Sunday, February 28, 2010

Our New Year Begins


The weekend of 2010’s beginning found us on the road again - a treacherous road. Winter came to the East Coast in no uncertain terms this year, and the holiday was not able to hold it at bay. We set out early, driving north through an innocuously named “wintry mix” that forced most to remain in their homes, and most others to move more slowly than my wife can manage - thus we spent a good part of the beginning of our drive in the passing lane, with me ad-libbing atheistic prayers as we roared through the icy haze, past jack-knifed tractor-trailers and any sense of sanity. But Kathy is a skilled driver. Crazy, perhaps, but good. And so we moved north to Rhode Island without trouble, though the storm pursued us relentlessly all weekend long.

We visited Ruth, Kathy’s grandmother (and now mine), who is a gem of a woman. Ninety years and going strong. We played cards and listened intently to her stories, including one which particularly touched me: her recounting of her husband Pete’s last days. This tale inspired the following, which I read a week later during the open microphone portion of the Iota Club and CafĂ©’s Poetry Series in Arlington.

Pete's Song

She tells it with such brevity, the story of a man, losing his mind -
I see her in the living room with the furniture they shared,
Its curves of an earlier age, colors all faded and thin
Like the skin that graces her hands, and the white of her hair.

He married her quietly, in a wind-swept oceanside town
Before taking his commission and shipping off to the fight.
She began their family with the first of four daughters
While he was away and her brilliant eyes grew bright -

Anticipating his return. He was handsome, and knew his letters,
So she gave up college and teaching to become his perfect bride.
Together they made this home, this comfort in which she rests
And sings the song of his decline, and of staying at his side.

After he fell, there was nothing more that she might do.
As he had her, she had carried him as far as she could.
The nursing home, the room he left when he needed to sing
Was where he faded, graying inside like time weathers wood.

His moments grew more uncommon, but harder to bear,
"These are not my people!" he cried, and he knew.
Beside himself with loneliness, he ached to go home.
He looked at her, said "I only ever really loved you."

Softly, his heart gave way with a trembling sigh.
He died near the window, the afternoon sun on his face.
She got the news at home, in the kitchen that was theirs for years ,
And the narrative ends there, almost empty, with a ghostly grace.

M. Dill

That was a special night – only the second time that Kathy had been in the audience when I read. Nothing quite compares to reading to your own muse. Some other friends joined us, too, all of whom inspire me in some way. One is a gifted storyteller, and wiser that I think he even knows; and the other two are amazing artists (one even read her own work that night – it was brilliant, beautiful and filled with power).

But I get ahead of myself. The New Year. New England. We not only visited Ruth, but Kathy’s great aunt, Jo. She is in assisted living, now, at 94, but has not slowed down much at all as near as I can tell. I hope to be so sharp at 54. And we paid a visit to Ellen, one of Kathy’s three aunt’s on her mother’s side, and thus one of Ruth’s four daughters. Ellen is a joy, all smiles and gladness. I felt good about being able to help the staff at her group home assemble some furniture while we were there. Perhaps the hardest part of being in Africa is being so far away from family, from such amazing women as Ruth, Jo and Ellen… and Pat.

Pat is Kathy’s mother, and we stayed with her on the Massachusetts coast, where she fed us and feted us as warmly as always seems to be her wont. And while we were there, we were revisited by the wrath of winter. Driving down near the water, we witnessed swells sweeping under shoreline buildings, the flooding of roads and yards, and a crashing surf trying to batter its way through the break walls. I managed to catch some of this sound and fury on video: waves rolling under homes; and waves climbing the concrete barriers.

The snow fell and fell, and we feared that Pat’s party would get canceled; but Massachusetts and Rhode Island folks are a hardier lot than that. Almost everyone arrived to join in the festivities, including my sister-in-law, Karen, her husband, David, and their daughter – the light of everyone’s life – Maisy. I was really touched that they had driven all the way from Rhode Island – indeed, that so many had braved that storm.

Before returning to D.C., we returned to Ruth’s house, where the snow continued to layer the landscape. So we decided to spend an extra night with Ruth, playing cards and talking. Or rather, we used the weather as an excuse to stay. And we were so glad we did. After all, we will have no chance to see her again for two years…

As is so much the case for my own mother, Anne, who we visited in Ithaca later in January. Of all the people I know on this earth, no one would be more willing to visit us in Lesotho. Alas, her back may not allow her to make the flight. (A problem with which I can too easily identify.) So again, Kathy, without complaint or hesitation, drove us for hours and hours, that we might spend some precious moments with family before we left for Africa. We even got to see my son, Casey, and his girlfriend Sheryl, who are such superb human beings as to make any father proud.

And I must say, that as much as my own back may suffer after eight or nine hours on the road, I cherish those moments with my wife. (We even managed to stop in Philadelphia on our way back, for lunch and a look at the Liberty Bell!) I never tire of her company, her companionship, her conversation. Truly, I am a fortunate man.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Walking Tour

For those of you who are interested, I have posted a two part walking tour of our new home. Part I is most of the tour. Part II is the concluding few moments, separated from the rest because I lost my hold on the record button right before the end...

Home Away From

We arrived in Maseru during rainy season, and such a one as even the locals call extraordinary. Our new house, which we adore, was unable to hold back the full force of the deluge. The rain began to pour in, through the kitchen wall, down from the archway between the living room and the stairs, out from behind light switches, into the utility room downstairs so fully that it ran out into the main entrance hallway, and in through all the windows on the master bedroom side of the first floor. I spent all day mopping and sponging and calling… who? I know not the systems here, so I called my wife. She spoke with someone in her office, and by the next day I was receiving stream of visitors: first, from Peace Corps; then, from the Embassy; and finally, the landlord. Repairs began within a couple of days.

Someone commented at one point, with regard to the new indoor water features, “Welcome to Africa”. I responded, and I think rightfully so, that Africa was not the issue. From what I can tell, the previous tenant had to be aware of the leaks. Indeed, both a gentleman from the Embassy and the landlord confirmed that work had been done. They thought the problem solved. Then came the unprecedented rains, and the falling water – Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of ‘bringing the outdoors in’ taken to a new extreme! This problem, the leaks, could have happened anywhere. Indeed, my old condo community in Virginia has experienced much worse water infiltration problems than what we have experienced in our new Maseru home.

The video I have posted here does not really do the storm justice, but it should provide some partial sense of what it was like.

And please do not mistake me. Kathy and I are happy with our home. It is beautiful, with stone floors, wood beam ceilings, and stunning views. Just take a look...

In front of our house, Kathy and our new friend Charles, who was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule for us on our first few days in Maseru:

Some of our yard, and the view from our porch:

Our living room, and the evening light therein:

And two different views from our back steps:

Home Away From

Our walls and windows are at the top of a hill
where valleys and broad mountains stretch out at eye level,
brick walls and barbed wire below.

This is Africa and it is our home,
filled with promise and legends of fear on the streets -
Lesotho, where gracious greetings of welcome are commonplace,
like the summer rains of early February and the rusty mud
that slides down the vales of this Mountain Kingdom
and into our kitchen cupboards. We are happy
in our first days here, and expectant.

I suspect we will learn many new dances here,
become better able to anticipate one another
as we walk upon this extraordinary land. Needing to start anew
with all our assumptions, our life now mirrors our marriage,
for in both we are children and we are gods,
we can become anything, and we may.

Now our days are told by their innovations, the wind blowing
through and against our windows with storms
and instruction.


First Impressions of Africa


I am getting ahead of myself, I know, in posting my first impressions of Africa when the period from Christmas to now remains silent, but we are here, now, and I want to share this before the sensation fades. And at first, Africa is just that – a sensation. A feeling of being somewhere else, somewhere new. It feels different when I breathe.

Africa is closer to the earth, I think, than other places I have been. Unprocessed. At least it feels so to me. But I do not know how long that will last. First in Johannesburg (known here as ‘Joburg’), where we spent a night prior to flying on to Maseru, and in Maseru itself, our new home town, the push to development seems obvious and inexorable. At first glance, both look like any city in the US (substantial for Joburg, small for Maseru), especially a city in the throes of growth. Flying overhead, and indeed flying into both, I saw little to distinguish them from any of the places on this planet I have already seen. The exception to this ordinariness was the landscape on approach to Maseru, where the depth of the land varied in patterns that resembled a half-finished puzzle of a sweeping rural landscape painted in deep rust reds, soft browns and faded, misty greens.

More differences began to appear as our perspective became earth-bound. In Maseru, in particular, the growth appears to be taking place in a context of far less development infrastructure than I am accustomed to witnessing in the States. The full equipment, design and management of construction and other development-related activities seem relatively sparse or absent. But still the growth is going on… and (perhaps like a typical Westerner) I suspect that with it is going something deep, something sacred, a connection to our world that gets anesthetized as the full infection of economic development sets in.
I must say, though, that the people here have been uniformly gracious and kind – locals and expats alike. Through them, through us, perhaps, connections between the sacred and the profane are maintained. And the land is still beautiful, still only touched here and there with the concrete, cables and contamination of capitalism’s cruel commerce. And I suspect that because of these – the people and the land – my wife and I are going to love living here, and that such joys as we find in our living will nourish the love we hold for each other.