Tuesday, May 31, 2011

And that's a wrap!

Over this, the last week of our first year of attempting to eliminate plastic waste in our lives, we generated another 8 oz in recyclable and non-recyclable plastic trash... and discovered a cache of another 2 lbs, 5 oz of packing materials from construction and repair projects around the house. 

Everything, everything around here needs repair!  And everything, everything, seems to come swathed in plastic.  Sometimes, when we need to special order hardware for things around the house, we get just what we ordered, plus a whole lot of plastic packaging.  It can get a little discouraging...

However this does mean we have a final weigh-in of 2 lbs, 13 oz of plastic waste for this last week.  And our grand total for the year that began on June 1, 2010, and ends today, May 31, 2011, weighs in at 30 lbs., 15 oz.

This puts us somewhere between 12% and 18% of the national consumption of plastic, per person.

It has been quite a trip.  (More on that tomorrow, over at No Unsacred Place.)

Things do do better with next year:
  • Advocacy work with individual local and national companies, to get them to stop sending me so much plastic.
  • Buying more of what we need locally, in order to avoid extra waste from shipping (as well as to better support local businesses).
  • Buying less new stuff, period, while cultivating more ways of reusing and repurposing old stuff.
  • Continuing to reduce food waste, and to find ways to encourage sustainable and local agriculture--including our own garden, and perhaps preserving more of our own food.
  • Making more things ourselves in order to reduce packaging and buy local foods--starting with making our own cheese!  (Yom!)
  • Communicating how much fun it is to become more earth-friendly in how we're living.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Peter Goes to Kenya, Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

Our last day in Kenya was Easter Sunday. It began with hiking to the top of a mountain to watch the sunrise and to pray, asking for the blessings of Mother Earth.

Later, after breakfast, most of my students stayed at the guest house or went hiking to see a waterfall, but I had asked Eden to bring me along to experience a Kenyan-style Quaker worship service.

My own Quaker meeting, in the heart of New England, is unprogrammed. It’s what most people imagine when they think of Quakers: silent, waiting worship without a preacher, without a pulpit, without hymns or sermon. The pews are arranged concentrically, and messages are delivered when worshipers feel moved by Spirit to stand and speak. We sit at one end of a continuum of worship among American Quakers. At the other extreme are programmed, pastoral meetings that look and feel very much like Protestant churches, but there are many permutations in between.

Theologically, we also sit at one extreme end, with probably less than half of our members and attenders identifying themselves as Christian. One of the things that is most precious to me about the Religious Society of Friends is our ability to sit in worship together and experience Spirit together in spite of thinking about Spirit in radically different ways. Quakers seem to get it that religion is about encountering the Divine, not about espousing a creed.

Intervisitation with Quakers from different traditions within the RSoF is one way to keep that kind of corporate worshiping across doctrinal lines alive. The controversy I wrote about earlier concerning the Friends United Meeting personnel policy makes it especially important, in my view, between liberal American Friends and Friends in Kenya.

I’d been warned that such things often last for four or five hours, and that was on an ordinary Sunday. Purely by coincidence, the one day our schedule would allow me to visit a Friends Church was on Easter. Eden assured me that it would be fine for us to come and go. It would probably already be in full swing when we arrived, and would go on for hours after we left.

We were called up to the front when we arrived, to introduce ourselves. I conveyed greetings from Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in America, and Eden made it clear that we just wanted to sit in the regular pews, not the facing bench behind the pulpit. It hadn’t occurred to me that, as exotic foreigners, we might be expected to sit in a place of honor. I was very grateful we didn’t; it would have been much harder to leave gracefully from the facing bench.

The service meandered from hymns to committee reports to more hymns and then a sermon. It wasn’t in English. In fact, it wasn’t even in Swahili. It was in a “mother tongue,” one of the local tribal languages. Someone—he seemed like a deacon or something—came and sat between us and leaned close to translate for us.

It was very long, and with only a few key phrases being translated, it got a bit tedious. We were beginning to pick up our things and get ready to stand and leave when the preacher all of a sudden looked directly at us—at me—and asked a question. Our deacon translated: “Do people in America lead good Christian lives, or have they gone off the tracks?”

It took some time for Eden to clarify, first for herself and then for me, that in fact we were being asked to stand up and offer comment. While we were figuring all this out, the preacher asked two or three more questions: “If your husband took a second wife, could you welcome her into your house? If your husband had a child by another woman, could you welcome the child as part of your family?” Eden and I, in whispered conversation, went back and forth a few times about whether I wanted to field the first question? She could stand up and do all the speaking if I preferred. She may have been a bit nervous about what I, as a non-Christian Quaker, would say to such a question. But I told her I wanted to take it on.

The message I delivered felt right. It felt true. It felt like it had the *crack* of a baseball sent arcing out to the stands.

I had to turn around to face the congregation. We were near the front of the church, and I hadn’t realized how many people had entered since we first sat down. I said, “You have asked if Americans are living good Christian lives, or if we have gone off the tracks.” I paused for our deacon to translate, then went on: “The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is that we all go off the tracks at times, but that God is always ready to welcome us back.” They smiled. They loved it. Boy, did it feel weird as a Wiccan/Pagan Quaker to be preaching the words of Jesus to a bunch of Evangelicals, but they carried truth. I’d found the thread within Christianity that isn’t about sectarianism, and reminded them of it.

I didn’t need to speak up for Paganism. That’s not what it was about. And if I’d tried, I would have hopelessly muddied the waters, lecturing to people I didn’t know and whose culture I didn’t understand. It would have been disrespectful to our African hosts, every bit as bad as standing up in, say, a Hindu temple or a Shinto shrine and shouting at them about Jesus.

Further, one of the things that makes Paganism unique and precious is that it grows from the land and it sinks its roots into the land. Paganism isn’t about a set of beliefs; it’s a way of being. It celebrates the material—the Earth and the body—as well as the wheel of the year and the cycles of life. Paganism is not served by wealthy Americans jetting around the world to harangue subsistence farmers.

Instead, I found the spark of tolerance and universalism within their tradition. Speaking from a place of centeredness and truth, I reached out from where the Light touches me to where it touches them.

And I left it at that.

Eden handled the questions about polygamy. She had been puzzling over whether the minister’s sermon was about the need for women to be submissive—Eden would have had a very hard time with that—or whether his preaching was more about forgiveness. Eventually she figured out that what he seemed to be saying was that even when terrible things happen (and for a woman in Kenya, her husband taking a second wife is terrible indeed) you should trust in God, because God will care for his children.

She said afterwards that I’d done well answering the question. She’d seen other American Quakers in similar situations try to talk about how America is multicultural and not everyone there is Christian, and it’s just not a message that’s easy to convey clearly here.

I think it was actually easier for me, as a Pagan Quaker, to simply speak the words of Jesus as they moved me than it would have been for a liberal Christian, rather the way speaking in a foreign language can feel more natural than trying to imitate someone else’s accent in your own language. These were my Quaker sisters and brothers, and yet their religion was as profoundly different from my own relationship with the Divine as their mother tongue was from my English.

To be concluded…

Friends Church by Peter Bishop

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Peter in Kenya, part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

I said that Christianity in Kenya hasn’t sponsored a single pogrom since it was first introduced in 1902.

There are two possible exceptions. While Kenya hasn’t seen much religious warfare between rival sects of Christianity, Kenyan Christianity did supplant an indigenous (Americans might call it “Pagan”) religion. I know almost nothing about traditional African religion. I am told it was animist and that it involved ancestor reverence (both of which sound fine to me) but also that it was quite misogynistic. There were dietary taboos that effectively prevented pregnant women from getting protein. And it was the coming of Christianity that ended the practice of female genital mutilation.

If I were more connected to Kenya, it would be incumbent on me to learn more about African indigenous religious practices. As a panentheist, as one who reverences Mother Earth, I have an obligation to learn about the ways that the Earth has spoken to the people before me who have lived where I live and worshiped where I worship. I may find, as time passes, that I already have that level of relationship with the Kenyan soil.

Our final day in Kenya, I got up at 5:30 to hike with my students to the top of a mountain to see the sunrise. I left them with our guide and walked a little further up the trail to the very summit, where I knelt and took the pentacle from around my neck and pressed it to the ground, asking the blessing of Mother Earth, and then raised it so that as the sun rose, its light reached me through the intertwined points of the star and their encompassing circle.

Yes, I think I may already have that level of obligation.

I won’t necessarily like or approve of what I find out. Earth-centered religions aren’t immune from becoming destructive and oppressive, any more than Christ-centered religions. But I should learn at least a little something about it. My level of ignorance right now is profound.

The other area where I am not certain that Christianity is blameless is around the Kenyan attitudes toward homosexuality.

It is fiercely difficult, as a visitor from a wealthy, privileged, industrialized nation to go to a place like Kenya and understand what you see. Westerners who’ve lived half their lives in Kenya working to solve that country’s problems will tell you that it takes ten years (some will tell you forty) to even begin to see what the problems are, never mind the solutions.

In America, gays and lesbians are visible. We’ve all had the opportunity to see them form stable, loving relationships and even raise children. The struggle for GLBTQ rights has been a civil rights issue, embracing the same goals and the using same tactics as the fight for equal rights for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities and for women. Hearing about intolerance of gays and lesbians in African churches, many Americans’ first reaction is to want to take the fight on the road, as if we could arrive there new on the scene and with nothing but pure intentions and simply set things right.

Ironically, that’s exactly what the early missionaries did a hundred years ago: sweep into a culture they didn’t understand to impose their own values and ideals.

Kenyans can be forgiven for a certain amount of suspicion and ignorance around GLBT issues. Gays and lesbians across most of Africa are so deeply closeted that very few people would be aware of ever having met one. Like everything else in Kenya, questions about gay rights are complicated by its history as a former colony of the industrialized west. Many third-world countries have been destinations for sexual tourism—wealthy westerners traveling to impoverished parts of the world to buy kinds of sex that are illegal at home, like child prostitution.

I did not get to see the question of gay rights come up while I was in Kenya. It is certainly tempting to assume that Christianity would be supporting an attitude of hate. Many American churches were certainly full of hate when they came out in favor of neighboring Uganda’s death penalty for homosexuality a few years ago (mercifully, that legislation has just been allowed to expire). But I suspect that African hostility toward gays and lesbians is much older than African Christianity, and I’m fairly certain that that hostility was hardened by a century or more of colonial occupation.

I also believe that missionaries in Kenya—at least the contemporary Quaker missionaries—have been more a force for tolerance than for homophobia. I may be proven wrong when I read more history, but that’s my impression now.

American Quakers in New England Yearly Meeting have been agitating for years around a personnel policy in Friends United Meeting drafted by Quakers from all around the world, including Americans and Kenyans, that affirms the civil rights of all people, condemns violence against homosexuals, and recognizes “diversity among us on issues of sexuality,” but excludes noncelibate gays and lesbians from any positions of leadership. Many in NEYM advocate severing all ties with FUM, or at least withholding financial contributions, because of that discriminatory policy.

In the American south in the 1960’s, economic boycott was an effective tool for ending institutionalized racism. In dealing with Kenyan Quakers today, economic boycott would be a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon our brothers and sisters. Worse: we talk about withholding American money from Kenya on moral grounds, when so much of the American economy was originally built on the labor of enslaved Africans.

I once heard Noam Chomsky use the phrase “liberal humanitarian imperialism,” and I thought at the time that it was a complete oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. But it’s not.

The solution to homophobia, at home and in Kenya, is persistent, faithful witness around the right order of same-sex relationships. Yes, the legal battles have to be fought, the petitions signed, the votes cast, but the driving force behind any struggle for liberation is and will always be the recognition of the basic humanity of those crying for freedom.

To be continued…

Photo: Prayers at Sunrise
(photo by Robert Flynn)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Almost a Year...

Since April 20, we have generated another 3 pounds, 5 ounces of plastic waste.  This means we're still running at something around 15--17% or so of the national average,  using a conservative estimate.

Actually, some of that plastic--most of it--will be reused.  This month, we replaced windshield washer fluid, Peter had to drink a plastic-jug of noxious stuff prior to a medical test, and we used up a bottle of ammonia.  All those jugs are heavy!

But we have started a garden.  And it turns out that one good poor man's version of a seedling cover, in case of frost, is an HDPE jug with the bottom cut out, and the top put over the seedling to protect it from cold.

So these jugs are actually not yet in the waste--or the recycling--stream--as yet.

More on the garden, as well as some reflections on a year of reducing our plastic use, next time I log on.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Peter in Kenya, Part III: Fairy Gold

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

Folklore has stories about objects that change as you carry them from one place to another, like Fairy gold that turns to clay in your pockets when you return home. Christianity did something like that when I traveled from America to Kenya. Waking up in another world, I took a piece of worthless clay from my pocket and saw it shine like gold.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still not Christian. I still have no illusions about the incalculable harm that Christianity has done throughout history, and in particular, the harm that Christian missionaries have done in Africa. In many cases, they served as the vanguard of European colonial conquest, or they were used to pacify an occupied and oppressed people. But the picture looks different when you actually get there.

For one thing, the Quaker missionaries in Kenya have a more complex history than most. The imperialist occupation was British while the missionaries, by in large, were American, and to this day Kenya is one of the places in the world (one of very few, post-Bush) where you get a better reception if you’re a visitor from America than from elsewhere.

The missionaries in Kenya worked to alleviate suffering. When the British instituted a hut tax to be paid in hard currency, this forced large numbers of subsistence farmers off of their own land and onto British plantations where they could work for cash wages. American missionaries responded by helping to develop cottage industries like brick making, so that small rural farms could generate cash income. (Though one can ask why the missionaries never directly protested the taxes…) Among missionaries, the Quakers were unusual in having a strong concern for women’s rights. Many different missionary denominations started boys schools; the Quakers started schools for girls as well. Quaker missionaries were also a driving force in the elimination of female genital mutilation as a common practice, and pushed to eliminate dietary taboos that caused significant malnutrition among pregnant women.

Still, the harm is a fact of history that contemporary missionaries like my friend Eden Grace live with every day. There’s no escaping it—not if you keep your eyes open. And yet, on the ground, there is work to be done…

And on the ground, the landscape of African Christianity looks very different than it does from over here, peering at it through a telescope from the heart of the industrialized west.

In America, when a Christian exhorts you to read the Bible, accept Jesus, and be saved, the inescapable subtext is: Those people are bad. Those people are damned. Come join OUR group, do it OUR way, and become one of the good people. American Christianity exists within a pluralistic society. We have neighbors who are Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, Pagans, Wiccans, secular humanists, Native Americans, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses… All of us, if we’re willing to look around, can see people from a variety of religious faiths and spiritual disciplines whose every word and every action is grounded in faithfulness.

And we have all heard Christians decry even the best of them as unbelievers and damn our society for its pluralism. If you read the Bible, if you believe the words of St. Paul, then Mahatma Gandhi has to be burning in Hell. Not for any sin, but for being a saint bearing the wrong brand name. In a pluralistic society, believing in Jesus means believing in Jesus’ exclusive copyright. Nice Christians will talk about the “scandal of particularity.” Less nice Christians will talk about the heathens being cast into the pit. But all of them are aware on some level of the tension between a universal God who loves us all, and a salvation that is exclusive to the members of one particular sect.

When you step off the plane in Kenya and look around, the religious landscape looks completely different. Kenya does have lots of sects, Quaker and otherwise. Kenya also has a lot of intertribal mistrust (largely an aftereffect of the colonial occupation), but Kenyan religion didn’t seem, from what I saw of it, to be sectarian in anything like the way American religion is. It’s like, Americans are always asking for the best and latest diet; Kenyans are just asking for food.

Kenya did not have the misfortune of conquering half the world and then having to assimilate half the world’s cultures and religions. Kenya was conquered. And when Kenyan Christians exhort you to put your faith and trust in God, it’s not about My God can beat up your God; it’s about God can give you strength and hope when you are beaten and oppressed, watching your society torn apart and your family dying.

In Kenya, Christian faith shines like gold.

In Kenya, the task of throwing off colonial rule and building a stable and peaceful democracy has been (and still is) a desperate struggle. They don’t have a comfortable status quo to fall back on. Spiritual survival and physical survival are both tenuous, and when Kenyans find a way for Spirit to touch their lives, I think they’re less inclined to question the packaging.

There are certainly American Christians who try to see their religion this way, casting the struggle not as one of Christianity vs. other forms of religious expression, but as Christianity vs. chaos and destruction. Often what they’re talking about is the chaos brought on by gay marriage, universal health care, teaching evolution in the schools, and the worldwide conspiracy of scientists to dupe us into curtailing global warming.

But in Kenya the chaos is real. It’s hunger and malaria, poverty, displacement from the land, and the ghastly spectacle of intertribal genocide in neighboring countries.

A second reason that Kenyan Christianity is so different has to do with history. It is hard for me to turn to historical Christian writers for inspiration or guidance because, before I can open myself to any real message of Spirit they might have for me, I have to ask to what degree they took part in religious wars or the violent suppression of rival sects and how much of their writing is just an apology for the theological views of the winners against those of the slaughtered.

That question just doesn’t come up for Kenyan Christians. The missionaries came, and they offered hope. Kenyan Christianity doesn’t date back any further than 1902, and to my knowledge it hasn’t sponsored a single pogrom in that whole time.

To be continued…

Photo: Inscription at Kaimosi Friends Mission Hospital

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Peter in Kenya, Part II: A Society In Upheaval

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

I’ve been to Kenya. That doesn’t make me an expert. I haven't read the history books (though I’ve had a couple of good titles recommended to me). What I know about the place, I know from being there for one short week and speaking with a handful of people, mostly my friend Eden Grace, but also several Kenyans who I got to know at least a little.

One of the drivers who was hired to shuttle us around was a man named Anthony. Our party had divided up into small groups for the day, and Anthony drove two students and me to a village to observe an outreach maternal and child health clinic being run out of a Friends Church. While we were there, since we were in the neighborhood, he said he wanted to show us his grandfather’s farm.

We piled into his truck again and he drove us out to the house where he grew up (yes, it’s the little hut in the photograph, with mud walls and a corrugated metal roof) and the plot of land around it that he inherited. He was very proud of his farm, though he and his family live in town now and he rents the farm out to a family that works the land for him. He took us around to see his fields of corn, the little stream that provides all the fresh water, and also the graves of his grandfather and grandmother. Kenyans usually bury their loved ones on their own land, and you almost never see anything like a cemetery. He had a crew of men working on building a structure of some kind over the graves. They had only done the foundation, but it looked at least as large and as substantial as most of the houses we’d seen.

Anthony’s grandfather had had four sons, so Anthony inherited only a quarter of the original farm. This is happening more and more in Kenya. Families have been dividing up their farmland among their sons for several generations now, until the plots of land are no longer large enough to sustain a family. Anthony is unusual in that he moved his entire family to a house in town. What happens more often in rural Kenya is that the husband will be forced to live in the city for eleven months out of the year, earning money to support his family back home.

Polygamy was once legal in Kenya. It isn’t any more, but polygamous behavior continues, and the economic necessity for husbands to live apart from their families is one reason why. Men from the country take on disposable girlfriends in the city. In a very real sense, all that was accomplished by outlawing polygamy was to strip these women, who would once have been second and third wives, of any legal rights or protections.

Kenya has been going through significant social upheaval ever since the conquest by the British at the end of the nineteenth century. People who had been nomadic were suddenly restricted to whatever land they happened to be on at the time of the conquest. Common land that had been used for grazing was made private property. Subsistence farmers were forced to pay a hut tax in hard currency, which forced many of the adults off of their own land and into the British plantation system where they could work for cash wages.

When the British finally left, the land was returned to the Kenyans, but with no regard for who had originally owned it. Population pressure is now making rural farms unsustainable. And in a society where they elderly have traditionally been cared for by their children, AIDS is wiping out an entire generation, so that instead of being cared for, many of the elderly are struggling to raise young grandchildren. Demographic and economic forces are shifting underneath Kenyan society like tectonic plates, and I cannot envision what the social landscape will look like in another fifty years.

After we saw his farm, Anthony took us back to his house in town. His family runs a brick-making operation in their back yard. This and other cottage industries were first developed by missionaries during the time of British rule as a way of providing the rural populace with cash income and an alternative to being displaced onto plantations.

Anthony brought us into his living room, introduced us to his wife and children, and said it was the first time he had ever had “guests like you” sit with him in his house. It felt like a real honor.

To be continued…

Photo: Anthony's Farm

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Peter in Kenya, Part I: Culture Shock

Part I: Culture Shock
Part II: A Society in Upheaval
Part III: Fairy Gold
Part IV: Oppressor and Oppressed
Part V: Speaking in Meeting, Kenyan-Style
Part VI: Paths I Might Have Taken
Peter's Spiritual Journey Begins...

The idea started a few years ago. My Advanced Placement Biology class was discussing AIDS and health care in the third world, and I mentioned that I knew someone who administered a couple of AIDS hospitals in Kenya. One of my students made an offhand comment about how it would be fun to go out and visit and see, and when I told this to Eden Grace at that year’s Sessions of New England Yearly Meeting, she said, “Yes! By all means, come! Bring your students!”

It was a pie-in-the-sky idea, and nothing came of it for several years. But when I mentioned it to last year’s AP class, their interest was seriously piqued. Could it really happen? I said it was unlikely, that there were about 800 things that would have to line up just perfectly for a trip like that to happen, and if it did, it would be very expensive, but I’d make inquiries.

An hour later, when my tenth-grade bio students came in, they were literally jumping up and down saying, “Mr. Bishop! Mr. Bishop! Is it true?!? Are we going to Kenya?!?”

A year and a half and 800 detailed arrangements later, nine students, two parents, and one other teacher arrived with me in Kisumu to spend a week touring the Friends mission hospitals at Kaimosi and Lugulu, doing rotations and shadowing the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other clinicians. The purpose of the trip was to experience third world health care, but along the way we learned a tremendous amount about Kenyan society and African culture. Although our host was a Quaker missionary, the trip was entirely secular. Still, for me the visit also brought deep spiritual insights.

The culture shock was intense. The friendliness of the people was downright unnerving. We had a seven-hour layover in Nairobi, where we spent the night camped out in a shabby little airport coffee house, playing Scrabble and studying for the AP Bio exam. A man walked up to us and said, “Hello again! I know you, yes? You’ve been here before?” He shook my hand, asked me all kinds of questions about where we were from, and it took some convincing before he accepted I had never set foot on the continent of Africa before. In America, someone like that would have been a panhandler, a con artist, or a shill for a thief, but in Kenya he was just a friendly stranger, and he thought he’d met me before because, quite seriously, all mzungu look alike.

I began the week with the instincts of a tourist trying not to be tacky: Keep your eyes down and don’t stare at the natives or shove your camera in their faces; be quiet and polite and don’t go trying to show off the two or three words of Swahili you’ve learned as if that made you bilingual. My first day at Kaimosi hospital, I approached some of the patients at one end of the men’s ward and asked them, shyly, if they minded if I took some pictures. They smiled and said, “Oh yes, that’s fine.” I took a couple of pictures and left, and then an old guy in blue pajamas came shuffling out of the ward and said to me “Some of the men have been complaining…” and I thought, Oh God, I’ve overstepped. I’ve invaded their space and been a pushy tourist. “…that you didn’t take their picture as well.” I blinked. Oh! I went back in and photographed the rest of the patients and talked for a while with the old guy, whose name was Wilson. In America, he would have come across as a crazy street person, but once again, in Kenya, he was just an old guy who felt like talking. I was working so hard at suppressing all my western instincts around boundaries and personal space that when he said “I want to know more Americans. Can I have your phone number?” I was completely at a loss for how to respond, and I actually gave it to him and watched while he programmed it into his cell phone. And then asked myself, Oh crap, what did I just do?

By the end of the week I was adjusting. I pointed my camera at groups of strangers, and invariably they smiled broadly and waved. I learned to walk up to people with a great big smile on my face and announce, “Jambo! My name is Mr. Bishop! I am a biology teacher from America! These are my students! We are here to learn about hospitals in Kenya!” which always elicited an enthusiastic, “Karibu! Karibu Kenya!” (Welcome! Welcome to Kenya!)

Eden has talked many times about how volunteers often come to Kenya with very American ideas about what we think the Kenyans want and need. We come wanting to build schools and wind up taking away construction jobs. She told us of an American volunteer at one of the hospitals we visited who spent weeks sewing privacy curtains to go between the beds in all the wards—only to have the Kenyans knot them up out of the way. Kenyans don’t place the same value on privacy that westerners do. An American’s instinct, upon seeing great poverty, is to reach for our wallets, but what Kenyans mostly want from western visitors is to make connections—to have us sit with them, talk with them, sharing meals and stories and time.

To be continued...

Photo: Wilson, a patient at Kaimosi Friends Mission Hospital

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Cat, It's Beltane

I'm feeling a bit torn this morning.  It's time to head out to meeting for worship, and I've been kept away from worship far too often this winter; I really feel the need to be there.

On the other hand, I've been just a little under the weather for the past two weeks, and physically exhausted for no reason all weekend.  If I go to meeting, I doubt I'll have the energy for anything else: not shopping for groceries, not cooking the staples for the week, not grading the stack of student essays on my desk.

And certainly not celebrating Beltane.  And that does not seem acceptable to me.

So I'm staying home, but, as I said, I'm feeling a bit torn by all that needs to be done, and how little energy I seem to have this week to do it with.

Which puts me in mind of a story...

Once upon a Beltane, Peter and I were at a Church of the Sacred Earth retreat in northern Vermont.  Despite being almost on the Canadian border, it was warm that year, and we were all tenting in a colorful extempore village outside the cabin of one of one of our members.  The birds were singing, there were flowers blooming, and it was one of those perfect mornings in spring, when the world itself seems to slow down to drink in the sights and sounds, and sunlight pours as slow and rich as honey between the green leaves.

Peter and I woke up in a tent together, and the bright sun warmed us and basted us in laziness as we lay in one another's arms.

This was during the period after I'd separated from my first husband, but before I moved in with Peter.  We were, in general, playing it cool about our romance, as my young daughter deserved a chance to adjust to the end of her parents' marriage before having to accept a new love in her mom's life.  So when we were in public or around my child, Peter and I worked as hard as we could at being undemonstrative of our feelings.

You could have cut the erotic tension with a knife, and I was learning all about the downside of life in a small village in Vermont.  Peter, who lived two hours away from me, was busy moving his fragile and elderly grandmother in with him in a new home for the two of them to share, and could not visit me often.  And when he did, I was painfully aware that simply taking a walk down the street with him would turn heads.

Everything is everyone else's business in a small town.

Here, at Beltane, however, among my Pagan community, the fact that we were a couple was known and understood.  My daughter was with her father that weekend, and we were among friends, some of whom had supported me through the worst of the ending of my marriage, and most of whom had been there from the beginning of this new love.

It had been a long, hard winter, with a lot of grief in it.

Now, however, it was Beltane, and the sun was bright on the yellow fabric of the tent over our heads as Peter and I lay woven together in a little nest of sleeping bags, luxuriating at being together, luxuriating at the morning.

I don't know how long we had been lying there, in that pleasant warmth and that pleasant state between waking and rising, when I realized that the sun was now quite high.

The Church of the Sacred Earth was not just my family--it was an obligation, and I take my obligations seriously.  (Seriously enough, perhaps, to grieve the gods themselves, who may not feel particularly honored by feelings of guilt, anxiety, and resentment.)  I was serving on the Council of Elders that year, and one of our semi-annual meetings for business was about to begin.  I realized suddenly that everyone was up except for us--we could hear them, bustling about, getting coffee, sharing food, calling and chatting just as the birds were doing--and I was lateLate to a business meeting!

I suddenly sat bolt upright and began searching frantically for my clothes.  "I'm keeping everyone waiting!" I panicked.  "They can't begin until I get there!"

And Peter, delight of my heart and love of my life, laughed at me, sat up beside me, and turning my face to look deep into my eyes, reminded me:

"Cat.  It's Beltane."

Oh. Yeah.  Right.  Beltane.  Day of joy, day of sweet optimism, sensual celebration, laughter.  Love.  And a day when love trumps obligation, if ever it can.

Only I could turn Beltane into yet another guilt trip.  But only Peter could remind me what the day is really for.  (And he did.  And he has.  And, if the gods are kind, he always will.)

I did get up, and made it to the meeting, and no one minded even that I took the time to pour myself a cup of deep, strong black coffee before we began, or that I took the time to greet my friends, to savor the sun, and to kiss my new love under the new green leaves before we pulled out our notepads and took notes.  For it was Beltane, and it was understood, that there are things more vital than efficiency, and obligations deeper than the ones we can put in words.

May each of you remember Beltane, and keep it well, in whatever manner suits you best.  Blessed be.

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