Mamajojo's Muse

"Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say; here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58: 6-11

Saturday, April 6, 2019

October 6, 2018,
as calculated by our sun and the turning of our globe and the arrival of the King on this planet. Three years and two months since Laura, the littlest cousin, left us and gave me her gentleman collie.

There was Finn
lying on a soft blanket on the floor. I sat beside him, stroking and stroking the golden fur on his back, and the white tangles on his neck. His legs could no longer hold him, and they stuck awkwardly out from him at the wrong angles. He never made a noise, never looked at me with a question.
First He drowsed, looking around him without noticing much, panting lightly.
Then he slept, deeply and more deeply, and more deeply still.
He twitched, and took a breath,
and then none.
And then a deeper one.

The air had changed. It was thicker, sweeter, and held honey and light and some kind of music that filled every cell in his lungs. He took another deep gasp and tasted it.
It was the place he could run to.
He could feel it between his teeth.
Finn had given up on expecting his legs to carry him, but he rose, and stretched a long, glorious, unhurried stretch, with his front bowing and his rump high in the air, strength on strength flaming out through his veins,
and with the sudden energy of a puppy out of a bath
Finn began to shake.
He shook off the stiffness in his joints. He shook off pain forever and ever until he already couldn’t remember what pain was.
He shook off the matted, filthy places in his fur, and shed the loosened furry tufts and tangles and the smell of old sick dog and the confusion of dimmed sight and the frustration of falling and not pushing himself up on weakened legs. He shook off the shame of dirtied rugs and dribbled fur, shook off the strange smell of linoleum and cleaning chemicals and medicines that hovered around him,
and Finn leaped up and the bright light that filled him was like wind in his bones.

I was still stroking him, thinking he probably couldn’t feel it any more. I couldn’t feel with my fingers that his fur had smoothed and become silky and the wounds he had dragged on to his rough old paws were healing soft and clean. My nose couldn’t smell the clean puppy smell that now floated around him. I stared at his long elegant nose, and I couldn’t see with my eyes that he was laying his chin on my shoulder and giving my ear a lick before taking off.

I couldn’t hear it with my ears, but Laura, his heart’s mistress, Laura was calling him, and her laughter was his real name, and he started to climb. His first steps were tentative, and he still didn’t expect momentum from his shriveled and worn hind feet, but it was there, pushing him up, pushing him higher as his feet dug into the air, the solid air; past the silver table, past the ceiling and its glaring fluorescent lights, past the insulation and beams and roof tiles and chimney and out into the warm October sky. But it wasn’t October anymore, it was finally now, now forever, and the smell of just turning leaves turned into the smell of liquid sunshine and Finn heaved great breaths of it into his lungs, galloping along higher and higher and brighter and brighter. He could have chased a squirrel, they were there, and he felt better than his old self had ever felt.  But the squirrels were there, running next to him, in front of him, behind him, and riding on his back, leaping and chattering and singing and Finn realized that he was singing too. He had to.
At first it was his gulping, old-dog cry, afraid in the night, but that turned to a deep bark of joy, again and again, louder as he realized his power, and then his bark stretched out like his limbering limbs and became a Song and

there was Laura.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Mashed Potatoes (my sample essay from class today)

 I don’t remember any of the presents. Who does?  A litter of torn paper had most likely been gathered and stuffed in the biggest shopping bag for Monday’s trash.  A smaller bag would have held the poufy twists of ribbon for future Christmas mornings.  Or perhaps we stuffed them all away beneath the torn shards of plastic packaging and ripped paper, knowing that The Big Move would have little space for used ribbons and refolded Christmas wrapping. There would be no more Christmases in our little house.
            Nine years earlier, on a sticky summer day, the ancient stones, wide planked floorboards, and creaking, winding staircase had enfolded our family of girls.  In the middle, I wobbled on the sharp edge of thirteen, slipping clumsily between child and young woman and back again.  Karen brought her flute and guitar, her Sixteen magazines, and her secret crushes to her room of ten windows.  Kathy tumbled into the house with scraped knees and a travel box of Little Kiddle dolls, the youngest at nine.  Our mother arrived with white uniforms, polished shoes and winged cap in which she had just sailed bravely back into her nursing career after seventeen years of being a mom at home. 
Betty and Dick, Carolyn and Lloyd, Lois and Clif: all Mom’s smiling high school friends from old black and white photographs, arrived like an army to repair, caulk and paint the little house in the woods. A picnic followed a hard day of hauling furniture and memories from our old house. Mosquitoes and lightning bugs swam in the muggy twilight as we waved goodbye to our friends, dragged the dog into his new home, and unpacked life without Dad.
Window glass, a secret liquid, slides south on gravity and time.  Grey sticker bushes and swaying fingers of trees peered through hundred-year-old glass at our lives flickering in each room of the house like the colors of our new television. They became “our” trees: solid, predictable, constant, quietly watching over the agonies of geometry and first loves, stupid sister quarrels and tight hugs, and the healing of four broken hearts.  The old glass distorted their view, as if through tears, but the trees nodded at nine years of fire-glow and shimmering candles, plates of ginger cookies and Swedish Braid, and the comings and goings of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.  The doors swung open and shut, airing out our grief, replacing it with unexpected life.  We had reached the last chapter of Dottie and the Girls in the Big Woods. New chapters were trailing up and over our tall trees, carried in four different directions by time. 
 What 100 other Christmas stories had the trees watched over in that house? We never knew. Our story ended on a cold night in 1977, around a warm fire, gleaming turkey, creamy mashed potatoes and gravy, and the traditional but unloved succotash.   Like others who knew they were witness to great historical moments, we savored each element of the day. We sighed over the memory of fires that kept us warm and stirred the scent of the Christmas tree. We would miss singing in the kitchen as we cleaned up after holiday meals.  Each of us gazed at the ornaments… the table cloth… wreath on the massive door…. Silently, and near tears, we thought of each memory that would move on with us to unknown places…
Wallowing in my most mournful tone, I dug the big serving spoon under the steaming white mountain in the yellow flowered china bowl.  “I’ll always remember… these mashed potatoes.”  Our giggles began, and the house filled with laughter at our own sappy sentimental sorrowing. 
 I have since celebrated Christmases in homes in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even on the beaches of East Africa.  My sisters have gathered at holiday tables in Costa Rica and Thailand.  Mom now celebrates in heaven, but she still seems present in the love and recipes at our scattered tables.  (There is no succotash in Heaven, I am sure.) Those old tall trees remain, but the house crumbled from neglect and was torn down long ago.  The trees have grown protectively over the hump of brick, stone and glass. Every Christmas, wherever we are, we remember the joy of holidays in that old home, and the healing that time and laughter brought to us under that roof.  And, wherever we are, we never forget to celebrate those legendary mashed potatoes!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Shopping, Sustainability, 800 Wonders

Even before we started the workshop, our team enjoyed a visit to a local craft center. About 20 or more tiny shops circled a handful of tourists and visitors.  Shopkeepers beckoned from all sides, and shoppers are expected to know how to bargain for the best prices.  Many visitors find the whole process a bit intimidating.

I enjoy bargaining by now, after ten years living near a Tanzanian market. (Ask the price, look shocked, offer less than half, continue from there to shake your head and make small increases until you are satisfied or walk away...) There is no better way to meet people or get a sense of local hospitality and humor! It was hard to choose, but I found a few bargains: bags and bracelets.
 I tried to limit my spending: I had brought the money that I thought we would need to pay for all our expenses and those of the participants: room, board, and transportation for 20 new writers.  Would the amount I had brought cover all that?  All week the final tally of our budget worried me. Peter, their bookkeeper, tracks every meal, overnight stay, and water-bottle, with great precision. My concerns started back in the US the week before: I had expected to get another check for running the Drama Club at school, but it turned out that I had already been paid the whole amount earlier in the year. "Pray for my money to stretch!" I asked Suzie, our school secretary, when she told me about my mistake. Would my miscalculation make me $800 short at the end of the week?
Our workshop was five days long, and I was invited to attend the installation of the new Baptist Bishop of Rwanda on the following Sunday.  The staff at ALARM offered to take me on a tour of the local fabric shops, searching for the perfect traditional dress . This was to be a big event at the local stadium, with great choirs and traditional dance, and everyone decked out in a new outfit.

Cecile, a brilliant ALARM staffer, is now my new "shopping sister."  She led me to five or six fabric shops until we settled on this silky green and silver cloth. 
I waited patiently in the local "sweat shop" as my dress was created.  Actually, the tailors all make their own money there, elbow to elbow at their machines and ironing tables.  Only the temperature made it a sweat shop!  There was much laughter and gossip, as perfectly fitted suits and dresses flew out of foot-powered sewing machines. 

Her friend joined us in the search, and turned out to be the tailor that created my skirt and wrap in about 45 minutes. 

My dress was a big success at the Bishop's event, which I attended with Benjamin Nkusi and his wife. The Celebration was a five hour extravaganza, and we were then invited to a pool-side dinner at a beautiful local hotel. Rwandan food is truly delicious: chicken, beef in a great sauce, cooking bananas over rice, several kinds of potatoes, local veggies and fruit, and ever-present soda.
All through the week, as I worried about financing the workshop, I also spent time brain-storming ideas for the ALARM Center to develop sustainable businesses.  Contributions from the USA and England dropped off during the recession, valuable staff members had to be let go in each nation where ALARM works, and building stopped on the new conference building in Kigali. How could they become financially independent?
ALARM hopes to develop small business ventures such as a full-service restaurant,  event hosting, increased guest-house use, etc. I added some ideas to the mix: how about hosting language training in Kinyarwanda for new ministry and aid workers?  And, instead of sending all the craft and gift profits to outside shops, why not have a small gift shop for visitors? Many westerners are uncomfortable bartering for goods, and feel pressured to buy at the craft center. I suggested a set of hinged, locking bookshelves to hold tee-shirts, jewelry, carvings, baskets, etc. for ALARM's many visitors, who would be happy with a set price and no pressure to buy. 

 In fact, the same six-foot tall set of shelves, hinged together and lockable, with wheels on the bottom to easily move them from room to room, would also work for the "resource center" we planned.  New writers need examples of great writing, so our team had brought a big suitcase full of first-rate books for children. Writers can gather at the ALARM center to learn from the resources and discuss their own stories, and local kids can access the books, too, on planned reading days. When conferences or weddings take up the meeting room, the shelves can be moved out to the storage areas. 
But what would these shelves cost? This called for more shopping at the huge lumber yard/carpentry workshop down the road from the ALARM center. The smell of fresh woodshavings and the sound of hammering floated over the neighborhood every time we drove by. I had always tried to catch a glimpse of the beautiful, hand-carved furniture that was made in dozens of stalls under the tin roof or out in the open.  Finally I could see it first hand. 
And what would two sets of wheeled, hinged, double book shelves cost? $800: the $800 that I had NOT received when I expected it to come the week before our trip. Drat!  I would have to fund-raise for shelves as soon as I got home. 

This, of course, called for more shopping. Visiting the smaller shops in town, I was able to see how cheaply I could get earrings, bracelets, and other small items for a potential shop. When buying in big numbers, like 30 pairs, I could get them for one dollar each! This could be really profitable, and visitors would see a price of three to five dollars as a great deal.  

Thirty pairs of earrings went into my bag, possibly for selling at home to raise my bookshelf money.  But, to be honest, I was awfully tired of fund-raising.
By now, it was the end of the week, and I STILL didn't know how short our budget might fall, and how much I would have to add to it to pay for all our expenses. Not until the day we flew out of Kigali did I find out that, instead of falling short, we had a rather tidy balance on our account. How much? Almost exactly...
The money stretched to cover the needed shelves exactly.
The only thing wasted was time spent worrying.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rwanda: my third visit, this time to facilitate a Writing-for-Children workshop. As we flew to Kigali, I wondered if we could really pull this off. My writer/trainers were excellent, but I had no idea who might show up to participate, or if they all would be committed to developing books for kids in East Africa. Benjamin Nkusi, country director of ALARM in Rwanda, had lined up the participants. Would they buy into this concept? Would it be completely alien to them? Worst of all: would they nod politely as we presented and whip up some stories to please us, and then forget about it when we handed out certificates and praise and disappeared from Kigali?
Kigali, Rwanda: a busy, developing city, full of motorbike taxis, new construction,  and commerce
Our team: Pamela Schembri, Peter Catalanotto, Kristen Swanson, Guy Macdonald
20 participants gathered for group instruction led by Peter Catalanotto
From the first day, we realized that Benjamin had done his preparation with extreme care. Each participant had stories to tell and a commitment to put them in written form for children. Our group included several teachers, youth workers, two headmistresses of secondary schools, students, ministry workers, and a civil engineer who arrived with his guitar and a head full of great songs. Many of the participants had not known each other before, but from the first notes, four part harmonies and joyful dance burst out of the group. The harmony surrounded our team of trainers, as well, who meshed easily into the framework provided by Peter Catalanotto.

Each session began with a song
Coaching was provided on children's stories, personal histories, young adult novels
Individual coaching with Guy Macdonald

French... Kinyarwanda...English...Swahili... Communication happened brain to brain and heart to heart

Table groups shared stories, designing the character's "want," problems, and ending  

Our amazing group of writers
ALARM offered GREAT food, helpful and friendly staff, and another place to share stories

We stayed in ALARM's octagonal guest house: great rooms, hot showers, sitting areas and internet
Our target audience: Rwandan kids!

Thanks to all who supported the project, which will continue next year. Thanks, especially, to our Kickstarter friends and Orphans' Promise, who made this possible without even knowing the participants. I will add more stories and pictures to the blog, and soon our "Rwanda Writes" blog will be up and running. There you can see each participant and read drafts of their stories as they are submitted. Stay in touch, and see what happens next!

Friday, July 5, 2013

A New Adventure!

     Hobbits didn't travel by Brussels Air, but I still feel a bit Hobbitish about this latest trip to Rwanda. At times, preparation for this journey seemed to fall into place as if by magic...
     Since our 2011 trip to Kigali and the Institute of Women's Excellence (IWE), much has taken place. (Previous blogs were about that trip) As we were flying home, we were struck by the request of the students at IWE: several of them asked if we had books to leave behind for them to read in English. We were a bit surprised by this, because English had just been introduced as the medium of instruction in schools, and their skills in English varied widely from none-at-all to struggling-for-fluency. But someone had left a copy of "Like Water for Elephants" behind, and the girls had devoured it. We decided that it would be a great gift to send a few boxes of books for them to read in English.
     "A few boxes of books" turned into over 5000 donated books, an entire library, for the girls at IWE! People in our local community donated used books of amazing quality, in all areas of fiction and non-fiction, for the school. A whole library!  The intimidating shipping costs were donated by an anonymous "angel," and a gala evening at Calvary Church brought in more than $12,000 to build the library room at IWE. We learned that there is only one other library in Rwanda, in the capital city of Kigali, donated by Rotary.  These precious girls, mostly orphans of genocide and AIDS, and often rescued from street life, will have an impressive library of their own. We had never imagined such an explosion of our small idea of sending "a few boxes of books!" I was a minor volunteer in this project: Ally and Diane (Telly) Pennell were the planners and organizers, and our librarian at Penn Central Middle School, Mary Lou Ashworth, invented a system to organize and pack the books. About 50 volunteers from our school community showed up to pack the books, on a Friday evening and Saturday morning.

     We packed the books in February, just about the same time that I heard from ALARM in Rwanda, inviting me to do the writers' workshop that I had suggested 18 months earlier. I had not heard from them in a long time, and had decided to put the idea off for another year. After a non-stop year as Drama coach and English teacher, a switch from 12 years of leading Gifted Seminar, I thought a quiet summer of writing and relaxing sounded rather wonderful! (Staying in my "Hobbit Hole...")

     But being invited to organize a writers' workshop? I had to say yes!

     I am a novice writer. I have a couple of middle grade novel starts that I work on when I can, and I have written some drafts of picture books about malaria and other African stories, but I am not qualified to run a workshop introducing adult writers to the nuts and bolts of writing for children. This was really over my head! Where could I possibly find experienced writer/trainers willing to go to Rwanda, and most likely pay their own way? There were so many ways this project could end in an embarrassing melt-down of failure.

     Within a week, I had my writers.

     Yes, there is karma, and coincidence, but I can only say that this was one of those God things... one of several. I asked Mary Lou, our librarian, if she knew of any good writers who might want to go to Africa.

     "Try Peter Catalanotto. He presented at my elementary school and was really great." I knew he was from nearby, but couldn't find any address or email. Then I tried LinkedIn, and Bingo! we connected.  For some reason, he said yes, almost immediately. I didn't know much about him, and I could have been any crazy person as far as he knew, but he was in. I also didn't know that he had had an idea growing that he wanted to "give back" in some way... and that he had signed on to LinkedIn that day. "On a lark."

     Peter recommended Pam Schembri, a friend, librarian, and writer from New York State, as another coach. Pam had heard about the library project, and had driven down to PA just to help with packing books and to find out how she could help with the set-up in Rwanda. She was on board immediately for the workshop, and to help with the library.  It turns out she is the perfect match for this adventure.

     Guy Macdonald, from outside London, was our tour guide all around Great Britain last summer, when I took 16 teachers on a two-week tour.  I was impressed with his knowledge and love of literature, and it turned out he had written a tour guide to England and some middle grade novels. Perfect! We could include that age level in our training, if I could get him to come too. I felt strongly that his heart would connect with the writers we would find in the workshop, and he is joining us: flying out the day after he finishes his first year of teaching primary school. A perfect fit!

     I had to tackle fund-raising, but there was little time and few connections that would find this project irresistible.  Churches, foundations, service groups... they all liked the idea, but it was too short notice. They had already committed their money to other projects for the summer. A former student had raised money on Kickstarter, a website that connects arts projects with potential donors. Becca had raised enough to make her first CD of her original music. Would Kickstarter work for a writers' workshop in Rwanda? (You can check out the site and my embarrassing video at,  search "Rwanda Writes.")

     I didn't take it very seriously at first, and on a lark, set my goal at $6,000.  That was the bare minimum that I thought would make our project, now dubbed "Rwanda Writes," possible. As soon as the site was up, friends and even strangers began to donate! Hmmm... this might work. Cruising on Kickstarter, I could see that thousands of dollars had been pledged for a coffee-table book of celebrities in their bathtubs. So why not my workshop?! But the deadline was 30 days, and I had to get my entire goal in pledges, or not get a dime. Slowly it climbed. Friends added bit by bit... my son, recently gainfully employed, added a chunk, and I waited. It seemed to freeze at $2000.

     With less than a week to go, I mentioned it to my sister, who suggested I approach Orphan's Promise, a foundation that assists one-time efforts to aid orphans around the world. In a flash, they added the missing $4000, and we were on our way! Whew... that was a close one.

     The rest has fallen into place rather easily. A good thing! I had a busy spring, directing "Cinderella,"  and teaching middle schoolers everything they never wanted to know about the English language. I will keep up this blog through the trip and beyond, knowing that there will be stories that I can't even imagine yet. You are welcome to "follow" the blog if you want to be notified of new posts. Welcome to this year's great adventure!


Saturday, July 16, 2011

July 16

Yesterday we said farewell to the Tellys and Lauren Kories... just barely! We made a casual, somewhat late arrival at the airport, and JUST got them checked i before the time that Ethiopian Air requires all passengers to arrive. We had yet another adventure at the craft market, for those last items that we needed for gifts. Then a lunch at a local place that took some time, and then a ten minute sprint to fit all the new treasures in their already snug baggage, so when we pulled into the airport, we didn't even get to hug them goodbye! But what a fine time we have had together. And what a true blessing to have such a great team for Rwanda!

I will back up, to describe the few days we had in the game parks. Everyone enjoyed the first night at Tarangire Tented camp. Amy and I had the usual lux tent, with soft comfy beds, warm blankets, and hot tiled showers and flush toilets. But obey the rules and STAY IN YOUR TENT after the lights go out at 10 or 11. We had great proof that wild animals roam near the tents: a scattering of elephant poop right outside our tent door! But because Diane, Ally, and Lauren were three, they had a cottage at the very end of the line of tents, overlooking the cliff and endless plain of the park. The
As usual, all were surprised at the crystal, linens, and great food at the open air dining kibanda.

The Keefes had joined us by then: Elaine, Bill, and Sydney and Meghan, both of whom were students of mine at Central. I quizzed them at dinner one night, overlooking Ngorongoro Crater, and only Meghan, who had me this last year, remembered Plato's Cave! Ah, well, maybe something else stuck. All 5 girls got along well, and so for a few drives, they had one car, and the adults had the other. We got great photos of them standing in the car ahead of us, taking pictures of the wildlife along the way. They are all very pretty, and look like a poster for Park East African tours. And they laughed and stayed up late, playing games and talking, at most of the parks.

There has been less rain this year, so I saw that there were fewer animals in all the parks than I have seen before, and I suspect they had already moved on in search of water and more food. It was very dry, but still very lovely in a golden hazy dry season way. The lake at Ngorongoro Crater, which is alkaline, was pure, bright white, and the clouds dribbled over the edge of the crater as the sun burned them off by noon. My favorite place on earth, I think, other than 98 Old Bethlehem Road.

The Keefes have had a few extra days in Serengeti, and we talked to them this morning by phone, from the Masai Village they were visiting. Meanwhile, Tellys and Lauren and Amy and I came back from Ngorongoro on Thursday, by way of the orphanage near Lake Manyara, and a smaller Masai village along the main road. As usual we paid $20 each to visit the boma, to be greeted by the young warriors, who have passed their circumcision event, and danced and sang for us, flirting with the girls and teaching them to do the jumping that the young men usually do. Lauren held back with her camera, and is taller and looks older, so i think they saw her as an adult, but Amy and Ally joined right in, and each had a marriage proposal. Amy's second, I believe. I happily videotaped the whole dance, or so I thought. Nope... it was on portrait setting. I will kick my self forever for that one!! Got some great portraits, though!

Then back to that great market in Arusha. The girls got a great start on their kanga collections, and we all bought a dozen earrings, for about a dollar a pair. And bags, beads, and lots of fun gifts. On Friday, my payday, I needed to go to an ATM to get more cash, but didn't notice that the electricity was not on. So in goes the card. Not much response, so i pushed more. Still no response. But the card was stuck, and I could touch the edge of it, but not retrieve it. OH, HELP! Another dumb mistake! But our brilliant driver/guide, John, disappeared for a minute while I stood guard, and found a safety pin somewhere, that he bent into a tiny hook. I was happy to see that card! off to Barclays Bank, which fortunately has a generator. Electricity is terrible here, in Arusha, and is only turned on a few hours a day. We have had to time our hot showers carefully, and sometimes have missed!

Yesterday, Friday, the Telly's left, and I went along to the airport with them, but Amy stayed safely at the guest house, sleeping. The strange food? Malaria prevention tablets? Something has been bothering her stomach. We went to the druggist today, who happens to be an expert on the medication she is taking, and told her to take it at a different time of day. She is SO happy to be here, so it is a terrible shame that this stomach think drains her energy every few days. But no fever or other symptoms, so I think we just have to fix diet and medication time. Don't worry, Mom! She is still giggling and greeting everyone in sight in Swahili now, instead of Kinyarwanda, and still wants to stay forever. And I STILL haven't let her on a motorcycle!!! Not for lack of trying... But she will have to do that on your watch.

So here we are, in this lovely, peaceful guest house, relaxing and reading, catching up on journals, having tea in the garden, and reading her summer book aloud: The Once and Future King. Great choice for a magical trip. n>