Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Mzungu— the "White Girl"

"Mzungu! Mzugu Americana," squeals the little ones as they run down the hospital corridor towards me. Obviously, one of the children has spotted me approaching the ward from a distance and wanted to be the first to notify the others. If one had a camera and took a snapshot of these children running down the hallway towards me, and morphed their tiny and frail bodies into adults for effects sake, you would swear that you had stepped into a scene from Walk of The Living Dead—bodies bent, bloody and dragging, haphazardly wrapped in bandages from head to toe. Many of the children are able to run easily toward me, undisturbed by the unfurling and soaked bandages sliding down their burned and scarred bodies. Others are just as determined, but slowed by a dragging and useless limb.

I am a novelty to them, a distraction from the painful world of their daily existence: wound debridement, the application of medicine on raw skin, and the tedium and loneliness in the space in between. As they reach me, I am captured by their joy. When I squat down, hands begin caressing my hair and examining my white skin. They are enthralled and curious— universal traits of small children—by the color and the texture of my being, pinching my skin and then pinching theirs to see if we work in the same way. Although I could remain there all day, I tell them I have to get back to work. Hearing this declaration, the children frantically grab my hands, or hold on to my pant legs or shirt tail, hanging on while I make the rounds in the ward. After a while, the children get bored with my job and head back to their room.

Today, someone brought in a cake. This is a very rare treat for these children. The air is filled with anticipation and excitement! The nurses call all the children to a low, long table in the middle of the hospital room (as I described before, it is about half the size of a school gymnasium), to which they immediately and quietly obey. Even the children who spent the morning in bed due to then pain and severity of their injuries, struggled to get up from their beds and come the table. I don't know what embodied spirit of mine speaks louder, my self as a physical therapist or my protective self who is a mother. I urgently want to assist these little ones to the table–sweep them up in to a loving embrace, making their journey as easy as possible. But I am not allowed to. Culturally, the child would most likely refuse my help. These children are used to surviving on their own. In this culture, there is no space safe enough for them to act the way Western children are able to act. Their tribe mandates strength. These children are working before they know how to speak. Supporting a family is literally a family affair. .

Before the cake was cut, the children happily sang a song in Swahili about cutting a cake. It reminded me of the birthday song, a melody that celebrates  life. Following the song, each child bowed his or her head, and with unquestionable devotion, recited a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving. A lump formed in my throat as I looked at 16 little beings, eyes closed, giving thanks to God for the gift of life and the gift of the cake. Each child, no matter what age or how battered they were, said the prayer aloud with deep commitment and intention.The cake was cut in to very small, palm size pieces. I marveled as I watch them manage the piece to their mouths, as if they were eating something sacred. Even though there was more cake left, no child reached for more nor ask for more. They sat in silence, savoring the flavor left in the mouth, hands in their lap. That one morsel was their treasure.

As I thought about them later, my mind flashed to the horror I observe in their hospital room—dirty mats to lay their tiny and beaten bodies, a few box springs where some of the children lay directly on the springs without a mattress available, and a few lucky ones who get a mattress on top off the rickety box springs, but no linen unless a family member brought some. Yet what hit me as I thought about their big eyes and smiling faces, these children exude not poverty, but an authentic joy that springs from within. They do not have material things. Some do not have a family. Their minds, their bodies, their environments are not congested with material things and activities. They have nothing. So, something as small as a palm sized piece of cake is cherished, experienced as something special and interpreted through a lens of gratitude. As Father John says, "There are people who experience poverty because of human corruption, as many Kenyans do. Yet, they have everything, because they do not have poverty of the heart. You can have all the wealth in the world, but still be in poverty."
street vendors selling hard boiled eggs with salsa and fresh fruit.

The people I have encountered in this country I observe as materialistically very poor, but incredibly rich and joyful in the heart. It is humbling.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Good, The Bad, and The Heartbreaking

Resting at the crater's edge on the top Mt. Logonot after a 2 hour ascend!

Spirituality and medicine are always interpreted as the work of the Supreme Being, believed in and worshipped by different communities in Africa, albeit with different names."(Religion and Health in Africa by Adam K. arap Chepkwony)

I am reading the book, Religion and Health in Africa that explains the inseparable nature of health and religion in Africa. It is paramount for me to have a general understanding of the complexity of beliefs embodied in the African people, in order to appreciate the people I am working with. The link between health and religion, or spirituality, is undeniable, manifested in varied beliefs, rituals and practices surrounding birth, circumcision, puberty, marriage and death.

Prior to colonization, the tribes practiced traditional medicine–rituals that included certain herbs prayers, dances and hunts. Once Christianity was brought to the region, traditional medicine was outlawed, subjugated to the list of worship activities that the Christians labeled as evil—calling the practices witchcraft, "from the devil," and idolatrous. Their mission was to eradicate these cultural traditions by any means at their disposal, including death of tribal members. The traditional  practices continued, but were forced underground.

However, over the last several decades, the World Health Organization has supported the revitalization of traditional medicine practices that have been subjected to hidden corners, advocating the combination of conventional and traditional medicine as holistic and liberating for the African people.

With over 42 tribes in Kenya, there are many different cultural beliefs in God, medicine and healing. Certain tribes believe that witchcraft has much to do with one's illness, and curses may be severe. Most of these people are also practicing Christians. The blame for the curse may fall on a deceased relative or someone in their community or family. The patient may express that he or she was cursed by God for some form of ill behavior. In the overall milieu of the culture of tribe, is a strong belief in some form of a Higher Spirit active in the life of the people

I felt a new door opened for me this week: one full of fresh air and new possibilities. You see, ever since I entered the chaplaincy program in divinity school, I have struggle with what my pastoral identity is. I feel I am "called," (a very ministerial word, I know!) to be with people who have experienced religion in a way that has harmed them, or made them feel less then their full and beautiful selves. Call it "religion repair." So in a way, I am a minister working from an anti-organized religious lean. I want to be a part of another's journey towards self love—a love of themselves exactly for who they are, how they were created from the very beginning, and freedom to celebrate this knowledge OUT LOUD!

  I am unsure who expresses more bewilderment: me when I tell someone I am studying to be a minister (which I quickly add the caveat: 'not in a religion sort of way, you know?'), or the person who has known my somewhat rebellious nature and hears this declaration spoken from my lips? There is a pregnant pause while we are both simultaneously trying to connect Mary and minister!

I have a conflicted relationship with God. I take that back. I do not have a conflicted relationship with a Supreme Essence, or a Higher Truth, per se; I have a conflicted relationship with the name "God." I associate the name "God" with organized religion. There is my struggle. I have heartbreakingly witnessed good people being belittled, judged, humiliated, ostracized, and shamed in the name of their God. I am more comfortable with any other name.

I was born with an unsettled mind! Since I can remember, I incessantly pondered the meaning of things, mostly existential concepts like life, death, God—heavy stuff for a young kid! Unfortunately, this inquisitive trait did not bode well at home and at school. I was from the generation that questioning was uncalled for, obedience was mandatory. I keenly remember feeling unmoored and agitated as my questions were regarded as unnecessary and irrelevant. I started to think that there was something wrong with me, or that I was flat out weird. With my lack of maturity and experience in worldly matters, I am sure my questioning nature came across as incorrigible and disrespectful. This became quite problematic when I entered high school. I spent a lot of time in the office of Sister Anne Marie, the principles of my all girls Catholic high school. This is when life became confusing and chaotic for me. My inquisitive nature morphed into a beast of self rightoueous anger and rebellion. Simultaneously, my home life was unraveling all around me. An unpleasant time, to be sure.

I fought hard against the script I was given regarding what I was to believe in and how I was to live my life. Looking back, I was only echoing my mother's battle cry for a new narrative, an updated and refreshing version of the well worn story that had been followed for generations. She longed for a new script, a story that was more encompassing and empowering for her. But the actors in the well worn and perfected script were not interested in any change. And while the play continued all around her, she withdrew from the stage unnoticed, and her isolation became too great. The only way she knew how to stop the play for a moment was to try and become louder than the actors, through anger then rage. But the actors continued to move in the same worn patters, smiles painted on their faces for the audience to see. This continued until her rage drove her to the  companionship of a bottle of wine and some  prescription drugs. But the actors did not mind. They just moved her off the stage and in to the darkness. That is what happens if you don't stay on script.

My family held strongly to the script that described the roles of a "good" Catholic and model citizen, as many other families of this generation did. The lines of the script were memorized, replete with strict gender binaries subsumed in a patriarchal system woven into the foundation of church, family and society. Any deviation from the script resulted in traveling a lonely, desolate road. Those who conformed found it necessary to ascribe to the non-conformers virulent messages of unworthiness and shame. And in a family prone to depression and other manifestations of mental illness, this attitude was just the nudge.There was no space for individuality, no interest in an alternate narrative or exploration in the meaning of another's story. These confines deflated a good many's sense of individuality and autonomy; more so, a sense of belonging and being loved. To this day, clinging to a well worn and tired script is still valued by some. They create the role for each character. There is no escaping the role they ascribe to the players in their story. But it is not sustainable. Relationships are broken. Lives have been lost. The story is truly a tragedy.

Wait...Aren't we all made in the image of God? I find God, or whatever name one chooses for their higher power, brings connection, belonging and joy—an energy too large to be contained in only one script! My sense of God is a whimsical, energizing, love filled essence that we are all a part of, and are invited to join in with every breath we take! Just look around at the beauty and diversity of creation! One script causes pain. One script causes division. One script makes the one holding it feel powerful and entitled. One script is self focused and narrow and demonstrates fear, afraid of considering alternate narratives. One script is love-less. It saddens me.

Father John began the lecture on spirituality and ministering to others with this line, "Sneeze God out!" His point being, chaplaincy is not about proselytizing or "doing religion." We do not approach a patient carrying a religion like we have the answers, but as a spiritual person face to face with another spiritual person. He furthered by saying, "Everyone is spiritual." But no two people are the same.

Life is full of meaning-making, and we should be opened to understanding the "meaning" held in the other. If one loses meaning, then he or she looses life.Poignantly put, John described our role as chaplains as one who "helps the other feel like home is being brought closer." This I can do.

Friday was my first day at Kenyata Hospital. The hospital campus holds the medical school along with apartments for the students and their families. As I approached the hospital building, I noticed  laundry hanging from most of the windows, drying in the hot sun that was relentlessly beating against the building. I later discovered that the hospital does not provide laundry service for patients. The hospital does not provide sheets for the beds, except in the burn unit. The hospital does not provide toiletries or even toilet paper (I found out the hard way when I went to use the loo). Walking the wards is a shocker for an American use to the finest of healthcare! Many of the  hospital rooms are equivalent to the size of half a school gymnasium, with no less than 50 blue mats without linens lined side by side, occupied by the patient and possibly a family member. In the areas where there are very young children, the mothers are allowed to stay in the hospital with them. There is a smell of bodies, sickness and sour smelling food left on trays scattered here and there. There are mothers sitting on the mat nursing their little babies who are wrapped in gauze because they have been burned in some sort of accident, or from abuse. There are mothers who are also bandaged from burns and injuries nursing their injured babies. Their eyes are distant and glazed over.

Many patients remain in the hospital because they cannot afford to pay their bill, which increases daily.
Entrance to hospital. Heavily guarded. I had to ask permission from guard to take pic.

The most difficult for me to observe were the many children who have been abandoned by their families. These children have been burned, beaten or cut through some form of trauma or abuse, and have remained in the hospital for more than one year. One boy in particular, who was around 11, has been laying wrapped in bandages from head to toe for over 9 months, no visitors, abandoned by his family. Another young boy, about the same age, was burned in an explosion and has not been visited by anyone in months. When his food tray was brought, he made a gesture indicating he was unable to lift the food to his mouth because of his injuries. The worker delivering the food did not have time to feed him, nor did the nurses. With permission, I was allowed to feed him. I glanced at his tray, a large dollop of ugali (the cooked cornmeal with bread-like consistency) and a small portion of cooked cabbage with carrots. I kept imagining my son. I would have brought the roof down on any institution that thought food like that was appropriate for my child's healing and comfort. I would have brought him or her a deluxe meal, super-sized if he or she wanted! But, I have that luxury.
 He opened his mouth, taking no more than 8 spoonfuls before shaking his little head "no," indicating he could not eat anymore. He took a sip of milk from a straw that a nurse created by using a non-sterile razor to slice some oxygen tubing.
The milk is poured out of a bucket into a cup for the all the children, at one time. There are no snacks between meals. There are no stuffed animals, cards or balloons to cheer them. It is heartbreaking. Where is hope to be found?
The main lobby, place to grab some food from vendors, before I found out I could not take pics in hospital

On a lighter note, I was able to escape the city on Saturday. I went on a tour that took me on a challenging hike up  to the volcanic crater of Mt. Longmont, followed by a boat safari at Lake Navaisha. I met a lovely women from Belgium, named Leen, who was in Nairobi doing training having to do with the trauma and violence experienced surrounding human slavery. She is presently working in Cambodia, having previously worked in Uganda and Nairobi. She works for an NGO that has "boots on the ground" combating human trafficking and slavery. Over a beer and a Kenyan lunch, we became fast friends.

It did not escape me, the juxtaposition of the pain and sadness with the beauty
My friend Leen, at the halfway point of the climb

Arrived at the Longonot's crater. Last volcanic eruption in the 1800's
Lake Navaisha: hippo in water

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Habari za asubuhi (Goodmornng),

I am proud of myself this morning. Instead of remaining in bed when my alarm went off at 5:45,  I got up (and back down a couple of times, trying desperately to convince myself bed is better), put on  exercise attire, and met up with Father John to do a morning workout. He wanted to learn how to do strengthening exercises with the resistance bands I brought from home.

Having extra, unfettered time in the morning is a gift. At home, I fill my time with "stuff" that empties my tank before I have even left the house. Before my feet hit the ground, there's a list of "things to do" reverberating in my head. I dutifully cram 40 minutes of exercise in not for pleasure, but as a punishment for eating too much the night before, or because I feel fat. Sweating, I rush through a shower, feeling the anxiety of running late–continuing to sweat as I dress. Between the residual body heat from the exercise, the heat from the shower, middle age hormone battles, and the oppressive humidity of Nashville, the sweat is unavoidable, no matter how clean I am. Rushing to the kitchen, I grab a piece of sandpaper known as a power bar, coffee with a bit of almond milk, and in a scattered heap make my way to the car, spilling coffee all over the place along the way. I am off to be a productive, hence worthy, citizen.

To top this frenzied typical morning, my inner critic obviously got a good night sleep because she is relentlessly chattering, mercilessly describing my deficiencies of the day— from my clothes, to my hair, to my body, to forgetting to put gas in the car, etc, you get it. There is an arsenal of negative statements this inner chic pulls from. Getting her to say something nice to me is a chore. I really ought to stop feeding the ungrateful bitch!

However, this morning I took a bold step. I mediated sitting naked in front of my fan. OK...TMI you're screaming... but I promised to be honest about this adventure ... and this blog is about me not you! And it was in front of the fan, because it was so very hot already! I would have never done this at home, especially in broad daylight. You see, I have always had a hateful relationship with my body. Blame it on Augustine and original sin, blame it on the Puritans colonizing the western hemisphere, blame it on the denial of anything to do with sexuality and the body...a torment during puberty.There is a plethora of people and places and magazines and movies, to blame. Also, I am convinced that once one suffers from the disease of anorexia and bulimia, which started for me when I was 13, there remains a residual scar of self annihilation that is always and forever present. Thankfully, after many years of good counseling, I recovered from the "actions of being anorexic," but that little girl who felt insignificant remains deeply held in my psyche.

So, about that terrible body-Mary relationship and meditating naked...the goal is to feel comfortable in my own skin. I want to revel in the fact that I am not perfect but I am perfect. I have stretch marks and saggy boobs and an ever widening ass. (Ok, I admit I recently had a boob lift because my inner critic shamed me enough). Everything about me seems to be heading in a southern direction. I want to understand why I cannot embrace "me." Why can't I adore this body that has carried me through thick and thin, stretched to phenomenal shapes during pregnancy, and has been my constant companion since birth?

I am sure there are a few of you that can relate to the following:  it is truly amazing to watch a man's behavior when he gets out of the shower. He unabashedly walks  across the bathroom floor, stands in front of the mirror in the buff, brushes his hair and his teeth, applies deodorant—all the while comfortably checking out his "guns" in the mirror. With awesome confidence, he can stand in front of you and carry on a mundane conversation for minutes at a time. It does not matter if he has a big belly, a massively hairy chest, or any other characteristic one might assert as negative — he is obviously comfortable enough living in his own skin. I am truly jealous.

I, on the other hand, have to have a towel within reach to promptly cover myself, even if I am the only one in the bathroom. I could not imagine standing full monty in front of a mirror, much-less standing in front of someone naked, carrying on a conversation. I dream of walking across the room in a sultry way like women in the movies, or in Europe. But the thought of it makes me roar with uncomfortable and nervous laughter. I was jubilant when I discovered my husband could not see without his glasses or contacts. He became blind. Such freedom in those moments!

It was a terribly difficult morning exercise, meditating naked. The critic came out in full force, spewing her negativity with such vengeance that I felt it bouncing of the walls in of my room! I kept trying to redirect my thoughts, to say a prayer, anything to move past her. But she is tenacious and unyielding, feeling perfectly comfortable inside of my head. Go ahead, try it one day. I would love to hear how you felt about it.

After that experience, I dressed, organized my room, and went to breakfast. Kenyans treat meals as a community ritual. No one starts eating until everyone is present. No one gets up from the table until everyone is finished. They do not ask, "Are you done yet?" They simply and kindly observe and wait. When they notice everyone is done, someone at the table will reach for my dish and clear it to the kitchen. They do not talk much while eating. Eating is for enjoying and appreciating the food "momma" cooked. Even tea time, a 30 minute ritual everyone does mid-morning, no matter what your job is, sits comfortably silent in community. It is the presence of the other that nourishes. I have finally become comfortable in this silence. Westerners chat. We are uncomfortable with silence and fill the empty spaces with noise.

Breakfast this am was corn on the cob and bananas. Maize is a common breakfast food: served on the cob at  room temperature. I had to take a lesson from my table mates. You use your fingers to pull of kernels and put them in your mouth. Steve (pictured below) said that it is common for African children to take a long piece of corn, wrapped in banana leaves to keep it fresh, to school with them to eat for breakfast, lunch and supper. It is important to keep in mind, most children walk miles to and from school and food can be scarce. Furthermore, it can be expensive to buy at the fresh food stalls, so it is only served when it is in season. With my cup of instant coffee and steamed milk, it was delicious.

my table mates: (clockwise: Sister Rose, Tom, Charles and Steve)
Our bananas. Bananas actually are considered an herb, is perineal, and grows from a bulb. The plants are cut and large bunches stored in kitchen still on large stem. Africa is a large producer of bananas for the global market. These little ones are very sweet!

"Momma" Jedida and our morning Maize
Typical lunch or dinner. Rice, lentils and avocado

Incredibly delicious

Hapuna Matata- "no trouble"

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

How do I know Me?

"Go to your bosom;
  Knock there;
  and ask your heart,
  what it doth know."
                                                                                             (William Shakespeare)

I slept incredibly well after my Sunday communing with the animals of East Africa and sleeping with my proudly assembled revolving fan. I intended to get out of bed around 5:30 am and head out for a run, but the combination of luxuriating in front of my fan and catching another hour of sleep quickly quelled my good intentions of beginning a disciplined exercise schedule.

Today was autobiography day. Sitting in our seats in a circle, we each had to recount our life story. The main goal of the exercise was to reflect on the people and the situations that formed us—family dynamics, aspirations,  pains and joys—and be open for very pointed and intense questions from supervisors and peers. It can be a fruitful exercise if one can remain open to the "digging" that happens when supervisors and peers begin to push deeper and further in to one's narrative. Women are better at this exercise than men. Women, being feelers, can wax on and on, while the men begin to glaze over in the first 5 minutes of her account. The exercise was also geared towards attentive listening. Women were better at that as well. The men downed pots and pots of coffee and tea, wriggled in their seats, and cleared their throats a lot.

With a puffed out chest and deep, unwavering voice, the men proceeded to recount their lives as if reading from a well rehearsed script, proceeding in a chronological, "facts-only" kind of way. The supervisors sat back and waited patiently for the right moment—then blindsided them with a series of direct, challenging and uncomfortable questions. It was an interesting phenomenon to witness—their demeanor changed. They folded like a metal folding chair—posture flexing and withdrawing as if it hurt too much to sit. Their strong voices became weak and unsure. Possibly a tear would fall. The little boy, subjugated to the depths of his inner netherworld, began to raise his little head and be recognized.  These were tender moments.

"We are only as sick as our deepest held secret." Unless those secrets are somehow set free, we will never be fully free. We all hold secrets. Behind our facades of wealth, security and "fitting in," is a child unattended.

No-one can take another's truth. My truth is my reality. Your truth is your reality. We spend our lives interpreting another's truth as a non-truth, as if we know what the only truth is. We are molded and manipulated by family, society and our faith to believe our truth is IT! We close ourselves from learning.

Make space for the other's truth. Approach others with love and concern, knowing each of us are, as Anton Boise, the "father of pastoral care" defined, "human documents" full of stories and experiences. Honor your story. Honor the other's story. We can be raised in the same house, by the same parents, but have a totally different "truth" about that upbringing.

I kept thinking about this quote:

"Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle." (attributed to Maclaren, Philo, Plato and Socrates)

Usiku mwema, (Goodnight)
Nakupenda, (I love you)


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Week 1 Complete with a bit of Fun

I am a strong woman, to be sure. I am incredibly independent. I have mentally and physically both conformed and fought against traditional gender roles, especially as I watched my mother grasp for autonomy in a world where societal and religious binaries made this freedom impossible. Unfortunately, I witnessed her pay a high price for being born a generation too soon.

Yet, I ardently stand by my feminist self until I purchase something that needs assembly! At home, I would make a purchase like I did today—a standing fan and printer—and ask one of my sons to put both items together for me. From experience, I know just reading the directions for such gadgets sends me in to a tail spin of anxiety! I do not have a linear thinking mind...I have a scattered one.

It is amazing what one can do when left to her own resources fueled by the threat of another sticky night. If I could open the windows, the evening breeze would be delightful, but the mosquitos would swarm and I would get some sort of tropical disease and this whole adventure would be over.

Purchasing a fan in Nairobi is like purchasing a cold diet coke. It is nearly impossible. However, Ruben, the Cuban-American I mentioned previously, kindly took me to the YaYa Center. If I wasn't looking for such a "modern" luxury like a fan, the YaYa Center would have disappointed me—it felt like walking in to the Mall of America. Pretty selfish of me to want an authentic Kenyan experience sans modernization, but make sure I have all the creature comforts as well!

 Not only did I find a fan and a printer, but to my excitement I discovered a cafe that served something other than mashed vegetables and rice. With delight, I inhaled a caprese sandwich on thick toasted ciabatta bread with a large side of fries smothered in salt and ketchup. Although no diet Coke, I ordered a Stoney Tangawizi Zero —a no sugar soda described as "a refreshment that gives you the thrill of ginger as it catches the back of your throat." That it did!

I ate lunch with a man from Ethiopia and his wife, from Duluth, Minnesota. I am terrible with names, so they will remain nameless. They had just returned from Ethiopia where the man has been acting as a mediator for the new prime minister and the previous government. Ethiopia has been under many forms of government: a dictatorship, socialism, and a federal parliamentary republic, with unrest, riots and imprisonment of those who speak against whoever is holding power at the time. In 2005, many parliamentary members, as well as journalist, were imprisoned accused of inciting riots against the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Front which was the sitting government. Many are still in prisoned. The man I had lunch with discussed how the new prime minister is liberal, coming in to run a government that does not like change. His job is to keep the tensions as low as possible. A difficult task, to be sure.

If there is a one word I had to use for the political vibe in Eastern Africa, it would be "change." The old guard and way of life is being usurped by a younger, more liberal agenda. With 80% of Kenyans 30 years of age and younger (life expectancy is 60), combined with a 21% unemployment rate, there is motivation plus energy for change. Add all of that to the unabated tensions between Christians and Muslims, and you have political passions flowing in all directions.

Wow, I got off script. Remember, I am anything but linear. I need to wrap this post up. I took 2 advil PM's and need a good nights rest for class tomorrow. Another week of forced self discovery. All is good!

My first full week completed and I am still here. And I successfully put together my fan and hooked up my printer

                          Life is a paradox. Ugliness and Beauty....Dark and Light...Humans and the Divine 

Hippos at Sunset
My New Love!

                                                              Orphan Elephant Sanctuary
Momma and Her Baby Zebra (Locals call them Zeb-bras)


                                                      Baby Rhino not far behind momma
                                                       Channeling my inner Karen Blixen

Friday, January 18, 2019


Our teacher ended class yesterday saying, "I will see you on Monday." With jubilant confusion, I  turned to Rose. She tilted her head to the left in recognition of my puzzlement. "Why aren't we having class tomorrow," I whispered, embarrassed that I had missed an important message. Rose giggled, exposing her chiclet shaped teeth, heartily gapped in the middle, "Hapana Mary, (pronounced Mareeee), today is Friday. It is the weekend!" I lost a day somewhere in the middle of my time warp travel.

My first weekend in Nairobi—no children, no husband, no parents or extended family, nothing on my agenda that grips my time and chokes my breath. It is a luxury, to be sure. Young enough to be adventurous, but old enough to temper throwing caution to the wind, I have made safe plans to drink in the culture of East Africa. The barrage of daily emails from the International SOS and Vanderbilt University would cause anyone with a timid and overly concerned constitution to stay inside the locked compound. The warning messages are vitally important, and I am grateful for them. Hearing these types of warnings and new stories at home, I would never have let my children travel to this area, fearing  for their lives.  Yet, the alarmist nature does not necessarily equate to reality. The city is alive this morning and waiting to be captured!

Rubert, a Cuban American chaplain who lives in Nairobi with his wife and small children, offered to take me around town today in order to purchase items I discovered, after this first week, that I need. I am so thankful because navigating this city in a car seems way more dangerous than the possibility of another terrorist attack.

After a breakfast of ngumu kuchemsha maya (hard boiled egg), mkate kahawia (brown bread), and the small wild tomatoes I pick every morning on my way to the dining room, I am getting ready for a day in Nairobi. Tomorrow, I am heading out for my first safari experience!

Upendo Sana (much love).
Mary ( Mareee)

Thursday, January 17, 2019


I am settling in. I sense I am turning the corner regarding my sleep/wake cycle, with another successful unbroken 6 hours of sleep. Sleep is the tonic for anything that ails.

It is summer here in Nairobi. The sky is cloudless. The medicinal Kassod tree, and the Cordia Africana (flowering) tree reach towards the still, azure sky. The brutal heat from the sun is broken by a pleasant breeze, affording enjoyable walks in the early morning or the late afternoon.

I have quieted the alarm bells in my head, warning me of the various and heinous possibilities that would negatively effect me being in a foreign land, far away from modern "necessities." What I have discovered is that my ignorance, sprinkled with a dash of elitism and Western sensibility of suspicion, unfairly and unfortunately skewed my perspective of places like Africa in a negative direction. It is clear that my mind created a story of Africa as primitive, tribal, and unruly. But Nairobi is a bustling city, the capital of Kenya, with high rise buildings and sprawling parks, as well as the slums and homeless people.

The Servants of the Sick Training Center is where I am living and taking classes. Didactic classes are the first 2 weeks, while the last 8 weeks are half day class, half day clinical. We choose our settings, either a certain floor in the city's general hospital, or the hospital for the mentally ill and addicted patient. I chose the burn unit at the general hospital because it is where I will have the opportunity to work with children. I feel comfortable being enmeshed in the world of a burn unit since I was used to working with burns as a physical therapist. It takes a certain type of stomach, and I am hoping I still have it. I have been almost guaranteed that I will be prepared to work with these patients without breaking myself wide open due to despair.

I am glad I have a more vegetarian palate than a carnivorous one, because our meals are mainly a starch along with boiled vegetables and vegetable stews. If there is meat, it is at dinner, and it is a small pot of a few chicken wings and a couple of drumsticks for the whole table. When I compare the spread to what our plates look like at home, I understand why we have such an obesity crisis!

The staple of the Kenyan diet is Ugali, a dish made by adding cornmeal to boiling water and stirring it until it becomes a white block of grainy dough. It is referred to as "Kenyan bread," cut in to large hunks and placed on your plate. It is eaten either with a fork, or used like a roll of cooked dough to scoop up the saucy vegetables. Since greens are in season and grown on the premisses, we have some sort of boiled greens every lunch and dinner. My favorite stew is Irio, a mashed pea and potato mixture that can be poured over Ugali or white rice. For lunch today we had githeri, which is boiled beans and corn with a small amount of carrots. Dinner was a repeat, with the addition of tilapia cooked in a stew of greens and tomatoes. The presentation of the tilapia was a new one for me. It is the head portion and the tail portion of the fish— bones, eyeballs and  scales, sans the guts. I usually do not shy away from trying new foods. However, when I looked into the pot, it reminded me of the bucket my dad used to throw the skin, head, tail, bone and guts in to after a day of fishing at the lake.Debating whether or not to have any, Tom placed a piece of the tail on my plate, as I was holding up the buffet line. I would not have accepted the head portion, with its dry eye socket and an opulent white bead that one time served as a functioning eyeball.

I love the clean and simple food. They do not have deserts, unless it is a piece of fruit. However, due to the expense, it is rare to have and the piece of fruit is often shared. They eat no where the amount we do, and everything is fresh even the chicken is fresh, chosen from one that is free roaming around the yard, the market, or in more rural areas, the house. Food not grown or raised is purchased from growers in the open market place. There is no Kroger or Publix to hop in the car and go to. At first I thought I would miss an occasional glass of wine, but I like the clean feeling I am experiencing.

Going to keep this post light.

I fall asleep tonight feeling grateful, loved and encouraged. I pray your world is happy and peaceful and that you feel loved.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Each Breath is a New Beginning, an Opportunity to do it Better

Huambo (Hello)

I am a new person this morning. Although I awoke at 3:00 am, (rattled by another bombing), I fell asleep so early last night that I slept through dinner.  I was told that my classmates living here at the center: Rose, Stephen, Tom and Charlie (shortened names for my benefit, since their African names remain impossible for me to pronounce correctly), waited patiently for me to show up to the dinner table before filling their plates and starting to eat. When I did not show up, they voted for Sister Rose to check on me. At 8:00 pm, I heard a gentle tap on my door. A sweet African accent ask, "Mary, do you want some food?" It was not until Rose reported back to the group about my well-being that they arose from the dining table, filled their plates, and began to eat the meal.When I walked into the dining area this morning, they greeted me as if I had just returned from a long journey. In many ways, I had come back from a journey.

Experiencing the thunderous sound that caused the earth to shake below my feet, resulting in the death of many innocent human beings, has become an embodied  and existential experience. My emotions are thick: fear, despair, grief and anger.

Analyzing an emotion, strip it down to its bear bones, is an enlightening exercise that many of us are unwilling to touch. We react in a certain way in a certain moment. End of story. This was what we did in our class today!

For example, lets take anger. Why do you get angry? What is your experience when you feel anger? If one challenges you by taking the emotion you chose to describe a given interaction; for example, I feel "angry," and, as T.S. Eliot describes, "like a patient etherized on a table," lay that word out for all to see, all to dissect and stab that from every angle until it is bloody and raw, one discovers the "why" in why anger is your experience/reaction in a given situation. Furthermore, you have to own this reaction and not to blame the others, One finds it is not about the other person, or the one that made you "angry," it is something inside of you that has not been named and integratted. Chomp on that a bit.

Needless to say, while in front of my peers and my teachers being the one to dissect and be dissected for an hour, I cried, felt beat up, yet I experience a sense of liberation and joy after! I believe I am beginning to unpack that purple bag I talked about in my initial post. While I felt utterly uncomfortable during the exercise, the words of Father John came to mind: "it is only through the suffering pains of birth that life can begin."

As the day progressed, I realized my outside world, meaning my little room, represented my inside world: chaotic and messy. Some say how we keep our outside world reflects much about our inner world. If I am here do some unpacking— reaching in and pulling up those deep issues that block me in life and relationships, it was time to get my act together. I finally unpacked those dam suitcases, neatly organizing my belongings in the rickety armoire.  I kept the clothes in my suitcase that would be too hot to wear, picked up the scattered dirty clothes I have been walking on for the past 3 days, and vowed to ask Jebetta for a washing lesson. I placed the copious amounts of  "back up" medicines and beauty products in another bag, along with the unusable hairdryer and curling iron, and stowed them away under my bed. I also made the bold decision to stow away all makeup products, with the exception of my tinted face lotion (baby steps).  Come on friends, doesn't the thought make you a tad anxious? Remarkably, I don't feel anxious and traumatized by it! I wonder if I could have done the same at home? Somehow, I doubt I would have loved myself enough to allow it! Please do not misunderstand me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with makeup, botox, etc. What is at question is the "why" you do it. My "why" is not healthy.

Maybe I am starting to experience moving beyond the red lipstick?

(A bonus to all this positive juju: I found my shampoo!)

I have much work to do tonight, so I will end this post with the highlight quotes/thoughts of the day:

"Running away from your shadow does not mean it does not follow you."

"Humility is to know what you know and be open to learn more."

"Do the work to unglue your thick mask and live as you are meant to live."

"Being judgmental gives us 'false joy' because it make us feel powerful. It says, 'I am better than you.' A judgmental person is incapable of disagreeing with another without dismissing the entire person. A disagreement turns into a rejection of the entire person."

"Challenge yourself and others when they say 'I feel good" or 'I feel bad'? What do those words mean? Once unpacked, we find these are words are hiding a myriad of feelings." Stepping in to this challenge is an act of love.

"Giving others authority means you rely on externals for your strength and validation, when the locus of control is within yourself." The kingdom of God is within you takes on a whole new meaning!

"If your shower is coming down on your head with cold water, it is up to you to change the temperature!"

I have so much more I want to share. I want to describe the beauty of the Kenyan people. I want to discuss the absolute and authentic kindness they innately carry. I want to tell you about my walk with my classmates, Tom and Charlie, and our discussion about politics and show they view the recent terrorist attack. I want to tell you about the food Jebetta prepares for us, so simple yet so rich with love, all organically grown and picked from the garden on the grounds. But, I know...I don't have to wear you all out with it now. I have several months!

Tonight I give thanks for my life and the lives of all of you: we are strong yet so fragile and vulnerable. I give thanks that I learned it is right and grace-filled to grab a hold of my own authority and to stop giving it away;  I grieve for those who suffer because others feel the authority to be judgmental (this includes myself, BTW) and dismiss the entirety of a human life just because they disagree with you; I grieve for the recent loss of lives.

Usiku Mwema, (good night)

Nakupenda, (I love you)

                                                                My walking buddies

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What A Mixed Up Day

Its now 4:10 am. Over the past 3 days I think I have successfully slept for a total of 6 hours. I awoke initially at 3:03 am and forced myself to try and go back to sleep. Around 4 am, I surrendered to the fact sleep was avoiding me. I might as well to something productive.

I  decided it would be a good time to address the clothing/closet dilemma. Get that task behind me before opting to live out of my suitcases for the next 10 weeks. I opened the armoire doors, stared at the small empty space for a few breaths, and closed the doors deciding "nah." I thought of the shower and clean hair! I optimistically approached the hot water button and flipped it on, assuring myself that somehow, overnight, the hot water miraculously found its way to my room.  After all, Father John stressed the importance of one's faith! I removed the sweaty, insect repellent soaked cotton dress I slept in, grabbed my coveted bottle of recently purchased shampoo, and optimistically walked, without any hesitation, straight in to...yes... an unwelcoming frigid shower.

Determined to wash my matted and greasy hair, I positioned my body in the same half-in-half out posture perfected yesterday. Leaning my head into the cold stream, I grabbed the tiny bottle of shampoo and poured a large amount into my shivering hand. It took a nano second of paralyzing horror to realize the greasy white substance mounding in my palm was not shampoo, but copiously thick and greasy conditioner. Good God there were only 2 shampoo bottles available at the supermarket yesterday! How did I make this mistake? I shivered and stared at the mess in my palm for a good 30 seconds. The only thing I seemed to be able to accomplish in that moment,  besides an uncontrollable chatter of my teeth, was a rapid and furious stream of such incredible profanity that I was confident the words jolted every priest and nun in residence awake. I imagined each one, bible or rosary in hand, pausing with a simple nod of the head, confirming his or her belief from the day before—after I explained my somewhat fuzzy "spiritual but not religious" identification—"I don't think she is ministerial material."

Uninterested in being defeated, realizing creativity was a necessity at this most vulnerable point,  I grabbed the tiny bar of deodorant soap sitting at my sink, crumbled it into little pieces  with my one available hand, and mixed it with the conditioner dripping off my other hand. I scrubbed the concoction firmly and deeply into my scalp, down the strands of wet, cold hair hanging over my face. I felt clever in the moment, proud of my cleaning and conditioning blend–a popularly and expensive novelty in the states.

It did not take long before my scalp started to tingle, then revolt with spasms of burning barbs. I rinsed the mixture the best I possibly could, given the stream of cold water had mockingly morphed into drops of icy liquid, wrapped my hair in my one white towel, and smiled at the grande accomplishment of "washing" my hair.

I will admit, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance that  occurs whilst  slathering my freshly cleaned skin with insect repellent containing the prescribed high concentration of DEET. Frankly, it comes down to a "which would you rather" game, like my kids use to play on long road trips. For example, "Which would you rather: eat a can of maggots for 5 days straight or have the end of your pinky cut off?"  So, it goes like this "which would I rather?—use my luscious patchouli body butter that makes me smell lovely and feel smooth in a hippy sort of way, while increasing the likelihood of being swarmed and surely bitten by a disease carrying mosquito; or, would I rather slather on DEET that is rapidly and assuredly absorbed into my blood stream (muting my good cells along the way), resulting in such a toxic environment that every blood sucking little shit knows not to risk nibbling my flesh, hence avoiding a very real African horror like malaria or Zika that would result in a stay at the local hospital. A place that everyone who has ever been to Kenya warned me to avoid at all costs?

I think I will apply this game to future conundrums. For example, think about what you would rather do in this situation:

A) When asked where the laundry facilities were, I was handed this:

What would you rather...admit you have absolutely no idea how to use these said products, appearing entitled and ungrateful, or simply google the closest laundry facility that allows drop off and pick up? I will admit, in the moment I was handed the bucket, I changed the negative attitude regarding my overly packed suitcases, calculating I could possibly stretch my wardrobe out several weeks before I had to think about this situation again! Furthermore, and to my advantage, I have duly noted that natural body odors are something this culture seems to not take offense to.

Its around 4 pm and I am back in my room after another day of class. It seems like days ago I wrote the above narrative. My day was filled with waves of incredible exhaustion, sweaty bouts of nausea, a very greasy, burning and itching scalp, get-aways to my hot room where I plopped on my bed even if the break was only for 10 minutes. I distracted myself from my misery by cultivating a plan to escape this place, unnoticed. I would wave down a taxi to drive me to no less than a 3 to 5 star hotel where I could take a warm shower, wash my hair and body with complimentary sweet smelling shampoo and skin softening soap, order room service and a couple glasses of a chilled sauvignon blanc, and crawl under crisp, cool cotton or silk sheets. I would freely turn on the air conditioner and the overhead fan, settling in to these creature comforts. After a peaceful and long needed sleep, I promised myself I would return.

I am ending this note now with a few quotes from Father John given in class today:

"What should you fear the most in life? You should fear the one who does not know that he or she does not know" (I admit I had to repeat this several times to myself before I understood it's meaning). "These people do so much damage in the world. These are the types of people who have damaged us and revel in our suffering."

"When there are other words for what is being said, it points to the complexity of peoples reality."

"We are here to become integrated, and rid ourselves of our dangerous dichotomies."

"We must first acknowledge and understand the baggage we carry,  then rid ourselves of the toxicity that prevents us from authentically listening, respecting ourselves and others, and learning."

"Religions separate us as human beings. This is not good."

I am going to say goodnight for now. Yes, I spent a few minutes of my day questioning what the hell I was doing in this place. But I know these thoughts will not defeat me. For now, I am going to close my eyes and thank the Universe for the day. I am going to trust I am where I am meant to be. I'm going to "let go" of my disappointment that I most certainly ruined my expensive Keratin hair treatment with my deodorant soap-conditioner, resulting in spots I have itched to the point of bleeding. I give thanks Jebetta did not make brown porridge this morning, instead offering us eggs to accompany the brown bread. I especially give thanks for the incredibly delicious rice, smashed green pea and zucchini type soup she prepared for lunch. Finally, I am giving myself permission to close my eyes and imagine I am in a candle lit room with a gentle fan moving sweet air around my body, zen music caressing and relaxing my overactive and frenetic brain, while a skilled aesthetician is providing a cooling and soothing facial treatment with lotions that smell of eucalyptus and lavender.

Love to all

PS: as I went to store my computer and enter my fantasy world, I felt the ground shake along with so much commotion at the police station outside my window. Glancing out I saw no less than 20 of those same solders with camo and red berets I witnessed at the airport. They were in various stages of pumping rifles and loading into jeeps rapidly being driven out of the compound. I am now witnessing a line of helicopters flying low overhead. I just received via email a UN warning: apparently there has been a bombing at a hotel nearby that Al-Shabab has claimed responsibly for.  I hear distant gunfire. I know I am safe in this compound, heavily guarded by the soldiers I am seeing out my window. This is a 24 hour guarded facility.

I thank God I did not act on my fantasy of escaping to the hotel! I am grateful for life, and sad for the insecurities and the damage held in our world, oddly enough backed by religion. This is a literally "in my face" lesson on priorities.

Let me restate to you all, securely nestled in your homes far away,  I deeply love each of you. Life for many is violent and scary. It is impossible to empathize with those who live in constant fear and marginalization without feet on the ground. Our news networks, all of them, delude and create alternate narratives in order to motivate a certain ideology. I ask you to be smarter than this. We were created with intellect and a soul that knows we are to unquestionably LOVE ALL.  Don't let any form of manipulation take that from you.

I can't help but cry right now for the little girl I held in my arms yesterday. Is she afraid right now? Is her mother and father terrified for her safety? We know as parents, nothing will prevent us from protecting our children.

Special love to our soldiers! And I ask us all to think of the words we use and the actions we take in our small, protected and comfortable place we reside. Someone, at some point, loved his or her family enough to immigrate to the land of the free and the land of opportunity. We inherited the privilege of freedom they worked and sacrifice for. It is not ours to own, but ours to share.

Monday, January 14, 2019

No Aveda Products here! Musings from my first day

Disclaimer: I am writing this blog more for me than anyone else. I am not proofreading nor am I changing my voice to please the reader. I ask for forgiveness for any grammar and structure issues that may offend! xoxo

The sleep medicine helped for a couple of hours at best. I made a mental note to ask Father John what facility was directly behind my window. I wanted to know if the people back there ever slept. The entire night was filled with people talking and laughing. Occasionally, a flash of light came through my curtains and bounced against my mosquito net. When I sleep I require total darkness. I go so far as placing a towel under the door of my hotel room if any light dares to seep in. I am particular about the ambient temperature as well. The air needs to be cool enough to require my comforter, but not so cold as to freeze any limb that stretches outside the confines of the downy softness I am wrapped in.

I wrestled madly with sleep. I needed it. I desired it. But my 50-ish year old body protested the hard mattress, the sticky air and the raucous the neighbors were causing. I got out of bed at 6:00 am realizing I am not going to wallow in the bed and hit "snooze" 5 times while I hunker down in total comfort, as I do at home.

 I stood in the middle of my new home and pondered the simplicity of it all: a small wooden desk, a double size bed, or maybe a cot is a better description, a night table with a reading lamp and a rickety old wooden armoire that is to serve as my closet and dresser. The room was clean, but obviously well used and a bit worn out looking. I decided it would be too pretentious and rather unhealthy of me to glance in the corners of the bedroom and the bathroom, looking for signs of a poor cleaning job, as is my custom in any place I sleep outside of my own  home. I questioned myself, "What would I do if I saw signs of the one before me—pieces of hair, bits of torn paper, or, the grossest-a finger or toe nail like I found years ago in a hotel room?" This incident obviously traumatized me and I will never book a room at said hotel again! I need to set a mental reminder that occasionally reminds me that I did not opt for the spa vacation.

 My eyes settled on the 3 enormous unpacked purple suitcases leaning against the wall, bulging at every seam. When I left the states, I was hoping I brought enough clothes to wear on my adventure. I spent a good 10 minutes staring into the small amour. The space-to-clothes ratio did not look good. I decided the best thing to do was close the armoire doors and hope I have a better solution tomorrow,  when I am better rested. I sat in my wooden desk chair, took a swig from the really, really warm, flat sprite I had retrieved yesterday, and thought about Sister Rose. Sister Rose is a pleasant woman I met the night before. She is part of the Sisters of Saint Francis and lives near Uganda. She is here to attend the same classes I am. I thought about her crisply pressed yellow habit that is her daily uniform. Never before have I experienced nun-envy! Yet, for a very, very brief moment, I experienced a tinge of jealousy knowing unpacking her bag took no more than 5 minutes max. I sensed she had no issue fitting her modest amount of clothing she brought in one, non-bulging suitcase. She did not feel the necessity to carry a bag designated for various and asundry toiletries, make-up and hair products; or enough over the counter medicines "just in case." She lived her faith.

In my usual "I will deal with this tomorrow" mental shrug, I donned running leggings (I was instructed by many previous travelers not to show skin, especially white female skin), a sweat absorbent shirt and running shoes, and made my way down the winding hallways and staircases to a door that opened to a walled-in gravel courtyard. My body needed some movement. It felt good to stretch my legs and fill my lungs with the pleasant morning air. After a solid 20 minutes of jogging in circles, I  grabbed some "good water" from the Culligan dispenser and made my way back to my room for a shower.  Here is where I really struggled! It took me a good 15 minutes of trying to get some hot water before I gave up due to time, grabbed the washcloth left for me in the bathroom, and performed a half-in-half-out "shower" with very cold water.

After dressing, I made my way to the kitchen where Sister Rose and 2 other classmates, who I had not yet met, were eating breakfast. I was mentally prepared for the runny porridge described in every single "travel to Kenya" book I read. Not sounding appealing to the palate in any way, I had worked hard on the pleasant demeanor I would exude as I spooned the porridge in my mouth, as to not appear ungrateful or spoiled. I was fully willing to "offer it up" as we were told to do as children in Catholic school. I am here for spiritual growth! But to my exuberant dismay, no brown saucy porridge was to be found! Breakfast consisted of a  choice of a piece or 2 of brown  bread or a brown roll. Relieved, I  peaked around for a toaster and some cream cheese, or possibly a small morsel of avocado and a sprinkle of sprouts to spread across my humble, lightly toasted piece of bread. No such luck. But that disappointment was minor compared to the apoplexy I endured once I realized there was no coffee to be had! There are sacrificed to "offer up" and sacrifices that just refuse to be made. This was a game changer for me.

I almost shrieked out loud and danced a happy dance when I saw one of the students walk in the dining area with a jar of instant coffee. No, it wasn't Starbucks and steamed almond milk, but it was gold! I mixed the granules with the hot milky tea water sitting in a thermos that serves as the Kenyan morning beverage of choice, grabbed a piece of brown bread and settled in to a chair at a table with 3 others. I took a few moments sipping my milky instant coffee mixture to observe how the others approached eating the bread. Was there more to it than the obvious? You must understand, dear reader,  I have committed myself  to approach every situation without pretense or presumption. I have spent my entire life being a controller and a leader. Here, no one knows that about me yet so I can comfortably sit back and observe. The man who brought the coffee sat down at my table. I think he has been sent here to act as my savior, and to prevent me for making any serious gaffes that make me stand out as the arrogant American. He pointed out the peanut butter, the honey and the jam on the plate in the middle of our table, as if he knew I felt the bread lacking something. I watched him slather his bread with peanut butter and honey, cut it into 4 small squares, and eat each piece with such appreciation and joy, like when I take a bite of a buttery chocolate croissant. I followed his lead and spread peanut butter and honey on my piece of brown bread (not crusty and homemade, more like the generic bread from a plastic bag). Honestly,  the meal was delicious and satisfying, or so I told myself as I got up from the table with a stomach screaming for some eggs, bacon and toast, or a waffle with bananas and whipped cream.

We met for our first session at 10:00 am. There are 7 others besides me. Most of the participants are Catholic. Four of the men are Catholic priests, Sister Rose is a Catholic nun, I am, well, complicated, and the other male I believe is Protestant.

Father John started by introducing the purpose of the class with this couple of sentences: "You have never had a class like this in your entire life. No book can ever prepare you for what is ahead. The purpose of the next 10 weeks is to decide who you are and who you want to be." Bang. There it was. The reason for this journey.

I imagine my writing will become more spiritually focused once I get past this acclimation period. Hang with me. I am exhausted beyond words. After dinner, all I wanted to do was take a hot shower and wash my hair, since I learned how to flip the switch outside my bathroom that turns the hot water on. This attempt failed as well. There was no hot water no matter how many times I flipped the switch on and off.  Like the morning, I ended up taking another half in cold shower, forgoing the hair wash that I desperately needed. Letting go of vanity! —Ok, not really. I thankfully realized I had a can of dry shampoo buried deeply in my bag of personal maintanance items! I lost my expensive sulfate free shampoo somewhere along the way. Father John took me in search of shampoo at the market place. I will save that story for a later time.

Tonight, as I close my eyes, I will say a prayer of thanks for surviving day 2 without any signs of travelers diarrhea, zika virus, malaria, cholera or any other disease I was warned of. I will give thanks that I learned how the mosquito net works so I do not have to spend another night battling reams of gauze adhered to my sweaty insect repellent covered body. I will give thanks that the desire to crawl in to bed and rest trumped my usual nightly ritual that included multiple hair products and a 4 step, 4 product face and neck cleansing regime that ensures a youthful glow,  religiously performed before my bathroom mirror at home that seemed to do nothing but complain about my widening and sagging body. I will pray to get over the fact that finding shampoo is nearly impossible (everyone's hair is short or tightly braided, reducing the necessity to wash it to once every couple of weeks, or so I learned when asking those in the hostile if I could borrow some shampoo, to no avail!). I will question my unhealthy attachment to Aveda- color maintaining rosemary mint luxurious shampoo and give thanks I found a small bottle of a nameless sulfate ladened shampoo at the market. Finally, I will send my love out in the night sky, hoping you feel it as you look towards the evening stars.

PS: I will give thanks that the nightly invasion of voices and lights is coming from the police station outside my window that offers us 24 hour security.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I Feel So American

A long, long flight

The alarm never had to go off Friday morning. My queen size Serta-posture pedic ultra deluxe bed, layered with an extra fluffy yet body molding mattress pad, adorned with1000 thread count cotton sheets, topped with a  goose down comforter wrapped in a gorgeous silky fabric with all my favorite colors felt amazing, but I was too ramped up to remain nestled in place until the alarm went off. I welcomed the energy to pop my body out of bed. You see, for over a week now, I have been clinging to my creature comforts in a way I have never really done before. My bed is my respite, strewn with books, musings on pads of paper, lists of things to do and not do.  My daughter sleeps in my bed when she is home from college, since there is not another bed. Like me, she inherited the "draw of the bed" infinity where the bed is the sacred homing sanctuary. We spend endless hours binging Netflix and eating various forms of salty junk food while crumbs spill positively unnoticed for the moment. My mother was a bed nester as well. She would always have on something incredibly comfortable looking, body wrapped around books and magazines, often falling asleep with a book on her stomach and another turned over on the bed  ready to be picked up and read again when the mood hit her. I am digressing....

I left Nashville Friday and spent the night in Boston. The hotel was comfortable with no less than 9 pillows artistically set at the top of my bed so I could choose what worked best for optimal neck comfort. I set multiple alarms, spreading them around the hotel room, as well as requested a wake up call so as not to sleep through the 4:30 am demand for alertness. The morning went smoothly, except for my inability to get a good cup of coffee before I left the hotel.The only glitch occurred at the airport. I had missed the bag deadline by 2 minutes. The kiosk gave me 2 choices: take a later flight or take carry-on only. Fortunately, I work well in panic situations. Within seconds I formed a plan and made my way to the check in desk, prepared to channel my inner bitch if I needed to call her forward. Either way, the message would be clear,"you will get these bags on that flight, dammit." If there appeared to be any delay in the attendants response, I was ready and willing to raise my voice several octaves, posture myself in a stance of self righteous indignation and self importance, pronouncing (as if everyone should know anyway),"do you have any idea where I am going?" (in that tone that leaves space at the end of the sentence for the unspoken known, like "you idiot." Parents know this tone all too well, especially when spoken from the mouths of teenagers).If that did not work, I would cry and beg.

Its remarkable how quickly one's personality can shift like a toy transformer, morphing in seconds from a kind looking figurine in a fairy tale to an evil warrior with limbs and teeth made of sharp steel! The unfortunate attendant at the ticket counter was about to receive my full force piss-off-ness like she was the cause of my discomfort! Never mind I was the one late...irrelevant in that moment. I acted as if she should stop everything and everyone because I was going to Africa. She was not the surly, short tempered unhelpful character I created her to be in the few seconds it took me to walk from the kiosk to the desk. She was calming. She was kind. She got my bags on the plane.

I sat next to a Tanzanian women with such beautifully rich, smooth dark skin. Her eyes smiled along with her mouth, and she had a laugh that emerged from a place deep down, a place that exuded joy.  Her African accent was thick, and I had to ask her to repeat herself a couple of times.She works for the U.N. and spends much of her time traveling. She offered advice, described places to go and things to do and not do. Seventeen hours is a long time to spend trying to sleep next to a stranger. But for some reason Mariam did not feel like a stranger. In loving words she told me, "In Kenya, it is known that strangers are from God, and should be treated as such." For a brief moment my mind flashed to "the wall" and strangers and God and I noted my sadness.

We landed on a blue clear morning. I took several meditative and deep breaths and thanked God for Mariam, and my journey. My new home. However, my ease evaporated quickly. As we taxied to our gate, I saw a truck of officers wearing fatigues and berets jump out of an open truck, each man bearing a long rifle. They spread out and stood at different points, not just around the plane, but further out towards the runway. Thankfully, no guns were lifted  in a "shoot ready" position. Mariam did not seem surprised or ruffled, nor did her face change from the pleasant affect she had the entire flight. I am sure I appeared visibly shaken, for she smiled and in a soothing voices told me "everything would be OK."She went on to explain that this type of scene not uncommon. She asked if I knew of Boka Horam. I felt a shiver as I remembered things I have read about or seen on the news. She went on, "there has been problems with them, so you will see armed officers especially at airports." As I looked at her, it struck me that this was a common site for her, a common site for many of the people on the plane, even the children. My world is so different.

Here is my new nest. I was welcomed to the hostel by Father John, my mentor for the next 2 1/2 months. He hugged me and went to kiss my cheeks, which I think is a custom, but I moved my head too fast and it I ended up giving him a kiss right on the old smacker. Yikes! Not the best way to great a stranger, much less a Catholic priest. I was embarrassed by the gaffe, but he laughed it off in a way that made me comfortable. Exhausted from the journey and parched due to a lack of drinking fluids, Father John showed me my room and  brought me a thermos of water. What was louder, I am unsure. The voice screaming "I am thirsty," or the sirens screaming "don't drink anything but water from a bottle that you opened!" He must have noticed my look of consternation, so he assured me the water was "good water" and no one has ever had a problem from drinking it. Thoughtfully, he asked if  I would like a soda. For a brief second I felt saved. Hydration through soda would work for now. "Do you have a diet coke?" I asked.  He looked at me curiously and took a few moments to process my request.  And in his thick African accent he chimed, "no, but we have "coke regular." I followed him to a small room off the kitchen where, in the far corner, hidden behind some metal containers, was a wooden beverage box (its been years since I have seen one of those) full of dusty glass bottles of coke, fanta orange, and sprite. I grabbed a sprite, dusted off the bottle with my hands and delighted in the thought of a cup of ice to cool my sprite. "We don't have ice," John shrugged. In that unfortunate moment,  I remembered reading that Africans do not use ice. Even in restaurants, when Westerners ask for ice, the waiter may bring a cup with a small piece of ice, delivered with a furrow in his or her brow.
Once back in the room, I ask about the mosquito net hanging above my bed. Briefly, it reminded me of the pretty lace canopy I hung over my daughters bed when she was a young girl. Her canopy had embroidered green, yellow and pink flowers delicately sewn through layers of cascading chiffon and lace that looked like wispy clouds of swirling meringue yumminess. My canopy did not hold the same aesthetics. It had a purpose. John told me I could use it if I wanted to, but its main purpose was to alleviate the fear visiting westerners have of malaria, but it really was not necessary here. Too fatigued to unwind it from the ceiling, I opted to not be a fearful westerner and go net-less. So exhausted, I sipped my warm sprite, opened a couple of windows (after I figured out the latches) and crawled into my bed. It felt deliciously comfortable. I awoke 3 hours later with a mosquito  buzzing around my ear. I jumped out of bed, found my repellant, coated myself from head to foot and attempted to pull down the mosquito net. Obviously I did it wrong. The layers of white netting came down with a crash and stuck to the sticky repellent that had not yet dried on my skin.
Just like when I started graduate school a few years back, ignorant of the ways of being a modern techno-savvy student who did not rely on library catalogue cards, colored highlighters and spiral notebooks and brightly decorated agendas to stay organized, I have a huge learning curve ahead of me!

It is now 1:06 am Nairobi time. Class starts tomorrow morning and I need to rest. I am going to take an ambien, say prayers and send love out into the night air, and rest in gratitude that right now, in this instant, I am alive, well, and have successfully learned how to use the electric socket adapter to charge my phone without having to ask someone else to show me how it is done!

Good night!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Vanity oh Vanity, thy name is Mary

"It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us..." Jane Austen

OK. I did say I would be honest. I will not achieve the goals I have set in this blog to share with you my reader unless I come clean and strip away my pretenses. Just a reminder of the goals here: peeling away the layers of my complicated self; open dialogue about life, love and other issues; and share my physical and spiritual adventure in Kenya.

I am providing a vulnerable moment here, so count to 10 before the harsh judgments fly. And trust me, the irony is not lost here.  In a state of panic, as I contemplated the loss of the easily accessible beauty treatments while in Africa, I crammed my last week in town on vanity rituals that I cling to—botox for the wrinkles, a keratin treatment for my hair (it frizzes in humidity), and a way too expensive root color and edgy haircut. Unfortunately, I ran out of time for a mani/pedi. Mourning the thought of a future lacking my latte's at Starbucks, or a tasty vino accompanying an overly indulgent meal, I crammed my body full of delicacies as if I felt I deserved them. In the back of my mind I kept saying to myself, "You are heading to a country full of famine for God's sake! You will lose the extra 10 pounds you have put on!" Like that's the point of this all, right? I know. I know I spent more money on these things than many people make in months. Not sure whether to hang my head in I feel I should. It's a quagmire, to be sure.

I have good intentions. I desperately desire to break away from the boundaries I have lived within–to open my world view, change my priorities in order to authentically love and understand myself, others and our connection with the Universe/God. But I come from a long line of vain women. I remember sitting in the den next to the kitchen in my childhood home, listening to my mother talking on the rotary phone to her good friend. "Men don't look at me anymore!" she shrieked while laughing out loud. It was one of those conversations we women have with our friends as we start to age! You know those conversations we have at parties my dear friends! The specter of invisibility creeps in at a certain point, and everyone under 40 starts calling you "Ma'am" at every turn. Advertisements for products and procedures to improve that youthful vitality that use to be "for people like my mom" I now pay attention to.

Sometimes I feel assaulted by invisibility. Yet, I am going to admit, there is something incredibly liberating as well—i'm just unsure of where I am on that mental see-saw. Did any of you read the interview in Marie Claire with  the 50-year-old French writer Yann Moix?  In this absolutely disgusting article, he claimed himself  “incapable” of loving a woman age 50 or older. He goes through a litany of why a 25 year old's body is superior and an over 50 year old woman is anything but a beautiful sexual being. First of all, yes, we all recognize that 25 year old body we all had! Remember that body, the one prior to the one we now embody with its remarkable capacity to stretch as new life grew and was nurtured in the womb? Do you remember that 25 year old body that worked and focused only on itself, versus our older bodies that move and stretch to behold and accompany others in the world?  Yes, those young bodies are/were beautiful. But I would not go back. I wonder if Yann Moix experiences the inevitable changes that occur in the aging male body. Statistics show half of all men over 50 have erectile issues. And I bet his body looks nothing like that of a 25 year old man! Have any of you read articles where women shame the aging male? I don't know about how each of you feel, but there is something incredibly sensual about aging men and women and love. When I went back in to the dating world (more on that later), the intimidating and unwieldy on line pursuits echo Moix's perspective! I laugh at how many men, beer bellies hanging out of their unbuttoned shirts who demand only full body female shots. Umm, what are they not getting?

Oh friends, it is a jumble at times. What messages should we embrace, and what messages should we reject? I know I place so many false pressures on myself that I should reject. I creates stories in my head of what others think about me...and it is often very unkind. Remember the unwelcome voices in my suitcase? Women need to unabashadly cultivate an incredible amount of self love, don't you think? We are told to "love your neighbors AS you love ourselves." I know I love my neighbor more. Why is this so hard to understand?

In Boston now. Thought today would be a good day to start a vegan diet until I saw the clam chowder and lobster roll that went well with the icy cold pint! Up early and off to Kenya tomorrow.

More to follow....

                                                                                                                    The Banks of Lake Victor...