December 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
I went to my brother’s wedding last night. I love his bride. I love him. And, I sat bawling like only a sister does in the front row in between my mom and B. God. Just look at him. Look at her. Look at how he’s laughing like he did when we were kids, and how she knows him like a woman who says she loves him fully should. When they were introduced for the first time, he gave the dorky smile he used to on Halloween – his favorite holiday. Suddenly, he was six, a pirate and I was four, and a tiger.
I had to laugh. I had to cry. He’s made so much of himself.
At the reception, a friend asked me if anything was new. They checked my hand for a ring when they said it, and afterward asked what I do for a living. I told them I work to distribute goods from a group of women in Uganda.
People are often unsure what to do with that. I’m often unsure to do with that.
They smiled and said, “oh, nice.” I smiled and wished there was alcohol being served.
I thought about that moment in the shower this morning. Martha Beck says, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”
The shower’s mine. I sat on the floor with a cup of coffee and let the water hit my face. I stayed in for way too long, and I thought about this year. I thought about PTSD. I thought about alcohol. I thought about the times I thought I would have a ring on my finger, and the relief that came from realizing what I had escaped from. I thought about foolish decisions. They were okay in my cornfield. I took a sip of coffee, felt the warm water – let the corn field get bigger, the fan get louder.
I looked at my fingers like my friend had. And, I thought about the hands of the women I work with in Uganda. I thought about what we’re doing together, about the richness of my life. I guess I should have told her that I’m not bitter. I’m not lost. I’m not wallowing, or hurt, or “left.” I’m just different. And, I would hope, a little more hungry for a wider spectrum of things than I used to be.
I guess I could have told my old friend about my year – I could have brought up nights talking about the helicopters coming into fields in Afghanistan, near death experiences. I could have told them all kinds of stories that near swallowed me in 2011 – stories that aren’t mine. I could have told her about Max dying, and about how Afghanistan even took over that week – chasing around the half of my heart that wasn’t present, that was hiding in a corner when it was time for the funeral, that couldn’t handle the pressure of death in a family – especially the death of a child.
I could have told them about Portland, and the months I spent there – Afghanistan came there with me, but so did Africa. I could have told them about the collage I made, when I decided to let out the pressure inside me on an old atlas my father gave me. There’s the shape of a woman over Africa, and the shape of a man over Afghanistan.
I thought the continents were coming together.
I guess I could have told them that too.
I guess I could have smiled in my red alligator heels and purple dress and said that I almost got lost in another person’s story, but I didn’t. I could have told them that I found a strength in me I didn’t know I had, but I didn’t think of that till this morning, hot water rinsing the conditioner out of my hair, body tired from dancing with cousins and brothers and old friends. I guess what I could have said was, “I almost got lost in another person’s story. But I got yanked out, kicked out, sent out – and, I found myself when everyone must have thought I was just about to lose it.”
I guess that’s what I’d tell someone, looking back on this year. I found myself. Then, I’d say that I found myself because of dozens of stories that aren’t mine, but have begun to define me.
I would say that, this year, I lost myself and found myself in stories. I lost myself there, somewhere between Kandahar and Camp Leatherneck. But, in Kakooge, in Wobulenzi, in Kampala – I found myself. I found myself in the stories of women that reminded me of myself.
I could tell someone that those stories made me new.
Here’s 50 of my favorites from this year:
- Patrick Kabugo was able to quit a teaching job that took him over an hour to reach by motorcycle, and forced him to stay away from his wife and children for 5+ nights a week. His wife began to bring in a salary equal to his and, in exchange, he was able to quit his second job as a teacher, and begin working exclusively to help out in the area of the country he is most passionate about: his own village, Kakooge.
- Patrick and Agnes made a statement of religious peace in the community through hiring women of all religious backgrounds to work for the Nakate Project.
- The mayor of Kakooge noticed Nakate’s work in his village, called it “extremely good” and said it was something he had hoped would begin to happen for his people.
- Grave Kavuna, a pastress in Kakooge, was able to send all 10 of her children to school through her own salary.
- Florence stopped defining herself as the poorest woman in the village.
- Grace, an uneducated woman, was able to send all 10 of her children to school to be educated.
- For the first time in her life, Grace was able to take her children to the hospital whenever they fall sick.
- Over 40 women received salaries throughout the year.
- Grace made a statement in the church that she runs – men don’t believe that women should have their own money but she preaches from the pulpit that, through Nakate, she has her own bank account.
- Nakato stopped believing that a bank account is only for rich women, and opened her own.
- Nakato was able to pay for her own medical bills, and bring herself back to health after falling really sick for a period of time because of her HIV status.
- Margaret Namayego paid off a Habitat for Humanity house loan.
- Margaret bought two cows and a pig.
- Grace Nsambu bought a bicycle, a cow and grew her small roadside shop.
- Grace became an equal breadwinner for her family.
- Harriet opened a bank account, bought a pig and started a breakfast and lunch roadside stand.
- Harriet’s granddaughter Anet saw her grandmother purchase a pig through Nakate, and began to work with us herself, in the hopes that she could save enough money to open her own restaurant. When her grandmother saw her initiative, she gave her some of her own Nakate salary to get her started on her business while she’s waiting for her’s.
- Dorothy Nambooze paid for all her grandchildren to go to school.
- Justine stopped digging a hole in her back yard and stuffing money in it. Instead, she opened a bank account.
- Justine feels “settled” inside and stopped worrying incessantly – for the first time in her life.
- At 50, Florence received her first paycheck.
- Florence was able to begin buying animals to supplement her income with Nakate, and started successfully taking care of her 10 grandchildren.
- Kisakye bought bricks to buy herself a permanent house.
- Kisakye felt empowered to take care of her children herself, instead of depending on a husband she says was a drunkard.
- Caroline began a charcoal business shipping charcoal to Kampala on trucks that come through Kakooge on their way to town on the Kampala to Gulu highway.
- Caroline identified land she wants to buy in Kakooge, and plans to buy it as soon as she saves enough of her salary.
- Caroline was able to pay for her sick mother’s health care.
- Margaret Nakibuka bought iron sheets for roofing her home.
- Scovia, a Rwandan first generation Ugandan, paid off her loan on a house in Kakooge.
- Scovia started a business selling milk at the local market.
- Jane turned her mud hut into a cement house.
- Jane was able to afford taking care of her sick mother.
- Nakato was able to get herself out of bed and on her feet through continuing to work with Nakate while sick with HIV, and paying for her own hospital bills.
- Betty was able to afford rent, and school fees for her children.
- Florence Nakacwa bought herself a piglet.
- After Juliet Nabukenya’s husband left her for another woman, she was able to send all of her children back to school with her own salary.
- Lydia went from sitting at home without work to do, or digging for a small salary in other people’s fields, to having a job that paid for her pay her bills, and save some money.
- After being deserted by the Muslim community and her family, Saudah bought poultry for herself through her salary and says she eats whenever and however she wants to, now.
- Margaret Nakamya finished building her house, and bought a bicycle, pigs and a cow.
- Margaret stopped sitting at home crying thinking she’d die from AIDS and leave her children. Instead, she said she has hope.
- Over 120 children were able to attend a private, well run school founded by Align Ministries in Kakooge through their mothers paying their salaries.
- Nakate became the most reliable source of income in Kakooge.
- Together with her job as a teacher, Rebecca was able to single handedly provide for her four children, two of her siblings and her mother.
- Fatuma agreed to leave her work as a prostitute and begin making jewelry instead.
- Jane Katushabe opened a bank account, and began saving money to buy a permanent house, instead of renting.
- At least five women in Kakooge hired people to dig roots for them, instead of digging themselves.
- 8-year-old Maurine was able to provide for her own school fees, and help provide for her grandmother to feed herself and her older siblings.
- Health care was paid for for in over 20 people’s families through their own salaries, rather than outside funding.
- Saudah bought herself a brand new outfit for the first time in her life.
November 18, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I was twelve, in a white Jessica MicClintock dress. I thought I was getting the hang of it.
In high school, we danced again. It was my grandmother’s retirement party, and my success didn’t come so fast. I moved to New York soon after, where I used to cry over the smell of mandarins at Christmas, and miss Gramps’ smell, and the way he teaches me to dance.
He pulled me out on the dance floor again at 19, in jeans and red flats. Newly moved home. Newly broken heart. “You gotta move with me – like this!” He’d pull me in – “you go back when I go forward. No, dammit. Not like that.”
I started getting the hang of a few steps as the song ended. Gramps was laughing.
At 21, he pulled me out again when I begged him to try and teach me to jitter bug just one more time. We danced at a benefit for our baby, Maxwell. Nine years old, and relapsing with Leukemia for what felt like the thousandth time. Were we going to make it?
I was aware, that night on the dance floor, that I didn’t have the hang of the jitter bug at all. My steps were sloppy. My movements were mechanic. And, it just wasn’t coming to me. I sat on a table drinking and watching my grandparents move together effortlessly. I raised my drink when Gramps turned and yelled “see how it’s done!?”
And Max died less than a year later.
I cried in Jeremy’s arms. “Can’t we just do another fundraiser!?” He didn’t say anything except, “I won’t leave you.” And, somehow, that was enough.
I’ve learned, over the past year, that those words are the most important ones. I said them to my Ugandan family when I promised that I won’t stop coming back. I said them again, without words, the first time I sent a paycheck to the women I work with in Kakooge. We all said them to Beta when her adoption was finished last fall. And, I said them back to Jeremy in his living room two months ago when it came time for me to return to Sacramento – “I’ve got to go, but I won’t leave you.”
See, these are words that have nothing to do with geography. They’re a soul promise. A my heart won’t give up on your heart promise. As a person, I won’t stop working for good in your life. When you give up your fight, I won’t give up your fight.
Almost always, a period of quiet follows a firm promise. And, in that quiet comes a struggle. By the time we actually get to take the next visible step, most the blood and sweat and dying has already occurred.
Sara Groves writes that, “better than our promises was the day we got to keep them.”
I get on a plane for Uganda, this week. With the first touch down on the runway, I’ll be keeping promises. Since I was last in the crowded Entebbe airport, I’ve battled through a year of death, deployment, highs and lows, and days of car dancing and singing at the top of my lungs beside Jeremy that ended in tears because, “god, does it really feel like this when a family member dies? And will I ever be whole again?”
At the end of a much bigger fight than I ever anticipated, I get to see the fruit of a promise I made before it all began.
In the meantime, I’ve experienced being truly loved. I’ve lost some of the people dearest to me. I’ve cried harder and laughed longer and struggled further than I had before. And, I’ve doubted if I would get to keep my promises. Sometimes that was the hardest part – will I get the opportunity to live out what I said I would?
I’m thankful to be keeping promises this week because it means I’ve done the work – the blood and the sweat and the dying has passed. Landing in Entebbe again is a promise kept back to me that the effort we put out for others means something. Beyond that, it gives back to us seven fold when we least expect it to.
When I get back, Gramps will try to teach me to jitter bug just once more – this time at my brother’s wedding. I’m sure I’ll trip all over my gangly limbs, but I think that I’m finally getting the hang of the dance.
The trick is, it’s not so much about the steps as it is that you stay on the dance floor until the song’s over. And that you try again the next time the music picks up after that.
When it comes to the promises we’ve made, I’m certain we’ve only just finished the first stanza. And I plan to keep moving while the music plays.
November 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I’m thankful my friend Dana uses it often.
“Are you keeping your congruity?
As long as you are keeping your congruity…
I lost congruity.
I must keep congruity!
Congruity – The state or quality of being congruous; harmony; appropriateness: a congruity of ideas.
Congruous – 1. Agreeing; accordant; congruous.
2. Mathematics. of or pertaining to two numbers related by a congruence.
3. Geometry. coinciding at all points when superimposed: congruent triangles.
Beta hands me back my congruity in bucket loads. I saw it clearly on Halloween, dressed up as a gypsy and fairy princess, and chatting with a 98 year old neighbor who wanted B to twirl in her dress. Her care taker noticed my sister’s dark skin and quietly asked me an aside: “Are you the family that was in the paper?”
Then he knows her full name without asking, and I’m smiling. Half because he read the article that thoroughly, and half because she doesn’t question why he’s calling her “Bethany” when she had introduced herself as “Beta.” I see growth in her. She doesn’t hide behind me when he calls her pretty, she laughs out loud, and gives him her hand – “why thank you!” She says it with a very Haitian kind of hip-cock, and grabs my dress as we’re leaving, “Oh! That man make me LAUGH! That man make me laugh so hard my heart hurt inside me.”
That night, she handed me my congruity in the same way she usually does, except I saw it clearer. She’s always giving me options to choose to laugh with her, to take a moment to not be too busy to care for her, to play just one more UNO game before bed time instead of checking my email. But on Halloween, I realized that, at eight, she’s good at reminding me of what I like. And knowing what I like is, quite often, the impetus of congruent living.
I stood in the street, watching her ring door bells, and I thought of the years I spent out for Halloween. Was I having fun? I don’t think as much fun as watching her ring door bells, or squeal over Reese’s pieces. Fun was effortless, this year, in it’s quiet, simple way on a backstreet, picking up candy, listening to her laugh so hard that her heart hurts. And, it felt right to be spending my night that way – which I think is also what living congruently is made of: knowing what’s right for you, even if it would be wrong for the guy in the seat to your left, and the one in the seat to your right.
I see congruity in her too, standing on the sidewalk yelling, “are you going to scare me? Because I don’t like it that way.” When the man in the dark house answers her honestly, “no, I won’t!” she can’t figure out why we’re both laughing. “What? I just tell him what I don’t like!” At eight, she knows more than I did at twenty – to speak out what she does and does not want (congruity), to dance with a drum outside my house in a pink bath robe and my mother’s clogs, and to lack embarrassment that the neighbors might hear, because she is singing to them. None of them know that she beats them to the punch. Of course they’ll hear. Of course they’ll comment. In fact, why don’t I just sing a little louder just so they do?
“They love my song,” she says to me when I ask.
My life has been odd for a year now. I graduated and picked a job that people asked about with quizzical looks. For months, my grandfather questioned my ability to drop by during the day.
“When are you going to get a job?” he’d ask.
I felt small when he said it, like he was right. As if being tied to a desk from nine to five, and having someone else sign my paycheck, meant that I had legitimate work. As if signing my own paychecks, and working from a table at Peets Coffee and Tea didn’t.
I still get asked that question sometimes, by all kinds of well meaning people – “are you working while you’re home?”
And when I feel that echoing voice of insecurity inside me, I tell myself that it’s not congruent to excuse yourself for starting your own business, and I say, “yes. I am running my business.”
Love is similar, and choosing to love when it’s odd is that way as well. We find all kinds of normalcy, patterns, expectations to live by so that we can feel comforted when we are doing things we feel are uncomfortable. I used to ask my therapist “is this normal?” and feel most comforted when she said, “yes.”
Is this the measure of my congruence?
Someone else does it too?
Is it normal to live in a family of “crems” when I am brown? Is it normal to suck my fingers to fall asleep at this age, and to rock myself to calm down after school? Is it normal to have learned to rock myself because a mother didn’t? Is it normal to not know who my father is, or to have seen my mother intermittently and never missed her in between? Is it normal to live in an orphanage with 35 other children, or to eat the same thing for almost every meal? Is it normal to have only see the ocean once before I came to live with you? Is it normal? Am I normal?
No. It’s not. It’s not normal. Just like it’s not normal to love when it costs you, or to graduate from college and start your own social enterprise, or to be singing in your bathrobe with a bongo drum on a Saturday morning.
Watching her, I remember it wasn’t normal to want to leave for Haiti by myself at the age of 18. And, it wasn’t normal to believe that three years after meeting a little girl in Port-au-Prince, there was still hope for her to become part of our family, and we shouldn’t give up just yet.
It wasn’t normal at all.
But it was, most certainly, an act of congruence.
October 18, 2011 § 1 Comment
I first heard the phrase when I was living in Haiti in 2007. My friend, then the house manager at Three Angels Orphanage in Haiti, explained to one of the children at the orphanage that though his adoptive parents were leaving for a time, they would be back – back to get him, back to take him home, back to set things right.
A never pregnant but expectant mother said to my friend – “what did you tell him?”
“M’ap kite’w,” she answered. “I told him you won’t quit him.”
I knew, then, what the essence of aid work centers itself on, if done right. It’s not good feelings. And, it’s certainly not an awareness of triumph – the kind that people might think you would feel. There is an awareness of vast, overwhelming, growing need, and the quiet ability to meet one, too small, need at a time. There is a steady desire to meet the needs that one can in a person, even if there is no return. There is, quite simply, an ability one finds within oneself to love someone without needing a return. The return comes regardless – but differently than one expected it to. It’s sweeter and more genuine than one could have conjured up, or asked for. And it comes in due time – always at the very right time.
After watching my friend explain the future to a kid who had never before known a real family, I met Spendy. I came home and convinced my parents to adopt him. Six months later, his mother came back and took him, almost directly out of my arms. He stood screaming for me on orphanage steps while I got on a bus that took me to the Haitian airport where I sprawled out in the midst of a crowd, doubled over and nauseous with food poisoning – will someone hand that man my passport? I can’t get up. I’m not sure which hurt more – my stomach, or my heart.
That stretching beyond reckoning – or what I thought was stretching beyond reckoning – happened over and over again on following trips to Haiti, trips to Uganda, and then, most recently, living in Africa alone with a deployment to Afghanistan on the back of my mind – places like Kandahar on my heart while Uganda stretched before me, and then, sometimes the hardest of all, coming home to prosperity, each time, and not understanding what the next step was – only knowing that I wouldn’t quit.
The return comes in unexpected ways. Spendy’s mom took him back, and people said they saw them together, looking happy. I know he will forget me. But I won’t forget him. Screaming on the steps. “Mama!” Asthma in the middle of the night while I tried to rock him and my roommates lay awake with him screaming. Taking him back to the orphanage instead of my hotel at two am with two men I had to wake up for safety. Nineteen when a twenty one year old mom took him back and, “god – mom. Will she feed him? I thought he was supposed to be mine.” Heartache. I won’t quit you. I can pray. I can hope for you. I can convince others to send money, sponsorships – I can tell your story. By the age of 21, hearing that people saw him loved by his birth mother and looking happy with her was more than enough in the way of paybacks for what I had suffered emotionally.
And then, there’s my sister, who, at age 8, as Haitian and loud and silly as ever, took the photo of my tattoo in our bathroom tonight.
We thought she’d never come.
Tied up in red tape, seven years in an orphanage, without much hope left but – we won’t quit you.
Earthquake – did she make it out? And here she was, silent, tears, unsure – but we won’t quit you.
Her presence in my life has changed everything – been the biggest reward of any I have ever received from loving without knowledge of what would come next.
Afterward came Uganda and women asking for sponsorships, for help, for a chance – I’ll take this bag of beads, I don’t know what I can do but – I will try. And, a few months later, quiet in my heart, the commitment – I won’t quit you.
I do not believe you can work in a way in which you do not live. Deployment ended, time in Africa ended and there was brokenness we brought back – brokenness found in Africa, in Afghanistan – brokenness we bring together and speak of, brokenness we work out on our own without words – brokenness, sometimes, that lasts longer and weighs heavier than we’d like to feel and carry, and yet, in the midst of brokenness – I won’t quit you.
I won’t quit you.
In the middle of the night when you are afraid because you are alone on a continent – I won’t quit you.
In the middle of a story you cannot bear telling – I won’t quit you.
When TB takes over, and you are in the midst of the death of a woman you wanted to help save through buying her goods – I won’t quit you.
When you go and come back, and you are not sure who you are after what you have seen – I won’t quit you.
In November, I return to Uganda – and I am afraid. Afraid of being alone in a new village I haven’t lived in before, afraid of getting sick like I did last time and having two parasites that take over my stomach for a year, afraid of what I might see, afraid of how helpless I might come home feeling – afraid that I will feel useless, even as I am being used.
Jeremy tells me I can’t quit on the people I have said I would help – “this is bigger than you,” he says. “It’s actually a lot bigger than us.”
When it all gets too heavy – as I know it will, come November, I know the anthem will take over and in the silence, love that carries and sticks with me will give me the hope and commitment to keep loving others…that’s love, right? The commitment to meet the too small needs, to do what you can, even when it seems to small, and the hurt appears to be too big. Love carries the anthem for me, tells me this is all bigger than myself when I cannot tell myself not to quit.
It repeats itself, like a drum to live to -
I won’t quit you.
I won’t quit you.
I won’t quit…
As the love anthem gets louder, and I can hear it coming from outside, I can feel it from within, and it is then that I know why I don’t quit.
I don’t quit because love hasn’t quit on me.
June 27, 2011 § 1 Comment
Jeremy wears an old necklace he found in his grandfather’s things after he passed. I stumbled on it in his desk four months ago and asked about it. It is made up of an old, green strand of fabric and a brass pendant with the simple outline of a Japanese landscape on the front. It’s beautiful. We talked about his grandfather for a while after I found it, and then he put it on. I was helping him move and I think, more than anything, he put it on so it wouldn’t get lost. He hasn’t taken it off since, however, and, months later, it’s become part of the essence of Jeremy to me. The pendant fits in somewhere between his smell, the old red plaid shirt I stole to wear on cold mornings and the way we both know that his beer will be cheaper, every time, but that he’ll taste mine and comment that he should have “ordered that too.” It has become part of my repertoire of things that make me come back to the quiet moments in which I feel like I have centered myself, and am aware of the love and the goodness that I often ignore in the loudness of being busy.
This weekend, I went to hear an old, dear friend play live music at a local pub. He plays often, but this time was different, for me. The bar was almost empty, and I sat with his brother (also a dear friend) having a beer after a ten hour work day and watching him play the violin for us stragglers – the ones that wanted a few moments more of the night. Afterward he danced with me to Mrs. Robinson at a bar up the street, and I thought about growing up together, and the way that my life has stopped, suddenly, and dropped me in Northern California near the people that made up my world when I was a little girl. I’ve thought, often, that it was an accident the day I was dropped here. Six months later, I’ve thought often that I should have been somewhere different. I’ve thought that I should have left sooner. I’ve tried to leave.
As we made our way through the crowds of people I grew up with, I yelled at some for a quick squeal and a hug, avoided others and commented, over and over again, about how crazy it is that this small town has remained so much the same.
There were new people, too. I met an instructor at the yoga studio I’ve been practicing at, and, in the midst of talking, told her I’d have to quit because I couldn’t afford to keep coming each month. She shook her head when I said that, and drug me over to meet the owner of the studio. She held me hand in hers while she grabbed his shoulder and said, in the din of the bar, that my name was Shanley, she had just met me, and I would have to stop practicing because I couldn’t afford to.
He turned from the shuffleboard table, and I smiled when I saw that the text on his shirt was about karma. He leaned in and said, right in my ear, that I needed to keep coming. “We’ll work out whatever you can afford,” he said. “It’s not about money. It’s about being.”
I thanked him. I thanked her. And, I walked away thinking I knew what he had meant. I thought he had been talking about him – that it wasn’t about the money, for him, and he wanted me to get to keep coming. But, later, I realized he was talking about me. He was letting me know that, for me, it doesn’t have to be about the money. Just like it doesn’t have to be about exactly when I get to move out of this tiny town. Just like it doesn’t have to be about exactly how many followers we gained on twitter, or if we made money at the fair, or just broke even.
It’s about being.
After working through the weekend, I took an hour this morning to cook myself an omelet, and read and write for a while. Beta yelled to me from the other room, and I helped her wash her hair in the shower. We giggled about her crazy fro, and how she looks like a “crem baby” when all the soap is running down her belly. She, too, is part of my repertoire of things that bring me back to the goodness in my life – back to being. In this moment. In the next moment. In all the moments in between. Just like violin solos at the local pub, sitting for a few minutes with an iced coffee instead of rushing through my day and choosing to prutz around my house in my favorite stolen plaid shirt.
What reminds you to be?
July 23, 2010 § 3 Comments
I’ve found that you can’t fight some kinds of poverty. I know Bono would like to make it so that longitude and latitude don’t determine the quality of a child’s life – but I find culture, and belief, to be bigger than packages of food, or water filtration systems.
Morris and I visited Joyce Katende today. I told him last night that he needed to think like an American. I told him that things here that are normal to him aren’t normal to us, and if we are going to do media together, he needs to think of things that are every day to him, but aren’t. I told him to look with new eyes. That’s when he nodded his head, looked at Millie and said, “I need to take her to Joyce.” Afterward, we talked about jerry cans and how women are always the ones carrying them. He said he had never noticed, and boy did I give him an education!
Anyways, we rented a boda from a friend of his today, and took off out of town so that I could take some photos. “If this tugged at my heart, surely it will tug at yours,” he told me, raising his voice over the hum of our boda.