March 16, 2017 § 4 Comments
Every day brings a new challenge.
We take a bus from Ratna Park in Kathmandu, a parking lot swarming with old, rickety buses that blare tinny Nepali pop songs into the smoggy black sky. An older Nepali woman sits beside me and falls asleep, her head bobbing up and down on my shoulders with every bump we hit, with every curve around a dusty cliff we take. Our driver spits into a cup and fiddles with the radio station, oblivious, it seems to me, of the faulty brake or slipped wheel or missed turn that will end in sudden death.
Ten hours later, I am stiff, my head bruised from banging against the window while I tried to sleep, my lungs filled with dust and exhaust from traveling the dirt road, but we are here, in Shivalaya, a tiny village that is the start of the trek to Everest Base Camp.
My pack is too big. Emma and I notice immediately that the three other trekkers, men respectively from Germany, Finland, and Northern Ireland, hoist packs a third smaller than ours easily onto their backs. I struggle to lift mine off the bus. In the morning, when we begin the first ascent – an 800 meter climb up steep stone steps — I can barely lift one foot and place it in front of the next. The trekker from Germany is recovering from the flu, and his pace is faster than mine.
Before I left for the trek, I wondered what I might think about during all that quiet hiking. Now I know: all I think about is the pain. The pain in my shoulders, in my calves, firing from the soles of my feet up my legs, through my back, and out my arms. I am pure pain. I only see the next step in front of me. But I will not give up.
I discover a reserve of will power unknown to me and I climb that mountain, out of breath, my pulse pounding, my lungs screaming for air. When I reach the top, a small village called Deurali, where the Finnish and Northern Ireland trekkers are finishing their Sherpa stew beside a flapping prayer flag, I collapse in a heap of gear. I am nothing but exhausted. I am nothing but the thought: get this pack off my back.
The trekker from Germany is an ultra light hiker — that’s why his pack is so small. In a quaint lodge in Bhandar, where we spend the night, he helps me sort through all my gear. In the end, I leave a pile of almost ten pounds of unnecessary toiletries, snacks, clothing, and medicine behind.
“It’s totally normal for your first trek,” he reassures me. He doesn’t need to; I’m not embarrassed. All I care is that my pack feels light as the thin air we will soon breathe.
I can walk for miles, and we do walk far, across fields where goats chew grass and Nepali school children wave, “Namaste.” We walk up and down cliffs where the red rhododendrons grow. We lose the trail and a Nepali man digging a road out of the mountain with nothing more than a rusted pick helps us down a steep, sandy cliff to the trail below. Eventually, we walk all the way to a valley, intending to climb a mountain to stay in a village halfway to the top, but another Nepali man stops us. You won’t make it before dark, he says, and the weather looks bad. A few minutes later, we are warm in his lodge drinking fresh squeezed hot lemon tea while rain pummels the tin roof from a blackened sky.
The next day, we climb that mountain in the rain. At first, the rain cools us. But soon, I realize: my jacket is not water proof. Nor are my boots. I am soaked through and shivering. A little farther, and we reach the snow line. The sky is angry gray clouds spilling over the ridge just above us, and we are climbing into it. Soon, we are ankle deep in snow. The mountains across the valley are dark and desolate, green pine trees shaded in snow clouds. We intend to reach the top of the mountain, but our friend from Germany has a headache and a bit of dizziness — the first signs of acute mountain sickness — and so we know we cannot go on.
But where to stay? The lodge we find is nothing more than a drafty, cobwebby stable on the side of the mountain. Snow falls lightly through the cracks in the wood slats. Dust falls upon our sleeping bags, which we spread on two “beds” to keep warm — the “beds” are more like slabs of wood.
I am freezing, down to the bone. My blood is ice, my fingers blue. Our Nepali hosts live in a bamboo and corrugated metal hovel with only a thin partition separating their fire where they cook from the barn where their yak lives. They are a couple in their seventies, but they look as old as the whole wide world. They huddle around their fire which smokes the room, leaving us red-eyed and congested. They used to own a lodge, but it fell in the earthquake, and now, this is what they have.
It is a miserable, cold, dirty, sleepless night, but it’s worth it to wake in the morning to a clear blue sky and the snowy Gaurishankur Mountain Range towering like a giant wall above us.
For the first time, I realize: we are in the Himalayas. These mountains, these giants of the earth, they are real, and we stand small among them.
March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Why are you going?”
It is a question I should expect from my friend. After all, she is the kind of friend who wants to know the Why’s, not just the Who’s, What’s, When’s, and Where’s. She wants to know the meanings underneath it all. She wants to know the deeper truths.
But I don’t know. When she asks, “Why are you going?” I don’t have an answer. Or at least, I don’t have the kind of answer I usually have for an international trip — I’ve always dreamed of seeing such-and-such place; I’m volunteering for such-and-such charity; I’m writing about it for such-and-such publication. I tell my friend, “Well, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and of course, it is.
When the opportunity to travel with another friend you haven’t seen in years to a country that’s far far away, a remote country that happens to be the home of Mount Everest, the home of those giants the Himalayas, of course you go. You hesitate long enough to make sure you have enough money in your bank account, and then you reply with a resounding, “I’m in.”
But when you are on a plane flying between Singapore and Kathmandu, when you are exhausted from two full days of travel, when you are wondering what Nepal will be like and feeling a little bit scared of it all, your mind wanders back to your other friend’s question, which you could not answer adequately four weeks ago, and you ask yourself again, “Why are you going?”
Nepal is 25 percent Buddhist, according to the Nepalese driver who picks me up at the airport and ferries me to my hotel through the smog-filled streets of Kathmandu. In fact, the Buddha himself was born in Nepal in a region called Lumbini. My driver has a silver Buddhist prayer wheel fixed to the dashboard of his van. He points to it and tells me, unlike the large prayer wheels in the city and up on the mountains, his silver model does not spin.
I knew about the prevalence of Buddhism in Nepal and so, in preparation for the trip, I brushed up on this ancient religion. While reading, I came across the term Bardo. It is a Tibetan word which means “intermediate state”, and, according to Buddhist teaching, it refers to the state of existence between one’s death and one’s rebirth, a time supposed to be especially ripe for spiritual transformation. Some also use the term loosely to refer to other spiritually ripe periods in life, such as when one is suffering from an illness or spending time deep in meditation. All these are moments when a person experiences something shocking and new, which can teach him something about the truth of the world, transform his mind, or move him from one way of thinking into another, clearer way.
Now, I certainly don’t want to be that naive Westerner hijacking the serious Buddhist phrase, but I will say this: the term struck me. I wonder if the idea of a Bardo — a transitional time in one’s life that opens a space for realization — might be akin to travel, especially travel to a country quite different from one’s own. Couldn’t travel be a kind of “Bardo”, a kind of transformationally potent moment?
The sudden shift in environment; the new smells, the noises, the tastes; the different, indistinguishable languages; the motorcycles stacked with pallets of bananas; the rickshaws with their rickety, faded gold and green seats; the children laughing incoherently beneath their parents who cook momos, little brown dumplings, on the side of the road — all of it sharpens the senses, makes you more alert to yourselves, to others and, perhaps, to God.
Could this be a reason to travel? To simulate an experience similar to the Buddhist Bardo?
I am just beginning this journey, so I don’t know. I don’t know if waking this morning to the sounds of crows cawing and dogs barking and motorcycle horns blaring, to the smell of a faint whisp of smog and sweet incense smoke through my open window, I don’t know if that could stimulate a kind of Bardo, but I wonder if it might.
February 7, 2017 § 2 Comments
One of the joys of working as a freelance writer? Meeting interesting people willing to share their stories with me. It’s always an honor to write about the people I meet and the interesting things they do.
Most recently, I wrote a profile of local Dallas author Sanderia Faye, whose passion led her to transition from accountant to writer to literary advocate. She’s the author of the award-winning novel Mourner’s Bench, which is about life in the Arkansas Delta during the civil rights movement. Faye now hosts literary events around Dallas.
Read about her here.
January 11, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post on this small corner of the Internet. I suppose that’s a good thing; it signifies time spent on other writing projects (read: monetized writing projects #win) and time spent on general holiday comings and goings. Happy New Year, by the way.
For those interested in some of my latest writing endeavors, here’s a link to my most recent story in The Dallas Morning News about Liturgical Folk, a Dallas-based, cross-generational music project that centers around religious poems set to folk tunes.
There’s still time to pre-order their albums, and after researching and writing about them for the last few weeks, I’d recommend it.
And finally, last year I resolved to read one book a week for my New Year’s resolution. At times, it felt like running through a museum. But mostly I loved how it encouraged me to be intentional about reading every day and exposed me to new writers.
For anyone interested, here’s the complete list!
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Meditations from a Movable Chair by Andre Dubus
Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul by Thérèse de Lisieux
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth Mccracken
Ella Enchanged by Gail Carson Levine
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert
Run by Ann Patchett
Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Beneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
Gift from the Sea by Ann Morough Lindbergh
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’donahue
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey through Poems by Caroline Kennedy
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Seders
The Dalemark Quartet Vol. 1 by Diana Wynne Jones
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
Very Good, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse
Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hunard
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Finding My Way Home: Pathways to Life and the Spirit by Henri Nouwen
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
Why Be Catholic?: Understanding Our Experience and Tradition by Richard Rohr
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter by Greg Ponnoyer
Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin
Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times by Henri Nouwen
Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy
First Light by Rebecca Stead
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Selected Stories by Andre Dubus
No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas by selected authors
The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth by Scott Peck
Phew! Don’t worry, I won’t be trying this again (but if you have any book recommendations, I’m always open to them)!
Here’s to a great 2017, y’all!
November 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
There are few things more effective at waking me in the morning than stumbling into the kitchen for some hot black coffee only to find a dead rat lying on the rug.
Since moving in with my grandmother and our two family pets, Scout, the black and white border collie, and Lucifer, the black cat named after the devil, this has happened to me not once, but several times. My grandmother’s house in Dallas runs up against a drainage ditch that all kinds of wild animals call home — possums, raccoons, squirrels, and, yes, rats — and either Scout or Lucifer (I can’t be absolutely sure which) wants to show me his respects by offering up these kills.
Common knowledge tells me it’s the cat who’s bringing me my morning surprises. After all, cats are notorious for hunting rats. But Lucifer is rather fat and lazy, and she hardly ever leaves my bedroom or her favorite sunlit cushion in the living room, so my hunch is it’s Scout.
Technically, Scout is my brother’s dog, but since my brother rents a single bedroom in a tiny house in Burbank and I live in a whole house with a yard in Dallas, he’s essentially become my grandmother’s dog and my dog.
Scout is a beautiful dog, and I’m not just saying that because he’s mine. Everybody thinks so. Or at least, all of my neighbors do.
He has a half white, half black face split perfectly down the middle (at one point, my family tossed around the idea of calling him Phantom). He’s smart, as most border collies are. His favorite activities include sleeping at the foot of my grandmother’s bed, taking an afternoon walk, rooting around in the backyard shrubs, being scratched by my grandmother behind his legs, eating ginger-flavored dog treats, eating table scraps of any kind, barking at pedestrians, barking at other dogs, barking at cats, barking at squirrels, and barking at absolutely nothing — usually, at night.
I like to call Scout “Fluff Muffin”. My brother likes to call him “Killer”. When I say, “Fluff Muffin, come get a treatie!”, my brother likes to remind me that once, “Killer” jumped into the air and caught a bird in mid-flight.
The dead rats I almost stepped on always made me wish Scout was a little bit less of a killer and more of a fluff muffin. That was, until I found the live rat.
I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, enjoying an evening bowl of ice cream while watching the Olympics on TV, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a gigantic rodent with a long grey tail scuttle across the brick wall from the fireplace in the corner to the dark shadow behind the TV. It happened in a flash, in less than a millisecond, so quick I thought perhaps I was hallucinating. After all, can rats really climb on walls?!
It turns out, yes, yes, they can. They have sharp, strong claws that can grip the sides of just about anything. I discovered this while watching with horror a number of YouTube videos on the very phenomena later that week.
“Mim!” I said, turning to my grandmother where she sat in her favorite armchair. “I think I just saw a rat on the wall!”
“What did you see?”
“A rat, a huge rat!”
“A rat? No.”
“Yes, there was a rat! I saw it!”
Unperturbed, my grandmother adjusted her shoulders and went back to watching Kerri Walsh Jennings serve a volleyball effortlessly over the net.
“Well, Scout will get it.”
Scout lay asleep on the floor. When I sunk my fingers into his fur to wake him, he simply rolled over, exposing his belly for me to rub.
I did not finish my ice cream that night. I also slept with my bedroom door closed.
Several days later, I was back watching the Olympics, Mimi sitting in her usual armchair, I seated on the couch beside her moving on to my second piece of biscotti, when there again, the rat! It ran across the wall!
“Mim!” I shouted, jumping to my feet.
“What? What is it?”
“The rat! I saw the rat!”
“Behind the TV! There is a rat behind the TV!”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it? I can’t catch a rat.”
“But we have to do something!”
“Scout will get it.”
Scout’s ears twitched in his sleep. He did not open his eyes.
The next day, my grandmother called her yard man who is also the man who deals with her wild animal problems. He set up a small metal trap on the mantel above the fireplace. I stopped eating desert in front of the TV. My bedroom door stayed closed all day.
After a week, though, neither Scout nor the trap had caught the rat.
“Scout,” I said to him on one of our afternoon walks. “How come you won’t catch that rat?”
After all, he had caught all of those other rats and left them, dead, for me to find.
Scout stopped to sniff a maroon-colored rock, the same rock he always stops to sniff. A squirrel ran by and his ears perked up. I got no answer.
The next day, my father came to visit. When I told him about the rat living behind our TV, he shined a flashlight back there and sure enough, two white eyes stared back. My father smiled.
“I’m a master rat catcher,” he said. “But first, let’s see if Scout or Luci will catch it.”
It turns out, it isn’t that hard to get a rat from behind a TV. All you have to do is bang on the side of said TV and soon enough, the rat will flee. A few seconds into my father’s hitting the TV, in a flash, the rat ran across the living room floor, burrowing deep beneath my grandmother’s desk.
“Scout! Get that rat!” my father cried.
Scout looked between my father, my grandmother, and me, and then rested his head on his paws.
My father tried again, this time banging on the side of my grandmother’s desk. Sure enough, out came the rat! It streaked across the carpet in a grey blur, returning to its former home behind the TV.
“Scout! Luci! Get that rat!”
Again, neither cat nor dog moved.
My father shook his head.
That evening, my father set several traps all over the house — one beneath the TV, one in the fireplace, and one beside my grandmother’s desk. As grossed out as I was by the rat, I couldn’t help feeling bad for it. After all, my father was a master rat catcher. I remembered him catching rats, raccoons, and even a skunk when I was a kid. My rat didn’t stand a chance.
But if my father was a master rat catcher, then the rat must have been a masterful fugitive, because the next morning, all of the traps were empty and we never saw that rat again.
I did see another rat, however. Several weeks later, Scout was back to his old tricks, and one morning I almost stepped on a dead rodent lying in the middle of our kitchen floor.
“Scout,” I said, ruffling his ears as he panted up at me, staring lovingly through those big brown eyes. “I guess you’re half fluff muffin, half killer.”
Then, I used a rag to pick up the rat by its long, skinny tail and tossed it in the ditch outside.
October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!
When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.
South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.
“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”
I never know quite how to respond to these questions.
After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.
When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.
Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.
Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.
Other times, I talk about the war.
It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.
Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.
Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”
Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.
And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.
I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.
We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.
We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.
Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.
We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.
As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.
Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.
We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.
Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.
By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.
I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.
The bus pulled to a stop.
We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.
Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.
We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.
Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.
My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?
I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.
As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.
More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.
Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?
But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.
The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.
The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.
There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.
So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.
I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.
Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.
Scaring us was a way to pass the time.
When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.
Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.
Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.
The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.
Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.
I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.
After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.
October 23, 2016 § 2 Comments
Happy weekend, y’all! Here are a few links to things I’ve written lately.
Of all the things I ever thought I’d publish, poetry was not one of them. Which is why I’m glad I sometimes (okay, a lot of the times) get things wrong.
This month, one of my poems was published in the beautiful online literary magazine s/word! You can read the poem in the magazine or check it out here:
I’ve talked before about my work with The Well Community, a nonprofit that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas. The Well is a super organization, and I recommend them to anyone in the Dallas area (or beyond) wanting to help those on the margins.
This month, I wrote several stories for their blog:
- I hung out with their members, those who struggle with mental illness, during their biannual spiritual retreat.
- I chatted with several volunteers about their experience helping The Well.
- And I hung out with a group of firefighters renovating The Well’s boarding house.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Well, please drop me a note! I’d love to answer any questions about them.
Also, I recently created a Facebook page where I post links to things I write. You can check it out here!