A Year Ago

One year ago Friday, we’d planned a gathering at our house.  A few people had already announced they wouldn’t come ‘out of an abundance of caution’ a new phrase invented by Corona.  We debated whether to leave our invite open, but in the end canceled rather than make people uncomfortable by forcing them into a decision given the little information we all had at the time.  What we knew about the virus then, was that it was transmitted from person to person, it was not airborne (which later proved false), and that it was not necessarily deadly (see previous comment). 

That night, instead of hosting a party, we went out to our favorite restaurant and wondered how things would unfold. 

Within days, lockdown was declared and our upstate NY college town had emptied, my mother had moved in with us from Florida, and the dialogue around the virus had changed.  Data proved it might be deadly after all—although only to older people or those with underlying health conditions—yet suddenly everything seemed more precarious than the day before.  And that was the only certainty as days passed.

With two over-70-year-olds in the house (my mother and her Canadian partner), a high school senior suddenly homeschooling, a travel-loving husband abruptly homebound, and a dog who chose that moment to get life-threateningly sick, our life got very small and very nerve-wracking all at once.  Since I was the only one leaving the house, I felt like the designated Emissary-to-the-Outside-World as we adapted, inside, to a new normal. 

For the first several weeks (or months) I remember feeling petrified that I would kill my mother—unintentionally, of course—not careful enough at the grocery store or the gas station, as hospitals filled to capacity in nearby NYC and we watched their temporary morgues overflow.  All I could imagine, if anything happened to my mom, was not only would I be responsible for her death, but that I’d have to answer to my sisters, too, and how they would hate me.  Added to that, in one of those how-could-it-possibly-get-worse scenarios, I phoned my oldest daughter, an ocean away, who told me she had a cold.  A few days later, she updated me via text: “It’s probably Corona.”  Three grueling days of silence followed.

 I started waking at night in cold sweats—anxiety or Covid? 

It was a nervous time for everyone—and yet, as we realized that our one-month lockdown would probably go much longer—people started to adapt. 

Humans are massively resilient beings—that’s something I’m convinced of, having lived in strange or unbearable places myself and borne it; or having experienced how others, enduring even more, have borne it even longer. 

If I believe in one truth in life it’s this: humans can adapt to anything.   

So as people started discussing masks, we started sewing ours in the living room, using leftover fabric from old doll clothes projects.  At the supermarket, it turned out we weren’t the only ones; a new world of floating eyes emerged over colorful, mini-quilts as masked people started populating our town.  Neighbors offered or traded mask patterns and sewed for other neighbors. 

Overnight, plastic went up in front of cashiers, at first only lowly, see-through shower curtains that later morphed into improvised hanging plexiglass, before becoming more durable structures, demonstrating how everyone’s adaptations got more sophisticated as time went on. 

We got used to washing our groceries outside the door (before we discovered it wasn’t necessary), and figured out ways to meet up once Spring arrived, spacing our lawn chairs around the backyard at the required 6-foot distance.  Some people shopped online for the first time and we all learned to Zoom.  My daughter graduated in our living room, in a ceremony that felt both meaningful and well-organized—as we continually learned how to cope. 

As summer turned to fall and we grew tired of—but also used to—the new requirements of life: sitting in parking lots to be called in for appointments, getting swabbed twice a week to teach or study during the semester, sanitizing hands on both ends of a grocery run, we also came to understand that Covid was here for the long haul.  My early optimism of getting it under control (not impossible if we had followed the science), faded as November arrived and Thanksgiving kick-started a new explosion of cases, just as we were relocating for a half-year to Germany, a country which removed most Covid restrictions for Christmas, so everyone could enjoy the holidays.  (???)  Luckily, the Germans re-thought that strategy as hospitals imploded and another life lesson was reiterated: that although humans are amazingly adaptable, they can also be incredibly stupid. 

Now, exactly one year from the date when we first went on lockdown, it’s a good time to reflect. 

People have continued to adapt—surprisingly, so—and we have gotten used to so many things we never expected we could.  When we first got to Germany, where masks are only used indoors, I discovered how used I was to not seeing people’s faces—and how nervous it made me to see so many people unmasked.  And now, used to wearing my required N95 indoors, I will probably panic at home when people are still wearing their homemade face-coverings. 

But to a great extent, as we think about our migration back home in Spring, at least in the US, it seems as if there’s a glimmer of a post-lockdown hope—because of vaccines.  And if anything has surprised me most this year, it’s the speed of the vaccine roll-out.  I never would have anticipated a year ago that already the people I worry about most would be vaccinated against the virus. 

One of the jobs I did back in East Africa was running vaccination programs in war-drenched South Sudan, a place that could break your heart with all its suffering.  Between fighting and bombings, droughts, Nile flooding, crop failures, malnutrition, evacuations and population relocations, vaccines provided protection from at least one type of terror that could kill.  Our teams regularly vaccinated against diseases like Polio, Diptheria, Tetanus, Pertussis and Measles.  

This was an effort.

When we’d arrive at a new location, we had to start by figuring out how many people were there—mainly counting the children, our strategic target.  Then we’d ask local elders to identify community members who we could train and hire as Immunization Workers.  After several weeks of training, our new team members would be ready for vaccines. 

 I don’t even know what goes into vaccine production—certainly another long and complex procedure—but starting with ready vaccines, the most important step in the process for us was getting the vaccines on site.  We benefited from ‘The Cold Chain’ system, an organization of people and logistics that started at the World Health Organization headquarters in Nairobi and ended at our location in South Sudan, almost a thousand kilometers away.  Two flights, several cool boxes, people to load and unload; ice packs, working thermometers and speed was all necessary to get the vaccines to us.  Once we got them, we needed our kerosene-powered fridges up and running perfectly and adjusted every day to keep the vaccines viable.  It was a system, not just of logistics, but of amazing people power—communal power—negotiated between with two countries, several aid organizations, rebel leaders, commanders on the ground, our vaccine teams and the local population.

Each morning in the field, the team would gather at the fridge to unload the tiny glass vials into cool boxes for transport to the community.  If we had done our information campaigns well, mothers and children would already be waiting at the various stations we’d organized, at clinics if we had them or under large trees if we didn’t.  One line would distribute drops of Oral Polio Vaccine; another DPT; Measles vaccines for mothers and children in yet another line.  At the end of the day, each vaccinated person held a little yellow vaccine card stored in a plastic hull—a much-revered possession that many guarded like gold. 

Because of war, populations were always moving and we almost never could stay in one place long enough to complete a 9-month vaccination schedule.  Yet every time we started over at a new location, there would be families proudly waving their little yellow cards.  

Vaccines in South Sudan were nothing to take for granted.  They were the difference between life and death in a place where death from vaccine-preventable disease was a daily occurrence. 

Although I know there are vaccine doubters in this world, they are not the people who have ever seen a whole village of twisted children scuttling about on mangled limbs from polio; or those who have watched a mother sob after losing all her children from measles; or witnessed the body of a seven-year-old boy, muscle-locked and asphyxiating as he dies, slowly, excruciatingly from tetanus.

This is the reality of death by vaccine-preventable disease.  Only those who live in the luxury of health can believe that vaccines are not a privilege, or, when offered: a responsibility. 

Which is why, as I scroll through my neighborhood list serve from Upstate NY, with all its complaints about the difficulty of booking appointments, or the hours spent online being told to check back later, or the broadcast dilemma of figuring out which vaccine is best, I get frustrated.  Or when I read about a nurse somewhere in the US who ‘believes it is his choice’ not to get the vaccination although he puts his patients at risk.  Or when others say it’s too much of a hassle for something they’re not really worried about getting. 

Because I know how valuable vaccines are.  And how much work it takes to get those vaccines out.  And how much good they can do. 

I also find it disturbing, that whole privileged line of thought, when I’m sitting now in a country who can’t seem to get their vaccine roll-out under way, and where my almost 80-year-old father-in-law was told last week that he’s still ‘too young’ to sign up for a vaccine. 

That’s the reality, actually, in most of the world.  In Germany, they’ll get the vaccines eventually, but as Covid is now a vaccine-preventable disease, I know how urgent the timing is to reign it in now.  And while the vaccine roll-out here is probably mere months away, there are other places in the world, places like the rural communities where I used to work, that still lack Cold Chains and health workers and infrastructure and vaccines—and they will wait longer for their protection.  Possibly years. 

So, get your vaccine as soon as you can and encourage others to get it, too.

And then, be grateful.

Because many people have worked very hard, so you can have this protection. 

Looking Forward

Our rotating star

There’s been so much talk this year of a Christmas ‘not like any other.’ But for many of us, life has been out of sorts since March, when we first went into lockdown, and even as the new year starts and vaccines flicker on the horizon, we’re still hunkered down and living a rather strangely exceptional version of life.  Which gave me a chance to think back on other years when Christmas was ‘not like any other.’

My first Christmas to have that distinction was my first year out of college, when instead of spending it with family, I spent Christmas with seven other Peace Corps volunteers on the slopes of Mt. Kenya.  In a place and time with no phones, internet, or Zoom calls to connect us, we had to figure out how to make a Christmas celebration out of nothing. 

I’d known my fellow volunteers for only four months at that point and we’d all just recently left our group training base for the permanent sites we’d be living in for the next two years, scattered around the country.  Christmas was our first opportunity for a reunion and something to look forward to after those first strange days of settling in and starting our new lives at our sites, all on our own.  My new home was a little village on the eastern side of Kenya, in the middle of a game park famous for its lions and elephants.  Meeting up with the others, then, meant taking an overnight train from Mombasa, where I rocked away the night in the top bunk of a rickety old cabin that had once been part of the glamourous (and since, rightly-maligned) colonial legacy of the Brits.  For breakfast, I drank my tea from a tarnished silver teapot still engraved with East African Railway in loopy script and watched ostrich, zebra and graceful giraffe racing alongside the tracks as we sped towards Nairobi, the nation’s capital.  From there, I had to catch a ‘speed taxi’—a Peugeot 504 station wagon packed full of people and luggage and chickens—into the foothills of Mt. Kenya to meet the others.  Reunited, we cooked a celebratory pineapple upside-down cake over a kerosene camp stove using two huge aluminum cooking pots and three rocks, a strategy devised by former volunteers and described in the legendary Peace Corps Kenya Cook Book gifted each new volunteer.  In place of a Christmas tree, we crafted a wreath from foraged greens and listened to a cassette tape someone from home had sent, playing songs from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer as we prepared our pasta dinner.  Afterwards, we went to the local, one-room, candle-lit church for a midnight mass where we were welcomed broadly by the local congregation and invited to sing for them.  Which is how a group of mixed-faith/no-faith Americans from California, North Dakota, Illinois, Washington D.C., Minnesota and Michigan ended up singing an off-key rendition of Silent Night in the darkened shadows of one of Africa’s tallest peaks. 

It was a memorable Christmas, to say the least. 

Several years later, still in Africa, I enjoyed my oddest Christmas ever.  As a new hire and one of a small group of relief workers left behind as an Emergency Team at our location in South Sudan, I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew nothing of Sudan or its civil war—only that I’d been told to stay ‘vigilant’ amidst the increased fighting and indeed, just days into the new year, we did actually get evacuated under heavy fire.  But before that, Christmas happened, with several days of celebration that included traditional Nuer dancing—high jumps launching young men several feet into the air—combined with a strange, imported form of evangelism where dozens of people marched in bright white dresses (among an otherwise naked population) while parading crosses before them in military fashion.  With a mix of horror and humor, I watched in my sun-battered, red sleeveless shirt, absorbing yet another version of what had been done in the name of ‘Civilization’ by decades of missionaries in Africa. 

That evening, my Kenyan colleague and I hosted the other remaining relief workers for dinner: a goofy New Zealander working for the Adventists, a dour French female doctor, and a logistician from Paris named Pierre.  Pierre was a retired chef, so for dessert he treated us to a banana flambe, carrying it, ablaze, through the door of our mud and thatched dining hut.  Unfortunately, on the way in he tripped, shooting flames of rum across our floor, almost setting us and our tukal on fire.  (Months later, after hearing about a fire at Pierre’s new location, I asked jokingly if banana flambe had been the culprit and was told in all seriousness, “Pineapple!”) 

That year in South Sudan, post-dinner, as I stood outside peacefully brushing my teeth in the dark, open air, I searched the sky and located the constellation of Orion, a constant in my life.  Watching its brightest star glow, I reflected on the story of the Christmas star and its supposed reach across the world.  That night, I let it mark for me the long connection between home and where I found myself; thinking how my family at home might be seeing the same star; making me think even more about the connection between all people across time and space. 

Two years (and a lot of war) later, I celebrated my first German Christmas—something that would become a tradition for many of my Christmases since, although maybe it’s good I didn’t know it at the time.  It was not a roaring success.  Maybe because I was surrounded by the trappings of family and Christmas—but none that were my own—I felt more homesick than ever.  I listened to Christmas melodies I didn’t recognize, with words I didn’t understand.  There was no Christmas tree until the 24th and Christmas Day was almost an afterthought.  We ate tongue (?!) for Christmas dinner and cold salads for Christmas Eve.  The crowning glory came on the 26th, when the extended family gathered for coffee, the great aunts and uncles of the ‘War Generation’ sharing their reminiscences, who stared my way every time they said, “Die Amerikaner.” I felt singled out and shamed by what I couldn’t understand.  Only years later, once I spoke German myself, did I realize how often those stories they shared of ‘The Americans’ were mostly positive ones; a return to justice and sanity after years of war.

But it was nearly twenty years later that I celebrated my worst Christmas ever—and the one truly most unlike any other.  It was exactly ten days after my mother-in-law’s passing.  In a household steeped in grief, and lacking all her planning and organizational prowess, we felt obliged to pull ourselves together for the holiday, knowing that’s what she had wished for.  But that year, it felt almost impossible to find moments of joy.  In the wake of such raw loss, we wrapped ourselves in the motions of the holiday, hoping that might be enough.  Unpacking the manger amidst the sobbing of my girls; sorting through Christmas ornaments while holding my husband tight; preparing dinner with my father-in-law as our eyes stung and leaked; all of us taking our first bold steps into that heavy new world of absence. 

Yet even that year, one positive memory stands out.  As part of the family tradition I married into, we hold the responsibility of keeping the family Christmas star.  Handed down from the 1800’s, it’s a rather spikey thing that sits atop the tree and balances a twelve-armed star on its tip that rotates horizontally around.  Each arm, shaped like a windmill blade, holds a small figure hanging down from its end, originally carved from wax.  Over the star’s hundred-year-plus history, as the wax figures have melted away, they’ve been replaced with tiny wooden cut-outs each representing one of the twelve months.  Every year, the star is unpacked from its special, hand-built box and everything is straightened and adjusted: the monthly figures ordered and hung, the blades fine-tuned, so everything can find its balance.  Sometimes it takes an hour or more to fix the star atop the tree just so, so when we light the candles below (yes, real candles!) the heat from the beeswax rises up, pushing the blades around, creating in the dark of the Christmas Eve night a beautiful kaleidoscope of light and shadow on the ceiling.  Family lore states that if the star rotates quickly, the year ahead will be a good one.  And that year, more than any other, we needed that.   I’m not sure how many times we adjusted the blades or the branches below, tweaking the exact the location of each candle, to make sure that when the relatives called to ask about the star, we could reassure them that it was racing. 

My memory tells me now that the star that year spun faster than any we’ve seen.

Alas, for Christmas this year we didn’t have the star, or the reassurance that we’re used to it giving us.  We weren’t in Munich celebrating with my father-in-law in person; he didn’t even get a tree.  Like so many other families, we shared a Zoom holiday on lockdown, trouble-shooting tech problems and talking over each other, but at least sharing the same time zone so it was dark for all of us when we lit the candles on our tree and sang together some of those once-unrecognizable songs that have now become for me, too, the sound of Christmas. 

Recently, another writer reflected on the ‘difficulties’ of Christmas this year compared to those of people living during World War II, when again, so many people were separated, often for many holidays in a row.  I tried to imagine that level of loss and distance and restriction and lack of security; the rationing of food and movement and safety to that extent, not just in the short term but year after year after year.    

My step-father used to tell stories of how he spent World War II as a child in Amsterdam and of that last horrific winter—the “Hunger Winter” as the Dutch call it—when his family had to burn their furniture and floorboards to keep from freezing, and dug up tulip bulbs for food.  Or how my mother-in-law, also a child in the war—on the other side—told of being strafed on her way to school and forced to move every few months as women and children were evacuated from the bombing.  I wondered if either of them mourned their Christmases the way we have mourned ours this year?  Or if they were able, back then, to have anything that resembled the Christmas celebrations I later shared with them both? 

It’s too late for those conversations now, but I wish I had thought to ask.

Yet that lack of knowledge made me think even more about what we’ll remember of this year.  What we’ll talk about later—or share once this is all behind us.  Because although we’ve lost out on some of our traditions this year—and the unluckiest of us have lost out on more, maybe even beloved people in our lives—there will still be memories that we’ll carry forward from this time.

It might be that, looking back, we’ll have a source of wonder that we managed to pull off something celebratory at all.  Or pride at how we adapted and learned to take small joys as the important ones.  It might be that we recognize all the things we took for granted before this, and how their lack this year will make them so much more meaningful in the future. 

For me, I’m not yet sure what this year’s standout moments will be.  Like much of life, I tend to realize what was most important only once I look back, after things have settled in my mind.  But the past is always part of the present, too, the way the light from the star I saw in Sudan and shared with my family back home, was really a light blasted out long before, one we could only enjoy many, many years later.

What matters most, then, I hope, is remembering that important moments have already happened for us and will continue happening no matter what comes.  Small moments of grace or meaning or gratefulness connecting us to the people around us—whoever they are and however it happens—or those unusual moments that we mark when something is vastly different; those realizations that force us to recognize what it is that matters most.  And it’s the act of holding these moments with us, and drawing on them later that is the start of memory.   

Maybe that’s what can reassure us, then, in this year of absence: that life will keep happening, that experiences—good and bad—will be shared, marked, and will be the kernel of memory down the road.  Because like our rotating star overhead, it’s the mix of dark and light that creates the intricate pattern that so fascinates us.  The movement and the momentum that guarantees we’ll keep racing ahead like our star, creating our own reassurance that next year will be a better one. And that from all those small moments we’re making right now, when gathered together, that will be a story worth sharing. 

Election Day

It’s election day and I didn’t know how to spend it.

Worrying, fretting, doom-scrolling?  Thinking of all the things about this country I hate or am appalled by?  Checking the headlines every fifteen minutes?

But if Tuesday is voting day, it’s also my weekly shift at Catholic Charities, an organization that creates a safety net in a society that doesn’t believe in safety nets. 

So that’s what I did with my day.

Today was busy. 

We just had our first snowfall in Ithaca and any time the seasons change, people realize they’re not ready for whatever brutal weather we expect ahead.  This time of year, we’re helping people get warm enough for winter.

Because of Covid, Catholic Charities was closed all summer for donations and I’ve been worried that we wouldn’t have enough stock of warm things to give out, so two weeks ago, I put out a call to my neighborhood list serve hoping for a few donations.  So far, we’ve gotten about 30 bags of warm clothing, blankets, hats, mittens and scarves delivered to my front porch. 

Which means today’s shift started with me already feeling a huge sense of gratitude that I live among people who are willing—and able—to donate.

When I arrived at my shift, people were lined up already before we even opened and it was non-stop traffic the whole time.  There was a lot of gratitude there, too, among the folks coming in.  The people we see don’t take things for granted.  Life has taught them not to expect much from it, which means, on the rare occasion they get what they actually need, it surprises them.  They tend to appreciate those moments; whatever it is they get; and the people who help them get it.

About an hour into my shift, a young man came in.  A nice, polite guy around 25, maybe, who’d been brought by his mom, who had to wait outside because they don’t share a household and that’s our new Covid rule—one household at a time.  He looked like he was living rough and simply asked for a coat.  It turned out (but only when I asked) that he could use a hat, too—but not if we had to search one out, he said, the way we did the coat.  Yet everything warm was part of the new donations, so we had to rummage through a few bags anyhow until we found the XL coat he’d requested, so the hat wasn’t much more work.  When we brought them out, he suddenly asked if we ever have anything bigger than XL, like 3X or 4X, not that he was that large but that he was looking for something like a blanket, something to wrap around himself, he said, in case he needed to sleep.

I asked if he needed a blanket or a sleeping bag—which we also have.  But he said no, nothing he’d have to carry.  So, in the end, he was happy enough with the coat we’d found and then the hat for which he thanked us and went outside.

When he opened door, I heard his mom say, “Now you’ll be warm!” in full relief and happiness.  And as another mom, I felt her emotion; imagining how it would be, the mother of a child who—at any age—was struggling the way her child was, in this case for warmth or housing or a thousand bigger things, and not being able to help. 

Yet she could bring him somewhere where he could get a coat. 

Something about that whole exchange made me want to cry—for her, trying to figure out how to be there for her son; for her son, who will probably still be cold, even with the jacket; for our society, which doesn’t have any solutions for either of them; and for our country, which is going to see a lot more need like that in the months ahead.

But it was good to realize that she did what she could—and there is some power in that. 

And that we, as an organization, could do something too, even if it wasn’t enough. 

It also left me thinking big thoughts on my way home.  Instead of spending my day thinking about elections and the games that powerful people play, I’ve spent a lot of the day thinking about gratitude. 

Gratitude, a word thrown around these days like a fad concept or something to sell on Instagram.  But what I mean by gratitude is this: the way you can feel better because of something someone else does. 

Because my neighbors donated their clothes and warm stuff for other people. 

Because a mom is happy to help her son.

Because some folks have created a safety net that people need; folks just trying to get by.

And it all happens when people think outside themselves. 

So no matter what happens today in those games that powerful people play; and no matter how many other people continue to be greedy bastards, thinking only about their bigger bankrolls—there will always be people who continue to think about others.  And how that sense of working for the better of others makes the world really a better place. 

And that will have to soothe my soul if things don’t go the way I want in the vote. 

Because there is a lot of need in our world no matter what happens today.  And that need isn’t going away no matter what happens with this election. 

But I hope people keep thinking about others.  Keep doing things for other people. 

There is goodness in that.

And for that, I am very grateful.

Home

I went home last week—to Michigan—if home is what I can still call it, having moved away thirty years ago.  I was visiting Ann Arbor, where I went to college, and where my sister and her family now live. 

Like most college-aged people, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do with my life when I was a student in Ann Arbor.  Besides studying, partying, hanging out with my roommates and working all the odd jobs I could to make ends meet, I didn’t expand life too far beyond the borders of campus.  I knew the dorms and the streets that went from one university building to the next; the cheapest pizza place nearest the dorm; and Dooley’s, the bar everyone wanted to get into (although once I finally could, I rarely went because it smelled so bad).  I knew the Kinkos copy shop, the computer labs (remember those?) and the travel agency where I worked my junior and senior year and which probably sparked my later craving for distant places.   

But being back in Ann Arbor, I realize that although I still recognize the street names, I don’t remember where they are now or how they connect or how they’ll get me where I need to go.  Which is odd, to be in a place where once I felt so connected, and now can’t even find my way to the mall.

It’s not that the city’s sprouted new streets or neighborhoods in my absence, but I wasn’t looking for them, back then.  Too absorbed in finding myself. 

The interesting thing is now, when I’m there, I see the place with an outsider’s eye.  Noticing things I wouldn’t have seen back then: the whiteness of the place; the plethora of university sweatshirts advertising local allegiances (in green or blue); the playground moms who look chicer and younger than the ones in my New York town; and especially, the overt friendliness of the place. 

Ann Arbor—and generally, Michigan, in fact—feels very Midwestern to me now.  Which is funny because when I’m in Michigan I don’t feel as Midwestern as when I’m back in New York or overseas.  Which is one of those weird by-products of living somewhere: that you take part of it with you, no matter where you go.

When I left Ann Arbor and went into the Peace Corps, I lived in a tiny village in Kenya.  Kajire was as far from Michigan as I could imagine—which is what I wanted, at the time.  It was hot all year round with only one natural stream that almost disappeared in the dry season—a far cry from Michigan’s beautiful, deep Great Lakes that bound us in all directions.

Kajire had a few wooden homes and some made of cement, but most were still built of traditional mud and thatching and were distributed along the bottom of a hill, stretched out for less than a kilometer along its base.  Without too many large trees to encircle the village, there was mostly scrub brush around, with a few cashew and papaya trees dotted in, along with the occasional Baobab, looking like someone had pulled the tree up by its roots and stuck it back in the ground, upside down. 

There was nothing about Kajire that reminded me of Michigan—and yet, after two and a half years, it also felt like home.  So much so, that as I was leaving, I grieved to realize that if I ever returned to the village, it would only be as a visitor.  I would never again belong to that place and its people the same way. 

I wouldn’t be called, early in the morning with all the other women, to gather around a fire in a smokey hut, awaiting the birth of the newest member of the village.  I wouldn’t be asked to sit with Mama Theresa, the grandmother of the family I lived with, to accompany her dying; holding on to her as long as she wanted to stay. 

I wouldn’t have any more opportunities for what I called my “matatu trance”—waiting for hours, sometimes, for a shared transport vehicle to fill with enough people to make it worth the trip–time I would spend reading or chatting, or just sitting and thinking.  The same thinking I would do as I lay on my bed sometimes, staring up at the ceiling, watching the slow trek of a gecko across the wall, having the largest thoughts of my life.  Thoughts about who I wanted to be; what mattered; what life was all about.

Sometimes, because I was in a hurry or just feeling adventurous, I’d forgo the matatu ride and hitchhike to Kajire, asking the Kenyan drivers who picked me up along the highway to drop me at Kilometer 120.

“What’s there?” they’d asked as I ambled out the door.

“Home,” I’d say, marching into the bush.  Looking forward to my little cement block room, a cool wash from the basin of water I would carry from the well.  Maybe celebrating my return with a warm orange Fanta as I sat on my stoop, watching the chickens peck for insects in the middle of the compound I shared with three generations of parents, kids, goats and mosquitos.

So, what was it about that place that made it feel like home? 

Not the setting or surroundings, with Kajire camped in the middle of a game park full of rampaging elephants, baboons and lions.  It wasn’t the language or the people—they spoke Swahili, Taita and Sagalla—and I was a lousy language learner at the time (luckily my teaching colleagues spoke English with me) and the only non-Kenyan in the village.

So, what was it?

Recently, someone quoted to me Pico Iyer, the travel writer. 

“Home,” he writes, “is where you become yourself.” 

Kajire was the first place I had to entirely start anew.  Creating a life of my own in a world I didn’t recognize.  It wasn’t a matter of ticking off familiar boxes to move forward; it was about finding the boxes—searching them out, asking a lot of questions, getting lost (frequently), making a lot of mistakes, learning to ask for help.  But it was also about sitting still; sitting uncomfortably still at times and feeling deeply alone or sick or afraid.  It was listening, in the quietest of silences for what is there when all the noise is gone. 

It was learning the depths of homesickness.  Crying myself to sleep sometimes because I couldn’t bear the moment I was in.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that homesickness is the opposite of home.  It’s the lack of everything familiar that usually makes you feel safe and comfortable—and yourself. 

For some of us, it starts early in life.  Going on a class trip in the fourth grade to Camp Timbers when the moldy, pine-scented bunks are too cold and the nights too long; or in high school at Pompon camp at an empty college campus in the summer, with all the other high school girls, competitive and overworked, dreading the 5 am practices; or those first weeks of college, when Sunday afternoons have a way of carving out all that’s left of your stomach with a hole, filling it with loneliness and choked-back tears.

In Kenya, my homesickness at first was unbearable.  With two years stretched before me, every night I would dream that I was home, again, with my sisters—meaning that I woke, each morning newly alone, standing on the edge of sobs and the Great Rift Valley, staring into the realization of just how far I was from everything I knew and loved. 

That ache of loss made me wish in those early days that I could speed up time and just be done with Kenya; that I could be at the end of my great Peace Corps adventure without having to go through it.

It’s so sad, now, to think what I would have missed if I could have pushed the fast forward button.  I would have missed all the experiences that came because I was so far from home.  Learning, for instance, that such extreme homesickness could pass.  That I would find my home in that strange-to-me place.  That eventually the people around me would become familiar; that they’d become my family for the time that I was there.  

It took so much of that first year for me to realize that home is not reliant on a particular place or people, but that we find home, time and again, through life.

Last week in Michigan, I got to see a whole host of family members, so on a warm Saturday night, my two cousins, my sister and our kiddos had a rowdy outside-party of cocktails (for the adults), games (for the kids), and stories and laughter (for all of us). 

There was so much joy.

We re-told stories from when we were kids, misremembering things and arguing or correcting one another.  We looked back on things that had happened or times in our lives that hadn’t made sense then—but now do, with the perspective of being older, wiser, more attuned to ourselves. 

We said, over and over, how lucky we felt to be together.  How lucky we were to be able to gather—even if at a distance over a big table—but also over so much time, so much space.  So many experiences that have taken us all out of the selves that we were as kids growing up in Saginaw, Michigan and into who we are now.

That night I had a deep, visceral feeling of home.  It didn’t have anything to do with the place we were.  It was the feeling of belonging—to those people, to our shared experiences, to our valuing similar things in our various lives and places.  But it was also a return—to the me of my childhood, to my history.  Connecting it to all the other versions of me that have existed over the years.

As we sat together, even saying nothing (which wasn’t often), what we shared most was ourselves.  The selves we are now. 

Which took me back to Kajire.  Where I first learned to appreciate the value of sitting and sinking into the life happening around me.  Not looking forward or back, but just being.  It was those times—just sitting with others, exploring where I was in the moment—that helped me dig into who I was at that time.  And to learn that in those little tiny moments, there is so much life. 

And belonging. 

And home. 

Hunger

There was an article last weekend in the New York Times about rising poverty and its resulting food insecurity across America. 

Food insecurity­—families and kids losing access to food—is a term I first heard when I worked with refugees in South Sudan, back in my war zone years. 

At that time, the early nineties, the civil war in South Sudan had been going on for almost a decade and because of a whole host of reasons (geopolitical, post-colonial, religious, and cold war-related) South Sudan was one of the furthest outposts of civilization in the world.  There were few roads, no local currency, no legitimate markets, few shops or schools, and most transit happened by walking days or weeks through uninhabited bush, sometimes along or through the River Nile that bifurcates South Sudan.  It was a place where development had stopped generations earlier and where most of the people I worked with were homeless and running from war. 

Where there were roads in South Sudan, they were usually dirt paths full of potholes with land mines laid within the puddles.  On the road we drove nearly every day, there was a burnt-out carcass of a bus; the remnants of passengers and metal decaying together. 

For our work, we flew in everything we needed except the thatch and sticks and mud to build our huts and clinics.  There was no local supply of clothing, bedding, household goods, let alone teaching supplies or medicines—or food.  Due to the war and population movements, there were few, if any crops, and even fewer animal herds.  Once, for the graduation of our health workers, we wanted meat for the celebration and had to drive a full day across the border, into Uganda, to buy a single sheep (and a rare bottle of 7-Up.)

In places like that, we expect food insecurity.  In fact, every time we arrived at a new location, we’d start by asking questions about hunger while measuring the diameter of the children’s upper arms to tell us about a community’s nutritional status.  We’d ask about stocks of food they’d brought with them and stroll through deserts or forests to search out traditional food sources that might be recognizable to the incoming refugees: greens or vegetables or medicinal plants in their new, if temporary, home.    

What I learned in Sudan was that food was a major reason people run or fight; it’s a weapon of war, an act of bribery or retribution—as when civilian food stocks are burned or stolen to support an army.  Food insecurity is a major reason that populations shift, and can be a reason societies scatter—or die out.  On a family level, searching for food is a reason that parents leave home—maybe not coming back—and it’s often why children are sent away.

In fact, the question of food and food insecurity became the crux of nearly all the work I did for two years in South Sudan.

But what I also realized there, is that my own experience of food insecurity had come years earlier—I just didn’t know it had that name. 

For my family, food insecurity was a consequence of divorce.  My family was like millions of others who were stably middle class until a drastic change in our status quo.  For us, it was going from a one-paycheck single household that could afford necessities, to two post-divorce households, where suddenly neither was able to make much more than rent.  With three dependent children, my mother qualified for food stamps, so once she applied, those paper coupons began arriving in the mail, allowing us to purchase a specific amount of food each month, usually of a specific brand. 

I hated shopping with those damn coupons—anxious that we might be seen by someone we knew or that we’d get a cashier who was a teenager or even worse, a judgmental older person, letting us know she didn’t approve. 

I was afraid of being scolded (as we nearly always were) for trying to purchase something ‘not on the list’ and then feeling like a guilty scammer; or owing money for things that we knowingly purchased outside the list and then having to count out our dollars and dimes and quarters to pay the difference.  Or worse—nightmare of all nightmares—the times, when somehow our calculations went wrong and we didn’t have enough to pay, and having to ask the lady at the register to start deleting items that we’d already bought.  A slow and steady process of math and humiliation that resounded in a chorus of huffs from all the impatient shoppers behind us in line.

What I felt, more than anything else, was the social ostracism that comes with food insecurity.  The blame and shame of it.  So much so that when my own teenager got a job at a grocery store, decades later, I cringed when she told me that her employers had a special system for dealing with SNAP customers (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program). 

“What do they ask you to do?” I asked, imagining horrors even worse than my own mortification, because for all the societal change since my youth, I’m pretty sure the food stamp program hasn’t grown more generous. 

 “We’re supposed to turn off our light so that people have privacy while we cash them out.”  

I wanted to cry; wishing anyone had thought to provide me that privacy back then.

In Sudan, luckily, I also learned the impact that food security has on society.  That when food sources are stable and present for a population, there is better nutrition, better health outcomes, improved school outcomes, and more household access to stable housing—meaning more community prosperity—at least until the war made people run again. 

I also realized that food security, even in the short term, helps people recover their humanity.

One of the tasks I had in South Sudan was to identify possible locations for food delivery whenever populations took up new positions in their escape from war.  We had to search out flat land for airstrips where United Nations flights could land their food deliveries or where an open field might allow a larger Food Drop from a cargo plane, lofting huge shipping crates out the back end of an Antinov for a large, planned crash of food onto a targeted drop site. 

Once we identified a viable terrain, the local community leaders would organize people to clear and/or prep the landing zone.  They’d burn off scrub, hack down trees with machetes, remove rocks and stones, and send women to stomp the broken ground into smooth, hard soil.  Then, if the ground armies and the air raids of the war held off long enough, food deliveries would arrive.  In areas where overland delivery was possible, a convoy of trucks—travelling hundreds of miles across mined and washed-out roads—would drive for days to bring their loads of bagged maize meal and cooking oil to the camps.

That’s what it required to bring food to South Sudan.

What’s our excuse? 

It’s interesting, because when it comes to helping ‘the needy’ overseas, most people understand that poverty and hunger are tragic.  That it’s less an opportunity for humiliation than an opportunity to solve a problem. 

That’s harder for most people to see here. 

In my favorite Sudanese site, Labone, a tiny village just north of the Ugandan/Sudanese border, there was a feeding camp run by a French aid organization.  Sylvie, the French nurse, taught me what to do with the children most hungered: before you can feed them, you have to engage them.  Because before they die from hunger, they stop making connections with the world. 

Sylvie showed me her stock of a few homemade toys: a stick doll; a wad of paper tied into a ball; and some colored pictures that someone from home had sent.  I’d sit at a bedside, trying to get a child to look at me—at my strange, round, white face—and if I could catch their eyes and interest them, I’d give them one of the toys, hoping to engage them ‘back into the world’ as Sylvie said.  Because only once you made a connection with a child can you solve their hunger. 

That’s always stuck with me. 

That hunger cuts people off from the world before it edges them out of life.

There is a listlessness that comes with starvation, I learned. The walling off of awareness in a child, who stares, eyes wide open, into the middle distance.  Mothers who have already experienced that stare, having more than one child who has died of hunger, recognize that look, and they often leave the clinic at that point, not coming back, maybe unable to witness again a child fading into death.

I thought of that as I read the New York Times article.  How in this land of rising stocks prices and multiple homes and such extreme, ugly wealth—there are households in our midst who are fading right before our eyes.  That as it gets harder—and more humiliating—for millions of families to access enough food because of increasing lay-offs and closed schools and household incomes dropping, that as food banks and government programs strain as the problem grows, that we, too, will see a similar cutting off.  People who need help will pull away, choosing to forgo assistance the more they feel too outside the world to receive it.   

Food insecurity has always existed in the United States, but somehow, we don’t seem able to solve it.  Among our peers, we have a higher rate of food insecurity than many other developed nations.  And we don’t even have the excuse of war, or that our roads or transport or food production systems are the problem. 

I think of how Sylvie taught me to engage the children.  Reconnecting them first to the world around them through personal interaction—and only then, addressing their hunger.

We have to humanize hunger before we can treat it. 

Like turning off the light at the cashier to offer privacy—and really, offering more.  Respect.  Understanding.    

At least that feels like a good start.

The King Is Dead…

As I stood in line for Black Panther’s opening night, what struck me most was the overwhelming sense of pride that rang through the theater.  Many people wore kente cloth or other African-inspired clothing, celebrating with bright colors and unabashed excitement.  As a theater, we cheered to watch T’Challa and company kick butt, find justice, show compassion and do it in a way that we’d never seen before: with kick-ass women wielding spears; heroes speaking Xhosa or African English; characters overtly dismissive of a Western-centric history (Shuri’s use of ‘Colonizer’ was a perfect takedown).  In those two plus hours, we experienced more than a film, but a vision of a Black society full of its own power.

After the film, two scenes in particular left me with a guttural yearning: the times when King T’Challa and Nakia visit a crowded marketplace.  Although the market was merely background, to me it showed such a diverse view of African wealth, class and tribal intermingling—making me both homesick for something vaguely familiar and also hungry for a true-life version of such potential.  Not just a magic land of spaceships and vibranium, but a culturally-rich, financially-thriving, ambitiously-secure, pan-African society.  That possibility, more than any other, made me love the vision of Wakanda.

The death of Chadwick Boseman this week has provoked a true outpouring of grief.  That his death comes amidst the death of so many other Black men and women in America—after a summer of startling new images of gunned-down Black people on a regular basis; with continuous proof of the devaluation of Black lives; in a country so afraid of its own history that it must actively ‘other’ Black people in ever more dehumanizing and violent ways—this loss of a Black King, unafraid to show his own Black power in a society run by Black lives, feels like an even more symbolic loss of hope in a society mired in our own racist and polarized present.

Of all the privileges I can claim, one of the greatest has been my experience of working and living in East Africa for most of my twenties.  First, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, and then as a health worker in refugee camps in South Sudan and Northern Kenya; and then as a public health advocate for maternal and child health in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. 

While recently reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, I realized that those years granted me an indelible experience that most white people in America don’t have.  That of living in a society where the assumption of power is not white.  Where continually the overtly smartest person in the room, the person with the most power, the person you need to ask questions of, get permission from, keep on your side to be able to work—is Black.  That when you look at a television family selling toothpaste, they’re Black.  Where the beautiful women in the magazines or the CEOs and celebrities being interviewed within, are Black.  Where the sellers—and buyers—in the market are Black; where math teachers, nurses, accountants are Black.  Where everyone, young, old, weathered and well-dressed is Black. 

It was also a society where I, as the white Other, was able to find acceptance.  Which isn’t how the Othering process works here. 

In my Peace Corps village, Kajire, I didn’t have a mirror.  For two years, I existed un-reminded of my scraggly hair, no conditioner, and my ever-increasing abundance of freckles.  But every now and again, I’d end up in a hotel with a mirror and I remember being shocked on those occasions by my whiteness.  The mirror wasn’t reflecting back to me what I was used to seeing around me. It was a surprise to note how strange that feeling was. 

I imagine then, how it is for Black kids growing up in a continually white-focused America—who only on rare occasions see themselves writ large on multiplex screens, or in their classrooms or in the White House—suddenly experiencing Wakanda on the screen.  Watching a world that reflects them, or their possibility, and on such a grand scale, even if in an imaginary world, or maybe even more importantly, in an imaginary future—where all the scientists and security officers and politicians and leaders are Black.  A whole world of strong Black people, existing in all dimensions of society.  Not that the same thing doesn’t exist here, but that we aren’t shown it often enough, as a society. 

In Wakanda, viewers are given the assumption of life that I learned while living in Africa.  That power and presence and authority are Black. 

With the death of Chadwick Boseman, the tragedy of his loss is not just one more Black life lost.  It is somehow the loss of that assumption of power in our world.  T’Challa has left the room.  Leaving us all a little less rich.  A little less powerful.  Less full of his inspirational force.

I rewatched Black Panther last night.  I cheered again.  I watched the people and food and the high-tech public transport in my favorite market scenes.  Again, it made me wistful.  But there was sadness, too, that I didn’t have before, when T’Challa still lived among us.

The King is Dead.  Long live the King.

Wakanda forever.

Chomping on…birthdays

Last week I turned 51. A rather humbling number. Not the exciting turnstyle year of 50, with flashing disco lights, dancing and partying until 3, but rather a stumble over the precipice of middle age, into the next decade. The next ‘0’ birthday for me will be 60. The decade of grandparents and false teeth. Sheesh.

Last year I rocked in my birthday with a group of friends and family invited from the five continents of my life. The night started with a toast in puddles from the just-departed rain as fifty of us studied photos of the lovely folks who have peopled my life over those years.  Old family photos from my Connecticut birth through my early Michigan years; later ones of a best friend and a future husband in Kenya; our wedding photos from Germany with all the friends I married into there; my father-in-law with us in Australia and Ethiopia; new friends from Berlin opening that new chapter of my life. All faces in the photos, looking younger than they do now, were reminders of a well-peopled life. Less a looking back than a summing up. A mid-life of fullness. A happy place.

It was good to cast my thoughts this year, back to then.  How open the world was!  People traveling from all states and countries.  A world taken for granted for far too long. 

Last August, after a late night of multi-generational dancing and a few skits (“I thought it would be an early night but once the muppets started dancing to Rocky Horror, all bets were off,” the caterer told us later), my birthday guests joined me the next morning at the edge of the River Spree for a tromp through my favorite views of Berlin.

We started at the Berliner Dom, an evangelical church in the middle of a godless city, with its stunning views over my beloved yet, un-beautiful, favorite city. Berlin is not Paris or Prague. Its beauty comes not from well-groomed gardens and gorgeous old buildings, but from its history, its decay, its stories.  The way it’s never given up. From the top of the Dom you can look in all directions over a once-destroyed, once-walled city and see neither–but feel it all.

After the Dom, we alighted a boat to tour the city by water, floating down the Spree; past the train station where families were split between East and West; past the markers for those who were shot trying to escape; past the Reichstag, whose burning brought Hitler to power before it sat, half a century in disrepair, born again only after reunification and now capped with a glass dome to symbolize the transparency and rebirth of democratic governance.

Where the river curls along the banks of the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park), we disembarked and strolled through a thick, dense forest of trees that during WW2 were hacked, split, and stolen for firewood.  A living message of regeneration now.  Gathering in a secret rose garden hidden deep inside the park, we stood for pictures at the fountain: a smiling pack of disparate souls all brought together by friendship and love.  From there, we continued to a small lake at the edge of the green, the closest Berlin gets to a real Beer Garden, and feasted on bready pretzels and potato salad and that strangest, most thirst-quenching of German beverages, a Radler; part beer, part lemon-lime soda.  I watched each of the faces around me, smiling, chatting, laughing, collecting more memories for going forward, happy with each of my 50 years.

Flash forward to this week. 

Three of us sat on our Ithaca front porch as we ate cake and fielded phone calls from many of the same souls from last year.  The connections are still there.  The people, in person, are not.  Our world, everywhere, has contracted.  Things we so long took for granted, we cannot.  Flying here and there; being part of a global life; seeing who we want, when we want—it all works a little less well this year.  So, it was a quieter birthday.  Less planning.  Less dancing.  Less meaningful in some ways—and yet, still satisfying.  Still surrounded by friendship and love, just more of it from afar.  But still reflective, too.  At 51, there’s probably more looking back than forward.  There’s maybe more pessimism where there used to be more naivete.  Definitely more fear.  More uncertainty.  And yet, 51 is nothing to spit at, as my grandma would say.  Maybe this year, that’s my lesson—not to take that for granted, either, given all that’s happening in the world.  Be happy enough with my smaller life and find ways to still seek joy.  What brought me the most joy last year?  People.  A well-peopled life. 

That’s maybe this year’s takeaway.  People.  A well-peopled life.  That’s the thing to celebrate.