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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.



Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Bleak Landscape I Will Paint

     If I could paint a portrait of what I saw today, my palette would consist of clouded tones of black and deep crimson. I would smear and throw the colors across the canvas with perfervid rage and torment, since the goal of this endeavor would be to capture the emotions within the scene. I would hang this painting in a hallway for viewers to observe. It would most likely seem non-sensical, maybe even off putting, and a waste of one's precious time. Many may describe it as a "monstrous atrocity." Writing this artist off as insane, maybe even diabolical, many would hurry off to the cafe for hot tea and a sweet.
     What if I went back to my painting and added a colorful shape to the middle of this grim and violent landscape? I will add a toddler's chair—a whimsical green shade like the chairs my children sat in while playing a game in nursery school. I will hang it back up now. Now, what do you think of my painting? Does it make any sense yet? Stay awhile and let me explain.
    I do not believe anyone in the Western world could imagine, much less comprehend, the landscape I witnessed, unless you have experienced it for yourself. The scene was so horrific, so violent and so nonsensical, that I continue to struggle to absorb its reality.
   
     I entered the ward looking for a particular patient—a young boy no more than 5 years of age—who I had met the day prior. I had been drawn to him, lying silently in a dilapidated metal crib. His face was buried in the mattress, his legs bent toward his chest, wrapped in thick layers of gauze soaked with old blood and putrid green pus. While the other child-patients in the ward ran around making playful noises like children do, climbing over beds, running the corridors of the floors unattended by any adults, this boy remained motionless, yet I could sense his body and his mind silently screaming in pain.
     As I peered through the bars of his bed, he looked into my eyes for a few seconds, then looked down, as if he was being scolded. He continued in this manner while I spoke to him. It seemed to take  all the effort he could muster just to nod his head "yes" when I asked him if he understood English. As his eyes remained locked on mine for longer periods of time, I realized I was looking in to the face of a baby boy who had been traumatized. When I asked him his name, his eyes frantically darted around the room as if someone was listening, and he would be punished for talking to me. I whispered, "You seem frightened. Are you frightened?" He quickly nodded "yes." One cultural trait I am attuned to after 4 weeks of being in this environment, getting the same answer to the question "what happened," is that there is a code of silence embedded in the constitution of the people, especially women and children. Yet the abuse could not be more obvious. The usual answer to my query of "what happened" is "tea." I rarely ask anymore.
     I held this frightened child's hand and asked him if I could come back the next day and visit. He nodded "yes." At this point his eyes were locked on mine, his hand gripping mine a little harder. I promised him that while he is in the hospital he would be safe, and that I would be his friend.
   
     When I went to find him today, he was not in his bed. One of the other children knew I was looking for him, so she grabbed my hand and led me to a hallway where patients sit in a cue on a wooden bench waiting to have their dressings removed, skin scrubbed and re-bandaged. This is where the horror started.
     A mirage of black and red is all my conscious could absorb at first glance. As the little girl guided me closer, I saw the outline of something bright green, immediately registering how odd, yet somehow pleasing this color was in the overall landscape. The closer I came, the more the colors became differentiated into bodies. Closer still, these bodies became those of naked women, sitting silently in a row—their bodies twisted, their faces burned beyond recognition—ears, fingers, lips and toes missing. These women had been sitting raw and exposed for hours, blood dripping on the floor, air blowing across their butchered and infected skin. How had these women sustain their brutal injuries? You got it: "tea."
     In the little green chair sat my friend, the little boy I had come to see. His thickly wrapped and soaked legs curled towards the floor, he sat with a his head resting in one of his hands, eyes cast to the floor.
     I squatted next to him. His eyes locked on mine with such intense fear that I wanted to carry him away. I asked him if he would like to talk, sensing he may open up since other children were not around, and no one else would be able to hear our conversation if we whispered. He nodded "yes." In a diminutive voice, saying as few words as necessary, he told me his father had burned both he and his mother. He did not know why, but his father was mad, and this was not the first time his father had hurt him. He knew his mother was somewhere in the hospital, but has not seen her in almost 2 weeks and did not know how she was. He was worried about her. He was scared of his father, and scared being in the hospital.
     While he spoke, one naked and deformed body after another entered and exited the room directly in front of us. The door was left wide open. Workers in water boots and protective gowns stood spraying the floor with a garden hose, as a patient's raw skin was painfully and mercilessly being scrubbed. Although the treatment was excruciating, and the women were giving little if any pain medicine that had surely already worn off as they waited for hours, these women remained silent. Occasionally, a moan of pain would escape one's lips, but she would quickly silence herself. No one cared about their screams anyway, so silence in the harshest of conditions was a well learned trait. However, one small girl, shivering naked and bent, disfigured beyond recognition, could not keep her agony in, and screamed as her raw skin was mercilessly scrubbed, like one might do scrubbing a car,  joints stretched into positions by the workers in ways her injuries forbade. Instead of offering a word of comfort, the doctor in charge proceeded to slap her until she fell silent.
     As I held his tiny hand, I noticed it had been burned before. I asked him if his father did this as well. "Yes," he nodded. We sat in silence. In that beat of time, I was unable to muster the courage to ask him more. Eventually, I asked him if he wanted me to go into the treatment room with him. He held my hand tighter, nodding "yes." I asked the nurse and was denied. I told him I would sit with him until it was his time for his treatment, and would wait right there until he was finished. I sat with him for over an hour, witnessing the mangled flesh of mothers and daughters silently shivering, staring at the floor.
      I found myself staring in wonder at his uninjured hand, fingers nervously playing with a string of gauze that was part of the bandage on his thigh. For a brief moment, I looked at his hand, fingers of a baby who was becoming a toddler, and captured that perfect form away from the mangled body it belonged to. I spent a few moments wrapped in the sweetness I felt looking at the hands of a child—miraculously beautiful in form and potential. Yet I chocked up when I attached that tiny form back to its reality, my gaze traveling to his perfectly shaped head with tightly woven curls of black hair, and his lucsious baby cheeks, knowing he would never play games like my children did at his age. His tiny green chair would never serve him as a place to sit and giggle, eating lunch with his friends after a morning of play.
     It was taking so long. I gently rubbed his head as he rested it on my lap. I was wishing him to sleep, to escape from this place, even if only for a short reprieve. Yet, I can only imagine what his dreams are like when he drifts off.
     I felt confused, unable to fully discern my thoughts. Were these women and children incredibly strong and unimaginably stoic, that in some twisted way I should feel proud of them? Or, and what resonated the most, was the agony I experienced acknowledging the real truth: that their silence most likely stemmed from a life of submission that had been beaten in to them. These women and children are the byproduct of an oppressed and impoverished society.
     I felt my throat constrict as tears formed. I had been there too long, and knew I needed to leave. I leaned down and whispered in his ear, "I am sorry. I have to go to another hospital. I can no longer stay."  I was both tormented and incensed. Why did he need to sit there for hours and witness such pain? Wasn't he traumatized enough? Where was someone to love him, to love the others waiting in the cue? Desperate, I remembered I had bought lollipops earlier in the morning. I opened my bag so he could peak in and see them. With his beautiful child-hand, he reached in and grabbed a cherry one. I unwrapped it for him, and he placed it in his mouth. His eyes brightened as he tasted the sweetness. I leaned toward him and said, "Remember, I am your friend." He took one of those sweet fingers of his unmarred hand, and pointed to his heart, telling me, he was my friend too.

May we never walk past this, just because we can't imagine it. It is real and calling us to take note.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Whining Before the Ngong Hills




"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." (Out of Africa)
                                       
(Photo taken Saturday at home of Karen Blixen, (Isak Dinesen)

I must admit, by Friday afternoon I felt immensely whiny. I know— how could I, after the intense suffering I witnessed all week? I gave this challenging quip a brief nod, and quickly moved on. Remember, I am a work in progress; therefore, I gave my inner brat the floor.

The diatribe my inner brat spewed was incessant well into Friday evening. Exhausted, I fell into bed while she continued to rattle on and on. I really wanted her to shut-up. But just when I thought she had worn herself out, I heard her whisper in my ear, "Hey sister, how about a glass of wine. Good for the soul, huh?"

"What a marvelous idea," I chirped—a crisp sauvignon blanc or a smooth pinot noir! We drank the words in our mouth with silent, delightful ruminations. However, my reverie was quickly broken when my brat raised her head screaming "and where, pray tell, are you going to find wine in this holy place you have us in?"


Yes, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. The walk to and from the hospital every day is 40 minutes each way, a harrowing experience for a woman used to orderly drivers, stop lights with pedestrian flashers indicating who has the right of way, and drivers that, for the most part, obey the laws; for example, stopping when the light is red. The traffic in Nairobi is frenetic at best, outrageously aggressive and disorderly, making the morning and evening jaunt a harrowing experience. In fact, many busy intersections have no traffic lights. Cars—helter-skelter, make crossing any intersection like playing Russian roulette in a game of truth or dare. The locals have it down pat. Unflinching, they step out on to the road, weaving and dodging between cars. Poor Sister Rose, I cling to her like a terrified child. If it is my time to meet my maker, I want to be clinging to a woman who has a free pass to the kingdom! In fact, her relationship with God is so personal that this holy woman has been known to unabashedly give God a few instructions. 

It was on this walk home from the hospital on Friday that the soliloquy of self pity began. I was possessed by a ranting stream of conciousness, “I have had enough! What was I thinking? I am hot, and tired. I want a burger and a beer in an icy cold mug; my sweaty skin has a perpetual film of brown dust that never completely washes off in my trickling shower that, by the way, has water that  smells like brussel sprouts!  The hospital is disgusting, there is no toilet paper anywhere and I forgot to bring a few sheets with me today. Why can't someone bath the little ones and change those outrageously smelly bandages? And why today, when I was already in a bad mood, did they decide to grab my hair with sticky, dirty fingers, rumbling with me like I am a play toy? Not to mention, one kid stuck his snot covered finger directly in to my eye! Surely I am destined to get some ghastly and painful  infection and die, never to see my children again; and for God's sake will you start wearing deodorant again?"

You get the point. We all have these moment.

I have thought long and hard about the time I allowed my inner brat to vent. There is a tension that rolls between, "I want to whine," and, "what the hell do I have to whine about?" It is a guilt trip of epic energy. But, thankfully I found this:

"... good whining can be delicious! And fun! Good whining is the ability to call out the raw truth, express deep feelings, be vulnerable and share with those you love. It is about embracing those inner feelings, coddling them, figuring them out, so you can make them better. It involves allowing yourself to sit with feelings and get out of the, "everything is just fine mode," to be authentic. It takes courage and work to grab your reality, talk about it, and make it right for your own world. Sometimes it means going against the grain and setting yourself up for those who always say, "get over it already!"

Thank you Dr. Keryl McBride!  (http://www.willieverbegoodenough.com)






Friday, February 1, 2019

A Greater Understanding

I was fortunate today to be able to spend time with a small child, not yet 2 years old, who is fighting for his life. The boy's eyelashes are gorgeously black and long, framing his large mocha colored eyes. His frail body resembles a newly hatched baby bird, struggling to fill his body with air. He is fighting for his life, recovering from medical complications that required 4 different surgeries since November. He is in a private room with his mother, away from the dark, noisy, and overcrowded main patient area. His mother keeps the room spotless.

When I gazed at him, loosely wrapped in a white sheet, I watched his tiny chest rise and fall, wondering how someone so little can muster the energy to take that next inhalation. The IV lines inserted in to his body looked as if they would consume him. The boy's mother, tiredly hunched over her son, gently caresses his bony leg, as if she is willing him to breath. The bags under her eyes and the deep creases of her brow paint a picture of a woman 20 years older than her actual age. You can feel her wasted frame struggling to keep her upright. Before her is the totality of her life—not only her struggling son, but her child that has been growing in her womb for 8 months. Her very being is the embodiment of suffering.

When I first entered the child's room, I heard soft chanting coming from the child's bed. The mother had propped her phone on a pillow next to the child's ear—a soothing melody flowing from it towards him. On the other side of her son, she had propped a pillow to support his tiny hand, palm open. In his palm she had placed a paper prayer book.

As I breathed in what lay before me, my heart became utterly absorbed in the mother and the child. "Motherhood is universal,"  I reflected later in the day. In that room, there was no gulf between us. Although we were born thousands of miles apart, although we speak different languages and have cultural and religious differences, we are mothers. The signs of suffering and anguish cross all boundaries between us.

Later in the day, I met her husband as he was leaning over his son's bed, reading to him a scriptural prayer. Knowing her son was safely being cared for by his father, the mother was able to surrender herself to sleep, curled around her son's body.

The father is a gentle man, looking worn and worried himself. He has traveled a great distance to visit his wife and son. He is drawn and thin, his eyes telling a story of anxiety and exhaustion. The financial demands for his family rest on his shoulders, and the hospital bills are mounting. In a sad whisper, he explains that his wife is lonely. He appreciates my visit because no one steps in the room to offer friendship or help. He sighs, "We are strangers in a strange place.You see, we are Muslims from a distant home."

From the way the father spoke, it was evident that he was a highly educated man. Tightly holding the Quran in his hand, I asked him about the prayer he was reading his child. He described it as a prayer of healing. I asked him what his faith meant to him, explaining that many Westerners like myself do not fully understand the Muslim faith. I explained that after 9/11, there is an underlying fear that resonates in our country that I believe is manipulated to engender greater fear and suspicion. He nodded his head to indicate he understood.

He thought for a moment, crossed his legs, and with the most gentle smile leaned closer to me, as to not wake the mom and the baby. "Unfortunately, the Muslim faith is greatly misunderstood, and people do not want to take the time to know the truth about the faith. It is faith that promotes peace and love." He explained that Allah, (God), made various revelations to Mohammed that were written down exactly how they were spoken, in the Quran.

 He emphasized the critical necessity of understanding the context in which these revelations were transcribed. "There were many atrocities occurring during the period of the revelations—child killings and abuse, warfare amongst the people, just to name a few." Mohammed's revelations (starting around the 7th century), revealed the importance of stopping these atrocities, and living from a place of compassion and love. "There is corruption everywhere," he sighed. "Terrorist are corrupting the Muslim faith by using it to justify atrocities."

I commented that I believe Christians often forget to consider the context in which our scriptures were written—in the cultural milieu of 1st century Palestine. Christians can also pick and choose lines from the bible to justify many harmful thoughts and actions. I commented that I have experienced many religious people from all faiths perpetuating harm in the name of their god.  He and I discussed the concept of Jihad, or the call to holy war. "This is a very misunderstood concept," he asserted. "Again, context matters. People were being persecuted, and the oppressed needed guidance to stand up for themselves. The use of Jihad in modern days is a tool for the terrorists, not for those of the true faith."

The call to war is not an exclusive Muslim tenet. During the formation of early Christianity, both Augustine and Aquinas wrote about the need for "just war," at a time in history when rising up against persecution became necessary. Missionaries used the concept in extremely violent ways! The Hindu religion has one of the earliest epics regarding just war—dharma yudda.

It is impossible for those of us lucky enough to be born in a 1st world country to understand life in a 3rd world country. Kenya is struggling to become "modern," having only gained its independence in 1963. For me to interpret behaviors inside of this culture is impossible, because I am looking at it from the lens of modern America. There are a vast number of countries living literally centuries behind us. These areas remain tribal, run by one tribal king or supreme leader. They are fighting to maintain their lands and their beliefs. The people are not educated except for what the tribe teaches them. Their identity is paramount, and is enmeshed in some sort of religious belief. One can see how people who are destitute, or looking for a way to protect their identity, can become drawn in to a cause they believe is worthy. As this little boy's father stated, many of the groups are corrupt and violent, misusing their faith to promote their cause. Unfortunately, the tribal ideology is all that many of these people know.

I left this room humbled, with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the human narrative.

What would happen if all of us had the opportunity to question someone whose identity evokes misunderstanding and fear?  Have we ever taken the time to retreat from the intensity and inflaming rhetoric and wonder if we truly understand the human experience of another? Are we content to remain in our station, believing the politically driven media? I believe our conscious is a sacred gift inextricably linked to our hearts, and we are asked to move through life connected to this awareness. It is easy for us in our comfortable homes to unabashedly dig our heels in the sand and say words and make stances that literally mean life and death to the stranger. Trust me readers, I am saying this to myself.

I believe the only thing we are spiritually asked to see in this child's room is a narrative of human suffering in the face of a mother and a father wanting their son to survive. The rest is irrelevant. The rest is nothing but fearful conjecture.

I know many read this blog and wonder, "What can I do," reading about these palpable situations. I believe it starts with ourselves. We must ask ourselves how our biases manifest themselves in our thoughts and behaviors towards the "other?" If we attest to the ideal that every sentient being is  created in the image of the Divine, what does that mean when we approach someone radically different than us? What kind of jokes do we tell that may be demeaning to a fellow human being? Do I stand up against others that say things that demean another? No, I usually keep my mouth shut as to not make waves.

We must educate ourselves; teach our children what it means to recognize the Divine in all, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual identity; and to stand up for all of humanity. Analyzing myself, I am amazed at how many negative and judgmental thoughts I can have in a day, just by looking at a total stranger. I wonder what makes me feel self righteous and lash out at others whose experience and understanding of life is different than mine? Who gave me that power?

What would we do as we stood at our borders, face to face with this mother, father and child fighting for survival? Would I be able to say, "Stay on your side of the wall? You are Muslim. You are different?" The itinerant travelers standing at our borders are not terrorists. Sure, there are a few criminals mixed in with the thousands of families looking across to our land of opportunity. We have our own home grown criminals terrorizing and killing children at school, people at concerts and places of worship. The immigrant people are looking for a better life, just like our relatives did years ago. Let us not lose the fact, we just happened to be born in America because someone at sometime years ago struggled and sacrificed to cross the border.






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