Staying Inside: A Prairie Mother’s Lament

I’ve always considered myself a prairie girl. One of those strong romantic types shaped by a childhood spent climbing bales on my dad’s chicken farm and tying sleds to snowmobiles. So I assumed that, like my parents before me, I would pass on a love of prairie life to my daughters, if not in my stories of homemade ice rinks and autumn afternoons on the combine, then in my genes. The problem, I’m discovering with some disconcertment this November, is that fondness for the Manitoba prairie and its legendary winters isn’t a genetic predisposition after all.
I suppose I should have seen it coming when my husband and I moved to Kenya seven years ago. Our girls were born in Nairobi, where they spent their preschool years in bare feet, watching monkeys swing above the sandbox. But surely, beneath their tanned skin and Kenyan accents, they were prairie girls, just like me.
When we decided to spend a year in Manitoba, I imagined the girls’ excitement at finally experiencing winter. They eyed me with suspicion as I described hand-knit mittens and the fleeting satisfaction of snowflakes on the tongue. But it wasn’t until mid-October that I realized what I was up against. I found M., my five year old, on the couch in her touque and scarf, whimpering, “It’s just so cold and I can’t get warm.” It was fourteen degrees and sunny.
We needed snow. I knew the magic of an untouched yard of sparkling white would banish all complaints about the cold. This is the stuff of childhood, after all- the fresh air in the lungs and the frost on parka zippers that makes us children of the prairies. The problem with my visions of winter wonder, however, is that my girls are children of the equator, which I finally admitted on that morning of the long-awaited snowfall.
I called the girls to the window as soon as they awoke and watched for their exuberant reaction. It never came. Instead they stared with perplexity and horror at the blanket of white that had disguised the neighbourhood.
Then J., three years old and usually bursting with exuberance, announced in a solemn voice, “I’m not going outside today.”
“Me neither,” M. agreed. “I’m staying inside all day.”
And so it hit me. Inherent enthusiasm for snow fights and skating doesn’t transfer across time zones or through the breast milk. A prairie mother does not a prairie child make. So we spent our first Canadian snow day hunkered down inside, reading Angelina Ballerina. I tried all day to beguile the girls with promises of fun and hilarity waiting in the backyard. But it’s hard to wrestle a five year old into snow pants and even harder to herd stubborn tropical-bred children out into a cold that they’ve determined to be hostile. So snowmen and sledding will have to wait. Maybe this winter we’ll skip straight to the hot chocolate.

What Ever Happened to Girl Power?

My six year old daughter went to a birthday party this week. She came home with red nails, glitter on her eyelids, and a whole new repertoire of dance moves. They weren’t the hokey-pokey kind. While she told me about the makeover and the fashion show, I glanced over at my two year old, who was chewing on a Barbie doll. A real, big-boobed, no-hipped, poofy blond Barbie. Then my four year old asked me to please help her find her favourite nightgown- the pink one, with Ariel and Cinderella and a scantily-clad Pocohantas. Ignore for now the corporately-marketed, racist, BPA-laden, sweatshop-produced ethical dilemmas screaming from every corner of my living room. The anti-feminist one was dreadful enough. I realized in that moment that every shred of evidence pointed unmercifully towards the depressing verdict that I am a failed feminist mother.
I never imagined being both a feminist and a mom would be difficult. I knew I’d raise my girls to be strong and creative. They could shave their heads if they wanted to and play with cars and grow up to be feminist activist poets and doctors. How hard could it be?
Well, impossibly hard, apparently. Parenting in general is more difficult than anyone lets on, but trying to maintain a respectful feminism while raising three girls is enough to send me back to bed by 9 a.m. with a fistful of dark chocolate and debilitating despair. Because along with my own insecurities and inclination towards scolding, I’m doing battle with an ugly and monstrous girl culture, whose insidious strength is vastly underestimated- at least it was by me while I optimistically bought gender-neutral newborn pajamas, thinking I was well prepared for the battle.
I’m not a feminist theorist, so I don’t know the academically accepted view of the direction we’re heading, but it sure seems to me that the girl culture I grew up in thirty years ago was light years ahead of the one my daughters are navigating. Yes, I played with Barbies and took a solemn oath to be a good mother to my Cabbage Patch Doll, but my memories are of climbing bales on the farm and playing Kick the Can at birthday parties. My friends and I had no idea we were supposed to be pretty or thin or sexy. When we watched TV it was Inspector Gadget and She-Ra, Princess of Power. I know She-Ra wasn’t a model of feminist activism, but at least she was a princess of power. The princesses bombarding my pre-school aged daughters – in library books, movies, every imaginable piece of clothing and merchandise- are mostly beautiful and powerless, waiting for their prince while they, well, look beautiful.
It’s all so cliché and offensive and makes me wonder what exactly happened to the feminist movement of the last five decades. Where are all the women who want girls to be strong and brave and smart and authentic? Not working in the marketing department of Disney, apparently, or any of the major children’s book or clothing companies. My children are six years old and younger, and already I’m sad about the messages they receive every day about what it means to be a girl. We haven’t even entered into the world of eating disorders and sexting and Katy Perry singing about being a kissable, touchable teenage dream in her skin-tight jeans.
A few years ago photographer Lauren Greenfield released a book called Girl Culture. It’s not exactly inspiring reading. The photographs- of young girls at diet camp, men watching a stripper while simultaneously watching football on a big screen, or a young woman receiving breast implants, for example- don’t offer a lot of hope for anxious trying-to-be-feminist moms. When my two year old ran up with her spectacular full-body smile after I’d read through the book, I burst into tears. My feminist literature courses and unshaven legs have left me despairingly ill-prepared for the task of protecting that kind of innocent brilliance from any one of the dominant-culture forces lurking at birthday parties and in Greenfield’s book.
Which I guess just proves that feminism is still counter-cultural, though I think our feminist mothers of the sixties would be devastated to hear it. I still find it excruciatingly difficult to find female heroes and role models for my girls. At least the famous variety. I can think of a pile of heroes in my family and church and neighbourhood. I even know kids who still play Kick the Can, and mothers who are raising really strong, stellar girls, and brilliant women who recommend good books to my daughters. Which is the only thing that saves me from complete despair, and is what being countercultural has always meant- creating our own subcultures that try to be beautiful and hopeful and true. We may not have the funding or marketing pull of Disney (nor the fan base of Rihanna) but at least we can give our girls a little bit of breathing room to be kids without having to be sexy, or teenagers without having to be skinny. Though I might need a subculture that allows for one or two Disney nightgowns.

Slow Drinks

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. My 3 year old daughter just started sleeping without diapers and I spend most of the night planning strategies for middle-of-the-night sheet and pajama changes that will result in the least amount of lost sleep. I lose sleep doing this. The irony is only one of the countless things I ponder all night. I also develop theories. Theories which are brilliant and society-changing at 4 a.m. but usually lose much of their intellectual luster in the daylight. Not so with the Slow Drink Theory. This one actually makes some sense. Granted, after a week of little sleep, my judgment capacities are admittedly compromised. And my husband contends that calling it a theory might be building it up to a level of import it doesn’t quite deserve, but that’s why it’s just a theory. I’m not claiming life philosophy status here.
Anyway, the Slow Drink Theory goes like this: The secret to developing and fostering significant relationships is Slow Drinks. By Slow Drinks I mean drinks that by their very nature need to be (or at least should be) drunk slowly. Let me share some examples from my marriage.
Slow Drink #1: Red Wine. I really think red wine is one of the reasons my marriage is as healthy as it is. Wine is a slow drink. There’s no guzzling a glass of fine Merlot. By its very nature, wine is meant to be enjoyed slowly, intentionally, preferably by candlelight and with dark chocolate, but even with peanuts and a Scrabble board. Which is precisely where the magic lies. Even with two toddlers asleep down the hall, even without much energy or money, any boring old Tuesday night can be transformed into a night of romance with one bottle of wine. Suddenly my husband and I are dating again, talking about the day, laughing at corny jokes, maybe even kissing a little on the couch. It’s the magic of a Slow Drink.
Slow Drink #2: Moroccan Mint Tea. This one is a little more specific to me and my husband, but you can just as easily substitute another hot tea. For us, the memories of trekking through Morocco pre-kids adds bonus connection factor, so we stuff fresh mint into glass tumblers, add boiling water and huge amounts of sugar, and spend the evening on the back porch reminiscing, laughing, enjoying silence and starlight. It’s not the flavour that matters, or even the setting, it’s the Slow Drink that makes even sitting quietly side by side a moment of connection.
Slow Drink #3: Coffee. I know there are people that down their morning coffee as they rush out the door or while sitting in traffic, but that’s an affront to one of life’s most accessible and enjoyable Slow Drinks. When I first met my husband he wouldn’t touch coffee. In fact, he wouldn’t drink much besides Pepsi. Pepsi, needless to say, is not a Slow Drink. It will not woo your girlfriend or build your marriage. Truthfully, I wasn’t exactly sure how to date someone that didn’t drink coffee. What would we do? Every good date revolved around coffee. Drink coffee by a river. Voila. A date. Drink coffee and watch the sunrise. Voila. A date. Drink coffee on the floor, on the grass, even at Perkins, and your life is filled with romantic moments. Dating without coffee seemed impossible. And so, little by little, I managed to win him over to the Light and we’ve been happily drinking coffee together for ten years now. I can’t imagine our marriage any other way.
The Slow Drink phenomenon doesn’t just apply to marriages, of course. Other cultures have understood for centuries that community is built around Slow Drinks. Here in Kenya, the Slow Drink of choice is chai. Visit any Kenyan home- just walk by, actually- and you’ll be invited in for sweet, milky, hint-of-charcoal-y, chai. And for as long as it takes you to drink that mug or entire pot, you’re the only one that matters. Your host’s chores and lists and worries are put aside as life slows down for a drink. The Ethiopians take this all to a whole other experiential level with their coffee ceremony. They slow things down to include incense and lots of waiting and an elaborate pouring and drinking ritual. It’s a beautiful, full-sensory act of drinking that just can’t help but connect all those involved. Pretty much everyone in the world besides North Americans live by this phenomenon. We recognize that other cultures have something that we don’t- an attitude towards people and hospitality and time that reflects values that we envy. And yet it remains elusive. We don’t know how to integrate those same practices into our own busy individualistic lives. What we don’t realize is that it’s really not elusive at all. All it takes is a Slow Drink. Wine, coffee, chai- the particulars don’t matter. All that matters is that you drink it slowly. Near each other. Conversation optional.

Unknown: Scrawled on a Coffee-Stained Serviette

You sit across the coffee shop with a white turban, each crease folded with care, undulating like lines in the Mombasa sand at low tide. I watch you sipping your espresso and fiddling with your phone and I realize there are no enemies. Only others who are really us but for the gap of knowing. If only we were knowing. If I could know the name of your daughter in med school and the colour of your wife’s shimmering sari. If I could know the journey from your childhood over the oceans here to this morning and this conversation with the freckled man across the table, then you would become us and there would be no other. It’s the same for everyone. Yet we work so hard at not knowing. At walls, boundaries, rhetoric. For all our traveling and internet networking, we really aren’t knowing. Even our friends are objects on a screen, thumbnails and login names, remaining safely other. Because what would happen if we really knew? If the frizzyhaired woman with the bird nose and the scowl across the aisle actually knew me, and hugged my children, and saw my tears of fatigue? Then maybe I’d end up hugging her too and she’d see my obsessions and suddenly there’d be no room for all my entertaining judgments. Because of course I like the comfort of other. Of being able to compare and come out triumphant. Of projecting extremism on the turban and cowardice on the frizzy hair and snobbery on the silvery strappy heels that swing beneath the goodlooking lovers in the corner. Oh, Universe. Forgive us for our refusal to know and be known. For our diehard commitment to maintaining otherness and enemies. Forgive us for our unknowing.

A Mad Woman and a Miracle

My friend Jodi lives in downtown Toronto in an area that is grey and raw and leaves me tense behind my politeness. I visited her there for the first time this summer and was in awe of the ease with which she walked those streets, the affection in her voice as she greeted the men behind blank eyes and grubby coffee cups. She was at home here and alive. When she says that she loves the poor she means it, in the same way she loves the rich and the weird and her own blond nephews. And although I live in Africa and see poverty so much more extreme than anything on a Canadian city street, I know that my shifting eyes and jerky movements betray my falseness. Because truthfully I don’t live quite so close, so in the middle of disparity and drunkenness and hopelessness.
The evening after I arrived, Jodi surprised me with tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, so we packed our purses with crackers and apples and buttoned up our sweaters against the chilly June air. We were in a hurry to catch the subway and so ran, laughing and reminiscing, down the street, around the corner with the big church, towards the subway station, when Jodi stopped. Turned. Watched a woman that I had noticed but pretended not to. She was maybe in her sixties, bundled up in the layers of someone who has no closet, and she was raging. She was waving a stick in the air like some crazed conductor that would gladly hit anyone who came near enough, and she was yelling at an invisible enemy about buses and churches and words I’d prefer not to type. She was scary. It would have suited me just fine to leave her to the other wild-eyed people on the corner and continue happily on our way to The Tempest and picnic blankets and juice boxes.
But Jodi stopped, of course, because when you choose to live somewhere like that because you believe it’s a community to enter into, where you will learn and love and maybe even meet Jesus, you don’t just walk by the first person who is swearing and swinging sticks around. She walked towards the woman, tried to interrupt her tirade and reached in to touch that flailing arm. And even without my own tendency toward the melodramatic, that moment can only be described as magic. At the first touch, everything about that corner was transformed. Suddenly there on the street was an elderly blind woman who was so afraid and disoriented that she was panicking in the only way she knew how. Her voice immediately dropped, and we realized that, all appearances to the contrary, she was completely lucid. And terrified. She explained that someone had helped her off the bus but she thought that she had been left in the middle of the street and was freaking out that she would be run over by the Toronto traffic. “Why wouldn’t she help me? Why would everyone leave me in the middle of the street?” Her weapon had long stopped swinging at this point, and hung limply at her side like the white cane that it had been all along. She was just trying to find All Saints Cathedral, she explained, and could Jodi please show her where it was? Jodi assured her she was in the right spot, it was just there across the road, and so the two of them slowly made their way across the intersection, a trendy professional with her ailing grandmother, to look at them. Jodi’s arm still firmly planted on that grubby elbow, her murmurs of assurance near that glassy-eyed face.
Jodi left the woman on the curb of All Saints, still blind, still poor, still grumbling about that disappearing bus rider. But at least she had her bearings. She was no longer alone in her panic. It only took a moment of stopping, of noticing, and of reaching out, to restore a human to dignity and to bring a taste of God’s kingdom to a sketchy downtown street corner. Which of course begs the question of how many other moments could be cracks through which that kingdom could shine if only I’d take the time to notice. How many people do I walk by every day that could be transformed, like magic, into truer more glorious beings if I would be willing to actually reach out and touch them? The Bible makes this point in a million obvious ways. This is exactly what Jesus did with most of his time. Stopped. Noticed. Touched. And magic happened. Or miracles, or love, or whatever you want to call the moments when God’s great vision for what life is meant to be breaks in to our broken, mundane lives. I call it magic. And I long for more of it in my life. Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Whom Do I Love Most?

I live in Kenya. Quiet, peaceful, Kenya which has suddenly descended into violence and unrest in the last few weeks and which is regularly making international headlines. The world watches as angry men burn things and kill each other. These images are real and don’t begin to capture all the suffering in this country right now. But they also don’t represent the entire picture, of course, as the people in my Nairobi neighborhood are working, shopping, going to movies, and, like me in just a few hours, sitting by the pool. I realize that sounds rather bourgeois and uncaring considering what’s going on around us. I can imagine that if I were sitting in North America watching the horrors in Kenya I’d be saddened and concerned, but pretty detached, knowing there was nothing I could do. Now if I lived in Kenya, I’d muse, well then of course I could help the suffering people.

Well, I do live here. Right here in Nairobi, and although there’s a part of me that would love desperately to help, there’s also a part of me that would like to pack my bags and hop on the next plane to rural Manitoba. And there’s another part of me that just wants to go to the pool and then take a nap. And there’s a very big part of me that first and foremost wants to protect and care for my family, and to heck with everyone else- there are other people to care for them. Because I have a little 16 month old daughter with big blue eyes and pigtails and a perpetually scraped face because she can’t contain her exuberance when running around outside. And I’m also 6 months pregnant with a tiny baby in my belly who already promises to be hyperactive considering the non-stop gymnastics going on in there. And right now every instinct in every cell of my body just wants to focus on these two little lives, which is why I don’t feel like going to the church down the road and serving food to the hundreds of displaced people sleeping there; it’s much easier to just send some cash with a friend and be done with it. And it’s why I’ve already packed my money belt and made my evacuation list and would leave in a heartbeat if I felt my family might be in danger.

But then I keep hearing these other voices. Like my friend who gave a homily at church about loving people by being in solidarity with them. And the missionaries I talked to who wouldn’t even think of leaving when this is the country they’ve come to call home. And my husband’s students who have seen way more violence already than I probably ever will and are desperate to help out in refugee camps as soon as possible. And then of course there’s Jesus and his teaching about who we should be loving and who our families really are and how we may need to leave our families for His work. Truthfully I don’t know what he meant by that. Should I be caring more for the grieving and scared people in Nairobi’s slums than I do for my own daughter? Somehow I don’t think those should have to be exclusive. But then whom should I love more in this moment, this crisis? Because right now it feels like I have to choose, and I want so badly to be following the teaching of Jesus, but I don’t know how to do that in real life. I suppose this is always the dilemma when it comes to following Jesus. It’s just that it’s so much harder when it hits so close to home.

Women at My Gate

There are two women at the gate. One of them carries a baby wrapped in a faded kanga, a grey knit cap on his head. The other is young, beautiful. With wide full lips and skin like mocha. In another world, she would be a model. But now she sits on the curb outside my gate, her dusty toes poking at small rocks. Please, we need help. They speak at the same time, in quiet Swahili. My guard, Sammy, translates. We have not eaten in a week. The baby is hungry. There are 2 more at home. Tafadhali. Please.

I stand silent, still in my pajama pants, my orange flipflops also poking at rocks. I have come out to tell them I can not help them. There are so many reasons not to help: Don’t give directly to beggars, it only keeps them begging. Give to established charities instead. Never give handouts to strangers. Don’t create a cycle of dependency. You’re only hurting in the long run. If you give to someone at your gate, word will spread. Tomorrow there will be a crowd. I know all these arguments and I believe them to be true and wise and so I’ve come out to tell the women they have to leave. I’m sorry. I cannot help you.

But there they sit. Young and hungry and broken. I will eat more food today than they’ve had in weeks. I have more money sitting in an envelope in a closet than they will probably have in a lifetime. Give to anyone who asks. If someone asks for your cloak, give them your tunic also. Is this what Jesus means? These women? If not them, then who? But what about dependency and the crowds at my gate?
I can’t help everyone.

But I can help these women. This baby with eyes like windows, cheeks too hollow for a baby. My heart breaks wide open. Not just for these women but for myself. For the injustice of a world where giving might be bad. Where I’m so rich that I can feed a whole crowd, but I’m scared that that crowd might actually find me.

I look to Sammy for help. What should I do? Please, you who are at least Kenyan, who have seen this all your life. Please help me, a rich, lost white woman.

Maybe you should give some flour, he looks down as he speaks. Yes, I agree, relieved at the suggestion, and maybe some sikuma from the garden. Wait here.

We go inside. One bunch of sikuma, one bag of powdered milk, money for a sack of flour. My gift to you, women without hope, baby with no food.

I open the gate and give them the plastic bag. God help you, they repeat. Again and again. God help you. God help you. But what about you, my sisters? Will God help you?
I’m crying before the gate closes. I can’t stop. Sammy, this is so hard. I know, he assures me, Kenya, it’s a country with many problems.

God help me.

Rediscovering the Joy of Giving

The road to Sammy’s house is a continuous jumble of muddy potholes. My husband and I jostle along in our shiny Subaru, weaving around chickens, bicycles, and groups of children with bright smiles who wave at the novelty of white faces in their village.  Sammy, our night guard, has invited us to his home on the outskirts of Nairobi for chai. When we arrive, the light in Sammy’s eyes and the vigor of his handshake reveal his excitement over our visit. He invites us in to his tiny, one room home, smaller than our own living room- the cement floor, the old calendars decorating cinderblock walls, and the dusk-like quality of a room without windows all so typical of Kenyan homes. Sammy lives in this crowded room with his wife and two young boys, Elvis and Samson, whose prized possession is a small Lego figure displayed on the room’s one shelf.

I’ve come to consider Sammy a friend, looking forward to his soft greeting and gleaming smile as I return home to our compound each evening. We chat and I pass on books about American baseball players so he can improve his English and endure the long hours by the gate. And yet, in the back of my mind, I know that at some point this friendship will likely lead to the dreaded request for a gift of money or a loan. 

It’s not that Sammy and our other Kenyan friends are trying to exploit our friendship. It’s just that, for many of them, relationship involves sharing. If a brother or cousin or friend has more money than you do, it makes sense that they should share it. There’s no shame in asking – it’s simply what you do when you’re in need and someone in your life has a little extra. But for me, coming from a culture of independence, armed with a battalion of reasons why giving money to every person who asks is imprudent at best and destructive at worst, these conversations always leaves me tense, my once genuine smile now forced as I agree to think about the request and then make my escape as quickly as possible.

My first impulse is to say “no.” I’m afraid of becoming known as an easy target for quick money. I dread the hassle of negotiating details and deciding how to deal with people who don’t repay their loans. And I genuinely believe that there is wisdom in not just blithely handing out money. I’ve witnessed the negative impact of too much money given too easily and hold strong opinions about the dangers of unwise giving.

But I also remember a conversation I had back in Canada with my friend Tricia. Tricia was an aid worker for many years in rural Bolivia and understands the challenges of living in a developing country and the frustration of repeatedly being asked for money. As we shared our experiences, she agreed with all my well-rehearsed reasons for not giving too easily, but then she said, “You know, if I could do those years over again, I wouldn’t worry so much about all those arguments. I think I tried so hard to be cautious in my giving that I completely reasoned my way out of being generous.” 

Now, years later, as my excuses for not sharing my own abundance echo in my mind, I think about her regret and wonder if someday I’ll share that same regret. Although my decisions and attitudes don’t always reflect it, I really do want my life to be marked by grace and generosity.
I’m pretty sure that if someday God calls me to account for my actions, I’m not going to be chastised for being too generous, for giving too much money to the needy people around me, or for saying “yes” a few too many times to requests from my friends.  There is still value in using wisdom and prudence in how I give to the poor, but I’m also beginning to believe that instead of trying to play God and decide who is worthy of my money, I need to let the recipients of my gifts be responsible for their own actions. I’m guessing that the real God would be a lot more gracious in His judgments than I am.

And so when Sammy begins to tell us about a plot of land he’s hoping to buy upcountry, my smile remains genuine. I sip the sweet milky chai he’s served me in a blue tin cup and I let myself catch his enthusiasm for a small farm, a source of income that might fund his children’s education. The amount of money he needs to make the land purchase isn’t much by North American standards, although virtually unattainable on his meagre salary. When he asks if we might be able to help, we don’t hesitate. Sammy is beaming as we work out the details of our agreement- my husband and I will provide the money he needs upfront, and he will work to repay 75% of it over the next few months. The remainder is our gift to him. I like the balance of gift and loan because it allows for a sense of partnership without leaving Sammy with a debt he could never repay.
Sammy will still have a lot of work to do to make the farm a reality, but he has the determination, the energy, and the hope that it’s really going to happen. I’m just honored that he is allowing me to play a part in creating this future and, in doing so, helping me rediscover the joy of giving.

One Writer’s Dilemma

At the Nairobi Peace Institute, I sit in a bright room with a Congolese man named John. John divides his time between teaching Peace Studies at an American university, doing reconciliation work in Rwanda and Sudan, and developing mediation programs for tribes in northern Kenya. He has a wide smile and a lilting accent. I am here to learn from John, about NPI and about peace work in Kenya. He smiles at me from across the table, apologizes that there is no chai, and begins to teach me.

John begins with 1984, the real year, not Orwell’s. About Ethiopia and Stevie Wonder and pictures of babies with big bellies and flies on their faces. I think that he’s talking about how great it was that the world finally cared about Africa, but he’s not. He says those photos and songs and TV ads, “destroyed the dignity of Africans.” He says the world advertises Africa when there is a disaster, but not when there is a success. (Except Mandela, and there’s a reason for that too, he says, unsmiling). His words echo in my head. Destroyed the dignity of Africans.

I do this too. I write about the disasters and the poverty, the beggars and the rapists. As though this is Africa. I too appeal to the emotions of others with images of need, without the other images, just as true. Why don’t I write about my Kenyan friends and colleagues who are educated, professional and happy? Or about the amazing diplomacy work, development work, and research that Kenyans are doing?

But isn’t there also value in describing the suffering? The poverty isn’t fabricated. My stories aren’t just some isolated instances that I’m using repeatedly or falsely to rip at people’s emotions. This is what I see every day. Like yesterday, I was in a small brick building just down the road where there are 15 babies in 2 crowded rooms, waiting for mothers who are in prison or adoptive mothers who have yet to appear. I know a woman who runs an orphanage in the highlands outside of Nairobi who can’t pay her rising, astronomical electricity bills and so is trying to care for 25 children with no electricity. And I just learned this week of an Internally Displaced Peoples camp less than 30 miles away that no one seems to know about where 200 people are literally starving at this very moment. I can’t imagine that failing to mention this suffering is somehow lending these people dignity. I describe these images because I feel so strongly that this kind of disparity should not exist in a world where so many of us are so wealthy and have access to every possible resource.

So I’m at a loss. I long to write with respect and humility, to honor the people whom I live with here in Kenya. I don’t want to contribute to a phenomenon that allows the western world to nurse condescending stereotypes of Africa. And yet, these stories need to be told. If my writing, or someone else’s song or photo, can shake someone out of apathy and maybe somewhere down the road even move them to relieve a little bit of the suffering in their world, isn’t that worthwhile? Isn’t the act of writing my own way of “look[ing] after orphans and widows in their distress”? Lord, have mercy. My African brothers and sisters, have mercy. And my wealthy North American family, please, please, have mercy.

Love

I wonder about love sometimes. Like everyone since forever, I guess. I wonder what it feels like for other people, in marriages especially. Is this one of the universal human experiences that all people share in their own archetypal way? Or is love so different for everyone, so huge and untouchable and beyond what can be compared, that my love is its very own?

Because it isn’t always great. Sometimes it’s really hard and painful and teary. And even worse, blank. Like the bulb just went out on the movie and I’m staring at peeling white paint when just a second ago I was watching some beautiful scene with women stomping grapes in a Greek vineyard. And I blink and I wonder how in the world things could suddenly be so very bare and depressing when usually they’re so gorgeous it hurts.

People always say how love isn’t a feeling- it’s a decision, a commitment, what’s left after the feelings, and so on. Which is true, of course, but I think that’s a bigger deal for some of us. Because for some of us, people like me, if there are others, pretty much everything is a feeling. Watching a kid do a handstand or checking the mail or drinking a latte- these are feelings, way more than they’re actions or facts. Even cleaning can move me to tears if I’m not careful.

And so, when all those little love-is-not-a-feeling moments happen, it can feel like the world’s crashing in. My husband doesn’t even notice, because the decision kind of love was created for people like him, people who love decisions and stick to them no matter what and don’t even notice the potential for emotional trauma whizzing by. So he can discuss divorce rates over popcorn because they’re true and factual, and can acknowledge the fact that no one is immune to broken relationships, and somehow that doesn’t cause his stomach to self-destruct and snot to run down to his chin. But for me it does. Not because I don’t believe those things, and not because I don’t trust my husband completely, but because divorce rates are emotional and I need at least a squeeze on the thigh in the face of them.

Which is also why comparing can be so dangerous. Why reading headlines about Brad and Angelina, or even blogs about newlywed apartments can be as addictive and destructive as heroine if you’re not careful. Because it’s usually the love-is-a-feeling moments that make it to the headlines and the memoirs. And that’s when you’re left wondering about your own love… Like everyone since forever, I guess.