Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Instinct

I ran into an old acquaintance several weeks ago. It was a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and I was at one of those open houses given by a friend. My friend admits to killing two birds with one stone – to celebrate the new house with friends and to get through a huge number of social obligations before the beginning of the holiday madness season set in. You’ve all been to one of these parties. You know the host and anywhere from as few as a handful to as many as most of the people attending. You get to catch up with people you may not have seen in a while, share some laughs with good friends, and even meet one or two new and interesting people.

This old acquaintance, though, was a bit different. She’s someone I knew a long time ago, and haven’t seen or interacted with in years. When we first met, around 20 or so years ago, I didn’t like her. How’s that for blunt? I’m not going to dress it up and try to make myself sound better. I didn’t like her. I thought she was superior and arrogant, and more than a little mean. What did I base this on? Her non-verbal behaviors, the tone of her voice, the manner in which she carried herself. More basic than that, it was instinct.

We didn’t interact much in our acquaintance. We operated in different circles so the times when we met up were quite few and far between. But the behaviors never really changed. The first time we met I recall this woman almost quite literally looking down her nose at me. I remember it because the visual was so vivid that I remember thinking “so this is what that looks like.” To be fair to her, perhaps she has reason to be arrogant and superior. I am willing to submit that she may certainly be smarter or more educated than I. Perhaps she’s a morally better person, using her time and energy in ways that benefit others. Maybe she’s gifted with a more giving nature, more patience, more consideration. All that may be true, and yet when I met up with her again at this party, my assessment remained the same.

Some of you might be thinking about the power of the first impression, and perhaps that’s what’s influencing me here. Some of you may be thinking that I’m the one who has the issue, not her. Maybe. Yet when I watched this woman interact at this open house, I saw those same qualities in her that I experienced when I first met her. And, when we briefly spoke, this time the superiority and arrogance were all too plain to see. After she walked away, a friend who had been standing with us and did not know this woman actually said, “Ouch! What’s her deal?”

I don’t know what her deal is. And I realized that it isn’t even the important lesson here. The important lesson for me was ‘instinct’ and being willing to trust your own. I’ve attempted over time to change my opinion of this person because I have friends who really like her. The logic is that if these people that I like and respect, actually like this other person – well, then, she must be okay. The problem must be my judgment, right? No. My judgment is valid and my opinion has merit. Yet, I’ve been doubting my instincts.

When I think it through, I realize that there have been a lot of times when I have chosen that path. My ‘gut’ told me one thing, yet I talked myself out of it. Why? Others’ opinions, ‘logic’, take your pick. The point is I haven’t trusted myself and I’m learning that THAT is the real mistake. When I look back even casually, I can see that the bigger ‘mistakes’ in my life have resulted from not following my gut instincts, from taking other peoples’ truth as being more true than my own, or their knowledge or opinion as being better than my own. But the reality is your gut, if you follow it, rarely points you in the wrong direction. It tells you what is true, what is right, what is logical. The trick is learning to trust it and having the courage to follow it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Origins

There’s something special about having a friend that has known you most of your life. My ‘oldest’ friend and I have been friends since age 12 – we met in 7th grade. I know some people who can claim ‘older’ friends than that. One of my friends can claim a friend from 6 months (55 years) – she actually has the photo of the two of them at that age lying side by side to prove it. I’ve done the math to know how many years Barb and I have been friends but have no need to make that information public. Those of you who know my age can do the math yourselves and keep quiet about it.

Barb came on a business trip. She manages an Arts facility and is Director of Community Involvement in our hometown. She came for the opportunity to meet arts professionals here – network, learn, grow – as well as visit a variety of facilities to see what she might take home and implement. The plus side was staying at my house instead of a hotel and getting to play in the off times.

Those of you who know my home town know that there is a limit to the variety of ‘ethnic’ cuisine available in restaurants. Here in Minneapolis Barb got to indulge her passion for new and different foods – Malaysian, Afghani, Vietnamese. She also got to make visits to the Sculpture Garden – modern art in its element – Juxtapostion – urban art created by teens – the Cathedral of St. Paul – classical architecture and classically beautiful sculpture, paintings, and iron work. It was a great week.

Part of the fun was seeing your city through the eyes of someone new. It causes you to think about what you really have to offer and what the highlights are that an out-of-towner should visit. But the best part of the visit is spending time with someone who has known you for, almost, forever. There’s something so easy about being with someone with whom you have such history. For one thing, there is the verbal shorthand – being able to reference events and people and with just a comment have decades worth of history understood.

More than that is the ease of not having to explain yourself. This was made evident when I introduced Barb to one of my friends here in the cities. We were having a general discussion about relationships and Barb made a comment about her upbringing and her family relationships impacting her in her current relationship choices. My other friend asked the logical ‘how’ question and Barb and I just looked at each other. I knew exactly what she meant – but how do you explain the six years of junior high and high school family dynamics to someone in 5 minutes or less? It just can’t be done – at least not in a way that would ever compare to the knowledge that comes from experiencing those things together.

During that same discussion my friend asked me something. The same struggle ensued. This is a friend who I am very close with, someone with whom I share deep feelings and reveal very personal information. I feel she knows me well, yet she knows me only in the context of the past 5 years. Barb knows me from childhood. The depth of that knowledge is not something that can be acquired overnight and the ease of understanding is not something that can be replicated.

Probably the best part of this old friendship is its security and comfort. This is a person who knows me at a core level. She understands my origins; she’s lived through my mistakes and disasters as well as my successes. She can ask me the hard questions and hold me accountable for the answers in ways that others cannot. She can bluntly say that what she is hearing from me is crap – and then ask me why I feel the need to dish it. She loves me and accepts me for who I am – really – as opposed to who I might want her to see. That’s a friendship to keep. That’s a friendship to cherish.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lists

I have, often, the attention span of a gnat. I admit to this failing. I have had it all my life and it has gotten worse with age. I will go from one room to another, intent on a task and in the 3 seconds it takes me to walk the 10 feet from point A to point B I have forgotten why I was going there. I know I went for something and, at least in my mind, something significant, so I stand and try to remember what I came for. Sometimes I must actually walk back to where I was and re-trace my actions for it to come to me. Pathetic, I know.

To counter this tendency, I make lists. I have made lists for years – since my Freshman year in college. While in High School, I had a built in list – my mother. She could always be counted on to remind me of what needed to be done or to ask what had or had not been done, thus accomplishing the same thing. Things got done.

Then I went to college a thousand miles from home and life became much more complex. There was no Mom to remind or ask. There was me – and only me. My roommates had their own lives and their own obligations. It took only a couple of instances of neglected assignments or forgotten tests or dates to make me realize that a system was necessary. Thus, the lists.

I love my lists. There’s something about them that is so secure. You write things down, you do those things, you cross them off your list. It’s reliable, it’s simple, and it’s oh so rewarding. Looking at that list of completed tasks and chores at the end of the day you see just where your time has been spent. It’s a concrete record of exactly what you have accomplished. It is proof of productivity. It is evidence of industry. I love my lists.

I also hate my lists. They stare at me from the counter or the desk, beckoning me. They remind – yes. They also taunt. They also accuse. There’s something so controlling about them – so rigid. They’re like that nagging voice in your head reminding you of your failings and shortcomings – look at all the work you didn’t get done, look how much you have left to do, look at all the things you should be doing instead of doing what you are. On a given day, the list can suck the life right out of you. I hate the lists.

The truth is the lists are, I suppose, the proverbial double-edged sword - like so many other things in life. The trick is perhaps not the list itself but in what you put on the list. It’s easy to fill the list with minutiae, with things that are perhaps immediate or even, seemingly, urgent but things that are maybe not so important. And in my enthusiasm for accomplishing the list, sometimes a whole lot of nothing gets done. So maybe the new goal is for an edited list and the discernment to be able to create one - one that contains what is important – and the recognition and acceptance that sometimes what is important takes a little longer to accomplish. Maybe the number of items checked off the list at the end of the day might be smaller, but hopefully they’ll be more significant.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shakespeare

I spent Friday evening at a college Shakespeare production. I’m sure many of you are shuddering at the thought and before I went I would have seen your shudder and raised you an “eewww.” What would possess me, you ask? Family obligation. My great-niece, Johanna, is a college Freshman (and the family history as to why I have nieces and nephews older than me is way too complex to get into here) at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Given the fact that I was a theatre major in college as well, along with my relative proximity to her college, it seemed appropriate to make the road trip down I35.

The other appeal was that – in one of those weird 6 Degrees of Separation things – the Director of the show was my old college theatre buddy, Tom Woldt. He’s been at Simpson for several years now, yet this was the first time that I had made it down for one of his shows. I admit – it’s the drive. 4 hours one way. And I also admit to the guilt. I suspect it’s a theatre thing. When you major in theatre you understand the incredible amount of work that goes into the making of a production. As such, you go to see your friends’ shows. It’s the right thing to do – and you want to do it as well. Yet, 4 hours in the car, to Iowa no less, has been a deterrent. I hang my head in shame.

Let me tell you, the drive was worth it. More importantly, it would have been worth it even if Johanna had not been in the show. The production was Henry V and while it is Shakespeare and, thus, you can count on a well written and interesting play, it isn’t one of his comedies which are – of course – much more 'fun.' Mistaken identities, chases through the woods, thwarted lovers all make for a good time at the theatre. War, death, and destruction, while all significant matters particularly given our current climate, aren’t really what we would call ‘fun’.

But this show was fun. Really! The production was 90 minutes and the audience was a part of it. We stood and moved through the show and the action and actors both surrounded us and mingled with us. The actors were good – some of them Very good. They spoke with meaning and moved with purpose. You felt as though you were in the midst of this battle. I watched one woman in the audience as she ducked and flinched at the action on the platforms with eyes wide and her hands to her mouth. She clearly was caught up in the action and the story. I admit to a flinch or three myself during the fight scenes.

The set and costumes had this great ‘Mad Max’ feel to them - lots of pipes and metal scaffolding for the set and lots of leather and fishnet in the costumes. And, I think all who saw the show would agree that Johanna’s hair was the BEST of all the actors – conical spikes that stood out 4 and 5 inches from her head. (Curtain was at 7:30 and she arrived at 4:30 to start doing her hair. And some people think theatre is ‘glamorous.’)

In addition to the set and costumes, the casting was interesting. The English, including Henry V and all his brothers, were played by women. The French were all played by men. The text of the play takes on new levels, and wars and conflicts take on new meaning. It’s a show that stays with you after you leave, and I find myself thinking about it days later, and talking it up to my friends. That’s the sign of a really good show. And a really good show is the sign of a really good director – someone with vision and inspiration, and the ability to pull it together and pull if off.

I wish I could encourage you all to see it this weekend. Unfortunately, it ran only last weekend. I can, though, encourage you to check out another show at Simpson. If you’re in the general neighborhood, I can honestly say it is worth the drive.

And, in true great-aunt style, I can also say that Johanna, while she wasn’t the lead, of course was the best!

You can check the Simpson schedule and theatre department online at
http://www.simpson.edu/theatre/index.html.
Simpson is just 30 minutes south of Des Moines so you can make it a weekend road trip and check out one of Iowa’s fair cities at the same time.

And, for those of you who would rather visit Minnesota, Tom will be directing a show, Expecting Isabel, at the Yellow Tree Theatre which runs from April 23-May 16. You can find out more at
http://yellowtreetheatre.com/shows.php.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lights

I put up twinkle lights this past weekend. I’ve never been big on the outdoor decorating thing. I’ll be honest and say I’ve always thought that it was a little on the foolish side having seen plenty of neighbors over the years standing out on a ladder in the snow trying to get their eaves strung with lights. A few years back a friend of a friend fell off the roof attempting it and broke his ankle and that seemed a pretty clear message. But this year I decided that a change of pace is a good thing. Plus, it’s mid- November and it’s still an amazing 50 degrees out so the danger seemed minimal.

I have a latticework trellis on my back deck which seemed to be calling out for a frame of lights. I also have an architectural piece in my front garden that is the perfect shape to be an outdoor ‘tree’ this Christmas season. So, out I went, lights in hand, stepladder at the ready.

I started with the trellis since it didn’t require the ladder. This should be easy right? Not so much. Even though it was a simple ‘frame’ job it wasn’t a straight shot. So there I stood, weaving a strand of lights in and out of latticework. I started in the middle and worked toward the ends and it actually went relatively quickly, though not as quickly as I had anticipated. Then I ran the big extension cord, hooked it up to an outdoor timer, and there it was – ready for the addition of a little outdoor lighted tree once we pass Thanksgiving. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all.

I’ll admit, I got a little cocky. I went around to the ‘tree’ in front, thinking I would whip this thing out in half an hour or so. It seemed straightforward in my head – 2 strands of lights, start at the top with the middle of the strands, then go down opposite sides winding the strands around the ‘legs’ of the tree. The reality wasn’t quite that simple. First, there was the ladder. Ladders and I have a love/hate relationship that goes back to my years in theatre and a rather intense experience painting at the top of a 22 foot A-frame (I was 20 and indestructible if you’re looking for the logic in it.) This time I was much closer to the ground (never more than 4 feet above it if you must know) but my sense of balance is not quite what it was when I was 20 so there were a few ‘moments’.

Then there was the winding. My ‘tree’ is actually somewhat ornate and has lots of swirls and multiple pieces of iron which made for lots of winding of a Big strand of lights through a very Small opening. It took forever and I have to admit to several broken bulbs that needed replacement when I was finished although I am happy to report that only a minimum of blood was shed from grabbing a broken bulb or two during the winding process. I'm certainly no 'artiste' but I have twinkle lights and I'm pretty happy with the outcome.

This experience has given me a new respect for people that do this every year (although I still think that being up on the ladder in the snow and ice is less than smart.) But doing something new and different, even something as simple as lights on your deck, gives you a new perspective. Your brain has to operate differently, look at the physical world differently, and your hands have to respond in a new way. It reminds you that your default ways of thinking and doing aren’t always necessarily the best or most effective. It causes you to look at a challenge or a problem or a situation in a new way, or to consider the idea that the way someone else might approach something might be better than the way you always have.

And in the end, you get to see things in a whole new light.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leaves

I have a lawn service. How hoity-toity does that make me sound, huh? But, I have a good reason. When I bought my house part of the appeal was the wonderful shade trees - two 60-foot elm trees and three equally tall maple trees. How much more could you ask for in terms of summertime shade to cool the house, I thought. What I didn’t think of was Fall Clean-up.

The first year, it took three full weekends and over a hundred leaf bags. That was interspersed with a constant sinus infection from the leaf mold and the dust along with twice weekly visits to the chiropractor during that time and for a full month after. The second year, I didn’t get it all done. Of course, in Minnesota you can’t always count on sunny weekends and I work during the week. That year, rain was on order and I simply couldn’t get it all done before the snow fell. The next Spring clean-up was a nightmare. Moldy, sodden layers of leaves and underneath those, mold on my grass. That was all it took – I knew I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life!

Finding a lawn service that will do only Fall clean up is virtually impossible. And, who can blame them. So, I hired a lawn service for the entire season. Weekly mowing, gutter cleaning 3 times a season, and both Spring and Fall clean-up. That first summer was tough. I felt guilty paying someone else to mow. Also, I grew up mowing the lawn as a kid and I actually kind of like it. Those first two summers I would turn it into a mini-workout, trying to do it at a fast enough clip to get in a good cardio work out and with my heavy mower that was actually pretty easy. It was also good ‘thinking’ time since no one can really talk to you while you’re behind all those decibels.

On the down side, I often would end up with a sinus infection from the dust and dirt I would breathe in added to all those things I have become allergic to since living in Minnesota – including grass. Plus, even with a teacher’s schedule it was often difficult to get it done. The day you had set aside to do the mowing – it rained. When it was nice, you didn’t have the time. The next thing you knew your grass was 6 inches tall and in the middle of the mowing you find yourself in the emergency room having a finger stitched and set and thanking God you weren’t going to lose it completely (don’t ask.) Afterward, you discover the challenges of pushing that heavy mower with your dominant arm in a sling and the subsequent healing of the broken bone.

Still, it was tough to make the decision to pay someone else to do something you think you should be doing yourself. But then came Fall clean-up. It was amazing. I went to work one morning with a lawn knee-deep in leaves. When I came home they were gone. Gutters clean, gardens blown clean – not a leaf to be seen. Two days later, it snowed. Guilt disappeared - I was hooked!

This morning my lawn service came and did this year’s Fall clean-up. This was the first time I have been home to watch it happen. What a sight! 5 guys, 2 big riding mowers, one with a massive catch basket, 2 guys with industrial strength leaf blowers hooked to jet packs on their backs (think Star Wars), and a guy with a 12-inch diameter suction hose leading into an enclosed truck box. It took them 20 minutes – start to finish. It was amazing to watch – almost like watching a beautifully choreographed contemporary dance performance. And now I’m looking out onto a yard that has not a leaf to be seen. My yard is ready for winter.

As it turns out, paying someone else to do something for you doesn’t always end up being as terrible as you might think. You’ve contributed to the economy, and you’ve gifted yourself with countless hours of time in which to do something that you are better at. It’s a great lesson for me – what should I be spending my time on? What are my gifts? my strengths? If time is a commodity that has value, then doesn’t spending it well become good stewardship? And, if that’s just a rationalization, that’s okay too. I still have a great looking yard!!

5/17/10 - Unfortunately since I wrote this post my lawn service has deteriorated significantly. I can no longer recommend this company. If anyone took my advice last Fall and hired them and they aren't doing good work for you - my deepest apologies. I'm giving it the summer, but may be looking for a new company if anyone has one they'd like to recommend to me!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Focus

I started doing Yoga again this morning. I first started last Spring when I took a class taught by my friend and massage therapist, JoAnn. It was 2 nights a week after work, and I went religiously. It was a fabulous class and a fabulous experience. I’ve been intending to start it again on my own for months but have had 15 million excuses as to why I can’t do it ‘today.’ This morning my excuses ran out.

Part of what I liked so much about the class was how absolutely bad I was when the class started (I’m remembering that feeling vividly today!) and how much better I was so quickly (which I’m praying happens again!) Yoga is a clear testimony to that old and rather irritating adage that practice makes perfect or, at least in this case, it makes better and less painful.

Another thing I liked about class was the completely selfish nature of it. The focus is all on you. JoAnn was clear in her instructions at the beginning of and throughout each class that the point is not to compare yourself with anyone or anything. You are to be where you are and make no excuses or apologies for it. You are to focus on what you are able to do – not on what someone else is able to do.

Of course, at first, that was impossible. I have been conditioned by my years in American culture which stress that what is important is how you compare to everyone around you. So, regardless of her instruction not to – I did. I compared myself to what I thought I should be able to do. I compared myself to others in the class. I felt bad when I couldn’t do what another person could, and I felt shamefully good when I was better than someone else – particularly when that someone was thinner than I and who should have been, therefore, automatically better at this.

Amazingly, that comparison stopped relatively quickly. Perhaps it was her gentle repetition of the instruction, perhaps it was that feeling bad about how you compare to others gets old really quickly, but I really did begin to focus. I stopped thinking about and looking at the other people in the room. I started to think about myself. I started to think about how I was stretching. I started to think about my breathing. I started to think about my balance. And, as I started to focus on those things, they all began to improve. And, they began to improve quickly.

This morning when I plugged in the DVD and began, I forgot all those things and my first thought was the old comparison – how bad I was now, compared to how good I was the last time I did this. That thought was a little depressing (okay - a lot), and for many people might have been enough to make them turn off the DVD and reach for coffee and a donut. But then JoAnn (on DVD) began her instructions – don’t compare yourself, work where you are, don’t try to push yourself beyond your current ability, work slowly and improvement will come. And I remembered the focus. So I started. I started to focus on my breathing. I started to focus on my stretching, my movement, my position. An hour disappeared as I thought about nothing more than those things. When I was done, I was calm, relaxed, and I felt good about what I had done.

The lesson of Yoga is one that seems significant enough for me to take other places. At work – focus. There is no need to compare myself to another – my job is to do the best I can, and as I focus on that I will become better. In relationship – focus. I can’t compare this relationship to a past one or to someone else’s. My job is to be the best I can be here – in this relationship. It’s true for us all. We can only do what we can do. We can only improve if we start where we are. Whatever the circumstance, focus and relax, and you will be who and what you are intended to be.


If you're interested in JoAnn's yoga DVD, here's her contact information:
jojo.z2you@yahoo.com
DVD's are $15 plus shipping.
Ohhmmmmm!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Shalom

I spent this past weekend at Shalom Hill farm. It’s a retreat center in south central Minnesota – just north and a bit west of Windom. Its main purpose is a training center for those going into rural ministry although they rent their space out to other groups as well. http://www.shalomhillfarm.org/ I technically went for a ‘scrapbooking retreat’ with a friend but if truth be told that’s simply an excuse to stay at the place. It’s set on a hill, overlooking the rolling prairie. You can watch the sun come up, play with one of the farm kittens that will follow you around if you step outdoors, or watch the chickens chase each other around the yard. You can walk the road for your morning exercise – down the hill half a mile and uphill on the way back. No need for the stairmaster, with the added benefit of being outside in the fresh air and quiet.

The sleeping rooms are simple – twin beds with homemade quilts, a small chest, a mirror, a lamp, a window. The food is simple and plentiful, home-made with ingredients produced at the farm – fresh eggs from the chickens, tomatoes from the garden. You’re asked to be conscious of the resources you use and aware of where those resources come from. The main room we were using is in a building called The Shed. It’s a lovely space, lots of windows and natural light, a fireplace, comfortable sofas to relax on, a little kitchen where you can make coffee or tea and grab a snack while working. Over at the main building, the large meeting room is full of quilters this weekend and you can wander over and take a look at what they’re working on when you need to stand up and stretch a bit.

One of the best things about this weekend is being away from your regular environment. There are none of your usual distractions. You don’t have to do the dishes or run the vacuum. You get to focus. The first time I went to Shalom Hill I went with a goal – get something done. This time, my goal was different – be. Be in the moment. It’s a valuable message to be reminded of. You don’t have to be running full-speed all the time. Slowing down and appreciating your surroundings allows you to experience things in a different way. You get to spend time in your thoughts, spend time in nature, spend time in a book, spend time in conversation. And you get to do those things without an agenda or a deadline – which allows you to experience them all in a new way.

We often get so caught up in our ‘schedule’ that we forget to actually experience the things we are doing and the people we are with. Taking a little time out to do it deliberately can hopefully help us to start doing it more in our daily life, which helps us more fully appreciate those things and people we have.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Colleagues

A colleague of mine died last week. It was sudden – completely unexpected. He was Mr. Healthy – walking to work and home every day, healthy eater, slender – yet still died of a massive heart attack without warning of any kind at age 66.

Doug and I started at Inver Hills the same year – 1989. We’ve been colleagues for 20 years. Our offices were in different buildings so we didn’t see each other on a daily basis. But we were friendly, talking with each other at duty days, sharing the common greetings of passing between classes on the mall, sharing an in-depth (and, I must admit, usually confusing) conversation at a conference (Doug taught Philosophy), sharing a laugh and a snarky comment or two about administratively required ‘work’.

Working with really smart people can be pretty intimidating. After all, they’re smart. They all have at least a Master’s degree, and most have more – advanced course work, an advanced degree. Beyond their degrees, though, they’re smart. Really smart. In some cases, scary smart. The smart, most of the time, isn’t really about their book learning or their degree. It’s an inherent thing – a combination of curiosity, wonder, determination, analysis and creativity. It’s the thing that drove them to pursue the field they did, and to desire to share their discoveries with others. It’s the thing that makes them fun to work with.

Some people perhaps have a perception of college teachers that’s pretty outdated – that they are these intellectual eggheads, who live in a fog in their ivory towers with no connection to “the real world” and no idea how to relate to the world that “real people” have to live and work in. Maybe that’s true – somewhere. But it’s not true about the colleagues I’ve had. Of course there’s always an exception or two, and maybe there are a lot of exceptions as people are people wherever we go. But the colleagues I’ve had in the places I’ve taught – those who are colleagues in the real sense of the word – have been people who have taught me to be better, challenged me to re-think a situation or an approach, helped me to see beyond the immediate and grasp the long-term, helped me to focus on the things that are really relevant and significant. They’re the ones that have helped to make ‘the job’ an opportunity for something beyond the ordinary. And, they’ve helped me keep my sanity!

So hats off to my colleagues. And hats off to Doug – philosopher, teacher, colleague.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hometown

I visited my hometown this past weekend. It was the MEA break so an opportune time to make the trek across South Dakota to Rapid City. For those of you wanting to visit, the directions from Minneapolis are simple: Head south on I-35 and turn right at I-90. Drive forever.

For those of you who think I am exaggerating, clearly you’ve never made the drive. Mind you, I’m not judging it – I’m simply stating the facts. The reality is that some of the best times in my life have been spent watching the sun rise in my rear view mirror. It meant I was headed home.

Visiting your hometown is always an interesting experience. It’s your home – but it’s not. You know where most things are and know how to get wherever you might be going. Many things are just as you remember them. Some things have changed a little. Some things are new. But the essence of the place is still the same. It smells the same. It looks the same. The weather is still the same – 20 degrees warmer than it should be – 81F and a sunny, clear blue sky on October 18.

While growing up, my hometown seemed like a pretty big place. Now, not so much. It’s not that you can drive from one end of town to the other in second gear (like you could in my mom’s hometown) but you can drive from one end to the other, through town in traffic, in half an hour. One afternoon I visited my friend Barb who works at the Dahl Fine Arts Center. She gave me the full tour (I hadn’t been in the place since high school) and showed me the expansion, the behind-the-scenes areas, the newly constructed event center and the remodeled old MDU building which is now the office space. It was great to see how the place has changed and improved and great to see my hometown showing a commitment to the arts as well. As I left to go meet family for dinner, she advised me about how to miss the ‘rush hour’ traffic. I couldn’t help it – I laughed out loud. I gave myself 20 minutes to make the trip. I made it in 8. I laughed out loud again.

Being in your hometown reminds you of who you were when you were there. You replay events from your childhood. You see the house where you grew up, your old schools, your old church. You drive the street that used to be the ‘place to be seen’ when you were in high school. It all looks smaller now. You wonder what your life would have been like had you stayed. You try to imagine it – get a mental picture. Who would you be? What would you be doing? Who would you know? What would you be concerned about? You would be different – that is certain.

Being in your hometown also reminds you that you have the power to become. You have choice. You are not limited by your birth place or your birth station. You aren’t stuck being someone or something that doesn’t fit. You can change. You can become. You are allowed to grow into the person you wish to be. It’s up to you to make that choice. Once you have done that, if you like, you can always go visit – for a little while - the person you used to be. Then it’s time to get back in the car, put the visor down, and head back home – into the sunrise.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Closets

I’ve been cleaning closets. This is one of those chores that I’ve been putting off for months. There’s always something better to do than this, isn’t there? The problem with cleaning a closet is that it doesn’t stop with just one. One closet bleeds into another and before you know it your entire house is a train wreck. There are jeans that you should have banished to the rag bag 5 years ago, shoes that you never should have bought in the first place and clothes that haven’t been in fashion since the 80s (and, let’s be honest, can we really call what happened in the 80s ‘fashion’?)

It’s simply not a quick chore. You try going by that old saw “if you haven’t worn it in the past 2 years, give it up” but you can’t help but talk yourself out of it. “Well, no, I haven’t worn it in the past 5 years BUT it goes perfectly with that …” or “Well, no, I haven’t worn it BUT I love it and as soon as I lose that 5 pounds it will fit perfectly.” Tell me that you’ve been there with me. Or, even worse, the jacket or pair of pants that’s too big. And I’m holding on to these because - what – I think I’m going to grow into them???

And then there’s the joy of discovery. That pair of Capri pants you searched all summer for but didn’t find because they were stuffed in between 2 winter jackets. The 3 blue tanks that you bought in exactly the same shade because you couldn’t find the first one because it slipped out of the pile of laundry and got jammed in the back of the drawer. That dress that was actually part of a Halloween costume back in college. That old bowling shirt of your Dad’s.

This exercise is a good one. It forces you to make decisions, cull the herd so to speak. My old grad school roommate, Marcee, was addicted to white blouses. She must have had 30 of them in her closet – she said you could never have too many. That may have been true for her (and may have been true for me about something other than white blouses, if the truth be told) but I’ve decided that I can have too many and it’s time to bite the bullet and start weeding. If it doesn’t fit – out. If it hasn’t been in fashion for over a decade – out. If it isn’t flattering – out. If it isn’t comfortable –out.

Admittedly this culling has gotten easier since I started doing more of my shopping at Savers. Let’s face it, when you’ve paid $4.99 for that top, it’s far easier to make the decision to dump it then when you’ve paid $49.99. It’s also easier when there’s a place for it to go. Value Village and Savers both take donations. I can drop off a bag of clothing (and anything else I need to weed out of the house) and know that there’s another life for it. I’m not throwing away something perfectly good (I am my Mother’s daughter, after all, and she did manage to beat one or two things into my hard head!) or contributing to a landfill. Someone else – someone who doesn’t have a lot of disposable income, someone who is between jobs, or someone who simply likes a good deal and wants to live more green by recycling whenever possible can get perfectly good, usable, wearable, and even fashionable clothing at a great price.

But the best part of all of it is the sense of freedom that comes with it. There’s less stuff to dig through, there’s less stuff to move around, there’s less stuff to weigh you down. There’s less stuff and when there’s less stuff there’s more room. Room to breathe, room to grow, room to invite others in. So get going – cull that herd. It’s good for others, it’s good for you, it’s good for that closet.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Snow

I woke up to snow this morning. Now I know that many of you are thinking – ‘You live in Minnesota – what did you expect?’ and I get your point. But, I didn’t expect it on October 10. I know it’s only about an eighth of an inch and will probably be gone by lunchtime so it’s really not a big deal but I’M NOT READY!!!! Last year Autumn seemed to go on forever. It was great! Long stretches of cool days with a bright blue sky. Autumn smells, Autumn sounds. This year it seems like Autumn is trying to bypass us completely. The leaves on the trees are still green and have hardly begun to drop. There’s even one lone tomato still trying to turn red on the vine and, yet, snow.

Snow acts as a bit of an insulator. Everything is quieter after a snow. Traffic sounds are muted. There are fewer people out walking on the street. The squirrels are slower to venture out harvesting. Looking out at it from inside, it’s pristine – untouched as it covers the deck. This early in the season it is not, however, inviting. It doesn’t call to you to come out and make a snow angel or have a snowball fight. I don’t think longingly of my skis hanging in the garage. It looks odd – out of place with the green grass poking up through it and the garden plants trying to shake it off in the occasional breeze. It’s that same sense you get when walking along the ocean when summer is gone but where people have forgotten to take in their beach chairs and umbrellas. Something’s wrong with this picture.

Of course, maybe what really bothers me about it is the reminder of the passage of time. Snow means another summer is gone. Seven or eight long months before it’s warm enough to swim outside, eat breakfast out on the deck, sleep with the windows open. It’s time to switch the closets over from Spring/Summer clothes to Fall/Winter clothes. Take the screens off and wash the windows. It’s another season closer to that next birthday. It’s the reminder that we only have a limited number of days and hours. It’s the encouragement we need to make the most of them.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Radio

My friend Keith has a radio show. He’s a professor at the University of the Cumberlands (Williamsburg, Kentucky – in case you’re not familiar) in the Communication and Theatre department and he’s the general manager of the radio station there. Twice a week during this academic year, his show runs from 10-noon (EST) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The show is called Strictly the Sixties and showcases – you guessed it – 60s music. Keith wrote his doctoral dissertation on the music of the Beatles so I guess this was a logical extension of his interests and passion.

Last year, when we reconnected via Facebook (ain’t the Internet grand??) after 20 years, this radio program was one of the things that I discovered. Last year, listening was hit and miss. I was teaching full-time and while his show schedule didn’t actually conflict with my class schedule, unfortunately meetings - bloody meetings - often interfered with my listening. This year, my sabbatical allows much greater freedom so I’m able to listen with more regularity and, more significantly, uninterrupted.

The show is great fun. It runs for 2 hours, starting with music from the early 60s – pre-British invasion. Then it runs through a wonderful variety of stuff that you haven’t heard since you were a kid. The second hour of the show always starts with a set including a triple play of music from the Beatles (of course) and from, what Keith calls, the ‘usual musical suspects’ including Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. This is radio the way you want it to be. There is uninterrupted music – 5 or 6 or more songs at a run – but it is followed by a rundown of what you’ve just heard (including performer and year of release), something you rarely get on commercial radio. You’ll hear a song that you love followed by a song that makes you cringe. Some of the music is funny, some just plain weird, and some incredibly obscure. When’s the last time you heard the Beatles singing “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” (ever?) followed by the beautiful “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “The Fool on the Hill”? It is also interspersed with interesting bits of information and trivia about the bands, the individual performers and the 60s in general. It’s a great cultural history lesson, all delivered to your desktop in manageable 2 hour segments.

For me, of course, a big part of the fun is the fact that it’s my friend’s voice I’m listening to. It almost feels like we’re actually in the same room (the wonder of technology) even though we are 900 miles apart. And we’re not alone in the room. His wife- my friend Marianne, and our friends Bill and Teresa and Gabrielle are there in the room also. I hear all their voices, their laughter, and I feel like I’m sitting in the midst of love and acceptance.

It’s just a radio show – but it’s a radio show that has reminded me of a couple of important lessons. The first lesson is it reinforces what we know in our hearts – that when we’ve connected in a meaningful way with another person, it doesn’t matter how much time and distance separates you. You are connected – you’ve made an impact on them and they on you. They’ve helped to shape who you are and you’re never really without them after that. You carry them along with you and they are part of what makes you who you are. The second lesson? Of course, "plastics."


By the way - for those of you who have emailed me asking how to listen in - here's the web address: http://www.ucumberlands.edu/academics/communications/wccr/
Click on 'Listen Online.' Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Adjusting

It’s Autumn. Leaves are turning and falling. Days are shorter and shorter. Capri pants are out - sweaters are in. That smell is in the air. It’s that time of year when you want to pick up a backpack and a number 2 pencil. You want to be outside as much as you can because you know what’s coming. You find yourself with an urge to make soup and the coffee tastes better than it ever does in the summer. You put an extra blanket back on the bed.

This seasonal transition we’re in seemed to happen overnight – one day you’re in sunshine and shorts and the next day you’re thinking maybe you should turn the furnace on. It was probably more abrupt having spent the 2 weeks prior to the change in 95 degree heat with 95 percent humidity. I don’t think I was quite ready. I still want those 60 degree days where the sun shines and you can do some Fall clean-up in the yard. I’m not ready to hunker down for the count quite yet. Transitions are always a challenge in some way.

The transition back to regular life is marked by Haiti leftovers. I came back with intestinal bugs – always a pleasure and I won’t bore you all with the details. This time I also came back with a different experience – Dengue fever. A mosquito borne viral illness, it is characterized by fever, headache, back ache, joint aches, and a funky reddish tinge to the skin. In short, you feel like a truck hit you. Cure? Tylenol and a lot of naps. Ah, Haiti – the gift that keeps on giving.

Tim O’Brien starts his book, The Things They Carried, with a litany of all the things different soldiers carried with them through the Vietnam War. There were many things that everybody carried. They were necessities – SOP – for all soldiers like a rain poncho, ammunition, dog tags. In addition to the things in common, they all carried something unique. They carried photos or foot powder or extra socks or a Bible or a talisman. And they all carried their history.

Haiti, and Valentina, are now part of my history. Back at home, there’s work to do and I’m working. There’s a house to clean and I’m cleaning. There are bills to pay – yep – I’m paying. Life is back to normal. I’m moving on which is what we all do because we have no choice. Life is full of experiences and changes for all of us. None of us is exempt. No matter how big it is to us at the time - no matter how intense – our pain is no bigger than anyone else’s pain. We all have to deal with the stuff that comes our way. The best we can do is try to integrate those experiences into who we are and where we are. Let them in. Learn from them. Let them change us. Carry them.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Home

As the saying goes, there’s no place like it. It’s full of familiar smells, familiar sights, familiar things. Being home after being in a place like Haiti is an odd experience. Things are the same as they were before you left, but they’re somehow different at the same time.

I’ve done all the smart things, taking the re-entry process slowly, as one friend put it because you ‘don’t want to get the bends.’ I’ve gotten up at my usual times, participated in my usual post-travel activities –unpacking and doing laundry, putting the suitcases back in the storage room, picking up the mail at the Post Office and going through it, trying to get back into your usual routine. Saturday evening went to church. Sunday morning walked around the lake and went for breakfast with a friend. All the usual thing. But Sunday afternoon, I took a nap – for four hours. Not a usual thing. Oddly enough, Haiti is on Minnesota time so I can’t even claim jet lag. But I’m tired.

I’m enjoying the good things about being home. Abundant hot water and water pressure in the shower. Abundant cold, fresh water to drink at my fingertips. Abundant media resources in my own language. Abundant food, the eating of which does not result in the need for Cipro. I haven’t used hand sanitizer in over 48 hours. I drove my car without once swerving to avoid a 4 foot diameter pothole or a pickup crammed with 15 people pulling out from the curb and into my lane with no notice. I have understood every word that anyone has spoken in my presence. I know what to do and where to go and how to get along. It is all familiar and comfortable.

And at the same time, it is uncomfortable. I was only able to eat half the food on my plate at breakfast. I was very aware of the waste. I am conscious of the amount of time my shower takes. I am aware of every light I have turned on, of every thing I throw away. I am not feeling guilty – but I am feeling grateful. I am grateful for my life and the privileges that go with it. I am grateful for the security which allows me to live in a building that is not surrounded by walls topped with razor wire. I am grateful for the flip of a switch which provides reliable electricity, reliable cooling, reliable heating. I am grateful for the abundance that is the physical part of my life. More importantly, I am grateful for the abundance of friends, family, loved ones that make my life what it is. I am grateful that the abundance of my life allows me to experience life in Haiti. And I am grateful to come home.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Haiti Day Ten

El Rancho is a lovely hotel. The fact that it is in Haiti, though, makes for an interesting experience. The power goes out periodically – sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few hours. When we arrived in our room, I commented to Carol about the candle on the desk in the room. Surely in America they wouldn’t trust anyone with an open flame in a hotel room and wasn’t that a nice touch. Then the power went out and it became apparent that the candle was not simply a decorative touch. Thank goodness we both brought a flashlight.

The original plan for the day was that Dio and Lionette would pick us up at 10:00 am and take us out for ice cream. We sat and waited in the lobby and at about 11:30 Nancy called to see what was up. There had been a change in plans – and someone had forgotten to notify us. We laughed. In the US people would be frustrated and angry. In Haiti, this is life. Plans change. Everybody seems to just go with the flow.

After lunch we have a lovely free afternoon. Some of us swim. Some go for a massage. The winding down is the point. We’re making the transition back to the US. Our evening processing is comprised of giving affirmations, dinner, and highlights. Affirmations involve each person writing a short note to the others on the team acknowledging something positive that was noticed during the trip. We often have qualities we might be unaware of until someone points them out to us. It is good to articulate these things in writing. Also, we discuss highlights of the trip. This is a particularly good practice as it focuses our attention on the positive things that have happened on the trip. We laugh a lot in sharing these memories.


Now, the only thing left is the packing and the leaving. The travel day will be hectic – making our way one last time through the chaos that is Haitian traffic, navigating the chaos that is the Port-au-Prince airport, and even navigating customs in Miami which is its own brand of chaos. Haiti has a way of getting under your skin. It is simultaneously wonderful and horrible. It is filthy and yet it is beautiful. Coming to Haiti is hard. Leaving Haiti is hard.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Haiti - Day Nine

This is the day that we leave the Mephibosheth House. We spend one last morning with the kids – Mary has brought balloons to make water balloons. Needless to say, they are a big hit. We have a last meeting with the staff, sharing our thanks and appreciation for their work. They express appreciation for our time with them.

We leave around lunch time and Joe drives us to a Haitian Art Gallery in Delmas for a shopping opportunity. We then make the trek to Petionville. Petionville is the wealthy area of Port-au-Prince. It is quite a drive from near the airport where we have been staying at the Mephibosheth House. It is more crowded with vendors on the streets. Traffic is more hectic. There is clearly more money here. We make a second stop at a shop where local crafts are sold. It is our one opportunity, other than duty free at the airport on Friday, to buy gifts or souvenirs.


We finally arrive at our hotel, our home for our last 2 days in Haiti – El Rancho. It is a hotel that most Americans would be quite comfortable in. We are thrilled because there is air conditioning. There is water pressure and hot water. There is a pool. There is refrigeration. There is a mattress on top of a box spring instead of simply sitting on a frame. Even sitting outside is more pleasant as we are higher in the mountains and the air is cleaner and the breeze is cooler. We’re relatively certain this is what heaven will be. We have free time before dinner. A few of us check email and shoot off a quick message or two. Others take advantage of the air conditioning for a nap.

This is the beginning of the re-entry process. When traveling to such a different culture from one’s own there is an element of culture shock – even if you are not consciously aware of it. Traveling back home, the same thing applies. There needs to be time to process and talk through the thoughts and emotions being experienced as we ready ourselves to leave this place. One thing is certain, no one goes home unchanged. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the experiences, they all work together to change you. We hope, for the better.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Haiti - Day Eight

Today, as I rocked her in my arms and sang ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ Valentina died.

Haiti - Day Seven


This morning came early – the rooster still lives, in case any of you are wondering. He’s very brave about his crowing in the middle of the night but is a coward at heart when daylight breaks. When you try to chase him down for a quick game of strangle the rooster, he makes sure to hide behind the hen and the chicks.

This morning we were back at the Sisters and today it was a very hard place to be. On Saturday, a small baby was brought in. I saw her because I thought I heard a cat mewing and went to check it out. It wasn’t a cat – it was this baby. She had been abandoned by her mother and taken in by the woman who brought her in to the clinic. This ‘surrogate’ mom had been doing her best at caring for this child for the last six months but the baby became so sick she finally brought her in to be seen by the doctor at the Sisters’ clinic. At six months, she weighed 4 pounds. She made it through the night on Saturday, but died yesterday. That was the news that greeted us upon our arrival.

I spent almost the entire morning with Valentina. She and I met our first day at the clinic. She is 8 months old and I have yet to see a parent come to visit her. She is in the first crib in the first room – the room for the sickest babies. I have made it a point to talk to her and hold her every day we’ve been there. On Saturday, she was alert and fussy. She was eating – not much – but eating, nonetheless. Today, she’s a different child. She’s lethargic and wants to do nothing but sleep. Her respiration is very quick and shallow. She has a fever. She will not eat. She is vomiting, and since she hasn’t eaten, she’s vomiting mucous and stomach bile. She can barely keep her eyes open long enough to vomit, then she’s right back to sleeping on my shoulder. I have placed cool washcloths on her head and body to try and cool her down. I have taken her and her IV bag out of the room and into the entryway where the sisters do the intake as well as the checkout for those who are going home. There is a place to sit, and more importantly, there is a breeze and the air is somewhat fresh. About 11:30 she is vomiting again, and this time there is blood. I take her to Sister Renee and she decides it is time for a feeding tube. Valentina fights it for just a moment, then seems to run out of energy completely and gives up the struggle. I am anxious about what we will find tomorrow morning upon our return.

In circumstances like this, one doesn’t really know what to hope for. You can pray and hope for healing. But then you have to ask “healing for what?” What is waiting for these kids? If they do get well, then what? For some, the answer is relatively easy. They have parents, or at least one parent, that loves them enough to come every day and stay for the visiting hours, feed them, rock them, change their diapers. They will go home with their parents, but the question again is ‘home to what?’ There is such poverty. They will drink water that is not clean, they will eat food that is not clean. Going home sometimes means another trip back to the clinic. For the others, the answers are harder. Some have been abandoned. If they recover from their illness, they will move upstairs into the orphanage and await adoption. If adopted, other issues arise. Most will be adopted out to other countries. There will be adjustment issues, abandonment issues, and the lingering health issues from such a rocky start to life. The process will be long and painstaking.

And yet, tomorrow we go back. We hold, we rock, we feed, we change diapers. And we pray.

Haiti - Day Six

Today is Sunday so many special things happen today, starting with breakfast. We are served a traditional breakfast soup that the wealthy Haitians eat on Sunday mornings. It is a creamy soup with a pumpkin or squash base to it, containing potatoes, carrots, onions and spaghetti. It is actually quite good – unusual for American palates – but flavorful and filling.

Pastor and Madame Dio and the team have left for church. Church is long here – at least a couple of hours. It is very crowded and there is no bathroom. As the most recently afflicted with the oogies, I have elected to stay home and rest – close to the bathroom! The children did not go to church with the team. Instead, they stay home for church on the porch, although they are all dressed for church – clearly Sunday clothes are being worn. Church started promptly at 9:30. One of the staff began by asking the children something in Creole to which they all responded simultaneously. This was repeated 3 times, then the singing began. There is a rhythm to their church service also. There is singing, followed by prayer, followed by singing, followed by prayer. There is calling and response. There is more singing. The children sing loudly – nobody is shy about the way they sound – it is joyful singing and a delight to listen to.

In the afternoon we have more time for the pool. Today, it is the staff who go first. Several of the women come out and they jump into the pool. They are joyous. They are splashing each other; they are splashing the kids. The kids are having almost as much fun watching the staff as they have being in the pool themselves.

While this is going on, Joe and Erick take Nancy and I to Visa Lodge. This is a local hotel which services English speaking business travelers and they have WiFi. Woo hoo! We finally get to post the blog entries and check at least a little email. Visa Lodge shows a different side of Haiti. This is where there is a certain amount of money. Our waiter speaks English, but is appreciative of my French. There are white business people at a couple of tables. There are Haitians at the next table. They have a laptop set up, they have ordered food off the menu and are dressed well. Our 4 Cokes cost us $15 US. As anywhere, I think it is the discrepancy in the distribution of wealth that is so difficult to process. In order to get here, we have passed hundreds of people on the streets who clearly have nothing. They may live in a shanty that is comprised of thatched walls on large sticks holding up a tin roof. If they are fortunate, they will eat rice with beans at least once today. They will never own a laptop. They will never sit at this table in this place. They will never spend $4 on a Coke. The next time I am drinking my $4 cup of Caribou Coffee, I will remember this scene. And I will be grateful.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Haiti Day Five

Our day began with another visit to the Sisters. It is very hot today and most of the team is feeling it in one way or another. Several of us have had a small bout of the ‘oogies,’ and a couple of us have started to take the Cipro we’ve brought with us.

After lunch today we had a meeting with the staff of the Mephibosheth house. It was an interesting experience. We are trying to find out what we can do to make their jobs easier when we come. They express that they are simply pleased to have us here. In their words, the best thing we can do is to come and love these children. Now that they know we are willing, they have promised to think carefully about the things they would like us to do the next time a team comes in January. We’re hoping they will be direct about what they would like us to do.

After the meeting, Dio took the team to see the village where he is planting another church. We drove north on Haiti’s Highway 1 along the west coast of the country. After leaving Port-au-Prince, we eventually caught sight of the ocean as we traveled further north. This is the road which would take us up to Gonaives, but we turn off before we get that far at a village named Cabaret. We pass through Cabaret and make our way further up into the mountains to Bethel.

This area was decimated by the hurricanes that went through last year. The water came straight down the river and destroyed much of what was in its path. Many people lost their homes and their land – they were left with nothing. Reconstruction has begun, but the process is slow as materials are not readily available and, of course, cost money. People are struggling through though, and even in such dire circumstances, children still laugh and play and adults greet us with a sincere smile of welcome. Currently, in Bethel, tents are erected for the purposes of shading and protection from rain and are used for church on Sunday and for classes during the week. A small classroom building has already been built and the church itself is next on the agenda.

By the time we return it is dark – and the ride has been a tough one. The highway itself has numerous potholes to circumnavigate and when we turn off the highway onto the mountain roads it is particularly bad. You must crawl along. Anything faster risks a flat tire or a broken axle. It feels like the bouncing of a small boat in a big storm. The van rocks from one side to the next and bounces up and down. A couple of us are feeling pretty carsick on the trip up and by the time we get back it’s just a bit too much. Luckily, the key to getting over motion sickness is to stop the motion, so once back at the house we recover quickly.

One of the more amazing things in Haiti is the patience of the drivers. Traffic is chaos. There are very few traffic signals or signs. People simply drive – virtually wherever they wish. We are passed on both sides simultaneously, people turn left in front of us or pull out from the curb without signaling. Buses, delivery trucks, tap-taps (the small truck that serve as shared taxis, carrying up to 15 or more people along with a chicken and a goat) cars and SUVs and pedestrians, lots of pedestrians, all fight for space and right of way. On-coming cars swerve into your lane of traffic to avoid the giant pothole in their lane. You simply slow down to allow them access then go on your way. This give and take has a rhythm to it – it is actually something that is pleasant to see – compared to what we see at home where people will speed up to not allow someone to merge or who crowd other drivers out in their insistence to be first. Haitians seem to understand that we’ll all get there eventually, so there’s no need to be so self-centered. Perhaps the way they drive is a message to the rest of us on how to do life
.

Haiti Day Four

Flexibility. It is an essential quality in a third world country. As they say, ‘Man plans, God laughs.” Our scheduled trip to the Sisters today did not materialize. Madame Dio needed Joe, our driver, to take her to run several errands this morning, so that needs to take precedence over our outing. It is disappointing not to be going, and yet it gives us an unplanned opportunity to spend more time with the kids at the House. We are filling ‘la piscine’ – the swimming pool which we brought with us from the States. The kids have started to gather around to watch in anticipation. Of course, water pressure is almost non-existent here so the filling is taking quite awhile. We’re going on 2 ½ hours already and we only have about six inches in it. Of course, it might fill faster if Paul and Carol weren’t spending so much time squirting everything that moves.

Lunch is over and the children have gathered on the porch, right in front of the steps to watch and be the first in the pool. The girls go first. When Madame Dio tells them they may get ready, there is jumping and cheering and running to their rooms to get bathing suits on. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a group of girls this giddy. They cannot contain their excitement. Luckily we brought water wings with us and some of the smaller children are unable to stand on their own and even though the pool only contains about 2 feet of water, it would be easy to experience an accidental drowning. Three of our team are in the pool with the girls – all 13 of them. You can imagine that it is quite crowded, but the kids seem oblivious to the crunched conditions. They splash and put their heads under water and hold their breath. For some it is their first time in a swimming pool. What a treat! The boys follow the girls and the experience is the same.

Another activity of the afternoon is the taking of Biographies. We have only sketchy details on many of the children. Some do not know their birth date or how old they are. One boy could not remember the name of his brother. We have virtually no information on the staff at this point. We talked with all the women on staff, gathering details about city of origin, birth family, and current family. The staff hold positions such as head housekeeper, house mother to either the boys or the girls, kitchen manager, head cook, head laundress etc. What is so striking about these women is that they love their jobs. Truly. They are thrilled to work here and they are thrilled to live with and serve these children. It is heartwarming to see people embrace jobs that so many people in more wealthy countries would look down their nose at or simply refuse to do. When we expressed regret today to Nitha that just after she’d finished mopping the floors, we dumped kids in the swimming pool (I don’t think I need to explain the result!) rather than getting angry at us or the kids for tracking mud and dirt on her newly washed floors, she said that it was nothing. And she meant it. The staff here do not see any part of their job as being beneath them. The most menial, the most dirty parts of their job are tackled with graciousness and evey with apparent. As I see their attitude toward their work, I reflect on my own whining and moaning about certain elements of my job. I don’t like doing this, or that part of my job is annoying, or this part of my job is a waste of my time or talent. It makes me aware of my own sense of entitlement and I want to do better.

Haiti Day Three

The rooster has made it through another night unscathed. One of the team did have a dream about killing it with a sledgehammer, but it has survived to torture us once more. He started again around 3:30 and he actually seems to make his way in a circle around the entire compound. He also seems to make it a point to stop and crow under every window in the building. He seems quite deliberate about the whole process. We’ve begun to consider poison.

This morning several of the team took a road trip to the paint store, the fan store, and the Eko Depot – Haiti’s version of Home Depot. It was an adventure. The paint store is located in Delmas, a middle class neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Middle class has a different standard here than at home. Many of the homes are built with concrete block and are well-equipped by Haitian standards. Most Americans would probably find them a hardship. The houses are set behind concrete walls which are topped with razor wire or rows of broken glass and glass bottles to keep intruders out. In addition to paint, the paint store also stocks ceramic tile of every description, sinks, tubs, and whirlpool tubs. The fan store housed small little stoves and refrigerators, the most gaudy selection of toilets and matching sinks, generators of every description, and fans, which you might imagine, are expensive as there is never a reason for an ‘end of season’ sale

When we returned, Mary and Paul were sitting with all the children engrossed in coloring and drawing. Small groups occasionally break off to kick the soccer ball or to play a game of dominoes. It’s a relatively quiet time, especially considering the sheer numbers of kids. We’re appreciating the quiet as this afternoon it will be the Special Olympics. Paul has planned a number of activities for the kids. We think it will be quite fun!

Evening

The Special Olympics were a great hit. All the kids participated in at least one of the events, many participated in them all. First, second and third place ribbons were given, (and the judging panel skewed the results to make sure every one of the 18 children received one of the first three places in one of the events.) Kids who cannot walk without a walker were still able to throw the bean bags, or ‘kick’ the soccer ball with their hands. It was a joy to watch them participate – although I suspect that some of them were more interested in pleasing the crazy Americans than in throwing a bean bag through a hoop! In any case, it was fun – for them and for us.

It is easy to second guess yourself in a place like this. Am I doing the right thing? Am I communicating what I’m trying to communicate? Am I being respectful in the way in which I’m interacting with others? It’s easy to step on toes and not even know it. But the biggest question for me is ‘what is the value of what we are doing?’ Are we helping or are we hindering. Or are we simply benign – a presence that is here for 10 days disrupting the routine, but one that will be forgotten as soon as we drive away. I don’t have the answers yet. Even if we are forgotten the moment we leave, I am certain none of us will forget this experience. These children and the staff who serve them, have a way of insinuating themselves into your heart. They won’t be easily erased.

Haiti Day Two

Kill the rooster.

The world starts coming to life as soon as the starts to get light. The rooster didn’t wait that long. He started around 3:30 am. He hasn’t stopped yet and it’s now 5:30. Several of us have given up on sleep although there is talk of a $250 bounty on that rooster’s head. We’re sitting on the porch listening. The rooster, the feral cats, sounds of breakfast cooking, horns honking, birds singing, and the baby chicks following their mama and chittering the whole time. We’ve spotted a baby gecko in the bathroom, and a decent sized rat wandering around the bases of the banana palms. The mosquitoes and gnats are biting and it’s already warm and humid. The sky is clear blue – it’s beautiful.

3:30 pm
We spent the morning at the Sisters of Charity clinic for sick and dying babies. Chaotic describes the scene well. There are four rooms full of beds – 25 in each room, each cradling a very sick little baby. Some are hooked up to IVs, some aren’t strong enough to sit up, some aren’t strong enough to cry. Many have visiting parents this morning, but several do not. They sit or lay alone in their cribs. As the mamans pass by, they might pat a back or tickle a chin. Sometimes they simply change a diaper and quickly move on to the next needy child. At 10:30 it is time for the parents to leave and there is great wailing and sobbing. It’s heart-breaking to watch and listen to. There are only so many hands and the hands are far outnumbered by the sick babies. There is a new doctor who will be at the clinic for the next several weeks. He openly admits he is overwhelmed. He has never seen some of the diseases he is seeing this morning and he doesn’t quite know how to react when he orders medications or treatments and the sisters inform him that it simply isn’t possible. This particular child is not sick enough, and the strongest medicines must be saved for those who are far sicker. The lucky children will eventually go home with their parents. The others will spend their last days on earth in this place. Holding a baby is a simple thing – holding a dying baby, not quite as simple.

After lunch we spend the remaining afternoon time with the kids at the house. Glen and Mary are making paper airplanes and teaching the kids how to make them fly. The kids are thrilled. It’s a simple game created out of spare paper that had been sitting around the home of one of the team members. They react to this game the way American kids might react to a new game for their Wi. There is a small group of kids most fascinated with the airplanes – Gemima, Nadege, Sheelove and Dadou. Dadou is 8 years old. To American eyes he could easily pass for half his age. As they play, Mary sings songs to them in Creole and Dadou begins to dance with her. That may not seem like a monumental thing; after all, it is something most of us have done with our kids or grandkids or nieces & nephews. But the dancing is special because a year ago Dadou could not walk, or even stand, upright. He scooted on his knees, reminiscent of a rather large frog. Yet today, Dadou danced. Our spirits dance with him.

Haiti Day One

Day One – 4:30 am

Airports are chaotic. No matter how well you plan ahead, here are a hundred things that can go wrong to delay you and create stress. It starts with the taxi that is supposed to pick you up at 3:30 am not arriving. Once at the airport, there’s the electronic check-in process which is supposed to simplify things but rarely ever does. Then there’s the luggage – tons and tons of luggage. Security clearance, where you must take everything out of bags and put it all into bins and take off your shoes and put them on the conveyer belt. Soon – they’ll be implementing strip searches. I’m certain it’s just a matter of time. And, TSA people, bless their hearts, need to go back to 2nd grade science class and learn the difference between liquid and solid. I don’t care what they say, toothpaste is not a liquid! The paintbrush in Mary’s bag is, to them, a packet of razorblades and her bag must be hand checked completely and then run back through x-ray. They seem to think that our team member Paul has hidden something quite dangerous in his wheelchair It looks like they’re about to take it apart.

Our trip already is different than we anticipated. One of our members, Annie-Claude, has had to withdraw from the trip at the last minute. She has been in terrible pain thanks to a pinched nerve of some sort. Some would say that one less person means less potential conflict and less, overall, to deal with. Those things may be true, but it is disappointing to plan a trip with someone who is then unable to go. We must all adjust now and take on her responsibilities during the trip. Annie-Claude was also our fluent French speaker and we were relying on her for translation purposes. Our disappointment is great but, I suspect, not nearly as great as hers.

Nonetheless, we are excited. Our flights have been on time. We had a good lay-over in Miami which meant a lunch of excellent Cuban food. Our arrival in Port-au-Prince went without incident. We have arrived at the Mephibosheth house.

Haiti is, of course, hot and humid. It is dusty and dirty. The roads are full of pot-holes, and proceeding through traffic takes strong nerves, patience, and continual prayer for safety. We have met the children, somewhere between 16 and 20 of them. They welcome us graciously. They are incredibly charming.

The first boy I met today is Kens Pierre. We met as he was scooting himself out of the pantry using his elbows for locomotion. When Kensy arrived at the Mephibosheth house, he had a different name. His name was Poo-ki-Sa which means, in Creole, ‘why?’ In trying to convince Madame Dio to take him in, he gave her his sales pitch “I can go three days without eating.” Here he is fed 3 meals daily. He is happy and healthy. He is bright and sweet and loves music and singing and is a leader of the other boys. He and another boy, Ywensen have been leading the boys in a daily devotional time. It was their idea – they wanted to do it. Kensy ‘preaches’ or leads the devotional time while Ywensen leads the singing.

In the US, we take the social services we have for granted. If a child is born with a physical or developmental disability, we work to make things better. We view our children as special and loved, no matter their level of ability. Things are a little different here. There are no services, and there is no health care as we know it. These children are often considered disposable. But here at the Mephibosheth House, they are valued and valuable. They are encouraged to grow and reach their full potential. It may look like we are the ones ‘giving’ while here. But, I think it’s more likely that we’ll be receiving.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Enough

I’ve spent the last several days in final preparation for our upcoming trip to Haiti. Each of our team members is allowed one checked bag and one carry-on bag per person. We also will take one ‘team’ bag per person. Our team bags are full of various donations of clothing and other items, supplies we will need during our stay, as well as supplies for the activities we hope to do with the kids at the Mephibosheth House.

For those of you who have traveled with me, you will probably be surprised to find that I am struggling to fit everything into a large checked bag and a large carry-on bag. I am the one who preaches that you can fit everything you need into a carry-on sized bag and a day bag for 3 weeks in Europe. And I can. And I have. As many of you might attest to.

But packing for Haiti is different. First is the need for clothes for every day of the trip. I NEVER do that while traveling, preaching the value of washing out your clothes in the hotel room sink and wearing them repeatedly throughout your stay. In Haiti, where the temperature is 95F and the humidity is 95%, waiting for clothes to dry (truly dry) is a sketchy proposition. Plus, it is a wonderful moment every morning to be able to open a fresh, Ziploc-encased outfit and have, just momentarily, the smell of clean clothes and clean air. Then there’s the toilet paper. Yes, we take our own. As well as massive amounts of sun-screen and bug spray, wet-wipes and hand sanitizer, dryer sheets (which you spread on the floor around the bed to keep bugs away and tucked in your suitcases for the same purpose), Listerine, and a medicine chest’s worth of drugs that you pray you won’t be needing. Squeezing it all in is an adventure. It makes me realize how very much we have.

The United States is by many reports and standards the world’s wealthiest country. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis lists a per capita income of $38,611 and the US Census Bureau cites an average household income of $50,740. The World Bank’s PPP numbers rank the average US citizen second in wealth behind those of Luxembourg. Only 13% of our population lives in poverty. Even those of us who have taken a hit during the recent economic downturn still have far more than a significant portion of the rest of the world. We have enough.

In less than 24 hours from this writing, I will be stepping off a plane in Port-au-Prince. Haiti is a 65 minute flight from Miami and is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. 80% of its population lives in poverty and 54% live in abject poverty. Average per capita income runs from $270 USD per year (UN ReliefWeb) to $400 USD (US State Department). Haiti is ranked the 4th most corrupt country in the world (Transparency International) ranking better only than Somalia, Myanmar, and Iraq. The contrast between here and there is a difficult one to ignore.

When you set down in Haiti you are confronted immediately with incredible lack. There is poverty everywhere you look. There is need. It is easy to feel guilty in such a circumstance, when you cannot help but compare what you have available to you every day and have left behind at home, just hours before, to what you are seeing whichever direction you turn your head. It is a harsh confrontation of how much we have, and yet how much we continue to ‘want.’

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, said something like this (paraphrased greatly!) – whether in plenty or in want, in whatever circumstances I am, I have learned to be content. It seems a wise approach to life.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Swimming

66 degrees farenheit. That was the temperature of the water I dove into this morning at 6:30 a.m. When my friend and I started lap swimming earlier in the summer, the water was quite a bit warmer, averaging 85-87 and dropping down to 81 or 82 on a cloudy day. It’s easy to swim in 86 degree water. It’s warm, it’s soothing, your muscles are relaxed, and at 10 degrees lower than your body temperature it’s still refreshing compared to the heat and humidity of a Minnesota summer. 32 degrees below your body temperature is not warm. It’s not particularly soothing. Your muscles are tight. You could call it refreshing but bracing or brisk would be better words and, if we’re really honest about it, it’s damn cold!

My friend’s husband, who occasionally sits in the 102F hot tub drinking hot coffee while we swim said to her last week, with a fair amount of incredulity, “and you guys are proud of this?” Our response is automatic. “Of course we are” we say with a similar smug sanctimoniousness that we Minnesotans take on when people who aren’t from around here say “You really went cross-country skiing when it was minus 22F?” and we respond that of course we did and that there wasn’t any wind so really, when you got going, it wasn’t bad and it was almost even refreshing. Minus 22F isn’t refreshing – it’s damn cold!

But we are proud of it. We’re proud of rising to the challenge. It’s a challenge to go out and ski in minus 22F weather. It’s a challenge to get up at 5:30 in the morning every day to swim laps whether the water is 66F or 86F. Most of our challenges, though, are far more complicated than a number on a thermometer. It’s a challenge to develop a habit that you know is in your best interests now and in the future, but that isn’t necessarily easy. It’s a challenge to leave a job or relationship that isn’t healthy. It’s a challenge to make those jobs and relationships work – and work to make them healthy. It’s a challenge to work through a mistake and make it right, or to sit back and watch your loved ones walk straight into one knowing they must find their own path. It’s a challenge to change, to be better today than you were yesterday, to choose the path that is right as opposed to the path that is comfortable or convenient, to make a difference in your own life and in your own circle.

Rising to the challenge is often its own reward. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, there’s 20 minutes in a 102F hot tub waiting at the end of it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Transformation Part 2

The transformation continues. A few weeks ago I wrote about painting my kitchen and hallway and stairwell. This past week the bedroom had its turn. This one took quite a bit longer. First, I had to do the work of taking down an outdated wallpaper border at the top of the walls. They say it’s easy with the right tools – score the border, squirt on some Dif, wait 20 minutes and it falls off. Not. There’s wetting and scraping and washing and scrubbing – all while sweating at the top of the trusty a-frame step-ladder.

Then there’s the actual painting. First there’s the ceiling – working, of course, around the ceiling fan. Then come the walls. One color on one wall, two shades up on the color chip for the remaining walls. All this is done while shifting the furniture in the room first to one side, then to the other in a counter-clockwise motion. Sort of like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, taking it apart, putting it together, taking it apart. You get the idea. Two coats required, of course. It’s probably good I started with the kitchen. Had I started with this, I might have decided this was enough! My back aches, my neck aches, my shoulders ache and on and on.

But the work is done; the bedroom is freshly painted, floors freshly scrubbed, furniture freshly dusted and the space has taken on a new life, a new energy. I have, as my friends put it, ‘reclaimed my space.’

When one part of our life ends, and a new chapter begins, it is easy to take along unwanted and unnecessary things from the past. We’ve all done it. Carried old mistrust, old defenses, old coping mechanisms, old thought and behavior patterns into new segments of our lives. We call it baggage. I have a friend who used to joke that her baggage had baggage. We laughed, but the laughter was uneasy – the kind of laughter that is tinged with the knowledge that there’s truth behind the joke and the truth isn’t a pretty one.

Sometimes the hard work is really the emotional work. We need to come to terms with painful memories or past decisions that we regret, change unproductive habits or patterns, re-claim our emotional sense of stability and the knowledge of who we are at the core, regardless of our circumstances. Moving forward, we get to decide what we want, what we need and figure out what we get to do to make that happen. The painting can be part of the process of doing our work, or the declaration and affirmation of the work we’ve already done.

Monday, August 31, 2009

French

I’m studying French. I’ve done this before with varying degrees of success. I took two years of French in college. My first year was taught by a Japanese professor who spoke at least 5 different languages. I took the second year two years later at a different college from a professor who we suspected came to class more than a little tanked the majority of the time, but who read Le Petit Prince to us in its entirety – a lovely book, even more lovely if you read it in French. So I came out of those experiences unable to speak more than the most rudimentary vocabulary (with a faint Japanese accent), with no understanding of the grammar, and wondering how I could get 10 college credits and not have learnt anything. It was a painful experience due, certainly, to my own lack of study and effort and not to any neglect on the part of my instructors.

About nine years ago I had another go at it. I knew I was going to be traveling to France and I wanted to be able to speak at least the courtesy phrases and be able to ask for (and more crucially) understand directions while there. I studied for two years before my trip, enhanced by twice a week sessions with a native French speaking tutor. By the time I took my trip, I was conversational – not fluent. I was able to get hotel reservations and book train tickets, have conversations with shopkeepers, and even convince a taxi driver to drive me 30 miles to the next town when a train strike (la greve) descended during my visit and I was stranded short of my destination.

Since I’m returning to France in May I decided a refresher was a good idea. I’m amazed at how quickly it’s coming back. The vocabulary has big gaps in it, but the basics of grammar have stuck with me – arguably the hardest part of learning any language – so I’m grateful for that. Now it’s back to flash cards for vocabulary learning and trying to keep the genders straight – table is feminine, book is masculine. In regards to les vetements (clothes), a man’s shirt is feminine (une chemise) but a woman’s blouse (un chemisier) is masculine. Aarrgghhh!


The most interesting part of studying a language, though, is the cultural study that goes along with it and my instructor does an excellent job of communicating the vagaries of French culture to us. When I took the class nine years ago, he spoke at length of “la greve” the strike – how the French strike randomly and with great participation. One day it is decided that the transportation system workers will strike and, seemingly, the next day it all grinds to a halt. When I found myself coming into Paris from the north and having to walk to switch train stations to catch another train headed south (my scheduled train simply did not show up at my station and the only train headed south was at an adjoining station a 30 minute walk away), I was grateful for his preparation. Although it was admittedly irritating, I was able to deal with the day’s late trains, absent trains, lack of taxis, and absolute gridlock with good humor and my trusty credit card.

As an adult of a certain age, I look back to my college days and my lack of study. I marvel at the narrowness of my own interests back then, my complete and total focus on the here and now and my immediate, very small world. I saw my General Ed requirements as roadblocks to my goal, hoops I had to jump through to satisfy the ‘powers that be’ and couldn’t plow through them fast enough to get on with what I thought was interesting and important. Now, I think I get it. There was a purpose and a point that would probably have been helpful to learn back then instead of now. Understanding even a little bit of another culture helps us to have a greater tolerance for people who behave in ways that seem totally foreign to us. Seeing the world through a different set of eyes gives us an appreciation for all the variety in the world – the ability to see outside our own little box to new ways of thinking and doing. In doing that, we can begin to see different ways of approaching our own lives as well. Apprenez, comprenez, développez-vous!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Passion

In 2006 I picked up a paperback book titled Julie & Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. I was intrigued by the title, partly because I enjoy cooking and, let’s be honest, who could resist Dan Akroyd’s SNL spoof on Julia Child boning a chicken? I was hoping it would be funny and the ‘light read’ I was looking for at the time (it was). I consumed it quickly, then was so intrigued I immediately went on to read Julia Child’s My Life in France. Once I finished that I went on to read Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I read it, folks. I didn’t skim it or browse through the recipes. I read the book – cover to cover.

I was fascinated by all of it - the stories, the recipes, the cooking, New York, and Paris. I’ve always had an interest in Paris and, truth be told, most things French. I’ve studied the language at various times in my life, once even achieving a certain level of conversational ability, though never fluency. I traveled to France in 2003, spending 5 weeks there, and have plans to return in May of 2010. Recently, I went to see the movie starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Unlike some reviewers – I loved it – and I’ve been thinking about certain elements of it ever since.

One of the things that the movie captures beautifully is Julia’s passion for life. It bubbles out of her memoir – joy in exploring Paris, joy in her marriage to her husband, joy in her sister and her friendships, joy in shopping for pears or mushrooms and, of course, joy in cooking. She was a woman who approached cooking, and life, with abandon – drinking it in – in essence, eating of it.

As the movie played it, Julia’s passion for cooking started, in part, with needing something to do. She had no children and, therefore, had plenty of time on her hands. I think that her memoir bears that out to a certain extent, though the memoir doesn’t support the idea that she was quite the rube in the kitchen when she starts at Le Cordon Bleu that the movie portrays her to be.

The movie makes two obvious references to Julia’s lack of children. In My Life in France, she writes about her desire for children this way.
“We had tried. But for some reason our efforts didn’t take. It was sad, but we didn’t spend too much time thinking about it and never considered adoption. It was just one of those things…So it was.”

I find this fascinating. It is certainly not the approach we so often hear of today. When people today are denied something that they want, we do not simply sit back and accept it. We fight. We are, after all, the captains of our own ships – masters of our fates. In the example of children, we see people spending tens of thousands of dollars, flying thousands of miles, wading through piles of bureaucratic paperwork to adopt children. Or, we see months and years and tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical procedures and drugs to procure biological children of their own. I acknowledge the changes in culture and medical advances and would never deny people the right to pursue what they desire. In the end, we must all follow our own hearts and I wish people joy with their children, no matter how they acquire them. But it makes me wonder.

Julia’s response then makes me wonder about our response now. What might have happened differently had she pursued the ‘having children’ piece of life that she clearly wanted? How would her life have been different? Would she have pursued cooking? Would she have attended Le Cordon Bleu? Would she have written books and produced television shows? I imagine - Not. I imagine, given the culture of the time, her life would have been – a diplomat’s wife, raising her children and keeping house for her husband. There would have been nothing wrong with those things at all. But we would probably not have seen the Julia Child that we did if for no other reason than she probably wouldn’t have had the energy to pursue it. Our world would be different.

This is just one example. How many times have I pursued my ‘desires,’ no matter what, when the universe seems to have been saying ‘no’ to me at the time? How many times have you? We’ve been raised with the notion that it is almost our obligation to do everything in our power to get what we want. So we strive and pursue and work and worry and we get what we want. And I wonder. I wonder how the world might be different. I wonder what ‘might have been’ had I or you let the universe have its way – and chosen to respond as Julia did. She accepted the hand life dealt her, and she made the absolute most of it in every way possible. She became.