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?