Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Moon on the Night of War

Many thanks to friends from St. Lawrence's Kenya Semester Program who have been updating photo albums and jogging memories. 


Ten years ago, on the night Baghdad was bombed, I was in Kenya, swimming in a river that is known for its crocodiles. The moon was nearly full, or just beginning to empty and the gray light made my skin luminescent as soapstone. The rains had not yet come to the Samburu district, to the unplaced spot on a map where I sat in the still warm shallows. The dry season kept the crocodiles from the river—the water not deep enough to hide in.
The rough and rocky landscape, painted silver and dark with the moonlight, looked like what I wish the moon were like. The warmth of the night, the soft rustle of the leaves—trees I do not know by name—all was lovely and strange. I remember thinking, with a place like this in the world, how can a war have begun?
I used to have a strange knack for being disconnected from my country, from my home, when the grounding events of my generation shake the earth. I am lucky, I am privileged beyond words to be so personally untouched, to have swum in moonlight while a war began, to have lived a life divorced from war in the decade since that night. You expect the wars, attacks, storms, all of it to ripple across the air like a shaken sheet of tin, cracking and reverberating like masquerading thunder, and shattering everything in the world. In part, of course, there are shocks and changes, but not as constantly obvious as you expect. As the wars go on and we are not required to sacrifice a thing—instead encouraged to consume to keep America strong—that we are at war becomes as distant a thought as men golfing on the moon.

We carried a crank radio on the trip through Samburu, part of a college study abroad program. I’d heard the BBC announce the bombing of Baghdad before I went to the river. We’d all listened closely for days, chewing our lips and silently wondering if war was coming, hearing the hours and days tick by until our President declared war, declared bombs to be dropped on innocent and bloody-handed alike. There were twenty-seven of us American students, all listening to the news of our country while we might as well have been on the moon. It was strange. The boy whose brother was in the Marines, the girl with four brothers and dreaded the ghost of the draft, they may have felt it more than others, this tension. But, during the day and away from the clipped voices and static of the news, we were largely, contentedly unaware. There were elephants to be seen, villages and farms to visit, camp to make and strike, card games to play while the trucks rolled through the acacias and rocks. Safari is Swahili for wander, and we did this blissfully.
But then, every night after dinner, the voices came spackling through the airwaves and announcing that this was real, bombs were dropped and the war in Iraq was on. It has never made moral sense to me why this happened, how this was allowed to happen.
They say that there is no part of history more distant than the recent past. My history lessons ended with Nagasaki, barely touching the wars in Korea or Vietnam or Iran or Kuwait, the bombings and skirmishes and occupations elsewhere. I suppose my teachers thought, because this happened in their lifetimes, their adulthoods, this was not history.
Thus we are disconnected from the grounding events of our present.
I used to think that war was more like chess, that soldiers lined up and faced off, and whoever had the most dead lost the war. That the bodies would be counted, and the battle could be quick and organized. I was five or six, thinking this. But the idea of tallying the dead, of killing people at all to solve a fight, didn’t make sense.

Before coming on safari, we’d toured the slums of Nairobi. I’d never seen poverty before, seen the costs and underpinnings of modern Western life. Houses are made from cardboard, from cinderblocks salvaged from other rubble, from sticks and paint cans, hammered flat to be shingles.
And then there are the children of downtown Nairobi. They huff bottles of carpet glue, high beyond hunger.
I see war as a vehicle for multiplying such sights across every place it touches. A bomb lands, goes askew and kills civilians. Men, women, children, babies and grandparents, their loved one lost to violence. Grief, in a place where the air thunders with anticipation of death, can lead nowhere good. Children with lost parents will have to go somewhere, homes and businesses destroyed and neighborhoods unsafe, all this foments poverty, desperation, and most unjust of all, the strain of living with constant terror. I will take expensive oil and the loss of America’s global dominance, gladly, as the price of stopping all of this sadness.

Several years ago now, when the wars were no longer a new shock to be washed away in moonlight, I walked across a college campus where thousands of tiny white flags stood witness for the civilians who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than an acre of the campus was a sea of these white flags. I could not count them, still cannot absorb the number of lives they represented. Each one of those flags had a mother and a father, was a child once and should have grown old.
For a while, I drove a back road from my home in New Hampshire to the grocery store because it brought me past a little white clapboard house. The house had black trim around the windows, a mansard roof like a storybook, and a growing tally of Iraqi dead posted on the front door, visible from the road. The number swelled every week. I love the line of the arm I never saw, drawing the new number on the door, refusing to forget the price we do not pay.

Sitting in the Kenyan river, I watched the moon rise up. The friends I was with laughed and we made crocodiles noises. It seems impossible that this same moonlight glanced down on the new rubble and wounds of Baghdad, fought through the dust and smoke. The radio news rang in my ears and I felt divorced from my passport, from the flag I pledged allegiance to for so many years. I wished I belonged to the peace of this landscape, but knew that I did not. By birth, I will always bear some of the responsibility for what was done, what is done, daily, without my blessing or say-so, but in my name.

Every year in March, they broadcast the years that this war has gone on. Today, it is ten, and although the military operations in Iraq have officially ceased, I would not say this war is over, or that anyone has won. The number, a full decade while I have done nothing, makes me cringe, how a war has gone on, revolutions have reverberated out like ripples in a river, and I’ve barely noticed. I think of the white flags across the green grass, the squeal and smell the ink of a thick marker adding up the civilian dead on a back road door. I think of the moon that night ten years ago, rising in the violet grey sky, in the tear between happiness and regret, and I can begin to believe that other ways of being are possible.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Masha, Moscow, and Village Life in Boston

I am one of three sisters. At a clothing swap some years ago, I found a t-shirt from a production of Chekov’s play. At the time, I lived far from both my sisters and began to wear the shirt whenever I missed them. I had not yet read the play.

Shortly after, mostly because if I was going to wear the shirt, I should be at least conversant about the damn thing, I acquired a copy and read it. It was not, as I had perhaps wished, anything like the story of my own sisters, but I still enjoyed it.

Geography is a perennial problem for me. Grass is greener, horizons wider or smaller, friends lovelier, prospects broader, always, elsewhere. The Prozorov trio, with their continual pining for Moscow struck a chord. Masha seemed particularly familiar in her flurry of thwarted passion-driven discontent. I too tend towards the melodramatic, I too am the middle sister, so perhaps that is all that binds me to Masha.
I am not a Chekov scholar and so have only the barest understanding of the context, subtext and cultural mores embedded in those three sisters, of what Chekov intended and what has grown around that intent, like a garden run wild and all the lovelier for the wilding.

But here is what I think of: those girls are trapped away from the life they want, the life they expect. By constantly wanting the impossible, the idealized perfect place, they live in constant disappointment. It is in the blinding trap their longing, in what they lose, that perhaps I see myself and my wanderings most clearly.

Often, I do not know where I should be, where my Moscow is. And I spent long hours worrying about this, with what and where and who I should be becoming horrifically embroiled until I can neither sleep nor move through my days. But, the thought of pining in a bitter stew of disappointment for my entire life is more terrifying.

Which was part of why I moved out of my beloved mountains and into the city. I am happily not part of a troika of grumpy sisters dependent on a feckless brother and trapped like flies in amber in the dying light of Tsarist Russia. I do not have to long for any Moscow, just have to pick a train to somewhere. And so I took a deep breath, ripped off a few of the ties that bind, and became citified.

I don’t know what I expected. I’ve long been fond of the saying that “mountains are indifferent.” It seems similar here—the great bigness of the city is, largely, indifferent to my efforts to carve a space. My constant search for community and purpose, love and beauty—there are no more real answers here than there ever were in the mountains.

How foolish, Masha, to think that in Moscow you would be different.

Wherever you go, there you are.

One day, early in my tenure in the city, I wandered into a bookstore. Some people find solace in running, in becoming a regular in a bar or coffee shop, in joining a club or a church. I find books, and consume them like a ravenous pilgrim. And so it was that I found myself teary-eyed in the poetry aisle and reading Louise Gl├╝ck’s poem Pastoral, from her collection Village Life. The poem is about people from the country, who have come back from the city: “They think they failed in the city/not that the city doesn’t make good on its promises.”

I bought the book.

When I read and reread that line, I expect less from a change in geography and everything becomes easier.

It is comforting, though, to find what remains when everything except yourself is new. I know people who seek their identity in others, in jobs, and in places, and have certainly done all three of those things myself. But, with every change, every move, every new stab at a home, is another veil dropped. There are things about oneself, no matter where you are, that do not change. I find myself becoming more and more solidly myself, with every shift.

Perhaps that is why the Russian sisters want so badly to go, just to see who they really might be.



Tuesday, March 5, 2013

10 Years Ago


Ten years ago this winter, I was spending a semester in Kenya. I'm staggered by how much time has passed from those few months that shaped my world view and honed my passions. Below is an essay I wrote for my thesis about a little girl I met. I was twenty-one then, and though there was no way I could have--probably no benefit to anyone, and my thoughts were likely some by-product of neo-Colonialism masked as aid, etc, etc.--I have always wished in a small corner of my heart, that I could have adopted her. She was four or five or six and so would now be fourteen or fifteen or sixteen. 
I thought of her last night while I held my friends' infant daughter, and I cannot fathom the time that has passed. I hope that she is well, and that her life has been, and will be, kind. 
The issues that shaped her young life, they have not changed yet, I think.

For Serewa

Serewa has no parents. I ask, but everyone is quite sure that she is no one’s child. She must be about five or six years old, a small bean of a girl. At night, sleeping on the goatskins in Cosina’s home, Serewa curls up beside me. She snores lightly.

I cannot speak to her, this little girl who doesn’t let me out of her sight. She speaks Maa, the Samburu language. I can muscle my way through Swahili, but only by the skin of my teeth. So instead Serewa becomes my shadow, holding my hand tight and sitting close and we do not speak.

Serewa has no parents and seems more alone than the other children who run between Cosina and Josephine’s homes. These two women, the wives of a Samburu elder, take care of the girl. She is clean and clothed and fed, but sits to the side, furtively waiting for her turn, makes herself smaller. Cosina is proud and tender with her own children. Josephine has an infectious laugh, and her face lights up like a candle with her own sons and daughters.

Perhaps there are more orphans who live around the family settlement. Orphan doesn’t seem like the right word. Serewa is not begging for glue on the streets of Nairobi or sent to a workhouse like Dickens’ orphans or sold to a brothel like so many, too many, other little-girl orphans around the world. She is fine, safe and healthy, and surrounded by people who treat her kindly as one of their own, blood-kin if not blood-child. She may never be as loved as their own children are, but these women will keep her safe, and that is better than many.

And still, when we go to the well for water, the child’s stoicism melts my heart. The well is perhaps a mile away, near the school where Cosina and Josephine’s children go. The women load up with jugs and buckets and we walk to the water. Serewa, who does not go to school, comes along, lugging a jug that is a quarter of her size. She holds the jug in one hand, grips my hand with the other. I’ve got a bucket in my hand, want to take her jug and have her run like a wild thing, like a child. But I do not know the words to offer this, and so we walk. She skips beside me, looking up to smile shyly.

When we reach the well, amid the joking and clucking of the other women who’ve come for water, the containers are filled. Serewa’s jug is maybe two gallons. Filled, that’s about seventeen pounds. A strip of pink cloth is wound around the handle, and she undoes the cloth, loops it over her forehead. The tension of the cloth, of her neck, pulls the jug close to her thin back and she takes off nearly running back home. The jug bounces, faded yellow plastic against the brown and tan flowers of her dress, as her bare feet pound the red dirt with quick steps.

I’ve come to the Samburu district as one of the final cultural field trips of the semester in Kenya. The Samburu are culturally similar to the iconic Maasai of East Africa, the red-blanketed cowboys of travel brochures. They are a cattle culture, semi-nomadic. Historically, the men have taken the cattle herd grazing around the region, staying under the grass is thin and then driving the herd on for new pastures. The women stay home to raise children, crops, and flocks of sheep and goats. It is a polygamous society, hence both Cosina and Josephine being Lenamugi’s wives.

Polygamy, as practiced by the Samburu, is not the nightmare of oppression and fear that blares across the American news every so often. With the men gone for so much of the year, the women need each other, need someone to rely on, someone to talk to. The interdependence of the women, as if they barely noticed whether their husbands were present or not, surprised me. If anything, the men seemed out of place, uncomfortable in their wives’ lives, in their wives’ homes.

The houses, low-roofed huts made of goat dung and mud adobe on walls and frames of woven sticks, are the women’s. Cosina built her house just after her marriage, and she and Josephine spent a few hours reinforcing the roof while I was there.

I came to Samburu puffed up with indignation over the subjugation of women, the injustice of polygamy, and all the rest that a liberal girl from the States might find offensive. Sitting outside the hut, making beaded necklaces with the children, I watch Cosina and Josephine laugh as they smear mud over the cracks in the walls. Their husband, Lenamugi, and his brother who lived nearby wandered across the plains in the near distance. At least they had each other. The loneliness of men, back from the male companionship of cattle camps and catapulted into a sphere of life where they were nearly superfluous. Soldiers, back from a tour to duty to a home that was never their own.

The trouble is that the cattle camps have always been on public lands, were so before land titles and use were demarcated. And now, the land is being divided for private use, or further divided to protect from private use and exploitation. It all amounts to the same thing—access to the size and variation of public land necessary for cattle camps is disappearing. Without the land, there are fewer and smaller camps, fewer and smaller herds, and the Samburu men’s world shrinks.

The women, their world bound by the distances between their homes, water, and the forest, are less immediately affected by the shifting land. But as their husbands and brothers and sons are losing their identity as cattlemen, are staying home, emasculated by the loss of grazing lands, the women begin to feel the change. The changes crash into the women’s world, fists and infections breaking millennia of tradition. The diseases of unhappiness, of frayed social fabrics, alcoholism, domestic abuse, abandonment, all set in as the men settle and the lives they’d thought to live slip through their fingers.

When people are tied to a disappearing land, what happens to the people?

There is less land for fewer cattle, and some men leave the Samburu region. They head for settlements and cities, hoping for work and promising to send money to support their wives and children. Some disappear, some come home. Some come home, carrying AIDS from seeking comfort, seeking power, wherever they could find it in unfamiliar places.

Serewa has no parents. The most Cosina says is that her mother is dead and her father is gone. There are a thousand different ways this could have happened. And the story of land loss bleeding into human lives is as obvious as any news headline. We are bored of this story, heard it so many times we’ve stopped listening.

When I left Cosina’s house, I bent down to hug Serewa. Her thin arms around my shoulders, hot hands on the back of my neck—I can feel the heat and the pressure of her weight still. The skin absorbs, remembers, what ears no longer hear.