Ze Frank, Kony 2012 and Don Quixote

When I was a little girl, my bed was tall enough for me to sit under. My sister and I had gotten on our own rooms for the first time in our lives. Our dad had cut in half the bunk bed he had made for us to share. Kerry got the bottom half, and I got the top half. It was my space, under my bed. I had pillows, a lamp and a record player. I read, dreamed and listened to music.

It was under my bed that I discovered Man of la Mancha. I was so swept away by Don Quixote, Sancho and Dulcinea that I had the words of the story album memorized. To this day, I can still recite most of it from memory. It has been strong in my mind this morning.

In the past few months, I have found myself drawn to people in positions of anguish who are failing to fall prostrate to their despair…choosing instead to not only create hope in the midst of pain, but to share it publicly. I am inspired by the vulnerability in it. I am inspired by the strength in it. I am drawn to the humanity and imperfection of them. Through their bravery, I see the path to my own courage light up before me…and I push forward.

In every instance, however, I find encounters with another character in Man of la Mancha, the Great Enchanter. For those unfamiliar with the story, the Great Enchanter defeats Don Quixote in battle by presenting him with his own reflection in a circle of mirrors. Don Quixote’s faith in his mission is overcome by the “reality” of his circumstances and limitations. He falls, never to return to the field.

Cynicism is a tempting version of reality. The reality of our fallible humanity is a truth that is hard to argue with. We are imperfect. We make mistakes. We break down. We do stupid things. And, as the windows into each other’s worlds increase as our online lives become increasingly visible, becoming the ‘voice of reason” amidst a groundswell of enthusiasm over anything is an addictive position to take. It arms up against the possibility of dashed hopes. It puts us into a position of “see? I told you so.” In the instance that someone’s imperfection shows. We did not fall for it.

The Joseph Kony 2012 campaign drew criticism from the moment it was launched, and then the criticism grew sharper and more pointed after the man who made the video had a very public breakdown as a result of the public scrutiny.

Ze Frank became an online sensation six years ago with his quirky breakthrough video blog. You can see the fear in his latest video as he screws up the courage to launch his next endeavor. He seems to be braced for impact. And, unfortunately, he is likely to get it as people will come out of the woodwork to offer up their commentary, good and bad.

The world is rotten and god doesn’t even know we’re living on it.
Man of la Mancha

I have loved this quote for most of my life and repeated it often. Cynicism has been my “go-to” forever. I wanted to be at the front of the “I-saw-right-through-it” queue. But I find that this kind of thinking has left me wanting. I want to be inspired. I want to hope. I want to believe. I want to find people’s bravery inspiring, especially if they are imperfectly human, like me. It gives me hope that all of us crazy, hot-headed, weepy, impractical, baggage-carrying misfits can do something beautiful. That maybe all our efforts will meld together, in ways we cannot even anticipate, to bring our broken culture into something beyond our ability to imagine alone.

So, to everyone out there who is thinking of putting yourself on the line and bringing your imperfection out for the rest of us to see – remember that what you see in the enchanter’s mirrors is only a very shallow aspect of reality, and that there are always going to be those who can’t see past that. Please don’t let that stop you.

To those of you who feel a little fire kindle whenever you see, hear or read something brave and human…comment, share, follow. Be bold in your hope. Set yourself up to be ridiculed for being naïve or misled. Don’t be afraid to be inspired.

And, to all of you, from a little girl, under her bed with a record player…


A Family Story for a Blustery Day

I have not been blogging lately. My dear friend, Jill, just called me out on Facebook. That’s what dear friends do. They call you out when you are hiding.

The truth is, I don’t know what to write to you. I am falling out of love with the sound of my own voice. My internal machinations seem less interesting to me than they have. For the past week, they just seem exhausting.

So, a family story.

Two years ago, Grant wanted to make something for his dad for Father’s Day. He had decided on a drawing on a t-shirt. He picked out a green t-shirt and a black Sharpie for his work.

His first attempt produced nothing but frustration.

“I ruined it!”

“I can fix it.” Haley rushes to his rescue by trying to fix the word “dad” which, he was right, did not look quite right. “There. It’s better. See?”

“No, it’s not right,” Grant said, scratching through the word in anger and frustration. “It doesn’t look like a present now.”

Tina grabbed her purse.

“Come on, Grant. Let’s go get another green shirt.”

Grant reluctantly gave up his anger and frustration. He always gives it up reluctantly. He holds on to bad humor as if he needs some sort of satisfaction of a global acknowledgment of his justified anger.

“OK. Throw that one away.” He doesn’t ever want to see it again.

“We’ll take care of that later, Grant. Come on. Let’s go.”

They return twenty minutes later. New green shirt, which Grant completes to his satisfaction and wraps it up for his dad. As he is wrapping his gift, Tina works off to one side on the other green shirt that she has not thrown away after all.

“Nice work, Grant. Your dad will love that.”

“I can’t wait to give it to him.”

Tina hides the other green shirt for later. She gives him his moment with his triumph of his shirt.

The next week, when the kids return. We are all getting ready for bed. Tina emerges from the bedroom wearing the cast off green shirt Grant had been unhappy with as her pajama shirt. Haley is the first to speak.

“Is that the shirt Grant made for daddy?”

“No,” Tina responds. “This is the shirt he made for me!”

As we look at the shirt, we notice that Tina has colored in a heart over the scratched out “dad” and written her name in red below the heart. In mostly Grant’s writing, the shirt reads “Best Tina ever!” Don’t dare think otherwise. P.S. Can I have a cup of coffee?”

Grant protests, but his heart isn’t in it. Tina’s over the top sense of humor, which I am always afraid will push Grant over the edge, delights him in a way he can’t resist. Try as he might to hold on to his indignation, he can’t. He protests…but laughs with us at Tina’s cheekiness.

Tina wears the shirt when we have the kids. It is mostly not even noticed now by anyone but me. But it still makes me laugh.

Video Skype, Adventures and Our Friend Maya

Monday, we had a long video Skype chat with our super hip friend, Maya Stein. For those of you unfamiliar with Maya, she is a feral writer, poet, chef, diorama artist and lip sync maven. She has traveled across the country doing feral writing workshops…and she is constantly dreaming up new crazy things to do.

Conversations with her always make me want to go out and spray paint our truck…make our front yard a giant diorama…pack Tina and the kids up and travel around the country in an RV. There is an undercurrent of “What’s next?” with her that is contagious.

The conversation came around to the paradox of how to live the wild life while also recording it. There is something about being in the middle of a grand adventure that makes it hard to record. It is often hard to get enough distance from the middle to actually write anything that communicates what is going on.  You know how it feels to be the one on the vacation with the camera and having to decide all the time if you actually want to participate in the activity, be in the moment, enjoy the scenery…or take pictures of it? It always feels that way for me, except that, on the bigger adventures, I’m also not completely understanding what I’m looking at anyway. So, I wait for the story to unfold a little. Wanting to capture the whole of it, rather than the snapshots.

But then, when do you stop the adventure and take time to record it…in whatever way you choose to record such things. It is a little disorienting to come off of something life-changing and stay still long enough to let it soak in and become something to tell. But being slow and solitary, there is not much to tell about.

It’s an addiction, being the adventurer…being the one in the peer group who is unpredictable. As much as I am loath to admit it, I like that I am introduced now as “the one who just returned from Haiti.” I like how that defines me instantly. And I would be lying if I did not admit that I’m not crazy about the fact that it is wearing off, and now I am just me again…writing.

It is a quieter life…but the truth is, I really love it when I manage to pour out a single sentence or paragraph that truly tells where I am or describes what I experienced. I love watching the story emerge in words. I dig how my life now is reflecting some of what I learned back to me, and that, the more I write, the more I understand of my experience there. When I am actually writing, it is like the whole experience is happening all over again, but with context this time. And that is kind of cool.

Maya is in the planning stages of her next big thing. I can’t wait to see how it organizes and becomes something bold and epic. And we will follow her along in her adventure…or hear about it afterwards…and delight in the unexpected bits that always accompany an out-of-the-ordinary experience.

And, in the recesses of my brain, I will be putting the pieces together of my own next adventure. I’m thinking it might include passports.

Living Dangerously

“The voodoo priestess can kill you
And she does not even need to be anywhere near you.”
I am sitting in the back of a pick up truck
Against the tailgate
Because here I am in Haiti,

Living dangerously.

“It is hard for you to understand their magic.

Because you are not of here.”
The women with me in the back of the truck are American too.
They are skeptical.
We are always so skeptical of things we don’t understand.

“People in the rural areas,” his English perfect,

his accent perfectly Haitian, “they believe everything is voodoo.
But it is not everything.”
One of the women in the truck bed with us speaks up,
“Maybe they can kill people,
because people believe in it.”

Our young host looks down as if trying to find a connection

In the grooved floor of the truck bed.
There is none there either.
“You are probably safe,
you are not from here,” he decides.

“But we are of this land,

This soil is in our bones.”

A car pulls up behind us and the headlights frame the dark outline of my head
And shoulders
Until my reflection in the back window of the truck
Looks like I am
The absence of light.

“Yes, you are probably safe.

If you see a white woman on a horse
Or a black dog that is unusually large,
Do not go home.
Do not go to sleep.
Just in case.”

sometimes, I play

I am sitting on a wooden work table in a 100 year old mattress factory, listening to a singer songwriter play his original music to this attentive, mellow crowd. People are scattered around the room in chairs placed in front of and around antique industrial sewing machines that used to sew mattresses and now sew bags. The next room is still set up for making mattresses. Frames, drying racks, compression boxes…all look as if someone, just this second, walked away from using them. There are even downy feathers in the wire egg baskets next to the work stations.
Twinkle lights look carelessly thrown up around the rafters, illuminating only enough as the sun sets for me to make out the other faces in the room. We watch the performer sing in front of a backdrop of colorful flags and blankets thrown onto numerous coat hooks behind him. He is lit by a single living room lamp. We are in a still life.

Only Cheryl could have pulled this off…such accidental looking perfection. She labored dearly to make this happen, but it would be impossible to pinpoint precisely what it was that she labored over. Every detail looks that unstudied, a complete lack of fussiness that is impossible given how perfect it all is. As Will Johnson (lead singer of Centro-Matic) sings about dreaming (I’m not making this up), I look over to see her casually perched in a deep window ledge with Paul and Zoe (her truly adorable husband and magical daughter). It’s a picture, of course, but it will not be taken tonight. Because the genius of Cheryl is that she is not trying to look like this, she just does. Her focus is to make magic. And tonight, with soft winds blowing wind through open windows and the occasionally train whistle interrupting the show, she succeeds.

“This is the first time I’ve played a mattress factory.”

Will speaks softly between songs. He is not miked. There is no need. We are a very small, sold out show. He talks and plays and then talks some more. Mostly we just soak him in with everything else. He is so perfectly placed here. He will always be associated with that night for me. And this is a good thing.

Cheryl runs her business from here. It has been in her family since the 50s, when it was actually used as a mattress making factory. These days, Cheryl makes her line of upcycled bags in this old factory. Until recently, she did all of the work herself…from the initial design of each bag to the invisible stitching that holds each one together. She will gladly tell you about how, the moment she needed help in producing the bags, the right people appeared. This is the way with Cheryl.

Tina and I own some of her bags and I am finding two more are calling my name. They are ridiculously underpriced for bags made with as much care as Cheryl puts into them. Carrying mine makes me feel like I am carrying a glamorized version of our collective past. And these bags get noticed.

There are pictures from the show on her website. (click on the photostream at the bottom of the left column)
But not even these gorgeous shots can do justice to that evening. You can also find a link to her catalog here (link in the left column as well). She just finished a show in Houston, so she will have to update her inventory online before you will see what she really has in stock. I am jonesing for a long hair messenger and a canvas bag with a rebellious lining. Both are scene stealers.

Street Festival and Krishna Temple in Nepal

Forgive me. The last couple of days have been impossible to write about. Eventually, I will. I have a story for you today, but it is not from my trek yesterday…through the slums to the homes of the beautiful children we have spent the past week with. That story will have to wait. I can’t write that quite yet.

The view from just outside our room, and where I walked this evening.
Today I was sick much of the day. I slept for much of it, which was a stunning disappointment to me. I needed to see the kids. But, no matter how I protested, I was told to stay put. And this was the right call it turns out. I slept and ate rice all day. Late this afternoon, I awoke to the sound of music and festive voices from somewhere in the area. I went out on the balcony and could see, just barely through the houses, colorful banners and dancing blocks away.  Renu came in to check on me and I asked her what it was. A festival. Would I like to go see it? As weak and dizzy as I was feeling, a street festival in Nepal, only two blocks or so away, is too juicy to pass up. She sent her housekeeper with me.

Her housekeeper is lovely. Kind and smiling. She speaks no English. And away we went toward the festival. Just the two of us. The streets were filled with people, mostly congregated around the decorated carts holding travelling shrines to various gods. Shimmering metallic strands stretched between buildings above the street. You can imagine how conspicuous I felt amongst all of this. I spend so much of my time here feeling like a bit of a voyeur in the lives of this culture. I asked Didi to take me home. At least, that is what I thought I asked her.

Instead, as we left the festival, she veered off the path and motioned for me to join her. A shortcut perhaps? More of the festival? She walked me through back alleyways until we were standing in front of a temple for Buddha. The gods have their own temples, I was about to find out. We followed more paths to another temple and then into a large field for soccer that had the most beautiful mountains framing it in the distance. What a luxury these mountains are to me…coming from the flat land of Houston.

We then took more back alleys until we were at her home, which she pointed out proudly. We walked right by, her dog, Kali, following us. (Yes, Tina, her dog’s name is Kali J). We walked through fields to the edge of a very steep hill climbing further down into the valley. Women were washing clothes on a ledge just below us. While standing on the ledge, Didi pointed out numerous temples of various gods. And before I knew it, we were again descending the steep ledge into the lower regions of the valley. We walked a narrow path, me with no idea about where we are headed.

We arrive at a temple, her temple I gather. It is a temple to Krishna. She motions for me to enter with her and we are alone there…her showing me the modest room with a shrine behind a locked gate. We sat down for a moment to peer into the shrine. It was clearly a place of warmth and love. I have been to many churches and temples around the world…and it always surprises me how clearly you can feel how infused with love the temples are in places that are the poorest. Nothing in America, that I have seen, can hold a candle to any of them.

As we were leaving an old woman came into the room and Didi whipped back around with a look of pure glee. Her face made it clear that something wonderful had happened and that she was thrilled that I, her guest in the temple, was about to be a part of something magic.

She introduced the woman as “grandmother” but I suspect it is not literal. She clearly belonged to this temple…lived in it, as it lived in her.

Grandmother invited me to sit down again in front of the shrine and she scurried around turning on lights and mixing something in small metal cups. I was blessed and painted on my forehead. I found out later, with the help of Renu’s translation, that amongst other things, Grandmother asked where I had come from and said “You have come such a long way. I hope you find what you are looking for.” She is also praying for me at 2am…her normal prayer time. I understood none of this at the time and kept nodding my head like an idiot saying “thank you” and “ok.”

Then she produced a handful of peanuts and a piece of rock candy from the pocket of her sweater to give to me to eat, which I did, of course, like it was communion in church. As we were leaving, she showed me her room and asked me to take a picture of her. I had not brought my camera (how insane was that?), but promised to return with it tomorrow. I will keep this promise, but I will bring someone with me who can translate back and forth. I appreciate the flow of just going without shared language, but I would prefer not to miss any more of what this woman is saying to me.

Tomorrow, I return to the school for my last day with the kids. I am still not well, but I will go tomorrow no matter how I am feeling. What I suffer from is not contagious…and I will not miss my last day with the kids of Koseli.

I am gathering stories from some of them…but these too must wait. I can’t write them just yet.



The Bus Trip to Jhule (My Mount Everest)

This is a note to myself…while I will never forget yesterday, I might forget the details and the texture of the moment, and I never want to do that.

Renu asked us if we wished to take a separate car or ride on the bus with the children on our laps on the way to Jhule. Three minutes later, I was sitting in a seat meant as a tight fit for two people, with Srijana, Manju and Pinky, who insisted, despite the fact that their seat already was an excruciatingly tight fit, that I sit with them.  They had a mission. They wanted to teach me a Nepali song.
Photo by Manoj Jirel, Student Photographer and Joker
I positioned myself on a full half inch of seat available to me and began to try and do what they said as they moved quickly through the song, expecting me to pick up and repeat the simple words they were telling me. After a laughed filled five minutes, I redirected them. I asked “is there a song you teach the babies? Like a VERY simple song the very little ones can learn to sing?” They laughed wildly and then began teaching me this one:

Ma Janchu, Kathmandu

Motor chadera

Bholi parsi aune chhu

Ma doctor ba ne ra.

They tell me that this means “I am going to Kathmandu by motorbike. When I come back, I will be a doctor.”

I asked them to please write down the words for me so I could follow. They first wrote them in Nepalese, which is a truly beautiful looking writing, but one I cannot read, of course. They got help from one of the teachers to write the English phonetic spelling for me. I now have it in their handwriting in my little book, along with the words for parts of the face and the word for silly. They enjoy it very much when I identify several of the boys as jokers…and jokers they are.

I sat with them, trying to sing the baby song for a while (I plan to record them singing it as soon as possible, so that I can continue trying to learn it when I go home). Then Manoj asked me to sing an American song for them. I told Manoj (who, by the way, is quite the joker) that I was glad to see everyone happy and that I did not want to make everyone cry by singing. He laughed and asked me if I knew songs by Hannah Montana. I told him my favorite song of hers was Party in the USA and, miraculously, one of the teachers produced their phone playing the song for me to sing along to. So sing I did…at least the chorus. They watched me very seriously, studying me…like I held some kind of information in my random moves and singing manner. It was odd, but ok somehow. Then I sat back down (yes, I had to stand for this so I could turn to face the one requesting the song) and the back of the bus, where I was sitting, broke into Let it Be, by the Beatles. As I was sitting, I had to brace myself by placing my hands on the seat back and the seat in front of me. As I sang, my hand was stroked by the little girl sitting in the seat behind us. We only stopped singing because Manju said she wanted me to look out the window with them and see their country as we drive past.

The ride was hard. As uncomfortable as it was for me, kids all around me were throwing up from motion sickness into little plastic bags. The 30 minute bus ride seemed to last for hours. All I could do to comfort them was stand so that they had the seat to themselves, and offer the exotic wet wipes I had for them to wipe their mouths and faces. The remainder of the trip was them being sick and me wiping their faces, pulling their hair out of their faces and asking the teachers around me how much longer the trip was. I was glad when the ride ended so my friends could recover themselves, which they did with amazing alacrity.

But the amazing thing was how the other kids took care of their friends. As kids up and down the bus became sick, their friends would move them to the seat by the window, yell for plastic bags and water, and tend to them constantly. Some of the older kids, even the jokers, stood in the aisles to facilitate quick transfer of the needed items. They were all focused on taking care of the motion sick kids. And no one had to ask any of them to step up. Not one of them shirked the responsibility of caring for the others. Not one of them. No one wanted to change seats to get away from the sick ones. The seat in front of  me had kids in it who were probably 7 years old, and when one of them fell sick, the other two in the seat tended to them for the remainder of the trip. They would look up continuously and make faces like it smelled awful, but it never occurred to them to do anything other than what they were doing. And, for the return trip, they sat with the same kids…never once considering changing their seat mates as an option, though it most assuredly was.

Next installment will be about the trek itself.

Miro Nom Kim Ho

My writing will have to change. If I am to capture the intensity of every moment on these kinds of trips, I will have to learn to get out of my way. To lose the training I have had in writing. I ache for this, particularly today.

Today, I am capturing the stories of some of these children. I was not prepared for how I would feel here. I knew I would feel compassion. I knew I would feel pain that I could not do more. I knew that I would think they were sweet. But these are the least of my emotions here.

I am filled with hope for the world here, within the walls of this school. I want more for these kids, and I want more for me and my kids back home. I want the thirst for life that these kids have. I want my kids to want to learn and be as these kids so clearly do.

Stephanie is teaching them now and their focus and intensity is not compulsory or polite. You can feel them pulling the information out of her…hanging on her every word. Sometimes, it feels more that she is allowing the information to be pulled from her, rather than “teaching” it to them. Stephanie and the kids are natural together in a way that I would not have thought possible.

In fact, I am surprised at how comfortable I feel here. With this group from the US, with Renu, who I only met three days ago, with these kids whose names I am becoming so familiar with.

As much as we bring knowledge to these children, they have more to bring to us than we can imagine from where we sit at home. I am only beginning to learn. What I am learning today is hope.
In any case, the stories are not done. They are not simple. I need more time with these kids. In the meantime, I am sticking some of the pics onto Facebook.
Tomorrow we go trekking with the school. I am hoping to get to know them better. One at a time.


I’m not worthy…Nepal

Am I up to this?

Today we meet the children. We are going to the Koseli.
After breakfast, Jen pulls me into her office (our bathroom) to discuss my enthusiasm. Which, despite my assertion that I am controlling, is apparently bubbling over the edges of the teapot of my brain. Our bathroom conversation is wildly helpful in a way that I cannot possibly verbalize. What I can say is, that Jen connects with me in this and now I have someone here who can hold my intensity…if I can hold it through the day, Jen will hold it for me at night and help me contextualize. Now, I am good. I have so much to learn. And that makes me happy. I love to learn. I want to grow into what is next. This is an intensive in that.
We leave for the school and I am sitting in the front seat with the driver. Jen directs me to sit there and I protest, but she sits me up there anyway and I’ll be damned if she is not right. I feel like there is a soundtrack moving through my head as I we make the trip to the school. I don’t want the drive to end. I am happy.
I step into the school’s gates, my insides melt. I could live here. I swear this is true.
Stephanie disappears immediately. How anxious she is to begin her mission. Ah, her mission, I have not told you about this. Let me tell you now.
Stephanie is a photographer. She lives in Georgia, outside of Athens, on a cow farm. She has a brilliant smile and she is here on her own mission. She wants to teach the kids to tell their own story, through pictures. She has just formed an organization called Lens on Life. She has kids in Tanzania and Nepal that she is now dedicated to in driving this mission. This is a real call of the heart. She travelled, met these children, took pictures, and when she left, her work came to her. She needs to help the kids tell their own story. These kids needs the tools to communicate. This is a mission I can get behind.
Stephanie has, through her Twitter network, eight iPhones donated for her trip. She is teaching the kids to take pictures with them. Pictures of their life.  Pictures of the things that are important to them.
So, today, I am in a class of twelve kids as her assistant. Twelve kids who are magnificently ready to take on this challenge.
And they are incredible, these kids. Each comes from the slums of Nepal. Slums I have not seen, but are clearly beyond anything we identify as slums in the US. Each of them has a story that is beyond our ability to comprehend from where we are. I fall in love instantly. This is not the “how precious are these children” kind of love. This is “I love them. I want to them to teach me. I want to help them become whatever it is they want to be.” I want my kids in this school. I want my kids with these kids.
Immediately, two girls focus in on me…and I on them.
This is Srijana and Pinky.
As Stephanie gave them the iPhones. They immediately began taking pictures of me. Every time I looked at them, they were looking at me.
Pinky is an artist. I mean, seriously. I will post pictures of her work tomorrow.
She and her friend, Srijana were magic to me.
I love them. Seriously. I want to bring them home with me.
Stephanie engaged them in a way I would not have thought possible. She taught them how to start the phone. How to take pictures. How to communicate what it is they see.
“What is important is you…not your camera. There are people in the United States who would love to come to Nepal. They can’t. They need you to see what it is like here. What your life is like.”
Stephanie showed them her pictures from Tanzania and the US. Showed them pictures of kids in their natural environment. The kids were silent as she clicked through the pictures, drawing in the lives of kids they would never see in person and don’t have any context for what their lives are like. They got it. You could see it in their faces. They understood the importance. You could literally see the lightbulbs going off in them. I could live in that moment.
Neil and Kristi, the videographers who said yes to this project before they really knew what it was, were moving around the small room in a way that seemed completely natural and beautiful. I have been watching videographers for years and I have never seen a dance like this. They moved around the room like they were connected by an invisible thread. Never in each other’s shot and always shooting the complimentary shot. It was a beautiful symmetry that could only exist between two people in love. And they are. You should see them together. It is a true romance. It is my goal to capture that love with my camera at some point so you can see. They are lovely, fun, sweet and their heart is totally in this.
I am an assistant here, and I love this role.  I am learning so much. Stephanie tells me what to do and I gleefully do it. If she asked me to clean the bathroom with a toothbrush, I would do it with more love than I thought imaginable.
There is more. Of course there is more. And you will know it. I promise you. I will give you everything.