colored hospital gowns fly open, and their multiple bandages unfurl towards the floor; little bodies desperately trying to escape the garments of illness and abandonment, for this one moment in time. I watch as their mouths open with laughter, their bent and abused bodies giving all in the game of chase. Standing beside the warmth they have created, a response to  my "Why God?" question becomes clear. There is no answer to the why, except for humanity and the choices we make. Yet, in that moment, I witnessed something holy dancing in the eyes of the little ones. 
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My Hospital Partner: Father Patrick
My brother from a different mother


I cannot think of a time I have been "othered." The only time I have felt slightly on the edge of the "other" is when I was the only white girl among 12 African American students in a race, religion and ethnicity class at Vanderbilt. But I chose to be in that class in hopes of understanding racism. Furthermore, not one person in that class had any intention of "othering" me; hence, this example really doesn't count. 

The urban dictionary describes "othering" as "any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody's mind as "not one of us." The etymology of the word connotes group cohesiveness, as in a tribe. Contemporarily speaking, the word is used in a derogatory or negative disposition— marking the "other" as somehow less human; juxtaposed against our superiority and rank. Society tends to categorize "others" based on skin color, socioeconomic or educational status, religious affiliations or countries of origin, or a plethora of lifestyles viewed as edgy or alternative. Being an educated white, middle class Westerner, I am the quintessential demographic for one that "others" others. Somewhere along my developmental trajectory, I was inculcated in a group whose status was crowned as the "norm," from which all "others" were...well..."othered."

Lately, the coin has flipped sides and I am discovering the pain of being "othered." I am interpreted as so completely different, that at times the ground below my feet feels unstable, resulting in a nagging sense of unease. Most offensive is the reality that with being "othered," I am robbed of autonomy and individuality, thrown in to the swamp of inescapable judgements, biases, innuendos and characteristics, assigned out of fear and ignorance.

I am "othered" in this country. I am presumed a rich, white, arrogant American woman with no worries or cares outside of what I want. More specifically, I am seen as a pompous ass who fortunately and conveniently wears a sign that states, "Walking ATM.Daily, I have no less than 5 people ask me for money for a "sick mother," or "10 sick orphans." More so, the lengths some people go to in order to get money is abominable. Adults use children as bait, laying them on a blanket with mangled limbs and profound birth defects, smoldering in the hot sun, in hopes of getting a few shillings.  

Maybe you can relate to the scenario: you are desperately lost in a foreign land. Initially confident that google maps has your back, panic ensues as, around the 30 minute mark, Siri and google maps stop jiving together. As a result, the mind becomes jittery and reactive while you struggle to pull yourself out of a never ending loop of the Twilight Zone. Looking calm inside raw panic beccomes an art form.

This was my experience on Saturday. I meandered for over 2 hours in an area of town so crowded, so loud, so foreign, and so far from my desired destination that I felt the brewing panic. Adding to my worry, was the "low battery" warning that decided to shine its light in that moment. "Shit, shit!" is all my mind could muster for about 10 minutes of my wandering.

 Cognizant of the importance of walking with confidence so as to not look like I am lost, (as I am simultaneously cussing at myself for not taking that self defense class I signed up for), I used each step to keep myself together — contemplating how the hell I was going to find my way out of this situation. My whiteness, and all the judgement and biases that came with my "otherness," made me easy prey. The call, "Mzunga" (white person) descended upon me from all directions. No less than two times, a passerby attempted to rip my bag off my shoulder, to which I aggressively responded with a pointy elbow to the side. Uninvited, various parts of my body were touched, and my ponytail was grabbed. Confusion mounting, fear took hold of my hand. 

I spotted a market that looked familiar. Ducking inside the entrance, I paused for a moment to see if Siri and Google had rejoined each other and established an escape route for me. The respite was brief as I looked toward the ambush of merchants rapidly advancing towards me; mouths open as they literally crawled over each other to get to me, "Mzunga... buy something...how much can I sell you?" I became both dizzy and desperate as I attempted to push past them unscathed. With his large stature, a man blocked my path while he shoved a handful of bracelets and belts in my face. "How much," he coarsely demanded?  Exasperated, I stood my ground as I looked him straight in the eyes. Gathering the roll of panic with my survival instincts,  I yelled loud enough for the entire market to hear,  "Leave me the f--- alone!" 

Shocked stillness came on the heals of my outburst, even though I was fairly confident they did not understand a word I said. I didn't care. I felt better! The man puffed his chest a little more as he sized me up. Curling his lip in complete disgust, (culturally, women do not yell at a man in public), he preached to the crowd, "You are rich, we are poor." 

In a calmer tone, I replied, "How do you know that I am rich? Are you assuming this because I have white skin? Does this assumption of yours give you the right to hassle me and treat me this way?" Refusing to let anyone witness the tears forming, I pushed past him and made my way to the nearest exit.

 I eventually found my way back to the safety of the compound, exhausted.

"Othering" is abusive. While my experience was frightening and overwhelming, it was minor compared to the unrelenting and oppressive "othering" of so many, by people who somehow feel entitled to place individuals with any difference in an inescapable prison. 

 


Wednesday, March 13, 2019



Mekatilili Wa Menza
"Mother of the Resistance"


I don't want to read these same pages again. 
                 Look in the mirror and imagine me.  (Kirk Franklin)




     Nairobi is waking up early this morning. The dewy air, kissing my skin and rolling through my hair, asks me to sit and place my agenda aside. Accepting this invitation, I sit with my cup of coffee, relinquishing everything to the bloom of the morning, watching as she frolics with amusing potential. I close my eyes and inhale this offering, content—just me and the Divine.
     While the sun promises a terribly hot day, for now, felicity abounds as Mother Nature plays. I am entertained with shimmering droplets of water dancing across banana leaves and mango trees, accompanied by the melodious chirps of the speckled mousebirds acrobatically rolling and hopping over the grass. It is a luxury, to be sure, having the option to pause and witness the unfolding of a beautiful day. I am aware that in a few hours, I will exit this sanctuary.  I will walk passed many who are not afforded this same luxury. Scarcity is their motivation of the morning, like most mornings, with the goal of surviving one more day.
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     This last week flew by. I never realized until now the impact time has on my state of mind, as well as my emotional well being. In stark contrast to the seemingly endless drudgery of the week prior, resulting in a tiring and blue disposition, I ended this last week happy and fufilled. A change of scenery is often the antidote for stagnation. I was grateful to be part of a group asked to cover a different  hospital, one that none of us had worked in before. While the destination was much farther than the usual 45 minute walk we had grown accustomed to, the feeling of adventure and curiosity made this fact insignificant.
     The hospital was built during the British occupation, to serve as a hospital for infectious diseases. As I looked around, acquainting myself with my new surroundings, I kept thinking of the movie The English Patient. The architecture—one story stone buildings painted in a cheery pale yellow color with large open windows framed by heavy wooden shutters painted evergreen—lends itself as a perfect backdrop for a romanticized World War II movie.
     As we walked along the cobblestone pathway that meandered through luscious tropical foliage, connecting the various hospital wards, I thought to myself, "What a serene and spacious place for an ill person to recuperate." Unlike the public hospital that feels like an enormous block of dirty concrete stifling any opportunity for freshness, this hospital felt spacious and airy.
     My revelry in the nostalgic feel of the hospital was mercilessly quashed as I took my first step inside the patient wards. As in the other hospital, I can't imagine how anyone could think an ill person could recover in this dismal and unsanitary environment. The patients lie in beds so close to each other that privacy is impossible, much less any chance of infection control. The rooms are cluttered with  archaic medical equipment scattered in pieces and haphazardly thrown in corners, dirty floors with bugs feasting on old pieces of food dropped on the unswept floor, copious amount of flies buzzing around and landing on the patients faces and bodies, and odious smells of waste and old food. I felt dirty just standing in the doorway.
     Interestingly, I have recently noticed my ability to work in these dire environments without the abject disgust and raging emotionality experienced during my first 7 weeks of work. Admittedly, I am unsure how to interpret this. Could my assimilation be a sign of growth, crass denial, or errant complacency? Honestly, I think it is more a survival technique.
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       Saturday, I escaped the compound with an energized and adventurous spirit. I had 3 goals for the day: sip on a  good cup of coffee, successfully navigate my way to the infamous outdoor market, and spend the afternoon at the African Cultural museum. Tucked inside these goals was the ever present desire to end my day with an icy cold beer.
      I completely ignored the warnings from friends who heard I was heading to the outdoor market by     foot, advising me instead to go with someone who knew the safest path to the market and could act as an informed buffer between me and the aggressive merchants who equate white female from the West with a walking ATM.  Believing myself invincible and brave, I casually waved them off with a slight tilt of the head and shrug of the shoulders, "Nah, I think I can handle it just fine,"–internally translated as, "I do not want to go with you or anyone. I need alone time."
     Within the first 30 minutes of my hour or so walk to the market, a fairly well dressed man crossed the busy street and rushed towards me. He accompanied me a few steps before he introduced the small talk—"nice day," "where are you from," "where are you heading to," and so on. Being co-dependent as hell, I did not want to offend, or hurt his feelings by rudely ignoring him. So while my inner red flashers were rapidly pulsing, I repressed them by making small talk in return. Instead of saying, "Please leave me alone," like a wise woman not from the South would say, I babbled on and on as if he was my best friend. Surely there are studies analyzing this pathological phenomenon —when one disengages so completely from the appeal of her higher functioning brain that is screaming, "Warning, warning," just to feed the deeply dysfunctional fear of hurting the stranger (who obviously picked me out as gullible).
     No, I did not get mugged or robbed. No, he did not throw me into oncoming traffic...all those    possibilities streaming through my mind while simultaneously carrying on mindless chat with this total stranger in a strange country. After remaining by my side until I arrived at the outdoor marked, he simply bowed his head and said, "Don't think me a poor African man, but I have 10 orphans at home needing food."
"Hmm, here it is," I internally mused.  I handed him 1000 shillings, thinking that was pretty damn generous. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow of expectation and said, "But they need medicine as well." Mustering my courage, I replied, "Thats all I have." Frustrated, I turned and walked away.
______________________________________________________________

     I made my way to the gates of the outdoor market, agitated and befuddled by the stranger exploiting me for cash. Before my body fully cleared the entrance gait, I was bombarded by merchants pushing their wares in my face, all the while screaming, "I give you a good price." When I learned the market was "cash only," the vendors literally encircled me, each offering to escort me to the ATM across the street.  I quickly became overwhelmed, exacerbated by the relentless heat and shoulder to shoulder crowds of sweaty people screaming at me. Exasperated, I turned toward the merchants clinging to me like baby birds pecking for food, and yelled, "Stop following me!" I rushed toward the exit, hid behind a shade tree, and texted an Uber in hopes I could escape the scene unscathed.
     I almost gave up for the day. My initial goals set in the nascent morning hours seemed far off and impossible.  As I sat gathering myself together in the air-conditioned Uber, I thought about going back to the compound, taking a cool shower, and spending the rest of the day in bed with a good book. However, a small voice reminded me that my time in this country was rapidly coming to an end. I requested the driver take me to the museum. I promised myself a leisurely, unencumbered walk through the exhibitions.
   I purchased my ticket and walked through the gate, happily anticipating a quiet, informative afternoon by myself. Entering the first hallway, a very tall Nigerian man stepped in my path, forcing me to stop.  With a childlike smile he loudly announced, "Welcome. I am to be your guide for the day." "Great," I half-heartedly replied;  all the while my inner self was screeching, "Just say no!"
    Granted, he was incredibly informative. He supplied stories for me that I would not have surmised perusing the exhibits on my own. I did not realize that Kenya gained its independence as recently as 1963. As my guide led me through the portrait hall, he told stories of the lore surrounding the insurrectionists, the prophets, and the leaders who fought against the powerful and oppressive British. While used to viewing American history from an awe-filled passage of time, the Kenyan fight for independence continues to be with in reach.
     The Kenyan culture is ripe with traditions that fortunately, and unfortunately, continue today. The tribal sense of community remains foundational. While modernity is beginning to eek in to most areas of the country, many long held tribal customs and rituals maintain an unyielding hold. Children are cared for by the community—encouraged to run around naked and free. After chores, they spend the day playing with handmade  toys sculpted from banana leaves and olive wood. At 15, however,  all the play things must be forever abandoned. Fifteen is the age of circumcision, the rite of passage in to adulthood. In many tribes, boys are taken away from the community for a week or so, where they are instructed by "aunts" and "uncles" the rules of being a man. This includes warrior techniques,  hunting rituals, and lessons on how to be a good husband. In some communities, young women are brought to them to assist in learning the "ways of sex." At the end of the week, the boy is circumcised in a festive tribal ceremony. He can no longer play like a child; nor is he permitted to ever cry.
     Girls go through a similar ritual. They spend time together with "aunts" and "uncles" learning how to be wives, mothers, good cooks and housekeepers. When my tour guide added the caveat, "They are taught how to take care of their man," I had to roll my eyes. Although female circumcision is outlawed in the country, it unfortunately continues to be a rite of passage in certain tribes.

The best part of my day? Hands down, it was sipping an icy cold beer in the museum cafe.


 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019


A rest stop on the highway
(has nothing to do with my post, just loved the pic)

I had to give myself a firm pep talk as I walked to my new cafe. You see, last week felt interminable; in fact, I experienced it as the longest week of my stint here in Kenya. Between the heat, the dismal conditions in the hospital, and the repetitive meals of ugali, spinach, and cabbage, I longed for home. I pined for my children, my friends, and the unwavering love and affection of my bed partners—Forrest and Nala—my two large fluffy friends.  I craved conversations with my adult children about nothing and everything, and wine with my lifelong girlfriends who just "get me." Every cell of my body cried out for toilet paper in bathrooms, paper towels in paper towel dispensers, mattress pads on beds, ice in glasses because drinks are supposed to be cold, and the dependability of warm water when I turn on the shower. I longed for a succulent wine or a frosty mug of beer, bagel sandwiches and Mexican food. I wanted to get dressed up and go on a date...with a kind and interesting man. My week was filled with constant reminders of all things homey. I love home.

Following my incredibly delicious cup of coffee and chocolate croissant, I decided to take the long way back to the compound while I finished my pep talk, congratulating myself for making it through these past 7 weeks without manifesting a totally historic meltdown. Only 3 more weeks! Unfortunately, like many a weary traveler, I have reached that tipping point of no return— counting the hours instead of the days.

As I rounded the corner of the cafe,  I discovered a hair salon that I had never seen before. Musing in the joy I felt in this discovery, my pep talk abruptly came to an end. I giddily walked in the front door and stood mesmerized, relishing in the smell of exotic shampoos and nail polish, and the sight of lavender and sea foam green bottles of conditioners, hair gels and tonics...oh how familiar and how lovely!

My dreamy state was rapidly broken. In a matter of seconds,  I found myself the object of a forward trajectory loaded with boundless and inescapable energy, "Oh, welcome!  Please, how can I help you?" The owner was literally skipping towards me, clapping his hands to his exuberant sing-songy welcome. Bowled over and uncomfortably embarrassed by his histrionics, I responded with an unsure, "Um, yes. I think so?" Taking note of my hesitant committal, he shoved a menu of services in front of my face. As I perused the menu, I sensed the bubbling of my vainglorious self awaken from her long winter's (or summer in Kenya) nap. Not to be outdone by the owner's enthusiasm, my vanity valiantly and without hesitation took control, rattling off in a sensually-self indulgent voice, "Well, yes! I would like a manicure and a pedicure...and oh, an eyebrow weaving...and, hmm, why not a wash and blow dry while we are at it." I was fully committed.  Oh, the things we do when we are feeling homesick!

My docket of services was done by a beautiful, very large boned Kenyan woman with considerably massive hands. She required only one hand to wash my hair, occasionally palming my skull like a basketball as her fingers dug deeply in to my temples. This formidable woman embodied moxie, channeling her enthusiastic blend of Swahili and English chit-chat through her fingers, unawares that I was beginning to wince in pain.

As our exchange of language fell in to an accessible rhythm, I discovered a brilliant woman with an inner being matching that of her powerful hands. She fit the narrative I hear and observe daily: the backbone of this country are women. With odds stacked against them, from the legalization of polygamy, to the inbred misogynistic culture and lack of legal recourse for amoral and abusive treatment, it is a wonder these women have not crumbled under the heavy weight of oppressive and often dire circumstances. They are forced to remain silent out of fear. Just a couple of weeks ago, a female human rights advocate was suspiciously murdered.

Everywhere I go, I am unremittingly stared down by the consequences of an androcentric culture that treats women as objects, measured by her transactional worth to a man. Walk through the wards of the public hospital, where the cultural damage to women and children is painfully visible. A man can walk out on his wife and children at any time, for any reason, abandoning her physically, financially, and emotionally—without any legal recourse for support. Many women are admitted to the hospital as a direct consequence of this draconian paradigm—bodies burned and beaten by a husband, discarded for another wife. The units are teeming with mothers and their children whose husbands walked away the day they entered the hospital, abandoning her with a large hospital bill, no home, and no source of income. It is appalling. Yet, I have never met women anywhere with as much might and fortitude as Kenyan women.

Lately, I have been asking myself, "What can I do to help bring about change? Struggling with questions like this always brings me back to the Parable of the Babies in the River (please google the parable if you do not know it). Issues of injustice and violations to the human person can overwhelm, resulting in paralysis. Often I resort to honorable, yet not effective solutions, like prayer. I am discovering the difference between performing charitable activities, and doing the difficult work of social justice. One of the most challenging places to start the heavy work of social justice is in our own homes. Unless we are willing to be honest about our own biases and judgmental attitudes towards others, we will never be able to roll up our sleeves and use the privilege of our station in life to do the hard work of changing oppressive and false narratives.

I just finished a book by Dr Brene Brown, called Braving the Wilderness. The focus of Brown's book is true belonging—that primal desire that all humans crave and need. We long to be part of something bigger than ourselves— to be real and authentic. She writes, "True belonging only happens when we bring our true and authentic self and perfection in to the world. Our level of true belonging can never be greater than our level of self acceptance...once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, that is when true belonging occurs." Beautiful, huh?

But this is her challenge: Being ourselves often requires the courage to stand totally alone in the wilderness–standing for what we believe in. 

I will end this long and meandering post with this:

We are connected by love and human spirit, no matter how much we disagree, we are part of the same spiritual story." (Dr. Brene Brown)



Monday, February 25, 2019


Happiness Is...


     I had to escape the confines of my temporary home. Weary from a week of heavy topics that tested the limits of my emotions and patience, I needed to sip from the fountain of self indulgence! I am experiencing myself in a complex place—straddling the divide between privilege and poverty—wearing designer sneakers. The guilt is palpable, at times suffocating. But is guilt heathy? Is guilt productive?
      I know I am not alone in the tug-of-war of guilt and pleasure. Guilt is branded into the soul of a Catholic at birth; remaining seemingly unfazed by years of expensive counseling. You remember those Catholic sayings our parents guilted in to us? The one's I swore I would never use? Well, I unabashedly used them on my kids: "Think of all the starving children in Africa," or, "one day you will meet God face to face and have to answer for all decisions you have made!" I apologize profusely, dear children, for this motherly gift of incessant guilt that you will carry your entire life—and most likely pass on to your children, at least in some similar iteration. 


   Anyway, it was Sunday morning and I had to go out. I longed to sit in a cafe serving freshly baked gooey, decadent morsels of yumminess that I could wash down with a steaming cup of cafe Americana, served in an appealing ceramic cup and saucer. This was more than a simple desire, it was a mental and physical ache.
      I ventured out of my well guarded community, not deterred by the significance of living inside a well guarded community. I stepped in to the freedom beyond the gate, and became immediately captured in a swirling playful breeze, reassuring me that all will be safe, and all will be well.
     Google maps directed me to a cafe about 2 miles from the gate. The one concern that slightly nudged my inner calmness, was the very real and dangerous challenge I have when crossing any road without Sister Rose holding my hand. Understandably, I have yet to break the life long habit of looking to the left, then to the right, before crossing any road—a death sentence for any Westerner who steps unaware in to the frenetic Nairobi traffic, where, I will contend, people drive on "the wrong side of the road." Fortunately, it was early on a Sunday morning, and traffic was light.

      How do I accurately describe my euphoria as I sat in the cafe at a table located directly across from the glass case brimming with freshly baked, sugar coated pastries, exploding with chocolate, raspberry and almond filling? The glass was slightly steamy, indicating the freshness of the sacred spread. I found myself swept up in the contentment of a Sunday morning—reveling in the melodious din of clinking utensils, cups lowered on to ceramic saucers, and laughter bellowing through the murmur of words spoken between families, friends, and glowing lovers. This is exactly what I needed. 
     The waitress brought me a steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee, a side of steamed milk and an extremely cute shortbread cookie with raspberry filling–all brilliantly served on ceramic dishes. Swept up in the delight of it all, I ordered a chocolate croissant, and a plate of focaccia with a side of humus and falafel. Not a bite was left on my plate.
     As I happily savored the remains of my coffee, in no rush to do anything else with my day, I fortunately, or is it unfortunately, forgot about my inner struggle with guilt. What I ached for was not the sweet delights, per se. I ached to experience joy. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Distance

I know I have been away for a while. Actually, I had started another post at the beginning of the week, a humorous diatribe about my attempt to color my hair, resulting in more dye in the bathroom sink and on the bathroom floor than ever made it to my hair. I liken the experience to a 3 Stooges clip, with me playing the role of Moe, Larry and Curly all wrapped up together. I am presently trying to rock my orange hair.

I have not been able to finish the post.

The week has been heavy, and I am roaming in a mire of futility. Life, of late, feels barren and hollow. While the landscape in front of me continues to be tilled, the humus that arises gets burned in the sun... and nothing can survive.

The denial of human dignity I have witnessed this week is both staggering and profound. I am with the poorest of the poor, and their essence, their sacredness as human beings, is somehow deemed  irrelevant. Those living on the streets, patients with HIV, adults and children who have been beaten or burned—all victims of the endless cycle of oppression—are considered "insignificant," or a "bother," or "a drain on the system,"—the list of terms humanity uses to justify the denigration of another soul are endless.

I am writing a presentation on the theology of suffering. It is challenging me to the core. How does one reconcile the presence of a God who is considered  "all loving, all powerful and merciful," in the construct of human suffering? Sure, I could borrow from the messages of rote platitudes, or bumper stickers slogans like, "Everything is part of God's plan," or "God never gives you more than you can endure." Those tie up the concept of God inside suffering with a neat bow.

I believe platitudes become necessary because few of us are comfortable staring in to the face of an unimaginable atrocity, or the suffering of a friend or loved one, without saying something. I know I have struggled with finding just the right words to offer comfort to another. The search can be agonizing, and the silence deafening.

Yet, I cannot imagine borrowing from any such banality as I look in to the eyes of a child mangled from unfathomable abuse; or the mother holding her infant as he dies from malnutrition; or the man abandoned by his family and friends because he has HIV and is dying alone. I believe we need to stop acting like we have the answers. Let's be honest, can anyone truly and with authority, reconcile theodicy, or why God permits evil? Is it time to courageously admit that this notion is unreconilable, and we should hold it as one of the many mysteries of life—like the Universe or miracles—phenomenona our limited capacity as humans will never understand?

The following account, written by Shoah survivor and author Elie Wiesel, is the only theology of suffering that makes any sense to me. How else could I possibly fathom God in the narrative of human suffering, and continue to believe in a God of Love? The scene takes place in the concentration camp, where 2 men and a young boy had been arrested. All of the concentration camp prisoners, which included Elie Wiesel, were forced to stand and watch the hanging of the 3 males:


Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"For God’s sake, where is God?"
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
"Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …"
  ( Night by Elie Wiesel)



Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Valentines Day Available for All!


John Bosco Parish: Mass for the Sick 2-14-2019




Jamba Rafiki (Hello Friend)

Valentine's Day is the day for love! An inexhaustible display of red roses tied with baby's breath, and bouquets of pink and white carnations in colored vases, tempt the anxious admirer. If flowers are not alluring, there is an aisle dedicated to whimsical balloons with light-hearted messages, boxes of sweethearts that suggest "lets get busy" and "kiss me," and red foiled Russel Stover candy boxes, brimming with dark chocolate strawberry nougat chews, milk chocolate coated nuts and caramels, inlayed with a user friendly map to guide one away from the less desirable morsels. Interspersed amongst the sweet delights are amusing baubles—scented candles and ceramic figurines painted in red and silver glitter. I have a collection of these precious treasures that my children carefully chose for me over the years.

For many, however, the day acts as a painful reminder of a love that is no more, or a heart that cries "If only..."

Surely, most of us can relate to a blundering mess of a Valentine's Day, emblazoned forever in our  minds. You remember, that year when you, or your significant other, totally missed the mark, dashing a heart against the rocks of despair. Maybe the error came in a mundane or thoughtless gift, or a hastily chosen card with sentiments written exclusively by Hallmark, personalized by a name hurriedly scratched in ink, or a gesture of love that lacks the appropriate inflection. Hopefully, you have never found yourself in the tornadic aftermath of a Valentine's Day forgotten.

Quirky things can happen with Valentine's Day, once two people have been together for a while. For some, the passionate celebrations of bygone years inconspicuously, and without intent, morph into a day filled with conflicted emotions—burdensome and guilt provoking. Yet, there are a few fortunate couples who experience the constancy of love, with passions just waiting to be released.

I have had some lovely Valentines celebrations. Remember grade school, when you custom designed a shoe box with glue, red and white construction paper, magic markers and crayons? After decorating, abundantly pleased with the outcome, you took the shoe box to your teacher, or a parent, who then used a sharp instrument to cut a slit in the top of the box, creating a post box for friends to deliver cards and goodies.

The night before the school Valentine's Day party was wholly dedicated to the miniature perforated cards that came in a box of 100. Happily selecting just the right box at the drug store, the one with the  popular cartoon characters matched with just the right messages, had a propensity to become stressful for my little self. Picking out just the right cards was critical; and if my mom did not get me to the drug store in time, the popular boxes of cards would be gone, and the disappointment that followed was palpably magnanimous.

Ahh, but what followed never failed to erase any negative disposition I might have embodied during the card ritual—the hours spent sitting on my bed sorting the good cards for my friends from the lackluster cards for my enemies. The stories I told myself, comparing one person to another, meticulously separating friend from foe, was done with the simplicity available only to a child. With a glass of cold water within reach, (a necessity for the thick layer of dry gumminess that accumulated on the tongue when licking a multitude of envelopes), the cards would be sorted, names written on the envelopes with swirly lettering, sealed shut, and thrown in to a brown paper grocery bag placed near the bedroom door, in holy anticipation of the day to follow.

My mother was known for her Valentine's Day tea parties. Her table was majestic—adorned with a white linen tablecloth dappled with tiny pink and red aluminum hearts, centered with a bouquet of red and pink flowers. The table served as her palate to display towers of treats, carefully placed on plates lined with white paper doilies. Her delicacies ranged from ham and cheese and cucumber tea sandwiches, to white iced petite fours with candied hearts, next to her infamous chocolate ganache cake with fresh raspberries sprinkled with a powdered sugar heart, and the creme-de-la-creme of assorted Godiva chocolates, including white and milk chocolate dipped strawberries. For this celebration, my mom always chose her Laura Ashly tea set in the vintage Guinevere pattern. The small roses painted on the pieces reminded her of a string of pink hearts.

Being so far away from home, I had pushed the day into my subconscious. However, when I closed my eyes that night, I was profoundly grateful for the lesson on love I received that very day.

As a class, we attended the Mass for the Sick at St. John Bosco Parish in the heart of Nairobi. Before we embarked on the journey to the church, my classmates embraced one another with tremendous zeal, extending loving thoughts to one another. On the journey to the parish, we sang along to African love songs playing on the radio, dancing as much as a cramped car would allow. As we approached the church, I was greeted by cheerful African songs bellowing from the church building, inviting both the well and the sick to enter her sacred space. I watched as a multitude of patients, wrapped in hospital gowns, descended the stairs of buses, inhaling deeply the fresh air. Many disabled in wheelchairs were carried up the stairs by smiling strangers, ready and willing to lend support where needed. Grandmothers and grandfathers, moms and dads, young and old, were being pushed in wheelchairs by relatives, eager to find a place at the  front of the altar.

I stood in awe at the front of the church, witnessing acts of love and kindness in every direction. Unable to tear myself from the scene, I entered the church late, but was able to find a seat next to my friends. The church was brimming.

Before the service started, a friend tapped my shoulder, pointing to the first row, directly in front of the altar. There sat the tiny bodies of many of my patients, dressed in fresh and brightly decorated hospital pajamas, flanked by hospital matrons. Like a mother delighted to see her child after a long absence, I quickly moved down the aisle, having to refrain myself from throwing my arms around each one.  I was delighted beyond words. Our mutual excitement was met through the eyes, as we silently shook hands. Not one of the children risked being removed from the church by one of the matrons.

When I floated back to my seat, I looked up to see a young boy walk-running up the aisle towards me, his hospital robe decorated with elephants and bears flying open as he moved, his bandaged hand cradled in his other hand. We knew each other, and I had obviously missed him in my enthusiastic encounter with the front row. I stood from my seat as he moved towards me, smiling. I knew he was taking a great risk by getting up from his seat to come find me. He arrived at my side, grinning and  slightly breathless. Releasing his injured hand, he used his good arm to embrace me. It was spontaneous and beautiful, a moment galvanized by the power of love. I was captivated by love's spell.

On a day I had dismissed as "not for me," I fortuitously became a witness to the wisdom and energy found in unbridled love— a universal love that reaches beyond expectations and limitations, unquantifiable and timeless. We danced and sang, riding the momentous wave of love, unlimited by the maladies that define daily existence—unlimited by the maladies I carried that tightly wrapped my understanding of love.

This Valentine's Day, I was taught love's endless capacity. I discovered that love is a continuous presence that moves amongst, besides and through not only lovers, but friends, family and strangers. The day is more than a moment in time, measuring the extent of our love by gifts given or gifts received. I participated in Love—boundless in  energy and opportunity. I discovered Love's wait, and Love's desire to be experienced. It is a vibrating melody treasured deep in our souls. If we are willing to receive it, the Universe will happily unfold it.

Nakupenda! 
Mary


A Valentines Spread prepared by a friend!


Tuesday, February 12, 2019




I love this depiction of one of the stations of the cross, hanging in the hospital chapel in Nairobi. The stories in this one painting are captivating. 


I wish I would have planned some sort of outing this past weekend. Remember? I made a promise to myself at the outset of my adventure— I would escape the confines of my secluded compound and take in as much of Africa as possible. However, since midterms are next week, (hard to believe I am at the half-way mark!), and essays need to be written, along with the fact that Monday is the due date for my final senior project if I want to graduate in May, my over achieving, perfectionist self would not allow time for fun this weekend.

Perfectionism—A blessing and a curse, to be sure. I could spend hours discussing the pathological drive that undergirds my driven personality, but that would be boring to most, so I will give you a synopsis of what I have been thinking lately.  I would love to talk more about this issue with someone—compare notes, as a sort of group therapy kind of exercise. We would need wine for this therapy—and a healthy amount of trust, if we were to travel this road together!

A perfectionist. Who is mandating this perfection? The obvious answer is, of course, me—but I was not born a perfectionist. What happened along the way?  Fellow perfectionists, is there someone living on your shoulder, or occupying some part of your brain space, who is continuously critiquing every endeavor you undertake? And of course, every endeavor you take is...just... not... quite... good... enough.

Where is the inertia grounded that resists calling perfectionism a futile attribute? More to the point, what is the behemoth that paralyzes my ability to reconfigure the old mantra demanding perfectionism inculcated in my psyche? You know, the one that screams and cajoles, whip in hand, constantly reminding me that high achievement translates to "you are a successful person," which correlates to "making more money," which correlates to "being even more successful;"  therefore, by god..."achieve more!"  It's a hamster wheel, no matter which way I turn.

To understand my pathological mindset of what it means to live a successful life, you must step with me for a moment into my family of origin. Perfectionism abounds. If you put my siblings and I in a room together, you would have more brainiacs with multiple degrees than a lot of families. We are like rabbits producing more and more, until we are too old to keep producing.  I have to ask, but then what? Are we destined to sit  in our rocking chairs, staring at the diplomas and the awards on our wall, proclaiming, "I have lived a successful life?"

I have come to realize, perfectionism is an exhausting and alienating trait; not to mention down right obnoxious if you are stuck at a dinner party with a group of perfectionists. God bless those who patiently sat through a cocktail hour while my father proudly waxed on and on through the litany of his children's unremitting pursuits and accomplishments.

Yet, as much energy as each of us has spent over-achieving, we have never been able to cultivate the ability to just "be" with one another; to accept one another. We spend so much of our time in our heads, in our own boxes—alienating families—aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and even ourselves from one another. We befriend people who have the same ideologies, thinking exactly as we do, casting those who think differently aside with an air of indignation. Unfortunately, on those very few occasions we have gathered together, conversations exist inside a rumbling tremor of one-upmanship; and the familiar undercurrent of simmering anger inevitably boils over into a full blown battle of words—rapidly digressing into a mania of direct assaults against the  personhood of the other, with words that can never be taken back.

But damn we are smart!

The voice demanding perfection in my life is the voice of my family; a perfection that is unachievable. I have come to the conclusion that sometimes, the only way to reconfigure a pathological mantra, is to cut the ties that bind.

What is family?

Is it possible that the most successful people are not the perfectionist in this world? Could it be possible that the most successful people are those who know how to give and receive love? Those who know how to attentively reside in joy? Those who believe that winning is not as important as acceptance and respect for all of humanity?

One day, I hope to be able to say, "My life is successful because I loved, experienced joy, and reveled in the joy of others."

I am a work in progress.



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