Thankful Thursday #75

This week I’m thankful for…

  • pink eye.  No seriously, I’m thankful that I have it now in the summer when I don’t have to write sub plans.
  • dresses with leggings
  • quiet time
  • catching up with friends
  • 75 weeks of gratitude.  I can’t believe this is my 75th Thankful Thursday.  They’ve gone by quickly because I have so very much to be thankful for.
  • my old friends who have mourned with me this week
  • Enjoy magazine for featuring an article (p. 52-53) on the importance of authentic writing instruction and the work I do with the Northern California Writing Project.  It’s an important time to recognize the value of meaningful instruction.  Thanks, Enjoy magazine and writer Claudia Mosby for taking a stand for education.
  • my littlest brother who is building a school in Ecuador.  I’m so proud of him.
  • my friend, Emily, who leaves tomorrow to tend to orphans in Africa.  My heart is with you, friend.
  • The father who prays in Mark 9:24 “I believe.  Help my unbelief!”.  Boy can I relate to him and, man, has that been the prayer of my heart lately.
  • the painting at the top.  I bought it in Uganda and it makes me think of a mother surrounded by her children.  It hangs in my hallway just outside my bedroom and when I lie in bed I can see it.  I miss my Ugandan kids terribly and this painting brings a little relief.  Here’s another up close shot of it.  The lines and texture leave me stunned.
Painting by Omuny.

Dancing with Dan

As soon as I heard the first pair of lyrics, I made a beeline inside where the dance was taking place. It was our song, our joke, and I knew Dan had requested it and would be scanning the dance floor for me.

I don’t remember how ‘Lady In Red’ became our song. I don’t recall either of us ever wearing red, or for that matter, acting like ladies. And trust me, that song was cheesy even when it was popular. I guess that’s what made it perfect because we, too, were pretty cheesy. I was a gangly teenager and he was a fatherly peace officer who often carried stickers in his pockets.

I caught a glimpse of Dan from behind and watched him for just a second as he looked for me. I tapped him on the shoulder, he turned and bowed, I curtsied and we both smiled at this ridiculous routine that had become tradition. As we danced, holding our chins high and our frames locked, for that song I was his daughter and he was my dad.

Over a wide span of years, we staffed many youth conferences together and at the requisite dance on the last night, one or the other of us would plead with the deejay to play our outdated, cheesy song. When the song came on, we left conversations mid-sentence and danced together, giggling like school kids at this ridiculous song that became the soundtrack of our friendship.

Throughout my high school years Dan I and I wrote letters back and forth, his always on colorful paper with stickers in the corners, of course. Dan’s letters always seemed to arrive just when I needed a fatherly presence in my life, when I needed someone to encourage me or to tell me that they were proud of me. Dan’s blocky handwriting spelled out belief in me. I’m lucky to have many father figures in my life who speak wisdom and kindness into the broken places I otherwise keep secret. Dan was one of them.

Dan died of cancer last week and although we hadn’t seen each other in years, the loss leaves a sad metallic taste in my mouth and a vacant space in my heart where he used to be.

After finding out about his passing, I tried to write something to honor him, but none of the words felt right in my mouth. None of the words felt adequate in describing a man who inhaled the pain of those around him and exhaled compassion.

When people die, the survivors are prone to exaggeration, our brains are prone to protect our hearts and only allow the good memories to surface. But the true testament of Dan’s character is that he was as beloved in life as he is in death.

As I sat trying to write about him, my fingers just wouldn’t type the words. And so I did what all writers do when paralyzed at the keyboard, I went grocery shopping. So there I was in the bread aisle pondering the difference between ‘whole grain’ and ‘whole wheat’ when ‘Lady In Red’ came over the loudspeakers. I turned my face toward the towers of loaves on the shelves and cried, wishing for one last dance with my old friend. A particular lyric caught like a sob in my throat.

I’ve never seen you shine so bright. You were amazing.

And then I laughed because that song, our song, our ridiculous joke broke my writer’s block and in that moment I knew just what to write to Dan, one last link in our chain of correspondence. When I got home, I shoved the bags of groceries into the fridge, not bothering to unpack them. I dug down deep into my special basket of kept notes and letters until I found Dan’s letters.

A handful of Dan’s letters

He spoke to me once again in the words he penned to me. And now at the close of his life I speak them back to him.

The community you live in is a better place because of you.

This is a better world because of you.

You are a treasure, unique, a natural at anything you do.

I’m very proud of you.

It’s been great because you were here.

You are where you should be.

You are a bright light for all of us on Earth.

You smiled upon us and spread your magic.

My wish was answered.

Cancer can take the body, but it can’t take the spirit or the memories we possess of our loved ones. It can’t erase Dan’s gracious words to me. Most of all it cannot wipe away my sweet memories of dancing with Dan.

Dan

Thankful Thursday #74

It’s lovely to be back in the practice of recording all the things I have to be thankful for and this week my list is long because I’m realizing now more than ever just how much I have to be thankful for.  This week I’m thankful for…

  • my husband who loves me so well
  • messages from my Ugandan children & friends
  • blackberries fresh from the backyard
  • my friend who is walking with integrity through a refining time when her integrity is being questioned.  You know who you are and I’m thankful for you.
  • reading in bed
  • my washing machine.  I never did get very good at washing my clothes by hand.
  • sleeping in my own bed
  • time spent reconnecting with friends
  • mint iced tea
  • my skin that is three shades browner because it reminds me of my Ugandan children
  • my brilliant friend Jenna who posted this on Facebook today “Love now. Speak now. Follow now. You have great influence. Use what you’ve been given. Be brave.”
  • the new album ‘Young Man Follow’ by Future of Forestry.  I never, ever buy whole albums.  After listening to song samples, I bought this whole album and I LOVE it.  Be warned, when you buy this album, you will want to swallow it in big gulps and not consume any other music for a while.  Your happy finger will just keep hitting the replay button.  My favorite song is ‘Love Be Your Mantra’.  And here’s my favorite part of my favorite song:

    And you tasted grace, kindness too
    My friend you’ll know what hands and feet will do

    Take what you’re granted
    Love be your mantra
    Take what you’re handed
    Love be your mantra

The Pearl of Africa

In the stillness of morning I sit in my living room.  The lights are out and my husband is sound asleep in our bedroom.  The sky outside is just beginning to be edged with light.  It’s one of my favorite times to write and I sit in the company of the stories of my Ugandan students.  I’m editing and revising, marrying their written pieces with the notes I took from our one on one interviews.

One particular story grips me today.  It’s the story of a girl who was never expected to be born, the story of a girl with a heart that beats for the orphaned girls all over the world.  This is Beatrice’s story.

Uganda is called the Pearl of Africa and as I sit with Beatrice’s words spread out on the carpet around me, I can’t help but feel the weight and truth of that name.  Natural pearls are born when an irritant like a piece of sand or a broken bit of shell works its way into an oyster, or more rarely a clam or mussel.  As a defense mechanism the mollusk secretes layer after layer of a crystalline fluid called nacre that coats the irritant and turns what was once a broken bit of shell or an insignificant piece of sand into a lustrous pearl.

Beatrice (Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee)

Beatrice is smart, kind and has a quick wit that had me smiling at something new each day I spent with her.  Did I mention she’s a poet?  Beatrice is a girl cut of my own heart.

I met Beatrice when I was sitting behind a hut on campus.  I was flicking through yearbook photos on my camera when she and two friends sat down near me.

“Hi.  What are you girls up to?  No class right now?”

“We want to have a discussion.”  Beatrice said.

“Oh, let me move out of your way so you can have some privacy.”  I began to collect my things, wanting to respect their space.

“No, we want to have a discussion with you.”  Beatrice laughed.

“Oh, okay.” I blushed, feeling silly that I didn’t understand the first time around.  “What should we discuss?”

“California.”  Beatrice said decisively.

Our conversation began with California, delved into this crazy book project that brought me to Uganda and then sunk down deep when brave Beatrice began to share her story.

Beatrice was born to a mother with special needs, a woman who cannot think or speak on her own.  It’s not known how Beatrice’s mother came to be pregnant or who Beatrice’s father is.  Even her mother cannot give voice to how it came to pass that she grew this child inside her.  I shudder imagining how the pregnancy began and yet, my arms prickle with goosebumps that such an amazing life began with such an unlikely start.

Beatrice and her mother were raised by her grandmother and her Uncle Angelo, a man who loved to read, a man who tells Beatrice with assurance that she is a blessing to this world.  In writing about her Uncle Angelo, Beatrice says he is everything to her because he instilled in her a love of learning and gave her all the things that other children with parents had.

Every little girl should be so fortunate to have an Uncle Angelo who coats their most broken places with layers of blessings.

Beatrice aspires to be a lawyer.  And an accountant.  And a politician.  In fact she’s got her sights set on being a member of Ugandan Parliament.  She wants to push corruption out of Uganda and help her country shine brightly.

Her other goal is to care for and educate orphaned girls because according to Beatrice, “When you educate a girl, you educate the whole nation.”  I’d wager to say that the reaches of educating this particular girl stretch far beyond the borders of Uganda.

As my trip was drawing to a close, Beatrice asked if I’d help get her story out to encourage other girls.  When she tells her story in our upcoming book, I have a feeling it will strike a chord in the hearts of girls all over the world.

I leave you with a snippet of Beatrice’s encouragement for young girls.  “Take care and know that your life is important.  The world is because of you.  It is up to us to make the world shine.”

As I lay out Beatrice’s story, as I look at her photo, my heart is full for this girl who blesses the world with her very being.  She’s right, it’s up to us to make the world shine.

Across the ocean, ten hours ahead of me, where night is beginning to draw the curtains on the day, there’s a girl who already is the bright shining pearl of Africa.

Drinking the Nile

On one of the last days in Uganda, my friend Colin & I rafted the Nile.  THE NILE!  Let me just say from the get go that it was as cool as it sounds.

One of the best things about my time in Uganda were all the amazing people I met.  Around every corner there were people with fascinating stories and our rafting trip was no exception.  Meet the players:

Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear were in Uganda working with AIDS orphans.  I can only remember Baby Bear’s real name: Eva.  Incidentally Eva is afraid of water and extreme sports.  She also has extremely poor eyesight and didn’t wear her glasses.

Next up was our terrific guide, Tuutu, pronounced tutu, although he didn’t seem overly thrilled when I told him his name was also the name of a pink tulle ballet skirt.  After we survived each rapid, we’d all put the tips of our paddles in the middle of the raft and lift them up with a hearty, “Team Tuutu!”, which I believe is the Lugandan translation for ‘Hooray, nobody died!’

Johan, a Finnish Red Cross worker, was also in our raft.  He was in Uganda helping people recover from the massive mudslides there.  He also wore a Speedo, so he’s daring in lots of ways.

Rounding out our boat was Canadian Rob who was spending a long holiday traveling the length of Africa.  Johan and Rob would have been thrilled had our raft capsized in every rapid.  Such boys.

After lunch a pair of Turkish doctors, Turkish Neurologist and Turkish Pediatrician, joined in the fun, but more on that later.

After learning paddle commands and what to do if the raft capsized, we were off.  The Nile was beautiful and to my delight we didn’t see a single crocodile or hippo.  We came upon our first rapid, a 3 meter drop down a waterfall, which is as scary and thrilling as it sounds.  I’m the one with the big grin on my face, fourth from the front.

We paddled down the Nile enjoying calm spots in between lots of Class 4 and 5 rapids.  The funniest part was when we’d approach the rapids, Papa Bear and Mama Bear would describe what the rapids looked like to Baby Bear Eva, who couldn’t see anything beyond the raft.  I’m not sure if their descriptions assuaged her fears or not, but it made for good entertainment in between Tuutu’s commands of, “Paddle, paddle, paddle!!!” or my favorite “Get down!” which meant get down in the boat, hold on for dear life and try not to pee your pants.  It’s quite a mouthful really.  I can see why Tuutu went for the much simpler “Get down!”

Under Tuutu’s excellent guidance I was having an amazing time.  The rapids were really spectacular.  We even saw a tree full of giant bats take to the sky.  Along the shores people fished and went about their daily business.

Prior to my trip, I met with a travel nurse with lots of good advice, but mostly she reminded me not to drink the water.  Don’t drink it.  Don’t brush your teeth with it.  Keep your mouth closed in the shower.  I did all those things vigilantly.  And then I rafted the Nile.

In the middle of the trip we stopped for a delicious lunch and sadly, the Bear family and Finnish Johan only signed up for a half day of rafting and so we said goodbye.  They were replaced with two rafters from another boat, Turkish Neurologist and Turkish Pediatrician, also known as Ahmed and Assad.  After asking a few times I still wasn’t clear on who was who.  Turkish Neurologist knew a little bit of English, which is far more Turkish than I know, and when he said “Turkey Neurologist and Turkey Pediatrician”, I entertained brief thoughts of doctors performing brain surgery on turkeys and taking care of tiny poultry.  My waterlogged brain discerned that perhaps they were doctors from Turkey instead.  So disappointing.  The doctors were a perfectly lovely addition, even if the language barrier meant that they didn’t always understand when to paddle.

As the trip drew closer to an end, we faced one more class 5 rapid.  Much to Canadian Rob’s delight we flipped.  Big time.

Colin and Turkish Neurologist were bounced around so much in the rapid and ended up so far away from the raft that they had to be scooped up by the rescue kayakers on standby.  When the raft capsized, I found myself underneath it briefly which is not ideal in calm waters, let alone a churning class 5.  I kicked my way out from underneath the raft and grabbed onto the rope lining the side of the now upside down raft.

In between getting dunked by the rapids, I spotted Turkish Pediatrician and, there’s really no other way to say this, he was FREAKING OUT!  I’m not sure he knew how to swim and the poor guy kept getting submerged and he was on the brink of hyperventilating.  His ‘Doctor In An Emergency Mode’ didn’t kick in, but to my surprise my ‘Teacher Mode’ did.  It’s the same mode that kicks in when I’m making sure all 30 of my little ones are accounted for on field trips.  I held onto the raft with one hand and did a one-handed doggy paddle with the other.  I paddled over to him and grabbed his hand pulling him to the raft, where he grabbed onto the rope next to me.  Canadian Rob popped up on the rope on the other side of Turkish Pediatrician and I couldn’t help but laugh at the huge grin spread across Rob’s face.  Finally we’d capsized and he was thrilled!  Turkish Pediatrician was not.  He was still panicking.  So I held onto the rope with one hand and patted his back with the other.  “It’s okay.  You’re okay.” I told him in between getting slammed by the raft and the water.

Our fearless guide Tuutu, clambered on top of the raft and clipped one end of the strap to the raft and the other end to himself. We’d practiced this in the morning.  Tuutu was going to jump off the raft, effectively flipping it right side up.  Tuutu yelled down at us, “Let go of the rope!”  Canadian Rob and I let go and swam a few feet away.  Turkish Pediatrician maintained his death grip on the rope.  I paddled back to him.  “You have to let go.  Tuutu’s going to flip the boat.”  Turkish Pediatrician shook his head.  And so I peeled his claws off the rope myself and grabbed the back of his life jacket and swam away with him.

Tuutu flipped the raft and helped us all back in.  After we cleared the rapid, the kayakers deposited Colin and Turkish Neurologist back into our boat and we all put our paddles and gave a hearty “Team Tutuu!”  After which Colin and I high-fived because hooray-nobody died!

After the end of the trip we stopped for a delicious BBQ where we relived the glory of the day.  In bed that night I prayed that drinking the Nile wouldn’t come back to haunt me and then I swam into my dreams with a huge grin on my face.

Freedom Falls

I’ve been home a little over a day now.  To get home I passed through five airports and flew on four different airplanes before my hubs drove me the last leg home.

I flashed my passport through countless screenings and talked with several new friends on the planes home.  Each time someone discovered that I’d spent the month in Uganda, they’d ask two questions.

“What were you doing there???”  I’d tell them about helping 50 or so kids write a book about pivotal moments in their lives.  We’d have a brief conversation about the kids and their writing and without fail they’d ask the second question.

“So how is Uganda doing?”  This question was often times paired with a gulp and a brow wrinkled with equal parts fear and worry.

I loved this question.  It’s one of the reasons I took this journey to begin with.  I wanted to see how Uganda and her people were doing.  I wanted to hear and help record firsthand stories from her children.

The best way I can answer the question of how Uganda is doing is to tell you a story about two waterfalls in Uganda.

Murchison Falls

This is Murchison Falls.  It’s a mere seven meters wide and at one point in time the whole of the Nile had to pass through this narrow gap.  It is staggeringly beautiful, but make no mistake, Murchison Falls is a crashing, thundering force to be reckoned with.  Living beings who have the misfortune of falling into the crevice of the falls do not resurface again until the water has suffocated all of the life and breath out of them.

In 1962 Uganda was granted freedom from Britain.  This may surprise you because even Uganda’s most recent history is marred by dictatorial leaders and bloodthirsty warlords, not to mention the corruption that has taken root and entwined itself around the hearts of most of Uganda’s politicians.  But indeed on January 15, 1962 Uganda was declared an independent country.

Another surprising thing happened in Uganda in 1962.

It rained.

Hear me out, during the wet season, it rains a lot in Uganda.  Almost daily rainstorms roll in with the evening and pelt the earth until the morning sunlight glistens in the pools of rain atop the sodden earth.

In 1962 the rains didn’t roll in and out.  They rolled in and stayed, pouring themselves into the mighty Nile who rose to the challenge.  Her waters ascended like never before, sending creatures to higher ground lest the Nile drink them in.  Day and night the rain fell until the unimaginable happened.

Instead of squeezing herself through the oppressive rocks of Murchison Falls, the Nile burst over the land and a completely new waterfall was born.  It was like the whole country, from breathing men to teeming rivers, rose up and claimed freedom.  The second waterfall was called Gulu Falls.  Gulu is a Bagandan name meaning ‘God of the sky’.  However most locals call it by another name: Freedom Falls.

Gulu Falls (left) and Murchison Falls (right)

Each time I answered the question ‘How is Uganda doing?’ I thought of Gulu Falls and I thought of the students I worked with in Uganda.  After living through a time of thundering, crashing oppression, there is a generation of young Ugandans rising up.  They’re dedicated to justice over corruption, love instead of vengeance and healing for their scarred land.

How is Uganda doing?

She’s headed for a bright future because when young people have hearts full of love, minds dedicated to justice and a yearning for freedom, well, that’s a force that simply can’t be contained.  And when it spills out over the land, Uganda is going to find herself completely sodden with the kind of freedom that once caused the Nile to entwine herself over the land and move in a completely new direction.

Freedom Falls

Sunday’s Promise

“Do you realize that not everyone writes like this? You’re a gifted writer, Sun. Has anyone ever told you that?”

Sunday, or Sun as he likes to be called, tucks his head into his chest and smiles. He is quiet, always sidling up to me without a word, never stealing the spotlight.

For a moment, I watch him, marveling at what a perfect name Sun is for a kid with a luminous face. His face is always lit up like this and as we sit side by side I look to the sky to see if the sun is shining down on him.  Afternoon thunderclouds have rolled in, blotting out the sun.

We work side by side on his story about his grandmother. I swallow the memories of my own grandmother that have knotted in my throat. I ask questions and Sun answers thoughtfully, pausing to be sure of his words.

He tells the story of how his grandmother saved his life by hiding him under a blanket when the L.R.A. penetrated his house. He paints in the details of the end of her life, looking out over the horizon, not meeting my eyes. I look toward the horizon as well giving him the smallest measure of privacy and holding off more questions until he turns his face toward mine.

We’ve finished talking about his story and I have a lingering question.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A peacemaker.”

I smile thinking of the many children there who have answered the question of what they want to be when they grow up with that same answer: a peacemaker.

“And I want to be brave and kind and keep hope like my grandmother.”

It’s all I can do to hold back tears at this beautiful boy.  I clear my throat and we finish up notes for his story.

A week or so later the time has come for me to say goodbye to my Ugandan sons and daughters, to begin my trip toward home. I’m hugging and snapping photos and saying goodbye. I feel him at my side before he speaks.

“Alicia, can I talk to you?”

“Of course. Let’s walk a bit.” We move away from the throng of kids.

“What’s on your mind, Sun?”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too.” I squeeze him and give him a Ugandan hug, first on one side and then on the other.

“If I write a story about you, will you come back to read it?” He stares at his feet.

“Sun, first of all I’m coming back no matter what.”

“People say that and then they don’t.”

“Then I look forward to the day when I prove to you that I mean it.” I smile at him, willing him to believe me, knowing that he is steeling himself against a litany of broken promises. “Secondly, yes, I would love to read one of your stories. But, Sun, I won’t be back for many months. Are you really only going to write one story for me to read?” I challenge him.

“I think I’ve got many stories.”

“I agree. You need to write them and when I return I’ll read them.”

“You’ll return?” Sunday questions me again.

I nod. “You’ll write?”

Sunday nods.  “I promise.”

I watch him walk away and can’t help but think that Uganda has a bright future.  A future as bright as Sun.