Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Stinkin' Bleeding Heart

Sometimes I wish I wasn’t such a sucker for sob stories; that I could proceed with my life when faced with strays, tragedies, or apathy. However, in the same way that I cannot hold back tears when faced with emotional situations, I cannot restrain my desire to do something when presented with problems.

This is not a good thing when I live in a land where stray dogs traverse the hills in large packs, where men, women, and teenagers knock on my gate weekly asking for jobs, where children are put in prison because they have no parents to care for them. Or maybe it is.

Let me set the stage. In any teacher’s life, the dreaded time of the school year is the week or two surrounding the turn of a quarter. This is when reports must be written, a million and one assessments must be marked, new units planned, and parent-teacher conferences navigated. I am in the midst of such a time. Add to this the chaos of planning an international trip (in a week and a half I am taking 4 kids to Mozambique for the Global Issues Service Summit). Plus I am getting training in peer mediation for four days next week. And don’t forget to add all my usual time-commitments including a writing group and Bible study to the busy backdrop my life.

Commence Act 1: Last weekend I showed up at my friend’s kid’s birthday party. I was planning to pass along a gift, give hugs, and perhaps stay long enough for a piece of cake. I had no intention of bringing home incredibly time-consuming animals. However, when another friend arrived with 15 abandoned puppies, each only about a week old, I quickly found myself sitting in her car trunk coercing tiny creatures to suckle from a bottle. In a country with far too many strays, puppies of this size are nearly always put to sleep. I found myself disconsolate at the thought. And so, on an utter bleeding-heart-whim, I asked my housekeeper if she was willing to split the duties of caretaking for three of the tiny needy creatures until they are adopted. She was. And before long, three of the smallest dogs I have ever seen were nestled into a plastic bowl in my bathroom. Three little cuties who require feeding every 3 hours. Who cannot go to the bathroom without help. Who are still blind and deaf. Who make me feel like I have newborn babies to care for.

Act 2: Also in the last week, I have been unable to pry myself away from headlines about Japan. Eager to do something, I plastered posters around school, urging students and teachers alike to join me in brainstorming possible contributions. Finally, we settled on a grade 6-12 fashion show with ticket sales benefitting the Red Cross. Alas, I now find myself responsible for facilitating large numbers of students as they create costumes made from recycled materials and sell tickets for our very own ISU Project Runway show. The show is set to run a day and a half before I fly to Mozambique.

It is one of those weeks where sleep is under-rated and I wonder if my bleeding-heart syndrome is going to spur me towards collapse. Hopefully at least I’ll help a few causes in the meantime!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Power of Words

Making metaphors is easy. At least when you’re an English teacher and you pepper all your feedback with niceties; you dust all your encounters with layers of connotations; you dissect intentions innately, holding filaments discretely in the tweezer-hold of linguistics and carefully gliding them into the light. I’m certainly not suggesting I fold every paper I receive into a dainty origami. Nor do I sand wood down until corners transform into smooth arches, or bury cars one snowflake at a time. Yet I am overcome by the power of language. To change. To heal. To accuse. To minimize. To justify. To exploit.

About two years ago, I crawled slowly through the galleries of the peace museum in Hiroshima on a cold February day. In a numb state of bewilderment I absorbed photographs of houses obliterated into nothingness, tiny melted shoes, subtitled documentaries of siblings lost, drooping spoons found beside plates of food unfinished, outlines of vaporized people blasted into cement walls, and factual displays outlining horrific side effects of radiation poisoning. With each memoir, I felt tides drag me deeper into a muddled sea of loss, guilt, and helplessness. Before me, the sores of humanity lay raw and oozing; I felt incapable of even swatting the metaphorical flies away.

After I finished wandering the main gallery, I decided to peruse the lobby’s basement, an exhibit of misfit items, while I waited for my friends. I found a wall of crayon drawings that resembled children’s doodles. I soon discovered these rudimentary sketches were painfully etched by the wobbly hands of old men and women, years after the atomic bomb incinerated sisters, bosses, mothers, sons. They were snapshots of unspeakable horrors, representations of nightmares, of realities.

I edged down the line. The only other person in the room was an elderly Japanese man. He too shuffled from picture to picture. From time to time, he let out a low moan and muttered to himself in Japanese. Every few pictures, our eyes met. Mine questioned the man: Did he lose someone? Did he see that infamous cloud? Was he one of the distraught kids ushered out of tottering buildings? Or was he lucky enough to be on foreign soil? Could he be old enough to have fought in the war? Would he fight again? His damp wrinkled eyes merely smiled at me knowingly. I nodded and averted my eyes, refocusing on the stick figures’ tears. My own tear ducts stoically sealed, awaiting solitude.

When I reached the corner I allowed myself to glance around the spacious hall. A few haphazard cases in the center beckoned me with their dim florescent lights. Beneath the beams I discovered newspaper clippings from August 6, 1945. Familiar images greeted me, mushroom clouds ballooning out of cover creases. I skimmed text that relayed known statistics. And then I saw the headline, the one that broke me. It was from an American paper: “Giant Golf Ball Dropped on Japan.”

The crayon depictions? Just reminders of another day on the greens. That man with charred skin? You could say his day was equivalent to a few strokes over par.

I staggered to a bench, emotions cascading from my eyes. For a few moments I floundered between pity, responsibility, shame, and anger. Images swirled at the forefront of my mind. I shut my eyes, attempting to regain equilibrium. Then I felt someone take my hands. I looked up into the face of a man whose country suffered at the hands of my own. I looked directly into his eyes as he spoke reassuringly to me in calm Japanese. His grip tightened as he continued his speech. Slowly my breathing settled and my shoulders stopped heaving. I found my lips muttering in apology, in appreciation, in understanding. Eventually, I rose and we parted.

To this day, his words are as illusive to me as I am sure mine were to him. Yet I am certain that on that afternoon, sitting on a stone bench in a deserted museum basement, we made a vow of peace and responsibility.

It is now over two years later. I sit at my desk in Uganda and scroll through digital headlines of radiation leaks, tsunami evacuees, beaches lined with hundreds of bodies, and vanished trains. Thousands of miles away. The images look nothing like the Japan I traveled. I skim the pictures and do not find his face. My eyes go back to the headlines. Again I find myself wondering at the words and at their power. Is the media amplifying aftershocks? Is anyone tipping the figurative caddy this time? Or instead, are words lifting the rubble, one piece of plywood at a time?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kenya escapes

Reunion with friends in Nairobi. Walking safari at Lake Naivasha. Driving safari at Amboseli. New friends. What a fabulous 4 day weekend!