Both Sides Now

“Just sign your name here, write today’s date here, and you’re done,” said my divorce lawyer pointing to the blank spaces. I signed my name, wrote 6/8/18 in the indicated spot, and slid the paper across the desk to the notary, who applied that squeeze-y thingamajig to make it official. The notary, a woman of almost no words and even fewer emotions, took her leave. The lawyer stood, shook my hand, smiled, and told me that once a judge had signed the decree, it would be official. He bid me farewell. And that was that.

I stepped out into the street and squinted away the shining sun. (Why is the sun shining right now?! IT SHOULD BE AS CLOUDY AS MY HEART!) I put on my sunglasses and headed to my car. I passed people having coffee at tables at an outdoor cafe, business people striding down the street with importance, people chatting as they waited for the bus. Ordinary scenes of an ordinary day, except it wasn’t an ordinary day. A couple of tears appeared beneath my sunglasses.

Although this is what I wanted, this is the thing I put in motion, it felt strange to close a major chapter of my life with the stroke of a pen, and so weird that everyone was going about their business as if nothing has changed. Of course, nothing has really changed. We’ve been separated for five years, and I was cognizant that things weren’t working for long before that. My intellectual self was satisfied that we finally made it official. But my emotional self wondered why I felt so melancholy.

My mind keeps going to that scene in the movie Terms of Endearment when Shirley MacLaine’s character realizes her daughter, whose death she knew was coming after a long illness, has died. She wails, “I’m so stupid! I thought it would be a relief!” I don’t feel anything quite so dramatic (and divorce is only a sort-of death), but I identify with misreading how I would feel once this was over. I did think it would be a relief, but I did not count on a renewed sadness over something  that I thought I’d long ago accepted.

The icing on the melancholy cake was on that very same day when I got home from the signing, my daughters asked to watch home movies, which, by the way, they almost never do. They didn’t know what had just transpired, but kids have amazing radar, don’t they? On the screen was I, a young mother, laughing with my kids, a tiny Maddie jumping around and talking a mile a minute, and a baby Emma learning to clap her hands and shake her head no. There was my now ex-husband (whoa, that sounds weird) helping Maddie do handstands. Moving pictures of a life I once lived; everyday scenes of a family being a family. Just yesterday, but also a lifetime ago. It put a fine point of the finality of it all, and was a reminder of how rich and full much of that chapter of my life was. It reminded me that there was love. It reminded me of just how much water rushes under a bridge in the course of 23 years.

It took about seven weeks for the decree to be processed and the judge to sign it. I opened the email from my lawyer on a scorching hot summer day and just stared at the attached decree. There it was in black and white. Huh. Marriage begins with an official document and ends with one. It was a period at the end the longest sentence I’ve ever written. I was glad and sad, realizing once again how odd it is to feel opposing emotions at the same time.

Two of the walls in the basement rec room display scads of framed family photos – a kind of  still This is Your Life montage. For some reason I can’t quite identify, I’d held off on taking them down for years. Maybe because it just didn’t feel right to remove the ones of my husband and his family while my girls were still living at home?  Maybe it was because the divorce wasn’t final? Maybe because packing away the relics of another life was too painful? I don’t know. But several days after I received the decree, I knew it was time to take them down, which issued another little jab in the gut. But it also felt like a turning point that I was able to finally do it. Making the walls bare again was both a literal and figurative cleaning of the slate. So I turned on my playlist, cranked up the volume, and danced the photos into their boxes. I was feeling a bit celebratory by then, actually.

But then, just as I’d found my groove dancing and singing along to my 80s favorites, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now began to play. I’d listened to this song – the beautiful orchestral version – a million times when my marriage was beginning to fall apart and I’d cried every time I heard it. It was the soundtrack to my life at the time. I stopped to listen once again and it felt equally poignant, but different. The song still made me ache because it’s that damn good, but it felt like one final ache, an appropriate coda for this period in my life. And though I know the reality is that it was just a coincidence that it played at this moment, I felt that the universe wanted me to hear it one last time in this particular way as I packed away evidence of a different life, of my illusions, of my clouds.

The thing is, as nostalgic I felt in these moments of official ending, as much as tears fell for what was, that official ending also signaled an official beginning. I know (I know!) how trite and self-help-booky it sounds, but moving on is liberating. Accepting that love and life change is crucial to well-being. Acknowledging that good decisions can be as painful as they are exhilarating is healthy. Redefining family is normal – family is what you make it. Doing it all with kindness instead of animosity is a carefully crafted gift. I don’t remember the song that came on next after I’d considered all these things during Both Sides Now, but I do know that I felt lighter, happier, and that I danced alone in my basement. Onward, I smiled to myself. (My cats just stared at me perplexed and wondered what the hell was wrong with me.)

You may wonder why I’m sharing this part of the story, the (probably boring) details of the finale. And someone recently asked me how I could bare myself so publicly on this topic. This is why: when I wrote the post Now You Know about my decision to end my marriage, the outpouring of messages was incredible. So many people, women and men alike, reached out to share their stories with me, to tell me how their story aligned with mine, or to simply tell me they understood and supported me. It was medicine for my wounded self who didn’t know how to talk about it in person, and I had unwittingly given given a spot of medicine to them, which was more therapeutic to me than I can describe. Loss and gain, love and strife, pain and happiness, indecision and action are universal. My story was your story, too. And maybe still is.

So I end with this advice that I learned in this protracted process: recognize and embrace the messy borders, the blurred and confusing lines of love, feeling, and family; acknowledge that there is pain in taking the steps you know are the right ones; accept and appreciate the past and its lessons just as you rejoice in the possibility of the future; and, close a chapter of your book with dancing and celebrate the magnificent possibilities of a clean slate.

It’s never too late to make the life you want.

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Many Hands

Her name is Asana (AH-sa-nah). When she was just four or five years old she became a student at Heritage Academy in Breman Essiam, Ghana. She rose long before the sun to help her mother with chores, then walked five miles to school, first along the dirt road leading out of her village, then to the partially paved, pot-holed road that washes out during the rainy season, and finally to the main road that buzzes with rickety, beeping, speeding cars. After seven hours of school, she walked another five miles back home to her tiny village in the bush where she did more chores. She went to bed tired and sometimes hungry, but somehow her homework was always done.

Her father died at some point during her young life; it’s not clear to us when. Her mother has a small palm nut oil business. Asana, her mother, and her brother collect the red and black palm nuts from the lush and beautiful palm trees that adorn the landscape. They boil the nuts to make soup, then press the same nuts to make the oil which they sell roadside, as do many other families. They also collect cocoa beans and coconuts to sell, as do many other families. They are grateful for the bounty of the trees around them that provide fruits for food and a very small income, but theirs is a life marked by poverty and struggle.

Today Asana is about 12 years old. She’s in 7th grade and a stellar, dedicated student. She is beautiful, but stoic. Her expression carries the wear of hardship. Kwesi Koomson, the founder of Heritage Academy, learned of her long walk to school a couple of years ago and changed the bus route to include a stop close to her home. A welcome relief for Asana.

One typically hot evening, Kwesi and I had a conversation about our students’ varnished view of the kids at Heritage. It had struck me during last year’s visit that although we were closer than we’d ever been to significant poverty, it remained unseen in many ways. We were surrounded by kids in clean uniforms who were eager, energetic, happy, open, and friendly. We didn’t see their mud-brick and tin-roofed homes with no electricity nor running water. We didn’t see their toil at home. The school provides lunch, so we didn’t appreciate their hunger after the meager meals they got at home (some don’t get any). We didn’t see their worn clothing. I felt uncomfortably aware that we weren’t seeing their “real” lives and I wanted the students to understand them more deeply. Kwesi had long been thinking this very thing about our student trips and decided to arrange a visit to a student’s home. He selected Asana and told us her story. Although I was excited for this closer look, I was worried that our visit might seem exploitative to her family (a bunch of well-heeled foreigners piling into her home to gawk at her living situation), and that Asana might feel uncomfortable. But when he summoned her to ask, she was honored and agreed. She seemed proud, even, as she should be.

As our bus pulled into her village, one made up of about 30 families, the villagers stopped what they were doing to stare. They smiled, but watched us carefully as we disembarked in front of a tiny store that sold sundry items like small packets of laundry detergent and soda. Our students seemed nervous, both for what they were about to see and for being the objects of such intense scrutiny. Many of the villagers don’t encounter foreigners and white people often, if at all.

Akwaaba” (welcome) her mother said as we nervously shuffled into their tiny compound  – a brick house, a wood and tin outbuilding, a storage structure –  all surrounded by a wooden fence. Next to the house was large cauldron atop a fire where the palm nuts were boiling in a black liquid emitting an odd, pungent odor. Scattered on the dirt in the courtyard were blackened palm nuts left to dry in the sun. Chickens and ducks (oddly enough) bobbed around our feet. The ubiquitous tiny goats bleated nearby. Asana called for her younger brother who scampered into the courtyard to join us.

We gathered ourselves into a semi-circle with Asana, her mother, and her brother at the fore. I asked the kids if they had any questions for the family. Milo, a young teacher at Heritage Academy, was our translator and guide. Asana’s mother explained how they use the palm nuts. Asana timidly talked some about what her daily life was like; significant was how much work was involved, how little play. Although they seemed happy to have us, it was admittedly somewhat awkward. Our students weren’t sure what they should ask; her family wasn’t sure what they should tell. I could sense that the kids were shocked by the conditions but also impressed by what this family accomplishes with so little. I was too.

We thanked them for showing us their home and I asked if I could take photos of them and their home. They were eager to pose, as are all Ghanaians, who seem to love cameras. As the students left to get back on the bus, I stopped at a table just inside the gate that was covered with a nut I couldn’t identify. The mother approached me and explained – in surprisingly good English – that they were cocoa beans. And then she said in a quiet voice, almost conspiratorially,  “I don’t like that she goes to that school, even though she loves it. Her father is passed and I need her to work. I need many hands.” I replied, “It is a hardship for you. You have to choose between earning money and her education?” “Yes, madam, it is hardship. But she smiles.”  I looked in her eyes, “You chose her happiness.” She nodded, her lips turning into a small smile, and waved goodbye.

I’ve thought quite often of Asana’s mother since that day. In Ghana it is common – when only one child in a family can go to school – for the boys to be given the privilege of school over the girls. Girls are often seen as the laborers and keepers of the home, the boys the ones who should be educated. Her mother not only gave up having her eldest child at home to work during the day, but also bucked tradition by giving Asana, not her brother, the opportunity for education. It’s a tremendous sacrifice for her. She needs many hands, but in her world of few choices, she chose her daughter’s education and happiness.

When we think about poverty we often reduce it (as the privileged are wont to do) to the lack of material things, maybe to hunger. We can fleetingly imagine, perhaps, a life without a cell phone, a vast wardrobe, or three meals a day. We tend to forget the intangible luxuries and privileges we enjoy like choice, opportunity, education, freedom,  and the pursuit of happiness and dreams. Apart from lacking clean water, ample sources of protein-rich food, electricity, and money, they lack opportunities to choose a different path in life. Those with great ideas, curious minds, and big dreams are left wanting.

And that’s why Heritage Academy  is so very important.  An education at Heritage provides opportunities that these kids would not otherwise have. They graduate literate, nearly fluent in English, and have distinct advantages over their peers who have no education. They still face monumental struggles of course, for the cycle of poverty is deep and powerful, but they have better footing in their small world. Most of the students at Heritage attend on scholarships provided by the Schoerke Foundation, founded by Kwesi’s wife, Melissa. The many hands (and many donors) of the foundation keep the school in operation, and give kids like Asana a chance.

I came away from this journey, once again, with renewed gratitude for my good fortune and immense thankfulness that my own daughters can pursue their dreams without great sacrifice. None of us will forget that visit to Asana’s home. And I will never forget her mother, whose  little smile told me that she was proud both of Asana and her own difficult choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear 2017

Dear 2017,

Right now you are in your fancy tuxedo waiting in the wings to make your grand entrance.  It will be heralded by fireworks and champagne or apple juice, silly hats, confetti, musicians and dancers, drunken revelers, grape eaters, people in Times Square with no place to pee,  hillbillies with guns, book readers, TV watchers, and fast-asleep children or adults who can’t stay up that late. I hope you’re ready. You will be met by all with great expectations. Your predecessor, the year 2016, was a steaming pile of fetid excrement, so you don’t have much to live up to. But try not to screw this up.

Try not to take away so many people who inspire us, like musicians, poets, artists, writers, entertainers, and original thinkers. We rely on great, artistic minds to bring us joy, express our collective thoughts and desires, and to soothe our troubled souls; they better us all. Please make sure to lift up science and research because only by understanding the natural world that we will be able to save the Earth and ourselves. Try to remember that peace is a tenuous and fragile thing, so we need you to be steadying and calm. Please enter the stage with an appreciation that freedoms are at risk, that truth has been beaten and bruised, and that people across the globe are suffering. Seriously, we’re a hot mess right now and we need your help.

As your days unfold, 2017, encourage us to stand up against injustice when we see it. Remind us that silence is the enemy of good. Do not let us become complacent. Do not let us give up hope. Help us be discerning. Require us to find and fight for truth.  Guide us to reparation of our divided nation and world. Remind us that we are all responsible for creating a safe environment for ourselves and one another. Insist that we listen as much as we talk. Demand that we see the light in others, and make our own known. Make us quash hatred and discrimination. Urge us to live our values, not just talk about them. Above all, impress upon us daily that the only currency that multiplies itself is kindness.

When you come to us, we’ll try to live up to our part of the bargain of existence by being better than we were last year. We have 365 new days of blank canvases on which we can create something more beautiful, or, at the very least, something that mom wouldn’t be embarrassed to tack to the fridge like she was this year. We will honor your gift of time by making good use of it, by stoking the fires of our passions, by loving deeply and laughing often, by being engaged citizens, by drowning out the voices of hate, by standing up and speaking up, by exercising our freedoms, and by resisting darkness.

Please be kind, generous, and magnanimous, 2017, and we will try to be so in return.

Love,
Humanity

p.s. Please make bacon healthy.

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Mirror Mirror

My daily routine begins and ends with mirrors. When I emerge from the shower, the bathroom mirror points out that I may have accidentally swallowed a basketball. When I dress for the day, the full-length mirror reflects a creature whose attempt to hide a couple of sausage thighs is unsuccessful yet again. When I brush my teeth before bed, the mirror reminds me that my neck is trying to swallow my chin. They’re like Fun House mirrors without the fun.

For as long as I can remember, these things have been true:  I love cake, the kind with an inch of buttercream icing. I would trample you for a buffalo wing. I might threaten your family if you tried to keep me from a fried anything. Salads make me sad. Seriously, lettuce is barely food. Kale is a form of torture. But for most of my life, my food desires didn’t come with any consequences at all. I was a skinny little thing, happily eating whatever I wanted and easily fitting into clothes that could be described as “not tarps.” But as I have aged, my body has changed without all that much change in my eating habits. (Ok, a little. I drink slightly more beer than I did as a child.)

Mother Nature is cruel. I don’t know exactly why She turns on us as we get older, or after we have babies. (We make humans, for crying out loud, Mom Nature, give us a break!)  I cannot recall the moment She decided that the way I have always lived should start biting  me in the ass. I guess She decided that I should be punished for frolicking in bikinis without care in my 20s, for proudly going topless on the beaches of Spain, and for my belief that bacon was sent from Heaven to make my life complete.

In theory, I am a die-hard proponent of women (and men) accepting their bodies. I believe that we all should eschew absurd and narrow standards of beauty and that we are all beautiful. I rant and rage against shaming anyone for how they look. I want to throw a boot at television shows and burn every magazine that have made commenting on looks and bodies a spectator sport. I applaud every article/book/meme that tries to teach women to accept themselves as they are, fat or thin, tall or short, wrinkly or smooth, young or old. I marvel at (and envy) equally amazing weight loss stories, and stories about women who proudly proclaim they are happy just as they are. But then I step in front of a mirror and shame myself. Moments later I chide myself for being so damn superficial.

So I’ve found myself on  a self-esteem see-saw. I look fine. I look terrible. I should be able to eat what I want. I really shouldn’t eat what I want. I am fabulous the way I am. I am not so fabulous. Who cares what I look like in a bathing suit? Run for your lives, I’m wearing a bathing suit! Turns out I am unable to internalize my own beliefs and I struggle mightily to practice what I preach. I feel great when I lose weight, I do. Who doesn’t want their pants to zip without lying on the floor? But I also feel great when I eat and live as I want. I resent when I diet, muttering profanities at the evil carbs that are suddenly everywhere when I try to avoid them. Damn you, bread basket. The see-saw goes up and down.

So I have done what nearly every woman in America has done: diet. Over and over. A few pounds come off and they come right back, like a boomerang of blubber. I will eat a sad salad. For a few moments I’m proud of myself for these healthy bites. And then I think to myself, You know what would be good with a salad? A side of beef and a cookie the size of my face. 

I go to the gym on occasion and I walk almost every day. It doesn’t do much other than making me feel good for making the effort and show other gym goers that my cellulite can jiggle in perfect time to my playlist. I’ve walked almost 72 miles across northern Spain. I’ve climbed a mountain in the Andes. I’ve sweat my ass off in Africa. And after all that exertion and work, my thighs still snicker, “nice try.”

As a newly single person, this dissonance has kicked into high gear. I am loathe to admit publicly that my desire to look better is, perhaps, based more upon being appealing to the opposite sex than on being healthy. When I was dating the first time around I fit into that stupid box of hotness that society has defined for us (and perpetuated even by us women). I literally can’t fit into that tiny box anymore. Yea, I notice you not looking at me anymore, men. I’m not supposed to care, but I do…so much more than I’d like to admit or than is healthy.

Having been both thin and chubby, I can tell you that the heavier you are the less you are noticed. Every additional pound is paid for with increasing invisibility. The heavier I have gotten, the more I have noticed how people really feel about the overweight, too. I’ve heard women I love say to girls things like, “Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat!”  And say to me,  as if I’m impervious to how it might effect me, “Did you see how much weight so-and-so has put on? Yikes!” The message is clear: fat = bad. Of course, being overweight can cause health problems, but I have never heard anyone say, “You shouldn’t eat that, you’ll get high blood pressure!” or “Did you see how much cholesterol she put on?!” Nope, fat is worse than illness. When Sports Illustrated featured a “plus-size” model (um, size 12 is not “plus” you size-two nazis, but whatevs) that one time like a year ago, I thought it was perhaps a bit of a turning point. But a nano-second later the media was certain that Jennifer Aniston had a baby bump, when in reality she’d just maybe eaten a cheeseburger. How dare she eat actual food. Or look normal.

So am I  a fraud and traitor to women for caring so much about how I look? Am I a shallow anti-feminist for wanting to be thinner? Or a victim of society? Both?  My mind circles back to my we all are beautiful mantra. I get angry with myself for succumbing to societal and personal pressures and make a mental list of my desirable, positive qualities: smart, worldly, well-read, well-traveled, funny, fun loving, kind, warm, loyal. And then…not a one of them shows up in my damn mirror. Not one of them can be seen in photos (photos I might use on a dating site, for example). None of those qualities is evident as I walk down the street. My mirror image isn’t me, but it’s ME, dammit.

I do, with every cell of my being, want to be the kind of woman who is confident in who she is and how she looks no matter her size.  Confidence is contagious and sexy, we all know this. I also want to feel that my intellect, humor, and talents have social currency. I want to feel that my body is as good as my brain.

But why is it so hard? Why is it so hard to accept ourselves as we are? Why is it so difficult to apply what we believe in to ourselves? And why, for the love of bacon, do I have to give up so much to attain the body society tells me I should have?

I want to look in a mirror and be happy with what I see. Maybe I need a different kind of mirror.

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Just Beyond – Ghana Part 2

There was no way to cover all of what we experienced during our time in Ghana in my previous post, so I continue here. Time affords me deeper reflection, but not necessarily answers.

Poverty Has A Name

We all know there’s poverty in the world. We see it our towns and cities where we walk past homeless people on the street. We observe mothers paying with food stamps at the grocery store. Perhaps some of us work or live in blighted areas. But let’s face it:  for the vast majority of us, real poverty is a distant, faceless, nameless concept. Perhaps the most profound aspect of my time at Heritage Academy in Ghana was witnessing poverty at close range.

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Recess

The children at Heritage wear uniforms of blue shirts and brown shorts or skirts and on Fridays they wear beautiful blue and white batik shirts or dresses, their “dress down” uniforms. Those tidy uniforms, the infectious smiles, generous hugs, and boisterous laughter of the children disguised their poverty from us in some ways because we couldn’t always see it. These were not the half-naked children with distended bellies and vacant eyes of those heart-wrenching sponsor commercials. Since we only saw these children on campus, we were removed from the reality of their living conditions – often shacks with no electricity nor running water. But we were there long enough to learn that behind the smiles, mischievous laughter, and curious minds of the children and young adults we met are lives marked by hunger and struggle. They put names on poverty: Roberta. Victoria. Isaac. Prince. Kofi. Kwame. Emmanuel. Emmanuel. Emmanuel. (I swear, half of Ghana is named Emmanuel.)

Most  of the children at Heritage eat their only full meals at school – a modest lunch of rice or stew is provided for them. Only children with a few pesewa (cedi coinsto spare can purchase the small snacks available at recess. Some rise long before the sun to do chores at home before they make the sometimes two-hour trip to school on a rickety bus (one with 15 seats but carries 30 children), and occasionally they don’t make it to school at all if the roads are washed out by the rains, or there is more work to be done at home. Sometimes they fall asleep in class because hunger and pre-dawn work make them tired. Some children have their lost their parents to simple illnesses and are moved around from one relative’s house to another, depending on who can afford to feed them. (The average annual income is about $400 per capita.) The reality of their lives is shocking, and they are the lucky ones. There are multitudes of  children in Ghana who have no full meals at all, no tidy uniforms, and no education. Heritage Academy is a beacon of hope and a refuge for these children.

New clothes

New clothes

One day, Kwesi Koomson, the founder of Heritage Academy and our host, brought a large clothing donation to the library and made a big pile of it where we were working. Word got out among the students and soon they were gathered at the library door clamoring to get in. He allowed them in one or two at a time to select one piece of clothing from the pile. They would pick through the pile and carefully select an item. Once back in the courtyard, they would squeal with glee and compare their new piece of clothing with their friends. Their one new piece of clothing. Some kids donned their new shirts right away and showed them off proudly, strutting around and mugging for my camera.

A few days later, the scene was repeated, this time with shoes. We had hauled about 120 pairs of shoes with us that had been donated as part of a shoe drive in Westtown’s Lower School. Kwesi laid out the shoes in a classroom and allowed a few students at a time to try on and select a pair of shoes. Once again, a large crowd of students clamored outside the door waiting for their turn to adorn their feet with new shoes.

Giving books

Kwesi giving out books

On that same day, Kwesi also distributed donated text books that wouldn’t fit in the library. Algebra. Calculus. English workbooks. American History. Kwesi would hold up a book. Who wants this one? and hands would shoot into the air. Me! Me! Yes, please! came their answers. They wanted books, any books, even if they were written in a language they didn’t completely understand about math or about a country whose history includes the enslavement of their people.

These scenes are burned in memory and I will never again huff and roll my eyes at the selections in my closet, nor take for granted my access to books and knowledge.  In fact, I will no longer take anything for granted. Yet perhaps more striking to me than what they didn’t have, was what they did: gumption, fortitude, and dedication to their education. In spite of their hunger and their need, they were so very alive, happy, hard-working, and grateful. It was something to behold.

Shoes awaiting new feet

Shoes awaiting new feet

Just Beyond 

And then there were the others we encountered – the cooks, staff, and neighborhood visitors at our guest house in Ajumako. They were always there, but just beyond. Just beyond the dining room where our nightly buffet dinners were served. Just beyond the living room as we watched movies projected on the bare walls, sometimes peeking in through a door left ajar to watch. They stayed just beyond as the students played cards at night, only sometimes timidly accepting invitations to join in.

They smiled a lot. They laughed at our antics. But they were removed. They served us food and hastily retreated. They cleaned up after us. They did our laundry by hand. There seemed to be a threshold they wouldn’t cross, and they lingered in the hallway outside of the small dining room where they chatted amongst themselves. Or, they hung out on the porch of the back house where the kitchen was or in the courtyard where they did our laundry during the day. I was fascinated (and saddened) by their reluctance to engage with us, even though they observed us with great interest. Sometimes I was sure I felt their longing to be closer.  Several of us tried small talk which would only last a few moments.  But we left it at that, for the most part, because this was how it was supposed to be, apparently.

The distance of the staff was a striking difference from what we experienced when we were on campus at Heritage where the kids were desperate to interact with us.  Add to that the fact that we came from Westtown School, founded on Quaker principles like equality and community. We have a Work Program wherein all students have jobs and participate in helping the community function – jobs like clearing plates, setting tables, and sweeping floors. We eschew hierarchy and titles; the students call teachers by their first names. So not only were we unaccustomed to being served in this way and leaving our dishes to be whisked away to be washed out of sight, but also we were unprepared to encounter people with whom we couldn’t just be together, as equals.

I knew before we arrived in Ghana that we would grapple with  the discomfort of being first-world visitors among third-world people. I even knew that we would encounter hierarchy within the Ghanaian culture because Kwesi had prepared us for it. He was part of it too, being the Lord of the Manor, as it were, as was his wife, Melissa – they were also attended to and served. But it was another thing altogether to see it in person. It added to the discomfort I already felt in being a person with too much everything by comparison. Although we weren’t accustomed to being served and had the urge to do our own dishes, we were told to let it be. Kwesi said, “I pay them to do these things, so you must let them work. They need to earn a living.” And that seemed to make sense, to honor their work and respect tradition. But I found it frustrating and uncomfortable. I wanted to know them more, and I think they wanted to know us more in spite of their distance. We all seemed to be actors in a play we had no part in writing.

But I wanted to do my part and figured doing so might be a way into conversation, even friendship. So one day after dinner I carried some dirty dishes back to the kitchen. When the staff saw me coming with dishes they halted their chatter and jumped to attention, but were clearly confused. I asked where I should put the dishes, but a young girl quickly took them from me. I said, ‘Thank you. Dinner was wonderful!” She smiled and thanked me, but I could see on her face – on all their faces –  that by bringing the dishes, I’d unwittingly communicated that they hadn’t acted fast enough, which was the opposite of my intent. I felt like a cultural bull in a china shop. It was a lesson for me, albeit one I didn’t want to learn.

What Next? 

The niggling frustration that took seed in Ghana and has continued to grow since I’ve been home is what to do about the poverty we encountered. These particular children have an education and a daily meal which is a tremendous start, for sure. But what about the rest of their lives? How do they eat when they aren’t at school? What will they do when they graduate? Kwesi, who is kind and generous and worries about this as well, has hired Heritage graduates to teach. Some of our guest house staff were Heritage students and graduates. But he can’t hire them all. Those that want to go to college (and so many do) often find themselves in the same position their families were in when they were young: unable to afford the education. One of the house staff longs to become a pilot, yet he can’t afford flight school. So he’s a house hand instead, living on barely enough to get by. A young teaching assistant wants to go to college so that he can study business, hoping that he makes enough money to one day follow in Kwesi’s footsteps and help kids like himself get an education. But he cannot afford college. The Victorias, Robertas, Kofis and Emmanuels all have hopes, dreams, and ambition with little to help them come to fruition.

I do not want to diminish the work and necessity of Heritage Academy. The education it provides is absolutely essential, as is the hope of something greater it gives its students. People who can read, write, speak English, and do math have far greater opportunities in their communities. There are success stories of graduates who get jobs befitting their education, and a select few that do go on to college (most often with the help of an “angel” donor). But for too many Ghanaians, their ultimate dreams remain just beyond their reach.

So I began to feel that I was just beyond as well. Just beyond a solution to an overwhelming problem. Just beyond the means to help them in an authentic way. Just beyond understanding where to begin.

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If you would like to help a child get an education at Heritage Academy, consider giving to the Schoerke Foundation, which provides scholarships. Most of the children who attend Heritage do so at no cost thanks to donors. A $100 donation pays for one year of education for a child in need.

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Will You Take Me As Your Friend? Ghana Part 1

The words to describe my experience in Ghana have been elusive. The adjectives I might normally use  seem too simple and ordinary for a place that’s unlike any other I’ve visited. I’ve deleted as many words as I’ve written as I search for just right. I decided to let go of  the idea of just right and go for just write instead…

Arrival 

When you land in the capital city of Accra, there is no mistaking that you are in a third world country. Although the city is like many others in some ways – bustling, crowded,
choked with exhaust fumes, and stifled by traffic – it’s unlike other cities in so many others. Poverty is not confined to neighborhoods on the outskirts. Faith is boldly proclaimed in the names of stores (“God is Good Beauty Salon”) and on taxis (“His Grace Taxi Service). Street hustlers, hawkers, walk up and down in traffic selling everything from bags of water to windshield wipers to meat pies for what amounts to a few cents. Tall buildings are few – this is not a city of sky scrapers – and they are often tattered and worn down. Life is hard here, and it is evident straight away.

But something else is also immediately evident: warmth, and not just the warmth (blistering heat and nearly unbearable humidity) that is sub-Saharan Africa. The people are friendly, welcoming, and ready with smiles. In a country where the average income is about $400 annually, you might expect fewer welcoming smiles and more resentment toward first-world visitors. You might think that their poverty would make them forlorn and withdrawn. But you’d be wrong. That’s not to minimize their hardship nor to say that they do not experience struggle, it’s just that they, as a people, don’t put it on display. In fact, they are a grateful, happy, deeply faithful, and proud people. It is a striking difference from Americans who loudly lament any minor thing that goes wrong and proclaim through bull horns how uncomfortable they are. I would come to appreciate the Ghanaian way of being in the world more fully in the days to come.

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Roadside sales

As we made the two-hour journey through the lush and beautiful countryside to our destination near the small village of Ajumako, I noticed perhaps hundreds of half-finished homes and buildings, some with lovely architecture, now abandoned. It’s as if there once had been great hope and expectation, then it evaporated. The money ran out.  It was difficult to see these unfinished monuments to poverty and  unrealized dreams. Yet among those abandoned buildings were those that housed small businesses, well-dressed women and men laughing and holding the tiny hands of their children on their way to church or to the market, and roadside stands selling food and sundry items.

At last we arrived at the guest house where we would spend the next two weeks. The house is part of a compound that is surrounded by a wall and includes a small back house
with a couple of bedrooms (where the cook and helpers sleep) and a kitchen area. In the front there a small store accessible from the inside and outside of the compound. We would patronize that tiny store daily, buying glass-bottled sodas and ice cream from a woman named Charity after our long, sweaty days.

Home away from home

Home away from home

The guest house has about nine bedrooms (some with private bathrooms), a dining area, and a living room.  The walls are porous so that when the rains come, the cockroaches (which are, I kid you not, almost the size of my hands) scamper about and the termites take to the air. Little lizards scurry across the floor. It is a simple structure with few decorations on the walls and tattered curtains on the windows. By American standards this is anything but a luxurious house. But that living room is a gathering space where we spent every evening talking, laughing, playing cards and Bananagrams, and on a couple of occasions watched movies projected onto the bare walls. Those bedrooms with peeling paint and squeaky old doors provided comfort and a place to rest after mentally and physically exhausting days. The bathrooms were equipped with showers that washed off the sweat and dirt. We didn’t care that they did not have hot water – who needs a hot water shower in Ghana? After witnessing the conditions of other homes, often tiny shacks with dirt floors and no plumbing nor electricity, it didn’t take long to appreciate the absolute luxury of our accommodations. We found ourselves constantly readjusting our ideas about what constitutes luxury.

In the Books

Our formal destination was Heritage Academy, a preK-12th grade co-educational school. (I described Heritage in a previous post.) Our students, participants in  Westtown School’s Senior Projects, were there to teach middle school kids a variety of subjects, and we all were to engage in a service project. Originally we thought our service would tending Heritage’s new chicken farm or making bricks for building repairs, but it was immediately evident that the library was in desperate need of care. Westtown, other schools, and individuals

Before

Before

have donated hundreds upon hundreds of books for the library which was originally set up (beautifully) three years ago by Westtown’s librarian, Victoria, who was one of my co-chaperones.  The shipments of books, while welcome, had been left in enormous piles where they collected dust, mold, spiders, and cockroaches. There were not enough shelves on which to place them, and no human power to sort, catalogue, and shelve them, anyway. We found our mission.

Victoria and I worked all day in the library. The other chaperone, Jon, scoured the villages of Essiam and Ajumako for wood and set about making bookcases with a few students. (It is worth noting that while I ran out of room for enough underwear in my luggage, Jon managed to cram about 80 pounds worth of hammers, drills, saws, and other tools into his.) The other students would teach until the end of the academic day, then join us in the library for two hours before dinner. This was our routine for two weeks: Sort. Stack. Saw. Hammer. Drill. Sneeze and cough from dust and mold (all of us). Label. Stack. Scream at spiders (just me). Repair a saw. Label. Sneeze. Hammer. Drill. Sort. Scream. Sort. Label. Stack.

One day in the middle of sorting, I was standing near one of the many neatly sorted stack of books and heard the voices of the youngest students nearby. I turned to discover they’d come into the library, which they normally weren’t allowed to do at recess. At first there were just a few kids grabbing books from stacks and plopping down to read them. I turned around again and suddenly there were about 30 kids all grabbing books from our sorted stacks. My heart sank. All that work so quickly undone made my eyes bulge. Victoria and I had begun to have doubts that we could get it all done in the time we had left and this felt like a major setback. Books were being strewn everywhere.  The students and I tried to herd them out to no avail. I became panicky and frustrated. But I decided to stop trying to shoo them away and watched them instead. They were hungry for those words and pictures on the pages. The books were for them, after all.

Eager readers

Eager readers

One by one they tugged at my shirt, “Madam, what does this word mean?” “What is a snowman?” (Which is really hard to explain to a child who’s never seen snow.) The ones who didn’t speak English well simply pointed with quizzical looks. One child pointed to the word butterfly, furrowed her brow, and held up her hand as if to say What is this? I linked my thumbs and made flapping motions with my fingers and said, “Butterfly.”  She and her little friends collapsed in laughter and made butterfly hands too. And just like that my panic melted like a snowman in Ghana and my heart fluttered like, well, a butterfly. The rest of that week when I saw those kids around the campus they would make a butterfly with their hands to greet me. It was worth every moment of re-sorting.

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The smallest helpers

I would take breaks from sorting to check on classroom activity and survey the progress of the bookshelf makers. Jon and our students Hannah and Joseph were veritable machines, even though they were stuck with saws barely strong enough to cut the wood. They drew a small crowd of Heritage students daily who, at first, watched them work. Then they eagerly jumped in to help. They offered sawing relief and Jon taught them about the wood, how to measure it, and how to oil the saws to make them pass more easily through the wood. Even the smallest boys wanted to get in the action and they helped steady boards as they were being cut.  I enjoyed watching the carpentry skills being passed from master to student, skills that are desperately needed in a developing country. What got to me more, though, was the joy and pride they felt in helping create something. Their smiles and high fives were priceless.

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After

Two days before we were to leave, Jon, a couple of our students, and a few Heritage boys
moved the new bookcases into the library.  There was heaving, grunting, and doubt that one big case would fit where it was supposed to. We erupted in applause when it did. In the last hours of our library time, we cranked the music and began shelving the books. We sang along to songs and danced the books onto the shelves. Some of the Heritage kids joined in the shelving and others looked on with giggles, unable to keep from moving to the music themselves. Those moments of team effort were beautiful and satisfying. While we did not finish sorting all the books, we filled every inch of shelf space and Heritage Academy, once again, has a functional library.

Strangers No More 

It took the students a few days to adjust to teaching (they all agreed it is harder than it looks) and to the rhythms of Heritage. Students taught either under tents in open areas or in the middle school building that has wood-slat walls, a tin roof, and no panes on the windows. It’s an open-air, three-room

Middle school classroom

Middle school classroom

shack. And it’s LOUD. The children are boisterous, noisy, and their voices carry from room to room. The cacophony of children’s voices was unsettling at first for all of us, but our kids found their footing.

The Heritage students were beguiled by them and us adults. While the high school students have seen foreign volunteers come and go, some of the youngest students in the lower school have  seen few white people (obroni) and even fewer Asians of which there were four in our group. They were fascinated by our skin, hair, and eyes. At recess, they would crowd around us, eager to touch and talk, even if English was difficult for them. They would run to us and ask, “What is your name?” instead of saying hello. Their next statement was, inevitably, “Will you take me as your friend?” And they meant it. They asked for addresses and phone numbers. They wrote elaborate declarations of their friendship in letters to our students, and to us. It was beautifully quaint – who writes letters anymore? Children without computers.

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Will you take me as your friend?!

We were objects of great fascination, scrutiny, and attention, which is to be expected of kids with limited exposure to the rest of the world. In one way, it was heartwarming and joyful – who can resist a child who wants to hold your hand, mug for your camera, and just be with you?  In another way, it made me uncomfortable. I don’t think we deserved the pedestals we were hoisted upon, pedestals built only of the random fortunes of our birth. It is gratifying to be in a position of helper, but I continually struggled with the unwitting ego that develops doing service because it reinforces a tacit hierarchy.  Our first world-ness was conspicuous. We were well fed, unlike most of these children. We came with suitcases full of clothing. We had plane tickets that would carry us back to homes with plumbing and electricity, to bright futures. Our students have colleges waiting for them.

But we found them to be fascinating as well, these happy, energetic children whose lives warranted our absolute attention. We watched them closely. We listened to them, answered their curiosity. We discovered their fortitude and dedication to their education. We found what made them laugh. We learned that the recess antics of children are universal. They were teaching us as much about the world as we were teaching them. As the days passed, the swarms of children became individuals with names and stories, and the distance between us became slightly smaller.

One of our students, a Korean boy named TK, was called “China”  by Heritage students at the beginning. He became frustrated by this nickname and by the fact that they did not know the difference between Koreans and Chinese. He interpreted the nickname as an insult. We discussed this at one of our evening group meetings. Kwesi Koomson, the Ghanaian founder of Heritage Academy and our host, explained that the kids didn’t mean harm, they simply do not understand that Asia is made up of many countries, that China is the only Asian country they know. Calling him “China” was easy shorthand for them, just as obroni is shorthand for white person.

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A fine farewell

Still, this explanation was unsatisfying to him (and for many of us; we didn’t necessarily like the term obroni either) and he became increasingly angry about it. One evening, Jon took him aside and said, “If they don’t understand the difference, then teach them.” It was  brilliant, this suggestion to turn his frustration into an opportunity.  TK scrapped his English lesson plans and did just that. The next day I went to observe his class to make sure things were going well. When I entered the room, Heritage kids were at the blackboard drawing a map of Asia and labeling countries, and TK had made a list of Korean products they would recognize. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. The kids at Heritage no longer called him “China” after that day. On the last day of class a week later, I stopped in his classroom once again. The kids had written on the blackboard, “We love you, TK. May God bless you and your family always,” among other scribbled well wishes. The students were clamoring for his attention, clinging to him, and giving him goodbye hugs. TK had written letters to each of them and returned their hugs, his smile lighting up the room. And there it was, the rubble of a barrier at their feet and a bridge built in its place.

The relationships built in this kind of experience make the world smaller for those who travel, and make it larger for those who can’t. I was constantly reminded of this as we learned more about the people of Ghana and they learned about us. It wasn’t always comfortable and joyful, but it was powerful and transformative.

A parting gift to me. My favorite souvenir.

A parting gift to me from a student who also stayed at the guest house. My favorite souvenir.

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The Gift of Travel

Last summer I was in Africa for the first time. I went to Morocco on vacation. It was glorious. This time I’m off to Ghana, West Africa. This is not a vacation as I am traveling with nine students and two adults, but every kind travel feels like vacation to me. A gift. This is a decidedly different kind of Africa than what I experienced in Marrakesh, but it will be glorious, I am sure, in its own way. I have yet to reach a destination that has disappointed me because I learn something new about the world and its people every. single. time.

We’re going to the small village of Breman Essiam as part of Westtown School’s Senior Projects. For two weeks, the students will teach classes to middle school children at Heritage Academy and we will all do service projects  like making bricks  for school repairs and tending Heritage’s new chicken farm. Our students have chosen to teach topics that are close to them and unusual for Heritage kids like creative writing, dance, acting, singing, biology, leadership skills, and a mini robotics/programming course. Continue reading

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