Saturday, August 18, 2007

awake in the rain

When I opened my eyes I could hear it was still coming. The rain has been coming for a while now, but yesterday it was serious and there were pools of standing water in nearly every crack and crevasse. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock on my phone: 2:22 - it was early but at least it was a good, no rather a perfect time (I simply adore those double twos).

I started thinking about a number of things…..the pending loss of my dear sweet house/teammate who will be finishing her contract in 5 short weeks. This idea kindled a memory of pupino strategically moving his dog dishes around after being fed in such a way that it was clear he had a plan. Next came a hazy thought of my brother and his alleged frustration about me being so indescribably far away. This was followed by a flash of the handsome gentleman I recently met with a rush of what it feels like to be close to him. We experience each other intensely (secondary to some uncanny chemistry) each and every time we run into each other. Then just like that I pictured two of my close friends in Denver. Both brides-to-be who must be feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of it all; but, who take time to check in on me nonetheless. I imagined seeing them in a few short weeks at the base of Peak 8 in Breckenridge. I was struck by the realization that I am most definitely ready for a break, and, then I drifted back to sleep, a head full of the important characters in my life. I awake with a slight chill in the morning, the rain was still coming.

I make the small cup of coffee over a small gas stove in the percolator I carried across the globe. The first sip feels like my single most enjoyable indulgence in this desolate place. I move to the hammock and listen to the rain. In the mornings I don’t rush around like I typically do in the West trying to organize, get ready, check e-mail, check voicemail, pay bills, feed the dog, blow-dry my hair put on make-up. Here I am no longer in the business of rushing.

I am also no longer in the business of seeming. I recently received a couple (actually a number) of calls from the people who know me best. These people are clearly more than a little bit worried about me. They hear my voice crack when I talk about what I am seeing, go stoic when I talk about all the ex-combatants and their veiled threats and go numb when I talk about the trauma that surrounds me and they are all worried. So tonight I sat once again in my hammock and thought about their expressed concern while I watched the clouds move and change in front of me. They shifted and altered themselves so dramatically it was as if I was strolling though an art museum glancing at different palates, different ideas.

ready for a break

I realize that I am exhausted. I have become more withdrawn or maybe a better word would be obscure, as in faint, unclear, distant. I say that and think that’s not it exactly because the thing that I am most tired of is how visible I am. Every movement, every gesture every look – watched, studied, judged. Empty coffee cups gather around my sitting spaces: the few places I feel unwatched are scattered and my journal is full of unfinished thoughts.

This is not to say that I do not feel love for this place, because I do; sometimes I feel it so strongly that I think I might be having a panic attack. In those moments, my heart races uncontrollably and I worry that I may throw up. The love I feel is for these wounded souls who surround me, souls who have survived more than I can even image and they move on, grow - love. Although there are some days where it makes sense that I feel so alone and tired of being seen and it feels so difficult to accept the fact that there is simply no one I can reach out and touch and say nothing with because of the inherent power my “otherness” holds. I am warn down by this reality, hence the need for a break.

reflecting back: a different version of me

For a long time I never revealed what I felt. In my late teens and early twenties I lived by a simple principle: never willingly show fear or pain. I have always been expressive and playful but I was always strong, some would even say tough. I also became exquisitely good at feeling the emotions of others, even the unexpressed ones, and therefore I became good at what I chose to do. Then, following some of my own therapy, I realized that pain or fear must have been the only thing I was feeling – because if there had been anything else, I could have expressed it without violating my principle. I always liked to laugh but aside from my silent boughts of laughter, emotions were a sorted affair. Only now do I realize I was only half way there.

Based on my principle, I was unable to show any of my feelings because in the end they were all painful, one way or the other. The most exquisite joy was a sting to the heart, and love – love was a crisis of the soul. So I lived a very contained very controlled life. I never endured a crippling heart break but I also never endured intoxicating love; I never risked my pride to the point of failure but I also never took a risk for something that seemed unattainable and attained it.

For the last few years I worked on adjusting my principle, and it worked, or at least it worked half way. I was able to speak what I felt, but now I realize that rarely, in any other way, did I truly display emotion. I did so in periodic outbursts, uncontrollable releases but rarely about love and rarely in a fluid expressive manner that didn’t end with me asking the question “am I making sense?” or “do you think I’m crazy?”

In the last few years I reached a point where I could express my feelings through language (except with one kindred spirit out there who may or may not know I am making reference to them because they would have to feel it: with this individual I was chronically reticent). Until recently I had yet to reach a point where I truly felt it and spoke about it in the same instant.

Now I am doing both and those who know me best are concerned and rightfully so. It seems I can’t control it yet. I’m like a little pup: blind and grateful and exposed. It’s like I’ve been cured from a self-inflicted defect and now I can love not just in the general but in the specific and it hurts, painfully so.

So even though it is hard here and I am a little traumatized, I am not ready to walk away. I’m utterly exhausted in body and spirit but it still feels marvelous. And, knowing I have those of you out there who are having your very own abduction fantasies and are ready to jump on a plane to come and rescue me from myself gives me a feeling that is indeed a crisis but a crisis of feeling loved.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

a sinking feeling

I saw Pupino one last time. I had no idea it would be my last. We spent Saturday afternoon playing his new favorite game “shake” for toffees. I gave him a bath and he rolled around on the towel drying off. He got some medicine for his cuts on his nose in a tea cup full of milk. On Sunday we had tied him up because a guy complained. The complaint seemed so fruitless and transparent: an obvious attempt to get money from us, we didn’t even really think about it after the discussion ended. Even if this guy was disturbed, how could he take his frustrations out on innocent sweet Pupino?

Pupino is a 9 month old puppy who had recently discovered his manhood. To prove it he recently began pursuing a girlfriend in the neighborhood. He was frequently observed strolling around with her and periodically invited her over for lunch and would let her eat first out of his bowl. Sometimes he was found sneaking under an added barrier to the fence that the guards had made to prevent him from sneaking out. On a good day these barriers were Pupino proof but on a bad day, when Pupino was feeling frisky, he couldn’t be stopped.

Every morning the guards and the drivers and I made up little stories about the adventures of Pupino and it seemed that these stories were some sort of platform in which we could laugh and joke and be playful together. This is a difficult platform to find in an environment outside your own, but somehow Pupino managed to break down all barriers for us with regards to humor. All our discussions were ironic and sarcastic and preposterous and I loved it.

Never, not once did poor Pupino fight back when all the dogs in the neighborhood would fight and every time he escorted me to the basketball court he would take a long route up over the hill to the left of my walking trail so that he didn’t have to encounter the meanest dog in the neighborhood. He never growled at a human being, actually he didn’t even bark which was not so great (given he was gifted to us to be a guard dog) but it wasn’t his style and he spoiled him rotten for it. All the kids in the neighborhood knew him by name even more so than my own and so some days you could see me walking down a dusty path with him and hear “whitewoma! Whitewoma! Pupino! Pupino!” He was so sweet, such a tool.

He went missing on Sunday night. Earlier that day I found him rolling around chewing at the makeshift rope leash that we had tied around his neck to keep him from going to the aforementioned complainer’s house (had I only known how dangerous this fella truly was). Pupino played with the rope in the way a cat would play with a dangling toy. He looked so innocent that I figured it would take him some time but he would get free and join the dozens of stray dogs in the neighborhood and the guy would cool off because, in reality, Pupino was no trouble at all. I never, not for one second, thought Pupino would leave and never come back.

Allegedly, Pupino had spoiled a screen. When we visited the house there was not window or door on the house that was not already spoiled and the home was not even the beginning of a home. It looked abandoned and the children were all running around with runny noses and the wife was clearly maltreated.

The night it happened was a bad night in Gbarnga. Guns and ammo were found in a small house on Broad Street near the mosque, and dozens of people threatened to light the mosque on fire. They stoned the house of the alleged arms dealer and chanted, “the war is over! no guns! no bullets! no more!” Failing to see the irony in their aggression towards the potential aggressors about being aggressive, an ire sense of instability set in and the UN forces were out patrolling all night. Unbeknownst to me this was the same evening poor Pupino was slaughtered.

I find myself unable to relive myself of two regrets – one, that when that scary man came to discuss the screen door Pupino had “allegedly” spoiled on his house that I didn’t speak with him longer. I figured that by sending him away I was sending a message that no I was not going to engage in these “lets exploit the NGO worker” games. I figured this man, who was claiming this very specific male dog, one of many, was some sort of culprit, a dog with a volitional plan of wreaking havoc on his household, could not be serious. At the end of the day he was demanding payback for a made up issue so that he could access some of the money he so quickly (and wrongfully) assumed we had. And two, that in that last moment of contact with poor sweet Pupino, I had not relented and let him crawl up into the hammock with me in the creeping little way he always tried. I was thinking he was getting too big and he was too dirty and he shouldn’t be crawling on people anyways, but in my heart of hearts, I adored this foolish little dog for being such a lover and should have let him crawl in and cuddle for a minute.

I think it hurts a little bit more because in this world I’m living in, a world where I am always an outsider, I felt I communicated more, not less, with this silly little dog. Pupino never considered my skin color in formulating his impression of me and once I won him over, his love for me was unconditional. I was so proud of him when he would walk with me down to the basketball court, unleashed, with a slight swagger. He would sit patiently in the tall grass periodically grasping for flies, waiting for me to finish. He would wait the entire two hours, play with the kids that were lingering about (if they so desired) and then he would walk me home. With the same studly gait he came, he went, and he would arrive home to greet Sharon with as much love and excitement as he had greeted her three hours earlier.

I once read that holding hands is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together.
I find that a fitting phrase for poor Pupino as I felt so incredibly proud of him the day he finally learned how to shake. Even though it took weeks and weeks to conquer this small task, he eventually became a true gentleman when it came to the shake. After weeks of him rigidly resisting any attempt at the hand shake, he eventually did it and once he knew how excited we got when he did it, he became a shaking fool. Some nights I could even hear the guards outside my window practicing with him and once he did what they asked for, they always clicked and whispered “that’s one clever dog.” From the day he learned how to shake forward he would do that thing dogs do when they can’t seem to get enough; just place his paw up on my hand or my knee and wait, over and over again as if to say I have something to say but since you can’t understand me, let’s say nothing together.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

bridesmaid for a day

the opposite of serving: a short tale of the humanitarian worker who took a break from the field to be a bridesmaid

When I reflect on my time in Liberia, all the things I have posted before and all the things that are likely to come after will probably represent the larger majority of the parts of my experience, but a true composition of my memories will include a memory that will make it uniquely mine. This memory is the night I was a bridesmaid wearing an African made dress surrounded by new, yet profoundly important, friends.

The events leading up to the big day suggested everything should have been a disaster; but, either because it was meant to be (or simply because of unqualified luck) the actual event went off without a hitch and moved me in a way everyone hopes to be moved each time they attend a wedding.

Because I was only a sub-character in a much larger drama, I don’t know exactly how to write about this event, so I won’t write about the real things exactly and I won’t write about the imaginarily things that typically fill my head when I find myself near so much love. I will simply write about the things I know and the things I thought about, because when it comes to feelings, specifically my own, I sometimes feel I don’t have words to capture anything adequately, so more often than not they go unmentioned.

catching the bouquet
Even though I don’t believe in the myth of what a tossed bouquet means and have historically had absolutely no desire to catch one of these bunches of dying flowers, it was a funny experience when it happened to me on this ever so slightly cool night on a beach in Liberia.

First you should know that by design there is nothing within my realm of consciousness that would cause me to feel anything when a wedding bouquet is tossed. I think that because I was feeling moved by the whole event, a desire to feel more began to grow within me and so when we paused to engage in this ceremonial tradition, I unconsciously struggled to uncover a new emotion. Then I saw her peek and I knew.

She made a big show of it and tossed it gingerly up into the air. Heading straight towards me, I let my arms fall to my sides thinking I would let it pass; but then, as I watched it floating down in front of me I cringed at the thought of it falling to the sand, and so I snatched it from the air gently and brought it tenderly to my chest.

My heart was in my throat and for one split second I felt charmed. This beautiful bouquet of flowers with magical powers was all mine: the flowers, the meaning behind it, the chance to to be the next to find love: mine. I can admit, I am not a woman of greatness, I get anxious too quickly, I cry too easily, I don’t’ have a head or a body for silence, intimacy overwhelms me, words often fail me, while others pray I only move my lips, and love usually eludes me, but in this moment the possibilities seemed endless.

the preparations
At the end of the day the actual ceremony is just one moment wrapped in other more vivid moments of preparations and celebrations. What I remember about the days, hours and minutes that preceded the ceremony I will forever remember as the good and the bad parts or should I say: the tragic and the amazing parts.

the tragic parts:
1) The fact that her friend failed her miserably: every promise, ever offer, every pledge was broken. These broken promises were not out of vengeance; however, but rather a result of this friend’s own demons, demons that get the best of her when she finds herself too close to other people’s love for each other. She had a hard time getting out of bed, difficult memories of her childhood collect around her like the half empty glasses around her bed and any additional stressor makes her spiral out of control. Only due to uncanny intelligence and a relentless drive to survive (even though she would deny this drive) is she even making it in this world today. The ripple effects of this friends decompensation was catastrophic and when the bride and groom found themselves without a house to sleep in, without supplies for the ceremony, without a cook for a number of promised dishes, and down 750 dollars in purchased beauty products for this friend from the States (causing serious financial pressures as this is a country without ATMs or the capacity to use credit cards), this couple drove around in a wounded vehicle and simply adapted. Even though they both cared deeply for this friend, they were forced to disconnect from this toxic energy, found a guest house to stay in and tried to not feel so injured by the feelings of disappointment and displacement.

2) The fact that the car broke down and every stop we made for three days prior to the wedding resulted in a catastrophe. Every break down called for a 3rd gear push off running jump start that equated to me pushing and grunting loud enough that eventually some nearby soul would feel bad for me and help out. After getting the car rolling and the engine jumped the bride to be would reach in her bag for the courtesy 20 liberties that was expected for the service. 20 liberties we couldn’t really spare.

3) The fact that the hairdresser refused the brides style requests for a day and a half prior to the ceremony claiming he knows best when it comes to weddings. Not only did he want to charge 300 dollars to come out to the beach to do our hair he simply wouldn’t do what she wanted. Living on 50 dollars between us for a week prior to the groom’s arrival, we couldn’t afford it so we needed to make frequent trips to Terreck salon for negotiations and hit the salon before leaving town to cut costs.

4) The fact that the dress designer, Sista Wonders, who lovingly labels her designs “JOA” (Jesus Our Advisor), had difficulty getting the adjustments completed because she had been awake for 2 full nights having a Revival. She was simply too tired to replace the zipper and exhausted at the idea of straightening a crooked seam.

5) The fact that we had to make frequent stops by the store to see our 15 year old baker, Ali, and remind him that - no we did not want a large plastic figurine of a bride and groom on our simple fruit cake and yes we were having the wedding on Saturday not Sunday.

6) The fact that we needed to stop by the Nigerian ECOWAS soldiers headquarters because they were immensely “worried about us” and calling chronically because they “just wanted to say hi” and make sure we weren’t still upset about the death threats we had received two weeks prior by ex-combatants distraught about the possibility that they might not get their monthly stipends.

7) The fact that the groom’s luggage was lost (with the wedding rings in it) and we needed to find replacement rings. While walking down Broad Street after meticulously finding the perfect pair of silver flip-flops for me, the bride bent down and reached into the grungy gutter. I noticed that she was reaching for a thick platinum spring likely broken off a motobike and I knew instantly what she was thinking. I started laughing at the insanity of it all and this gentleman passing us looked over and said “look at you ladies having a good time and laughing when your friend is picking trash off the ground.” She tried it on and it was perfect. Later on the groom took it to a mechanic and had him cut it in half and smooth off the rough parts. It should be noted, he was forced to do this with the car running in the street at moderately high risk of being car jacked because the bride and I were busy getting our hair done and he had no human hydraulics to get the car going if the car was turned off.

8) The fact that we spent an incredible amount of time hunting the markets for pineapples and side streets for flowers. It was hot and we had already had our hair done and nothing seemed easy.

the amazing parts:
1) The fact that the brides other friends were amazing. For example, Rosa, an absurdly busy Mozambican pal, who is heading a huge department within UNICEF and was dealing with auditors the week of the wedding, volunteered to make a dinner of crab cakes, seafood salad served in a crab shell, lobster dipped in butter, green salad, feta stuffed peppers, and seafood paella. She pulled it off with style and grace top chefs in NYC would covet.

2) The way every single one of the guests of the wedding showed up, dressed sharply and eloquently in white and instantly started helping out in the kitchen or in the dressing rooms. Like a ballroom dance the synergistic support that surrounded the couple was remarkable.

3) The fact that we were able to find pineapples after searching the streets for two days. At one point we endured a tragic miss because I spotted a pair of girls with some fruit balanced on their heads, but due to the fact I was on the phone and didn’t want to be rude, I didn’t say anything and instead started tapping my head furiously. Before the couple was able to understand what I was trying to tell them the girls had turned a corner and were lost. Now and forever, the new sign for pineapple will be two simple pats on the head.

4) The fact that it is rainy season but it didn’t rain. That however is putting it mildly – for 42 hours before and 29 hours after, it rained furiously. On the day and night of the wedding however, the weather was perfect. Circumstantially, it also happened to be Liberia’s Independence Day and for the first time in 17 years they had a fireworks display. So, standing on the beach, following the completion of an amazing dinner in small quaint palava huts with tea lights delicately set in sand, we all sipped a glass of wine and watched a display reminiscent of Independence celebrations in the West. (Note to the reader: these fireworks were made part by a 250,000 dollar donation by the Chinese Government. If anyone is thinking…but couldn’t that kind of money be better spent in a county living in abject poverty I would have to whisper a small silent amen).

5) The fact that 99.9% of the tragic parts mentioned above were someone miraculously resolved. The friend rallied and showed up for the ceremony. She was exhausted and wounded and fragile but she came and it said so much. The car held strong and even though it needed a little TLC every time it was started, it worked and carried the things it was asked to carry. Terrek, the hairdresser, relented and allowed the bride to decide and she looked amazing. A ravenous beauty her haired flowed eloquently throughout the night. I too was delighted with my doo and enjoyed the pampering by a stylist who informed me he had never been formally trained and had “been born” with the talent to style hair. Sista Wonders recovered and finished the dresses. They were lovely and even though a few safety pins were necessary to help with the busted zippers, no one was the wiser except the thoughtful friend who happened to carry a few safety pins with her to the beach. The cake was simple and delicious. The Nigerian soldiers were gentleman. The rings were shiny and perfect.

I returned to the bush full of joy. I was exhausted and slept.

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