Meditative calm (South Africa)
Sometimes it’s more pleasurable not to advance to the next level in Candy Crush but to lose the same level over and over again for days, and I wonder if this is a sign of enlightenment.
This trip to Lesotho was for VIPs and their families. (I am facilitating and not a VIP.) We took meetings with partner organizations, visited beneficiaries, and volunteered on a construction site* for a day and a half.
After building Friday we got in the van, and the daffiest lady in our group suggested that we sing a song. One person called out “Amazing Grace,” another “If I Had a Hammer.” I was sitting out of sight in the front seat so didn’t have to react. The middle-aged people began to sing with surprising ability and gusto. They called out for another song request and the sulky 21-year-old gassed, “How about the Quiet Game?” The daffy lady—who is not so daffy; if I listed her credentials here you would drop your teeth—asked earnestly, “Where is your sense of lightheartedness?”
And I thought, “Oh, that’s the term I’ve been wanting,” because lately I worry all of the time that I am not fun, or I believe that I am fun but unable to access the fun parts of me as often as I would like or unable to offer them to enough people. At work I am known as a problem solver, but I have never been clever at solving the problems with my own personality.
Today is the group’s final day together, and I excused myself from the mountain hike so that I could eat a meal by myself for the first time in six days. I took breakfast late and was the only diner in the hotel restaurant. I asked for an extra piece of toast, which felt indulgent. (This is Africa.) In my head I scrolled through my phone contacts and tried to identify people around whom I act lightheartedly. It seems that the people around whom I can be most serious are also the people around whom I can be most lighthearted, which suggests that it’s an issue of vulnerability, because when people shake off my talking about serious things then I feel like they don’t have patience for me, which creates a gray cloud and makes it difficult for me to feel like having fun. I guess that’s helpful to understand, but I’m not sure yet how it leads to action.
* When I say “construction site” in this context—building a simple house for an orphan and his disabled uncle in rural-ass Lesotho overlooking a bunch of sandy mountains—it’s a patch of dirt, blocks, bags of cement, and a couple of local masons. A handsome black pig walked by sometimes, as did a sweet dog with pronounced ribs.
Getting good or getting reckless (Lesotho)
I flew into Maseru, Lesotho earlier than my colleague planned to pick me up, so I asked if there was a hotel shuttle. This is an airport with no food vendors and no Internet service, so there was also no hotel shuttle.
I settled in to read for a few hours, then the woman from the information desk told me that “a guy who is a police officer” would drive me to my hotel.
I didn’t have an especially bad feeling about it, so I followed this guy down the sidewalk and got in his unmarked early 90s Toyota. Once seated I realized that I was doing something strange and dangerous, and then a third guy silently slipped into the backseat, at which point I considered that I may be done for.
The guy in the backseat got out after a mile, and the rest of the way the police officer and I talked about NGOs, Chinese speculators, and how boring Lesotho is. I said he was very kind to drive me, and he said matter of factly, “That’s the way it is here,” and I gave him $10 because I spent the flight reading about informal economies.
My colleague Lois happened to be standing in the hotel lobby as I arrived and recognized me from my Skype photo. She was very impressed that I got here. When I tell my boss this story, however, it will confirm her idea that I am impetuous.
Just tell me about your day
What’s tricky about the less thinky, more narrative Lydia Davis stories—like the one in her new book in which she prepares to die in an airplane—is that once you turn them over in your head for a few days, you realize that they might be parables like the thinky short pieces are parables.
I realized the airplane story could have parable-level meaning and felt exhausted!
by Wendell Berry
"Do you want to ask
"No. If you do,
He went ahead:
his prayer dressed up
in Sunday clothes
rose a few feet
and dropped with a soft
If a lonely soul
did ever cry out
in company its true
outcry to God,
it would be as though
at a sedate party
a man suddenly
removed his clothes
and took his wife
passionately into his arms.
I never understood that America had written my anthem, and yet—
I’ve been one poor correspondent, and I’ve been too, too hard to find
But it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind
Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. So that when one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “love your enemies.” I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive, creative, good will for all men. And it is this idea, it is this whole ethic of love which is the idea standing at the basis of the student movement.
There is something else: that one seeks to defeat the unjust system, rather than individuals who are caught in that system. And that one goes on believing that somehow this is the important thing, to get rid of the evil system and not the individual who happens to be misguided, who happens to be misled, who was taught wrong. The thing to do is to get rid of the system and thereby create a moral balance within society.
From “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience”
Most of what I think about politics
Brief dance lesson
A. asked if I had fun at the wedding; I said I did.
A. asked if I danced much at the wedding, and I said I didn’t because I’m not good at it, not as good as she is, and that she should teach me before the next wedding I attend. This comment was earnest, not flirtatious; A. is a great dancer. She looks like she is having fun when she dances.
She said, “When you imagine dancing, how do you picture yourself?” I’m not sure I’ve ever pictured myself dancing. The question strikes me as unusually helpful advice. If I begin to imagine myself dancing, I will probably begin to dance in a way that looks like I’m having fun.
- Habitat volunteers build alongside future homeowners and neighbors. The most surprising moment on the work site came today when one of the locals proclaimed, mid-dig, “Yesterday Edward Snowden revealed another secret!”
- Western volunteers typically come away from these international trips saying two things:
- "I thought I was coming here to contribute, but I took away much more than I gave," and
- "Their community is so tight; it is nothing like at home."
In last night’s team meeting I invited volunteers to tell about a community that sustains them. I talked about the book club that started meeting two years ago, which as we read together provided stability and knowing-and-being-knownness while I was in transition.
I asked the group to imagine what forges community in the village where we’re building. One person said that the villagers all face the same problems—they’re poor, water is scarce, jobs are low-paying, etc.—but I don’t think that’s it, and I said so. There are lots of people in Atlanta who share the conditions of poverty but do not forge community together.
Here is where I locate the difference: in order to move into a Habitat house, a family must help build their neighbors’ houses. After they move in, families usually continue helping each other build—fences, gardens, maybe extra rooms. Their conditions are shared, yes, but that’s passive; these people are actively building—they are improving their shelter and their village together—and the communal spirit that emerges from it is strong. You don’t see orphanages here because someone in the village takes in the orphaned kid.
Anyway, as we were talking about community, I looked around and saw therapists and web developers and stay-at-home moms and construction workers and big retail vice presidents, and everyone looked so lonely. Not at the moment—our team has bonded and is finding strength from each other—but back at home. I hope that they internalized the observation: community requires doing things with people.
- Bill Callahan is my constant companion. I would not have been able to pickax dirt or carry heavy trees unless I was singing in my head—sometimes out loud if no one was around, which is a luxury of being in the middle of nowhere—
Then the wind finds something to ping,
Then the pinging thing finds the wind;
We’re all looking for a body
or a means to make one sing
Building in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia with a team of Habitat volunteers.
- I am a great team leader. I believe that each volunteer has cried at least once, and we are only on Day Four.
- Each day we have a coffee ceremony in which a woman roasts, grinds, brews, and serves coffee. They invite volunteers to roast and grind, but as on a cooking TV show, they stealthily replace our demonstration beans with a hot pot of coffee pulled from behind a tablecloth. The coffee is brewed with coriander and cloves, which makes it taste like tea.
- The same woman makes us lunch. It is delicious.
- Here is something I believe deeply and that I understand as a major purpose of international volunteer trips: “What the rich need is an honorable way of divesting themselves of their overabundance.” (Clarence Jordan) It is exciting to see that happen. I will add, though, that our team is working hard and making ourselves surprisingly useful. The richest person is the hardest worker, which I will not tell my dad when I return home, because he will nod too hard.
- Would you have believed that I am handy with a pickax? I have broken up, shoveled, and tamped much ground. My back aches. Perhaps I will buy a tank-top to show it off.