Friday, April 29, 2011

Sell all you stuff - it's worth it- would I lie to you?

We sold or gave up almost all of our possessions when we moved to Sudan. I used to hear stories of other people doing this sort of thing (you know told in awe) and I would think “yeah, big deal” or “what a pain in the a**”. I’d also heard the "how romantic/how freeing" sentiment and could understand that.

When we made the decision to move to Sudan I didn’t think twice about how it would feel to lose everything I owned. Don’t laugh but I’ve never thought of myself as materialistic. Prior to my career in fashion I had never paid more than $30 for a pair of jeans. My apartment was decorated solely in items either given to me or found at thrift stores. It had a vintage feel, but not in a cool hipster or shabby chic sort of way, more like a creepy cat lady way. So I never really expected to identify getting rid of all our stuff as one of the hardest things about moving to Sudan.

I’m not sentimental either. I don’t keep cards or letters, my photo collection fits in a shoe box. Most items from my childhood burnt up in a fire a few years back and I didn’t shed a tear, but I’m telling you I cried nightly as items left our home eight months ago.

Now granted, I had a wardrobe I loved and the likes of which I will never have again. It was personally handpicked (by myself) from every designer in the country and had a retail value of over $15,000. Each item had a special memory, all of a sweet time in my life when I owned a successful women’s boutique, worked with my best friends, and met my husband and Jesus. As each item was sold or given away I felt myself go with it and wondered if the new owner was worthy.

There is a saying that I think most people are familiar with that goes “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Simple enough right? The rich are bad and can’t get to heaven – sweet. deal. No problem for me ‘cause I’m not rich. I really always filed this saying under weird things Christians quote.

Then after all my items were gone I found myself reading and weeping. What Jesus is actually saying here is giving up all your stuff freaking sucks and it is likely if you try to follow God, at some point he may ask you to do just that and you probably won’t want to.

The good news is life goes on; I’m making new memories with the new things I own. Best of all I never worry or stress about losing my things, I have a freedom from trying to constantly obtain stuff or worry about my appearance.

Oh man, I’m totally lying to you. I hold on to things tighter than ever knowing how precious they are and how hard they are to replace. I think of things I want all the time and I hate my clothes.

Maybe someone out there more virtuous than me and can tell me how to get that “freedom” and “romance” other people feel when they give it all away.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Here We Go Again

We've been here before, just eight months ago: everything packed up into a few bags that necessitate last minute decisions about what we really can't do without (this time: no, I can't do without my stovetop espresso maker. Seriously), awkward moments with friends when we have to figure out how to say goodbye while trying not to let despair creep into our tone of voice, counting down hours and then minutes until we get on a plane, and this sense of anticipation but also anxiety - we tend to live our lives so fully enmeshed in community, and now we're going back to a place where friendships are few and far between.

I would submit that for me at least, the second time is harder. The first time I didn't entirely know what we were getting ourselves into, the kind of internal anguish we would encounter, the battles we would have to fight in advocating for children who have been neglected or overlooked, the long hours and days when Sarah and I would hardly see each other, the intense heat, the chronic loneliness.  Going back, I have to remind myself that it doesn't have to be like that.  I have to remind myself of that over and over again.

And I would submit that this time will be different.  Eight months ago, we knew exactly what we wanted to do.  We had programs and timelines and goals and objectives.  Oh, and folly.  We had that too, but we didn't really know it yet.  In just a few weeks we will pass on the administration of the children's home, and we will be left to our own devices.  What we have this time are ideas and hopes and values.  We have a couple programs we started, which were not a part of our original plan.  Our goals are more like, "try and work less than 60 hours a week" or"make time for cooking together" and less like "develop sustainable, replicable programs in literacy and microenterprise." What timelines we have are loose and flexible.

I still want us to be sustainable. And replicable for that matter.  I still want us to do work that reaches as many people as possible...but I've found myself trapped by that desire and neglecting the individuals and small groups of people right in front of me.  I like lots of the ideas that we had a year ago for programs, but I don't want to neglect the small ways that I can serve and enrich the life of one of my neighbors when that doesn't fit cleanly into a program.

Last time we were leaving, I hadn't been in Sudan in over 2 years, but I was confident in my ideas of how everything would go.  This time we're returning after 1 month away and 7 months of living there.  Ironically, this time I feel like I know very little about what life will hold for us.  Ironically, I have more hope for this nebulous hope than I've had for anything in a long time.  I don't know exactly what we're about to do, but I believe in it deeply.  I believe that over the next several months we will participate in the strengthening of a community and the enrichment of people's lives.  I'm pretty sure we'll see some kids learn to read and some people who have lived on the margins of society come into their own.  I know that it is worthwhile, without knowing exactly what it is.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Context Matters

2/17/2011 Being out of context
It has now been six months since we arrived. One of the best
indicators that the "living in rural Africa" novelty has worn off is
when the opposite of what was novel becomes novel. For example:
staying in a hotel and delighting that you don't have to walk 100
meters to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. And, well, the
novelty has worn off. I saw my friend Ken, the Maybe But Probably Not
Murderer yesterday and it barely registered. The constant presence of
lizards, spiders, et al for even the most private acts (like
defeating) is assumed. Even the 105 degree heat doesn't faze me any
more than the average Joe. There are rhythms and patterns of
familiarity that typically govern the day.
My role in the lives of the children is as the provider of things -
school supplies, medicine, food, soap, games, bandages, the occasional
smile/hug/word of encouragement (wouldn't want to be too generous with
those, though). And someone always needs provision, and someone always
has a complaint about what has been provided. And it's exhausting
sometimes, which is why I wasn't particularly excited about the
prospect of taking a group of kids to the market to buy sandals
A brief but relevant digression: I have come to recognize that every
relationship can benefit from a change of context (digressions from my
digression: this may be why romantic relationships need dates. Triple
digression: please, people, don't call it "a date night." It is a
date. You might designate a specific night for a consistent date, and
that might be "date night," but please don't use an article with the
As a teacher, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to
go to as many extracurricular events as possible. When I didn't have
to be the warm yet strict, extremely focused taskmaster and could just
be present and enjoy myself and take pride in my students, my role as
an educator was strengthened not undermined, because I wasn't only an
educator, and I wasn't an adversary (which I often was in the
classroom) - I was a supporter with no other agenda.
As the provider of all things, my relationship with the children is
pretty strictly limited to our home. It's about four acres, so it
encompasses a whole host of different interactions, and I tend to
escape from the compound for exactly three reasons: going out of town,
going out on a date with Sarah (to one of three restaurants), or going
out of my mind (this tends to involve a long walk in which I mutter to
myself and try to avoid the various crazy people who have recognized
me as one of their own).
Funny things happen on the way to the market: instead of sixty
children, I find myself with only three, and suddenly we're having a
prolonged conversation (about why I don't cook for Sarah and whether
she will one day beat me because of it. They, of course, would never
want a man to cook for them). There are no chores for me to remind
them to do, and no supplies for them to request of me, so instead we
talk and laugh. It must be appealing, because soon three other
children join us.
In the market, I make the children at first pretend like they don't
know me, so as to avoid paying the white person price for their new
sandals. I pretend to shop for myself while keeping a distance of
about 50 feet from the kids, and when they've found the sandals they
want and settled on a price they come to me for the money. This works
for about 15 minutes, but the market isn't huge and it's hard to
disguise six children coming to the white man to get money from him
and then returning with the balance (which makes me feel a little like
the Artful Dodger).
Girls of a certain age want to see every pair of sandals being sold by
every vendor before they make a decision, so shopping takes a long
time. I am greeted by approximately one thousand people (the novelty
has worn off for me, apparently not for them) while I wait for them to
find just the right pair and haggle it down to just the right price
(they know that if they can stay under the budget I have laid out for
them, I'll let them buy sweets with the balance. This makes them much
more discerning shoppers).
We push ever further back in the market, but by the time we find our
way out all of them have new sandals that they picked out themselves
and - if the smiles on their faces are any indication - that they
love. What they don't have is a remaining balance, but I find myself
feeling unexpectedly generous and unhurried by the slowly setting sun,
so we stop at the various storefronts along the way looking for
something called Super Dip, which the children love and which I
suspect might be one of those Chinese candies laced with cancer that
the FDA forbade in the US. But, again, the children love it, and I'm
feeling particularly indulgent toward the children, so sugary cancer
it is! And again, we find ourselves in a prolonged conversation (this
time about eating pig - which they all claim they have done and
liked...until I say we should buy one and eat it, then their story
quickly changes).
We arrive back at the compound in the twilight of the day, and the
children rush off to show their new sandals to their brothers and
sisters. Twelve-year-old Kasara looks at me and says, "Seth, I also
need sandals." Two others immediately echo her refrain, and a third
complains to me that Sarah told her she couldn't get new sandals yet.
Then she starts crying, and a too brief step out of context comes to
an end.