Category Archives: Uncategorized

Stillness and Monsters

May 29, 2014, second Day in Germany:

Thoughts, my brain itself, felt heavy as I sat on a bench looking over Dieksee in northern Germany. As I moved into stillness, the usual busyness, that monkey-mind, performed its dance. I was not, however, my usual self. The mental tautness, caused, I suspect, from lack of sleep, huge doses of really good coffee (thank you, Germany), and quitting smoking cigarettes, was observed, Zen fashion, as a fact. It helped that I had nothing pressing to do. I could be. It was mid-morning in mid-spring; flower scents were roses and lilacs; courting birds danced and sang.

My beloved Monica and our five year old Hannah had walked ahead, investigating the shore bounded by thick woods, woods hiding a bright red a public transport train. They had found a middle-aged man and his dogs; the man had built a small sacred beach. They were working their own forms of stillness, causing the kinetic Hannah to have to consider that these dogs (German and therefore much better trained than the average dog in the USA) also practiced a mindful stillness. Monica had gone into a magical plane of being. From this limen, she could both keep an eye on Hannah and be caught up into the third heaven. A little further along the lake the public beach was to open for the season tomorrow, but what is time when Hannah and Monica become present: The beach opens to them. A thirty-something man is preparing the space and playing American pop music from the shower house when I meet up with them. I smile as Pharrell William’s “Happy” rings out over the water. Monica sees me and waves; Hannah shouts, “Hi, Daddy, watch this!”

Just before these events, the three of us had a lovely German breakfast prepared by the owner of the Haus Birkengrund Bed and Breakfast in Malente: Amazing coffee, cheeses and meats, a perfectly soft boiled egg, and fruit juices. This owner is Monica’s paternal aunt, Tanta Helga, Hannah’s new bff and defender from birth. Similar to his sister, Monica’s father ran a motel on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Monica knows the routines (her bedroom for much of her youth was a motel room). Monica’s first language is German, her parents having migrated from Germany to Chicago after WWII, speaking German at home. This is both useful and distancing, allowing me to be linguistically lazy.

Napping after breakfast, we then took a walk to the Lake, the See. A white, wooden bench under a green canopy, facing the water with nesting ducks and coots, called to me. Monica, accurately observing my state, suggested that she and Hannah go ahead while I sit. “Sitting” for unprogrammed Quakers involves a deep set of nuanced meaning, and Monica surely knew the open ended gift she was offering. Chronos easily gives way to Kairos. She said she’d be back in ten minutes.  Stillness, smells wafting, light glinting through the spring leaves, shifting breezes awaken my hair, timelessness sets in.  Eyes open slowly, and a glance at the watch tells me that it is now thirty minutes later.  Letting go stillness, I begin to walk, and, five minutes later, find Monica in her liminal space. This is not a new experience. Being partnered to a spirit person is often awe inspiring, just plain fun, and, at times, terrifying.

We had started days earlier (what is a day really when one is moving across so many time zones?). Our dear Friends, Javaughn and Christina, picked us up from our home and drove us to the Michiana Regional Airport where we left South Bend, Indiana, USA, on the South Shore Train, riding it from its eastern most point to the western end of the line at Chicago’s Millennium Station. We had lunch at Qdoba, with me having a cigarette out on the street after lunch as Hannah did cart wheels on the sidewalk while learning to judge social space. Then we caught the blue line El to O’Hare. As is our habit, we were still getting everything ready at midnight the night before. I was up at 6:30 am making breakfast (and yes, we make good coffee for Americans, grinding our own organic, fair traded beans, espresso roast). I counted out all the lancets, micro needles, alcohol swabs, kits, glucogon sets, short and long acting insulin pens, various candies should Hannah’s blood sugar fall to low, everything three times: We were rightly instructed by our nurse/diabetes coach to have twice what one needs, just in case. Diabetes is both easy to treat and unforgiving if you do not. We were a little tired, but prepared. The house/pet sitters had been arranged, mail held, newspaper cancelled. Then O’Hare.

O’Hare. Delivered to her by trains, we entered the beautiful monster: huge, shiny, orderly, international, polluting, impersonal, capitalist, soulless. I don’t recommend cutting off an eight inch beard after you get your recent passport photo. It may end good naturedly with jokes about Santa Claus, but there was some serious eyeballing. Add that this part of our family has two last names and two races; we seem to invite raised eyebrows. Our privileged social presentation seemed to calm the TSA representatives. Oh, and I threw away a nearly full pack of cigarettes and a lighter into the garbage as we were going in. This was the day I used to cut off this relapse. Any day is a good day to quit, but in my many quittings, I seem to need some powerful confluence of meanings–and, yes, I know, I participate in their social construction, both wittingly and unconsciously. But here is was, that beautiful monster, O’Hare, was helping me with that addiction monster, like Godzilla and Mothra having at it over the Tokyo skyline. I was hoping that Godzilla would leave Mothra unrevivable this time. Even so, my synapses soon started to complain, to suggest in profound, loud, and in some subtle ways that a better world is but a puff away. We went through the security check, getting on a plane which is a nonstop flight from Chicago to Berlin, seven and a half hours of pretty much guaranteed nicotine sobriety. And no sleep.

Sleep can be done on a plane. I’ve seen it. I used to do it. But then I became a father. It’s not really my son’s fault, but he plays a role in why I find it difficult, even painful to sleep on a plane (I have never gone first class, so I have a sneaky suspicion that I might be able to sleep there, but I doubt I’ll ever find out for sure). About twenty one years ago, Cameron was five years old. We were at his Cub Scout troop’s yearly camp playing softball. I had planfully positioned myself in right field. For those who don’t know, this is where you put your players who are not good at defensive ball playing. This is the field with the least action. But there was a hit. I ran, dove, snagged the fly, crashed to the ground and heard a crunch in my lower back. I am ordered to do stretches (read yoga here–forward back bend asanas–with very gentle rearward back bends) and core strengthening exercises which is all fine and good, but powerless over the profound discomfort of that torture device known as the airline seat. My damaged vertebrae are part of the honor of parenthood and the downfall of any meaningful hope of sleep on a plane. I will say that Airberlin serves better coffee and meals than I’ve had on any flight in fifty years. But no sleep.

In Berlin you leave the secure area even though one goes to another connection on the same airline. Another screening of the Gandolph passport with finally a joke about Santa, and we are off for more good coffee awaiting the final leg of the flight to Franfurt. Now Berlin is closer to where we are going first in Germany, but the round trip to Frankfurt is less expensive and Frankfurt is closer to where we will end our trip. So we fly away from where we are going. But before we get on the plane we walked outside to the terminal for our flight to Frankfurt. There are the smokers. Oh, the aroma of heaven. Eyes ahead, I grab Hannah’s hand and walk as fast as she can down the quarter mile gauntlet, the olfactory flailing leaving mental scars as the merciless have at their victim.

Hmmm, I’d better tell you something else. This trip is an inauguration, a preparation. We are spending these three weeks in Germany and Hungary with a short stay in Vienna, seeing family and friends in part as a cultural softening as we begin an academic year in Ghana this fall. Monica has been awarded this year with a prestigious teaching award and now a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Legon at the University of Ghana, Institute of African Studies. She gets to take Hannah and me. So this remarkable partner, this spirit person, this academic–she and I almost decided against going to Ghana. Hannah was diagnosed with type one diabetes about two months ago. We were willing to suspend anything to get on top of this news. A new normal is settling in. A person with diabetes can do whatever they otherwise would do, usually.

Tanta Helga pampers us, feeds us well, takes us to the Baltic Sea where the fishing boats bring in there catch.  So different, and much more orderly than most of the US.  I sleep well and soak in the sights and smells.  I think I want to be buried in a butcher shop in Malente, on a cobble stone street, an earthy beer and a fine sausage tossed at my grave from time to time. We will drive south soon and then east, but for now, we find a respite as new synaptic connections rapidly build.

The 23rd Psalm for Labor

A little thing I needed to write today, inspired by the IWW, the bard, John Paul Wright, and the theologian of the communism of Jesus, Charley Earp: as the theopoetic writer, John D. Caputo, notes, G-d is what happens when we come together in love, i.e., in my interpretation, when we organize.

The 23rd Psalm for Labor

My hope is in organizing, so that we shall not want.

Our union enables leisure with picnics for our families in green pastures and beside still waters.

Our solidarity restores our souls, and leads us in the path of giving every worker a voice.

Yea, even when I am called into the personnel office, I will fear no capitalist: for my comrades and steward are with me; the power of solidarity comforts me.

We celebrate in the presence of the owning class: we heap praise on the workers who build solidarity, and our hearts swell with joy.

Surely we will know in our hearts that we have done well, and we can find comfort in this knowledge for all our lives, and others will find courage in our stories throughout all time.

Malaria

Malaria and Social Distance

We had a four day weekend. Friday, October 3, was German Reunification Day (and Hannah’s school celebrates all local and German holidays), and the following Monday was a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha. And I got a fever, headache, body ache and some nausea. I feared I had contracted malaria. Fortunately the fever lasted only one day, and my other symptoms were gone after two, so I am not likely to have contracted malaria (yet?). Here is part of why:

“At bedtime my hosts pushed me inside, worried that I, like most whites, was as fragile as an egg and would be bitten by a mosquito and die of malaria.” (Palmer, 2010, pp. Kindle Locations 2038-2039)

This is how, apparently, the US State Department handles us. We were advised to take antimalarial medication, an antibiotic, for our entire stay in Ghana. Our holistic physician in Indiana was not happy with the continuous killing of all the flora in our guts, knowing that a happy gut is one of the keys to good health. The effects of taking malarone long term are not known. We followed the State Department’s advice, got initial prescriptions filled to cover a couple of months, and we were off on our adventure. Then, long before we ran out, I went to the doctor to refill my prescription. We went to the clinic that the US Embassy recommended. It costs 140 Ghana Cedis (about $38.00) to see the physician. He looked into my eyes and said, “I will write a two month supply for you, but, you know, you would do better to not take this, and to treat malaria only if you get it, like everyone else does” (my italics). Who is “everyone else?” There are so many ways that my lifestyle, like that of other North Americans and Western Europeans are not like “everyone else” here in Ghana. This conversation became a signifier for the post and neo-colonial heritage that my physician’s and my relationship represented at this moment. My sense of cultural distance felt vast; this is a challenge. I want to shrink that gap. So, was this the African doctor finding the obruni (Twi for the stranger, not from here) to be ridiculous, to be treated better (or more ridiculously) than the native people, or was this really part of the American habit of taking a pill for everything, regardless the negative consequences? Was it both or maybe something else?

Part of the context is that I am reading Fannon’s Wretched of the Earth (Fanon, 2004 (1961 French original version)) about the resistance to the colonists with a deep psychoanalytic and Marxist frame. That physician I saw was not making much compared to his American counterpart. I am drinking in Fannon’s work and considering how to update the insights into this neocolonial era. Consider the tone of this work:

“The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession: of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man. The colonist is aware of this as he catches the furtive glance, and constantly on his guard, realizes bitterly that: “They want to take our place.” And it’s true there is not one colonized subject who at least once a day does not dream of taking the place of the colonist.” (Fanon, 2004 (1961 French original version), pp. Kindle Locations 898-902)

I am also reading Ama Ata Aidoo, an African Feminist whose narrative voice I hear echoing in me about ownership of self and family, to whom we, our thoughts, our longings, our knowledge of right and wrong belong:

“’I was born before your mother and now that she is dead, I’m your mother! Besides, when she was alive I could scold her when she was wrong, and now I say you are a fool. For seven years you have struggled to look after a child. Whether he had cloth or not did not concern any other person. When Kwesi was a child he had no father. When he nearly died of measles, no grandmother looked in. As for aunts, he began getting them when he started going to school. And now you are allowing them to take him away from you. Now that he is grown enough to be counted among the living, a father knows he has got a son.’” (Aidoo, 1969, p. 84)

Am I now among the living in Africa, having become so as I approach sixty years of age? I am reading Alice and Staughton Lynd (Lynd & Lynd, 2009) on Accompanying as a way of social change and Richard Wright’s Native Son (Wright, 1940) about the dispossessed in the USA as well and could add to your burden of learning my reading context, but perhaps you catch my drift: I am working on how does one compassionately engage another culture with integrity? How can I follow the truth as I know it into the truths of Ghanaians and Ghanaian Africa and do so honestly. I learn, I try, I stumble, I learn, and over and over again. I wear a hat to shield my pale flesh from the intensity of the equatorial sun, a hat made by a craftsman from the northern region of Ghana, Bolgatanga, near Burkina Faso. I wear shirts made here, but my sandals are of a sturdy German variety. I drink bottled water for fear of cholera or worse. I drink German coffee and eat croissants in the school mornings. I cannot speak Twi, Ewe, or Ga. I can’t even speak German or French.  I feel my cultural distance, and own it.  I will live into more connection with the more common experience here.

Another context, the Quaker testimonies on simplicity, integrity, community, truth-telling, peacemaking, and equality, squarely challenge another level of my unconscious/becoming conscious privilege with an opportunity for more conscious living. The working of working these disciplines, imperfectly practiced, is never easy at decision points like this. I open myself to conversation with others and to individual and corporate meditative presence about the concern. I can occupy my time in queues (in lines for my American readers) waiting and delving into my center to listen to the Inner Guide, to allow new connections to emerge, to be present with the struggle inside me, reminding myself to hold this all in Light and Love. So, I went to a pharmacy to buy some more antimalarial medication, malarone. My jaw dropped when trying to buy a two month’s supply for both Hannah and me. The cost was 1,500 Ghana Cedis (about $500.00).

After calling my beloved to help me form my opinion of what to do, I bought two weeks’ worth to buy a little time in discerning what to do. I reported my dilemma to the mostly expatriate parents who gather at the Swiss club for good German coffee and pastries after dropping off the children at the German Swiss International School. The Swiss Club is connected to the School in a number of ways, geographically our children can order food through the sparse wall or slide under if a hug is needed from a parent. Some of the parents work for foundations of different German political parties; they offer training to Ghanaian politicians on good governance (of course, my dear anarcho-syndacalist and Marxist friends, this is only their good but misguided intent; and, of course, mine Deutschland freunde, I remind you that we must love Ghanaians and Ghana if we want to help them and it). I like them. Married to one of them is a Turk turned German, a guitar maker who shares many stories of his years in Ghana. He, along with others at the table, were shocked that the US recommends that one take these medications continuously. They echoed the Ghanaian doctor’s advice, adding how easy it is to get tested if one suspects malaria and how easy and inexpensive it is to treat it if the test is positive. Others had warned me about the cerebral type of malaria, a rare event, adding something about how the power of anecdote (the weakest form of valid evidence) affects us all. That did it. Regardless of what Monica might decide for herself and Hannah, I was going off the malarone. (This is a relative sentence, because I would jump into a vat of boiling oil if she my beloved asked—so I give her veto power over me.) I want to be a bit more connected to the experience of my African brothers and sisters. I will live life and deal with malaria when I need to. I will let my gut’s flora rebound and flourish. I, and more importantly, Hannah, will avoid whatever as yet undetermined long term effects of malarone may present. Monica agreed with my decision and now all three of us are malarone free! Please remind me that this was a good idea after one of us gets that special mosquito bite and one of us feels like that fragile egg. Remind me that this was a good idea when I worry whenever each of us three gets a fever.

Works Cited

Aidoo, A. A. (1969). No Sweetness Here; Short Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo (Anchor Books ed.). Garden City, New York, USA: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Fanon, F. (2004 (1961 French original version)). The Wretched of the Earth (English Translation). (R. Philcox, Trans.) New York, New York: Grove Press.

Lynd, A., & Lynd, S. (2009). Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together. Lanham, Maryland, USA: Lexington Books.

Palmer, K. (2010). Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps (Kindle Edition ed.). Free Press. Wright, R. (1940). Native Son (Restored Text 1993 ed.). (L. o. Congress, Ed.) USA: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Yam

Friday, August 22, 2014, for the first time I held a yam in my hands, a two and a half foot long root, six inches in diameter at the top, brown with clinging of bits of our mother earth from which it was pulled, hefty in the hand. I washed it like a baby, this thing utterly new to me, this foundation of the dinner Monica arranged for our Fulbright neighbors and one of their University of Ghana colleagues. I pealed it, sliced it into one inch discs, and subdivided the disks into two inch planks. They boil up like the potatoes this former Idahoan knows (“famous potatoes” used to be and maybe still is the license plate slogan), and I imagined that one could mash them and put salt, pepper, butter, and sour cream on them, and I could pass them off as Idaho’s finest. The yam, in addition to cooking like a Russet, is a similar shape, though slightly narrower at the top, to another root crop of my youth in Idaho, the sugar beet. I suppose we humans usually look for the familiar in the novel–my mind certainly does so; we learn by expanding from what we know punctuated with an occasional eureka moment–with the proviso that I am trying a different culture’s cuisine on in my kitchen, the only way I know to learn it. I think of the many millions of times persons have eaten this staple in western Africa, roasted, boiled, fried, pounded. I now partake of that stream of humanity with this humble root. We are one in this practice. Lovingly holding this root, like a child, is part of how Africa is holding my family, how Africa is the first home of humanity. Africa is our mother, and this root is drawn directly from her to nurture us. Eating it is only part (and I think much less than half) of the learning. More is here: Holding each piece, smelling each part, tasting the unusual elements, imagining it as one cleans, cuts, sautés, salts, cries over onions, blanches, peels, crushes, fills the air with steam. Boiled yam is served as the foundation for Palava, an onion, palm oil, tomato, pepper, egushi (ground squash seeds), and greens dish, with meats and sea foods added, today some beef chunks, shrimp, and fish fillets dredged in ground millet and sautéed before being added to the sauce. The tomatoes needed to be blanched, peeled, chopped, and mashed; and the onions (eight of them) finely chopped. My recipe does not identify the language, but says that “palava” means business or trouble. So this is also then “Trouble Sauce.” I thought of that book of wonders, Like Water for Chocolate, as the tears troubled out of me from chopping onions mixed with the food. There was no garlic, I repeat, no garlic, in this dish (This is new!). This was a five hour preparation time meal for five adults and two children (next time I can do it in three). No one died. Our eight year old Ghanaian guest, when I brought him into the kitchen to taste test the meal, said it is good, not great, but good. I am a little bit African today. Saturday, Monica took Hannah to play with Adwoa and Mansa. Their aunt, Charlotte, and uncle, Augustine, got to meet Monica. Suddenly our social capital is deepening. Charlotte is the one who gave me the egushi which I did not find when shopping, while she and I were talking cooking (She made my mouth water.). In the midst of that conversation she did a quick check for my veracity after I answered in the affirmative that we had eaten banku: She asked, “Hannah, how do you eat banku?” And Hannah answered nonchalantly, appropriately holding up her right (not left!) hand, “With your fingers.” We have had quite a few conversations with Hannah about the etiquette of left and right hand usage in Ghana: The right is for food, greeting, pointing, and the left is for attending to, well, private matters. Banku is made from corn meal and is similar to polenta. It is eaten usually with an okra stew, sometimes a gravy, to make the banku slide down your throat easily. Monica brought some of my leftover Palava to Charlotte at her request, and it was judged good. Charlotte teaches mathematics at a nearby primary school and Augustine is a French professor at the university here. Charlotte has offered to take Monica shopping in the market so she can get a good sun hat without paying the extra charged white folks, the Brunie tax. A young woman who lives with the family is likely to become our seamstress: Monica is already dreaming up the African dresses that I will see her and Hannah in soon enough. Sunday morning Monica and Hannah played with her figurines, slowly pretending to wash their hair. After breakfast we took a walk, Monica and Hannah engaging in an impromptu scavenger hunt of flowers, sticks, and rocks. We heard some water running: Monica and I look at each other longingly. We have no water. We think about it, however, a lot. Having no tap water is one way to focus the mind. Our rooftop tanks emptied out at the end of dinner Friday night. So we were able to host the dinner well, even as we created a pile of dirty dishes and our bodies both awaiting more generous water. We have bottled drinking water and a couple of small barrels of tap water just for this moment, but we do not know how long we need to make them last, so we are slowly using our cache. Once last year, we are told, there was a five day period without water. Charlotte said that we could get some water from them if need be. Apparently their abode has a larger water tank for when the municipal water shuts off. We will eat leftovers and wash only one place setting for each of us to use. And we will go to restaurants. And take brief sponge baths. Monica left Hannah at her friends’, the Asaah’s, house. We have other adults now who we trust to keep her safe. This is a huge deal. Monica can lie down at the same time I do. The parenting “ON” button can be momentarily unpushed; how strangely refreshing. I am now committed to cooking for or with Charlotte and her family.

School and Friends

Tuesday, August 19, 2014Today was another good day for Hannah at school, and I have read most of my outstanding e-mail. This morning we got to the German Swiss International School early, and Hannah hit the playground as soon as the door in the wall was opened (almost all buildings have walls around them with rolls of barbed wire on top). She likes the long rope: She jumps off a short wall and swings wide. Today to rope top detached from its connection high up and Hannah fell. “My butt hurts, but not too much.” And that was the end of that.

Adwoa (8) and Mansa (6) Sakyi (pronounced say-chee) have become Hannah’s first African BFFs, having played with them every day for the last four days. Adwoa and Mansa are staying with their aunt and uncle nearby, and will be leaving about September 9 to go back home to school in Winneba, about 60 kilometers to the west of Accra on the coast of Ghana. Adwoa tells me her father was born in the Brong Ahafo Region in the city of Techiman, and her mother was born in the Western Region in the city of Wassa Nkran. The aunt and uncle live about a block from us and have a small store selling reusable bags, candy and a few other items. The store is staffed by family youth; they clearly have other income. The girls run and scream and practice giving birth to Hannah’s dolls among many other games. They are the very definition of strength and beauty running together in the grass and wild flowers with huge crows flying around them. The crows like their American kin are black but have a white middle from the neck to mid belly, all around them, quite formal looking. The crows run from the girls (they know their power). I knew yesterday that this was going well when Adwoa, after we’d dropped her and Mansa off at their house, ran back to us 50 yards to make sure Hannah could play again tomorrow.

Tonight Monica is being entertained by a colleague. She will pour her mind and love over and through her, and each will be changed forever. Hannah and I will play, eat, read books, and hit the sack. Then I read more. I am finally getting some of my books read: David Graeber, Leymah Gbowee, Staughton Lynd, Thomas Piketty, and John Steinbeck. I am loving Graeber’s praise and critique of Quakers (in The Democracy Project): Great horizontal decision making process; too bourgeois. The praise and critique are glibly stated and without nuance, but true enough to be useful. He also mentions one of my Quaker mentors in pedagogy, sociology, and activism, George Lakey. (He is worth many reads and protesting with.)