Sunday, May 6, 2012

In My Place

Lately, I have been distracted by thoughts about going places. As in, “Where, exactly, am I going in life? What is my direction?” Road signs make me anxious- so direct, so unquestioned. When I run or walk, I want never to stop, though my body prevents me. After nearly a year of truly dwelling, in the spirit, in the ways of which ever community I happen to find myself in, I find myself overcome with that familiar itch that seems to say, “Okay. Time to move on.”  

Today it occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason I have been feeling this so strongly is that I am surrounded by a culture that believes tremendously in a sense of place. It is a belief that expresses itself in both the smallest details of daily life as well as a more general way of being. Here, everything has a place. Every fork, knife and spoon belongs in a particular slot in a particular drawer. Every room is labeled, clearly with its designated purpose. There are rooms for meeting, rooms for silence. Spaces for greeting, praying, working and eating. Each person knows her place- the housekeeper, the scholar, the artisan, the nurse, the teacher. When she it is her day to do “units” or be a “plate-holder” she knows exactly what this means, where to stand and what to do. To be honest, I often find this constant order and sense place overwhelming. It directly contradicts my own place in life right now, which is seeking, rootless and, in fact, without place. It’s a familiar feeling- one I had in Chipole often- of something clashing. Usually, I've found this is a symptom of something new forming, if you give it time.

Last week, we celebrated the 60th and 75th of 16 sisters. The liturgy, like always, was beautiful. I felt fortunate to celebrate with sisters I have visited with, worked with and who have become my friends. I find myself, at this point in my life, both amazed and envious of this milestone. Clearly, these women have found their place in monastic life. It would be impossible to live with fidelity to their vows for this many years without confidence in their call to this place. I am a person of great, but scattered passion. To commit yourself to one life and live that deeply I see as a brave and admirable thing. I have a thousand lives I want to live. A hundred dreams, a million plans. Place, certainly, is a gift. But right now what I am most thankful for is time.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Belated Update


Are there ever things you think you know, lessons you think you’ve learned, until suddenly you are faced with a situation that makes you say (to quote a dear friend) “touché world”? The Benedictines might call this humility – the practice and development of a more realistic understanding of ourselves in relation to God and in relation to the world around us. My “touché world” moment came with lots of tears, frenzied goodbyes and a disorienting relocation back home. The lesson I thought I had learned? Mungu Akipenda. From the beginning, I tried to approach this experience with surrender. Not my will, not my wishes, not my expectations. I felt that Tanzania had made me a master of this. Take whatever comes, as it comes, bless that situation with your true presence without getting lost in your own narrow expectations.  I thought, “Done. Check. Next of the list of self-improvements?” Then, I was asked to return home before I had planned. Touché world. Touché God.

Now, humbled, I write looking out to familiar iron gates, pines and cobblestone paths. But I’ve begun a new, completely unfamiliar experience living with the sisters at St. Bens for the last months of my volunteer experience. Already, living here has carried its own set of challenges and rewards.

As part of our continued service, Ashley and I spend one day a week at St. Scholastica’s in St. Cloud, the home for retired sisters of this community. One of these days, while visiting with one of the sisters, she reminded me of something very important. “Each morning,” she said, “my friend comes down to my room and we talk about the gospel, to see what we still have to learn.” I imagined how easy it would be after experiencing so much to lose that will to learn. Her persistence amazed me. Thank you, Sister, for reminding me that the beauty of living is in endless seeking rather than discovering. In my remaining time here and after, I hope this wisdom is able to permeate the strong shell of “I know” that surrounds my smallness, my humanness and informs my thoughts and actions each day. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Things my Parents Taught me


As semi-permanent residents of the guesthouse, the roles of greeter,
tour-guide, and welcome committee have fallen upon Ash and I very
naturally. Recently, we were incredibly lucky to play host to some of
the most pleasant guests Chipole has seen since we arrived- my mom and
dad. We had a wonderful week together playing cards, catching up,
visiting the places Ashley and I spend our time most and introducing
them to some of our favorite sisters. The memory that stands out most,
however, will forever be the getting to Chipole rather than the being

As it is for so many guests, the trip to Chipole (always long, always
unpredictable) was an initiation of sorts and provided my parents
their first glimpses at the challenge that is African life. We all
figured that booking a flight from Dar to Songea (skipping the 16+
hour bus ride) would spare them this experience. We figured wrong.

Lesson number 1: Watch the weather before you go.
It began with a three-hour wait for a four o’ clock bus. Wanting
everything to go as smoothly as possible, Ash and I had bought the
tickets in advance and arrived an hour early making it 6 o’clock when
we decided that it probably wasn’t coming. Not wanting to cut any more
time out of an already short trip, we ignored the dark, rumbling
clouds and began to hunt down a cab…

Lesson number 2: Listen to people who know more than you.
Despite the warnings of locals that it had been raining in Chipole all
day and travel would be difficult, we attempted to get to Chipole by
cab. We got pretty far, actually, before we came to a place in the
road where two big trucks were stuck and it was impossible to pass.
Our cab driver suggested we turn back, stay the night in Songea and
try again in the morning…

Lesson number 3: Don’t get into a car with strangers.
As luck or fate or divine intervention would have it, just then, the
biggest truck I have ever seen pulled up. I mean, it was massive.
There were dozens of heads poking out from the canvas tarp that
covered the back cab, which was just tall enough to stand under. In
the dark, all we could really see was the whites of eyes and
teeth-mouths smiling, saying “Sure come on in! We’ve got room!” It
must have been the size of the tires that hypnotized us into a quick
decision. I’m still not exactly sure who said, “Sure, yeah. These guys
look legit.” But seconds later, we were piling our bags and ourselves
into the spaces between bodies that remained. The air was suffocating.
Thick and swirling with body odor and alcohol. Most were men and most
were soldiers, coming from the army base just down the road from
Chipole. The majority were friendly and good-natured, though toward
the end of the trip their charms began to wear off a bit. The image of
my parents, hunched over, bodies flailing with the constant bumps,
pressed up against young, rowdy African soldiers, but still smiling,
pretending they are fine- will stay with me forever. The ride we
thought would take no more than 15 minutes ended up being a few hours.
Later, we hopped out the army truck and hitched one last ride with a
man named Godfrey. And so, with stiff muscles but, luckily, still the
ability to laugh at ourselves, we arrived in Chipole around 10:30 pm.
The sisters, of course, like mothers do, shook their heads but had
dinner ready and on the table.

What my parents taught me this time? A little, healthy disobedience
often makes for a good story and an even better memory.

Thanks for being troopers, parents!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Halfway There Reflections


We did some counting and figured out that Christmas Day was the exact
halfway point of our 10-month journey. All along, Ash and I have made
a point to celebrate our “anniversaries” in little ways. They also
have become a kind of checkpoint for us, looking back to try to
identify things we’ve done well, looking forward to set goals for the
time that remains. The ‘halfway’ anniversary has felt particularly
significant, most likely because we’ve been away for so long and our
work will be shifting some.

In reflection, the thing that’s struck me most is how different it
feels being here compared to when we got here and the reality that it
will likely shift that much again from now until May. The
possibilities are both exciting and frightening. But whether you’re
standing in line at the Grocery store, starting a new job or traveling
the world, I think its all about honoring the truth of this moment,
it’s reality. It’s like when Ash and I so often (already) reminisce
about college. I see only moments – pizza on the roof, crosswords in
sexton, a conversation in the library- like a thousand sparks or
flickering candles that together illuminate a room, make the reality
of that time visible again. Things change, people change, and no one-
not even ash- will ever experience this place exactly as I am now. So
for me, in this moment….

Chipole Is-

Chipole is time.
Long days, short weeks, shorter months.
Extra time, free time, wait time.
Time spent in prayer.
Time spent in books.
Times when I’m numbingly bored.
Times when I’m dodging the bat that decided to guard my door.

Chipole is colors- all of them.
Seafoam green, bubblegum pink, red-orange and the limiest of greens.
It’s the plastic buckets that come in all these colors.
and the women (just as colorful) who carry them.
It’s bells and drums and cats and roosters.
It’s a handful of beans and gallons of cooked pumpkin leaves.

Chipole is all over my body.
Sweat dripping down my cheek as I sip my tea,
Sticky arms, sticky hands, sticky face.
Sticky and yellow from all the mangoes.
On my feet, it’s orange.
The dirt I scrub off, night after night.

Chipole is getting lost.
Lost in the woods.
Lost in my thoughts.
Chipole is feeling lost.
And Chipole is my lost room-key-
Every single day.

Chipole is uniforms, raggedy.
Habits, pristine.
Meal-times, meal-prayers, Swahili prayers,
Swahili flashcards, Swahili attempts.
And always, then, it is laughter.

Chipole is wondering.
About the faces on my walls, and the ones out my window.
What are they doing? what would they say,
If we could communicate?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011



Merry Christmas everyone!! The holidays are certainly not the easiest
part of our time here so far, but we’ve been enjoying ourselves.
Though when I think of my traditions at home- snow, cookies, packed
houses, Christmas trees- everything is pale in comparison, Christmas
here has been very special in a very different way. We have been very
blessed with a visitor, Ashley’s sister Chelsea, who has spoiled us
with many treats, traditions and reminders of home that have been good
medicine for the homesickness. We picked up Chelsea at the airport in
Dar es Salaam just as we were finishing up our month of traveling. The
trip was full of adventures and what better way to spending our
teaching break than experiencing new parts of the country and culture?
Here are a few of the highlights:

Sleeping in a thatched hut on the beach in Bagamoyo
Eating some great Indian food at a rooftop restaurant in Moshi
Swimming in the Indian Ocean at sunset next just feet away from the
Dhows in Bagamoyo
Making it to Irente viewpoint after an 8 hour hike in Lushoto,
Usambara Mountains
Trekking through the Magamba rainforest in Lushoto, Usamabara Mountains
Hanging out in coffee shops in Moshi, one of Tanzania’s main
coffee-growing regions
Eating Chipate, Avacado and bananas right next to a waterfall in
Soni village after the long walk from Lushoto
Playing cribbage on our balcony during a lightning storm in Moshi
Sharing a cold (!) iced tea across at Posta bus stop and people
watching in Dar es Salaam
Waking up to cleared clouds and a view of the snows of Kilimanjaro
from our room in Moshi
Making a day of getting lost in the narrow streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar
Feasting on seafood and Zanzibari pizza at the night market in
Forodhani Gardens, Zanzibar
Waking up everyday at 5:30 to the call to prayer from the Mosque
near our hostel in Lushoto
Watching locals harvest seaweed at low tide in Jambiani, Zanzibar
Reuniting in Malindi, Kenya with five Johnnie/BVC friends and one
new friend from Germany
Making and sharing an early Christmas dinner together in Malindi

This all might sound very glamorous and exotic but I assure you, most
of the time it was not. For every high point there was a low. It’s
also sweating constantly-even in your sleep, stolen shoes, bad hotels,
broken showers, disgustingly dirty clothes, lots of bug bites, getting
caught in some devastating floods in Dar and over 70 hours spent on
hot, dusty busses. Overall, travelling in Africa has been unlike
anything I’ve ever done. Amazing, but definitely not for the faint of

Needless to say, arriving back in Chipole with Chelsea was the best
Christmas present either Ashley or I could have ever received. It
feels more like home than ever and what an important feeling that is
this time of year. The sisters put on a play of bible stories on
Christmas Eve before mass and it was especially fun to see the ones we
know best put costumes on over their habits and get into character.
They even brought live bunnies into the church to make a more
life-like Garden of Eden. On Christmas morning, after Mass and
breakfast, the whole community gathered in the hallway to sing and
wish us and the other volunteers a Happy Christmas. The rest of the
morning Ash, Chels and I spent recreating a more familiar Christmas.
We opened letters and gifts Chels had brought from home, drank hot
chocolate, watched Christmas movies and ate candy until we were sick,
all in our room that we decked out in paper snowflakes and a paper
Christmas tree. My very favorite part of the day, though, was the
afternoon we spent at the orphanage. A man came from the village and
played guitar, the kids played drums and we all just danced. More than
a few of them fell asleep on the floor or in our arms, exhausted from
the dancing and excitement. It reminded me of my cousins at home, or
when I was little myself and would just crash at the end of the day.
Incredibly different lives, but in some ways, not so different.

Remember that song from White Christmas, “Count your Blessings”? Mine
feel endless this year. When I got to talk to my family at home- so
incredibly blessed. For Ash and Chels- blessed. For the Christmas we
had in Kenya and our friends there -blessed. For our family of
volunteers here-blessed.  For returning home safely from our
travels-blessed. And of course, for the community that I love that has
welcomed us back- I am so blessed.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On Work


While the content of my previous blogs may be misleading on this
subject, we do, in fact work here. Though the Tanzanian and monastic
balance of work, prayer and leisure make it more of a challenge, we
make a point to work as much as we can. Not only is that a part of our
commitment to this community, but we’ve also found it’s necessary to
satisfy our productivity-loving Yankee blood and, if nothing else,
keeping our hands busy is a wonderful distraction from feelings of
homesickness that have begun to set in.  So here’s a summary:

St. Agnes Secondary School for Girls
This has been our main assignment. Ash and I team-teach English and
computer classes to the girls in form 1 (about freshman in high school
age). Term has just ended and the girls are currently in exams. Our
success as teachers is not so easily assessed. I have no idea if I
helped them learn English and a few weeks ago a rain storm cut the
power indefinitely in the computer room making it difficult to teach.
Needless to say, the challenges have been constant. Our success here,
I think, is in the time we spend with the girls and our conversations
with them outside of class. We play games, sing songs, go to the field
and play sports with them (well, ash does anyway).  My favorite part
is probably the endless and hilarious notes we often receive from them
full of broken English and pretty inappropriate expressions of
adoration. One of my favs: “Sash and Margreth- I need the friendly
with you becouse I love u. – Jesscar.”

The Bakery
Next to school, this is probably the place where I spend the most
time. I just never get sick of baking. I love that now we know how to
do just about everything by ourselves, and they trust us to do it. We
make Maandazi (doughnuts), Chipsi (crackers), Keksi (cookies), Keki
(cake) and my favorite to make, Mikate (bread). As we bake we sing,
dance, daydream and snack on treats. Overall, a great place to be.

The Sewing Room
There are multiple sewing rooms here, as there are endless uniforms
and habits to make and mend. The one we work in makes priest’s
vestments- quite the addition to my resume. Ash and I began
cross-stitching stoles when work in the bakery became less pleasant
with the heat. I love going mostly because of the sisters who work
there- Sr. Jenista and Sr. Angelina. Both are incredibly sweet and
good to us, though Sr. Angelina speaks only a few words of English.
While sewing one day, I was surprised to hear not only an English
voice come through the tape player, but one with an Irish accent. I
have since learned that Sr. Jenista spent one year very near to where
I lived while studying in Ireland! It’s been fun having something so
important to me in common with her. What a small world it is.

The Orphanage
Though we play with the toddlers from time to time, just this week I
started going to orphanage on a daily basis, and spending time in the
baby room. It’s very difficult being there, and even more difficult to
describe. After just a week, though, I get the feeling that it will be
an important part my remaining time here.

That is our work, at least my attempted categorization of it. In
reality, it is much more sporadic and often unseen. It is helping to
peel potatoes or cassava, setting up Sister Rustica’s first email
account, teaching the novices a song to sing for English mass, or
setting the table for dinner. Really, most of what we do is not that
important or life changing. But the mere gift your hands can be
powerful, I think. And perhaps that is the best way to explain how we
spend our time here: just being our hands.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Give to the Max to BWSC!!

Just a note that today is “Give to the Max” day and my program, the BWSC is one of the organizations that is benefiting from funds raised today. This is a great way to support my work and the people in this community. Money raised will go toward making our work here sustainable, meaning that it continues after our year here with new volunteers. Since the BWSC is a new program within the last few years, we are especially in need of support ensure longevity in our relationships with the communities we serve in Puerto Rico and Tanzania. Thank you so much for anything you are able to give!

here's the link to follow: