Thursday, August 30, 2007

Cranky, hot, hungry, headachey, and hormonal. God! The saving grace is that I am finally getting to the poems from Malawi and C and my other friends and family affirm that they're good. Like little snapshots--all the pictures I didn't take with a camera because I am a sucky photographer and there were many on the trip with better equipment and better shutter-clicking capabilities than I--every photo I took in my mind is swimming into focus as poetry.

I found out today that my friend Jasch Hamilton of Diamond Organics died last week. Jasch was endlessly curious, interested and interesting, energetic, delighted, intrigued, searching, questioning, but always in a positive way. I knew he had a brain tumor from the day I met him, in one of my writing workshops, but he was beating it back with green tea, T'ai Chi, meditation, chemo and radiation. He was even curious about his disease--marvelled at the new breakthroughs in medicine that allowed them to track and treat his illness, remained up-to-date, optimistic, and completely engaged.

I never thought he would die.

I did not get to take him to Esalen one more time as we had discussed and as I knew he wanted to.

I sent him my poems and plays, and he always was delighted in them, and often sent a box of food as if to say "Food for the mind, food for the body." It was always organic, exquisite, and fresh.

I will go to his memorial this Sunday. I will miss Scott's next Saturday, because of teaching at Esalen. I missed my friend Michael's in January because it was in Seattle.

Three vital, vibrant men, great guys all of them, all fathers of children who still need their presence, dead in their fifties. Of cancer.

Monday, August 27, 2007

It's been a week since I've been back, a week of inarticulateness and resting, hearing about the death of a friend's lover, too young, from cancer, slowly unpacking, hanging out with C, with my roommates, easing back into this comfortable, foreign life.

My Dad wants me to send around an email about Malawi, something he can forward to his friends. I myself promised I would write about it. Of course I would write about it. I write about everything. Definitely I will write about it.

As soon as I figure out what the hell to say.

"Going to Africa" had always been on my list, that famous list of things you want to do before you die, a list I cajoled C into writing last night after yet another newspaper article extolled the virtues of setting such goals and then keeping them.

Ever since I was a child I drank in the stories of medical missionaries, brave doctors who brought medicines and vitamins to isolated peasants in far-off lands. There was a Dr. Dooley--is that right? Was that his name? Tom Dooley, I think, who brought medical care to Vietnam, back in the 50s--and others. Albert Schweitzer. In our own times, of my very own exact generation, Paul Farmer in Haiti.

So I wanted to go, and in the back of my mind, I think I imagined I'd find something useful to do with myself there. Feed orphans. Help somehow.

Although I love what I do, although teaching poetry and essay and memoir are worthwhile, good endeavors, and my writing and publishing are likewise worthwhile and make me feel Important to boot, I have questioned, these last years, how much I am really giving. If I were to die tomorrow I would feel I had not given enough away, not done enough to alleviate suffering in any way I could.

Being a writer has some aspects to it that are selfish. I like my private time, my down time, and my obsession time. I got precious little of any of those things on the trip; they are luxuries not found in African villages or large touring groups. I spend money on books and movies and entry fees to poetry contests--lots and lots of money, too much money, on those things. (I also buy too many clothes and eat too much junk food, but that's another story.)

I give to charity yes--a little. Not sacrificial giving--I don't give to the point where I am depriving myself of something I want. And I live in an uneasy kind of peace with all that, a fat American peace that is not really peace.

Then: Malawi. Busses with patched tires, patches on patches, tires that blew out every thirty miles. Kids with no shoes or with ragged shoes. Clay huts with thatched roofs, women nursing their babies on the beach where they wash, fish, and conduct their lives, asking my friend for kwatchas when she took their pictures. Beautiful women.

I came, I saw, I took notes, other people took pictures. We left. And now what?

I'll give more money to kudo, but money isn't it. I would like to be in some relationship to this other world, and not sure how yet.

Meanwhile, I'm preparing to teach at Esalen in a week and a half, I revised an essay called "Bad Words" which I think Shambhala Sun will publish, I fixed a flat tire on my car, with help from C and the nice people at Big O. It's so conveneint here. You get a flat, you drive to Big O, you whip out your credit card and magic! New tire!

I keep sleeping, but still feel tired and logey and my head hurts. Life is still a little out-of-focus, a little blurry. I feel 10,000 leagues under the sea. I just learned that a member of our party was hospitalized after she got home, with a lung infection.

I'm grateful to C for his kindness, for still being happy to hang out with me although I don't feel scintillating or fun this week.

I'm sad for my friend who died of cancer.

I'm wondering about the villagers we left in Malawi--what will become of them in the next decade, as development nibbles at the shore of Lake Malawi, then bites down hard. Will they get electricity and phone service, roofs that don't leak in the rain, decent education for the kids, and a good hospital? And will that bring with it trash and television and alienation?

I wanted to count myself as a global citizen, and I do. I want to be able to participate in these conversations, between over-developed (technologically) places, and poor countries, only the more I see the less I can summon anything resembling an opinion.

C and I talked last night about our relationship, how we want it to help both of us evolve. I need to develop myself, but how? Right now, my head aches terribly and I know that the only journey for me to take at this moment is an inward one, into silence.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I'm up at 5 a.m. my time. Two days after I arrived home with the drum I had bought from the musicians at Tukumbo, and the three little wooden chairs I had lugged in my ten-ton luggage, and the bright green and blue and yellow African cloths folded and stuffed into every odd corner of my carry-on and my memory of roasted mice on a stick by the side of the road (no, I didn't eat any), and the kids playing soccer with a "ball" made of plastic bags smushed together, wound round and round withy black string and C greeted me at the airport and took me home to my room where Ruth had lovingly left big purple orchids to greet me, jet lag has finally set in.

Thirty or more hours of traveling, airports in Lilongwe, Johannesberg, London, New York, and San Francisco. Phew! Last night I crawled into bed at 9:45 p.m. Up again at 3:30, wide awake. Okay, it's going to be like this for awhile. Try to go swimming as soon as possible.

I have greeted my roommates and made a few phone calls. I have showered and unpacked. I have walked on Alameda Beach in the moonlight and gone to Trader Joe's and had a cup of C's excellent strong coffee, and a big salad with feta cheese and black olives. I have eaten potato chips--too many potato chips. I have paid bills and deposited checks. I have laid out the presents I bought and tried to figure out who to give them to. I have lost track of time and forgotten my brother and sister-in-law's birthdays. I have written the first paragraph of an essay about Malawi. am going back to bed now, and will blog again later.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Life is slower here. People are used to waiting for things. Men and boys go out very early in the morning--or late at night--to fish in Lake Malawi. It sounds idyllic, but the lake has been badly overfished, so it's hard to get a good catch.

Women cultivate cassava, groundnuts (peanuts), spinach and other greens, tomatoes, onions, bananas, and rice. The nicer houses are brick. They make the bricks themselves, out of the clay soil, and bake them in brick ovens, which they also make themselves.

The ingenuity is amazing.

I've seen children playing with bicycle rims and straw. They use the rim as a hoop, and the straw as a stick, to keep it rolling. It's the only toy I've seen here, although the men carve wood incessantly. But everything the men carve is to sell to the tourists.

I've got a piece of African cloth wrapped around my waist in a skirt, the way the women do here. I'm going to buy a lot more pieces of cloth and bring them back. Cloth and wood.

One of our group saw a man carving using the broken neck of a Coke bottle for a knife.

I ate flies last night. They catch them in a basket or a net, a whole swarm of them, and smush them into little balls and cook them. It didn't taste good or bad--just neutral. Dipping my fingers into the bowl of raw chopped flies felt like touching a bowl of feathers--very soft.

Day after day we have eaten the same food--sema or rice--the sema is made from either cassava flour or maize flour. Neither has any protein, vitamins, minerals or roughage--just starch. It's the staple food. Red sauce, made from tomatoes. Fish or chicken. The chickens here are small, much smaller than the U.S. They roam freely around the village, pecking and scratching, but return to their own roosts at night. They build the hen houses out of straw and elevate them onto a platform made from sticks, to protect the hens from the hyenas that used to be a problem here.

There are no longer wild hyenas roaming, but there are still sometimes hippos who come in the rainy season and demolish the cassava gardens. It's illegal to kill the hippos, but sometimes people do.

Women have very little economic power here even though they do the work that keeps life going--hauling water (on their heads), hauling firewood, also on their heads, ending the gardens, cultivating the food, gathering and cooking it, birthing and raising the children. Women's work.

I want to put my money into a woman's hands, but it is the men who interface most with the tourists, selling their carved wooden objects--salt cellars and salad spoons, tiny chairs decorated with hippos and rhinos and elephants and lions, decorated bowls, paintings of Lake Malawi.

I am so grateful that so far, knock wood, my health has held up well. At least half of our group has gotten sick with some kind of flu which is also passing through the viullage--hacking bronchial coughs, and fever. It looks miserable. I've been eating a lot of protein and taking sleeping pills so that I can sleep through the sound of drunken young Australians partying at this campground.

I've brought three books and not read a single sentence of any of them. I have two blank books and haven't written anything except to take notes, and in this blog and in emails home. I'm just absorbing like a sponge. I don't even know what I'm thinking about, except that it is the girls and women who touch me most deeply.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Today six of us rented a leaky falling-apart rowboat and rowed out to a little rocky island on Lake Malawi to dive off the rocks, snorkel and swim. Before I left I promised I would not swim in Lake Malawi because of parasites, but it is so sparklinbg and pristine here I couldn't resist. It was such a good feeling to stretch my body out in the water, and snorkelling I saw angel fish striped pale blue and black and other tropical fish.

Last night Masankho's father, Alekey Banda, arrived and spoke to us about the history of Malawi since it got its independence from the British in 1964. I forget all the details but I have a sheet of paper with the salient facts and will put them here later.

Meanwhile, I just feel in bliss. I want to stay in Africa forever, want to drink mango beer and learn to play bao and just wear a bright cloth knotted around my waist the way the village women do. I feel so sorry for the members of our group who are sick--it's a nasty flu-like bug. So far no one has bad diarrhea (that I know of.) I'm eating as much protein as I can, and taking drops of grapefruit seed extract in my water and I feel fine. My period started yesterday, so I am deliciously relaxed now. It helps that I boycotted the rattley old bus--half-hour rides from our sleeping accomodations at Kande Beach and Masankho's family home in the village where we all gather for meals and Interplay and to travel around and see the aid projects.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

We are in the village, Tukombo. It's very poor. People eat cassava three times a day. Cassava is a white root vegetable, covered with a dark brown skin--mostly starch. They soak it and ferment it, and scrape it and bake it into a hard fluffy gluey ball and eat it rolled in their hands, dipped in sauce, or with meat and vegetables. We, the foreigners, have meat and fruit and vegetables with every meal, but the villagers don't.

My intestines are pretty well glued together with cassava at this point. 'Nuff said.

They greeted us singing and dancing. A whole troupe, moving together, singing, "Thank you, Masankho, thank you for bringing the visitors from America." It was overhwelming. They had been dancing and singing for hours, with an accompanying drum. We were overhwelmed, but then, everywhere we've gone, we've been greeted by a singing and dancing contingent. The Africans redefine graciousness.

The women wear bright cloths wrapped around their waists for a skirt, and a shirt--any shirt. They carry huge burdens on their heads; buckets of laundry, bundles of firewood, baskets piled with cassava. The men wear shirts and pants. They make wood carvings. They should be fishermen, but for complex political reasons, in this region they have not been supported to fish. Almost everyone is ragged and dusty and many people are very skinny.

Yesterday we were taken by bus to seven of the hundred and something projects that Masankho's family funds and organizes through their organization, Kudo. The visits included a trip to a girls' school, a trip to an elementary school, a piggery, an orphanage, to see the cassava wells where the women soak and clean the cassava, skill-building centers where students learn to use tools and a market where we bought crafts. On the bus, off the bus.

The old cassava wells are in a muddy swampy area, where women have to stand up to their ankles in filthy water, where leeches, snakes and crocodiles are a danger, as well as predatory men who lie in wait. With funds that Masankho#s aunt helped raise, they have built some new clean cassava wells from concrete, which are safe and protected and raised up.

The rest of Malawi eats maize, which is more nutritious than cassava, but for political reasons, this region, Khata Bay, has not been given seed for maize.

The orphanage was the hardest place. The children there looked hungry--they were skinny, with old eyes. I asked how old one little girl was--I would have guessed four. She was seven. Another I thought was ten was fourteen. They clustered around us hopefully, but we didn't have anything for them. We give cash to the foundation, some of which should come down to them. But those kids--to see kids literally in rags, and all dirty, some with eyes swollen and red from conjunctivitis, the bigger ones carrying the smaller ones around on their hips, just out there in the middle of the woods. The adults who worked there looked as skinny and ragged and exhausted as the children. I wished so much for something to give them. I want to go back there.

The weather is beautiful, warm, not too hot. I haven't had to use insect repellant once, although I am faithfully taking my malaria pills. The land is gentle and inviting, leafy, green, and African. I love this land!! I can understand how homesick an African would feel for it--the air is gentle here, we are on the shores of Lake Malawi, which is so big it feels more like being at the shore of an ocean. It even has waves.

For all its problems, the village is a beautiful place, with little paths connecting everything. We've seen plenty of chickens, some monkeys in the trees, African cattle, which are much smaller than genetically engineered American ones. Because of the weather, people mostly live outside. They have thatched-roof hits, some with one or two or three rooms. The children play with toys made out of straw and sticks and a stray wheel, or an empty plastic bottle. There is no trash. Nothing is wasted.

I feel completely at home here, drinking Nescafe with powdered milk, eating rice porridge for breakfast, holding babies on my hips, trying to learn the rudiments of Chichewa, practicing the dances. For me, the pain and fatigue of the journey to get here have dissipated and I feel good, but about a third of our group is complaining of congestion, head colds, or other ailments. I feel like I want to stay and stay, helping out in the kitchen, holding babies, doing whatever I can to make myself useful.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

First impressions of Malawi: the faint smell of smoke from cook-fires hangs in the air. It smells like Haiti. This morning, from my window, I saw a boy with a load of sticks on his head.

I thought it would be hot and full of mosquitoes. It's cool and rainy. I haven't got one mosquito bite yet.

I'm typing this wearing my jeans, a white t-shirt, a shirt over that, and a sweater. That's all I have with me right now. My luggage never arrived from Heathrow. Eight others in our party are in a similar boat.

It doesn't matter. Other people are giving me sunscreen and insect repellant, I have my malaria tablets, and my glasses and toothbrush. I washed my underwear out in the sink last night and wore it again this morning.

Last night we went to a family friend of Masankho's for a feast. His father was there, elegant in a three-piece suit. We were all in various stages of falling-down exhaustion. Malawi is called "the warm heart of Africa" because the people are so warm and gracious. And they are. Hospitality is a religion for them. There were platters of food, which we Westerners approached with trepidation because of all the warnings the travel doctors had given us. It would be hard to be a vegetarian traveling here. Not that there aren't vegetables, but I'm reluctant to eat the raw ones and there's only so much breadfruit and potatoes you can eat.

After dinner a troupe of dancers and drummers came and danced for us and that was amazing. Sheer raw physical joy and grace and power, sharp vertical pelvic thrusts, wide-hipped stance, arched back, the kundalini energy traveling up and down forcefully, rhythmically, deliberately...

There was a dance which women dance for the young men's initiation ceremony. A dance for girls as they are initiated into becoming women. There was a dance they had made up after African soldiers returned from the first world war and the second world war. The men danced their part in military khakis with colored sashes. Their movements showed how they had to clean and load their rifles and other things. The women danced around them in African dresses, signing and chanting and shouting. It was almost like a homecoming, healing ritual for the returning soldiers.

Beautiful drums in a deep black night. I had heard about the darkness of an African night, that it is more dark than in the West, and it is. A soft black blanket.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Im in the lobby of a Marriott Hotel after having "slept" sitting up on a Virgin Atlantic red-eye flight last night. Some of our group went to see art Museums--the Tate and the Modern. Some went to just tour around downtown London. I knew I didn't have enough energy for either. For six pounds (about twelve dollars) you can use the pool at this Marriott. I swam a little, then collapsed in a chair and fell asleep. A hot shower, and I feel semi-human--with another all-night plane flight in front of me.

This settles it. I am not going to be Angelina Jolie when I grow up. I don't have the stamina.

But the really great news is that I found out a poem of mine won the Writer's Digest award for unrhymed poetry. I get money--always welcome--and more importantly, a chance to meet with editors and agents. This is what I've been waiting and working so intensely for--a week after I was feeling that nothing was happening, it was all at a standstill.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Yesterday the air was so poisonous that I ended up not going into the city. It was as if a big gray-white sponge were stuck to the sky. Hot, muggy, smoggy and still. Today seems a little fresher.

Random notes on race: Oakland and the Bay Area are diverse--that's why I love living there. And Massachusetts is not. I didn't notice that so much growing up--it was just the way things were--black people were mostly in Roxbury, there were only a handful in Lexington, except for the Metco kids who got bussed in to our suburban school where they ate at their own lunch table and were seldom (never) in my A.P. classes.

We had a great time in Massachusetts this trip with my family, but saw very few black people--or any kind of people of color. And at this point in my life, I notice. At the train station, waiting for Amtrak we even caught ourselves counting--"Okay, there's one." "There's another one--but he's working as a janitor."

This phenomemon of segregation is a weird, silent disease--it's just an absence of color, a sea of white and pink and blonde and red hair, which we blend into seamlessly. After spending years in inter-racial couples I notice it especially. When we got to New York, of course, we were back in diversity-land--and what a beautiful rainbow it is. We both noticed, not just that there were a lot more black people--but there were tons of well-dressed, professional-looking black people, visible in every walk of life. In the museums, in the tony 5th Avenue shops, everywhere. It felt good.

Meanwhile, C flew home yesterday to find someone text-messaging him from my missing (now presumed stolen) cell phone. The messages were obscene and anti-Semitic. He made an executive decision to suspend service for which I am very grateful. I had just assumed the phone was under the bed somewhere and I would find it when I got back, and wasn't it stupid of me to have mislaid it just before traveling, but no, someone must have picked my pocket, or...I can't imagine. Scary.

The juvenile tone of the nasty messages makes us think it was a kid, but whomever the thief was also used the word "schmeckle," a Yiddish word for penis; how would they know that? C has been reading the new T.C. Boyle novel called "Talk Talk" which is about identity theft and the book is putting the fear of God into him about all the bad things creative miscreants can do if they put their minds to it.

I also found out that a lama named John--I forget his last name--used my poem "At the Corner Store" in his new book. Can't wait to read it. And I want to read "Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert (maybe use it the next time I teach Memoir) which my friend Carla says is amazing, and a book by a woman physicist, Lisa Randall, about Unravelling the Mysteries of the Universe or something. I've been dreaming on the new play(s) while I'm here--it's a very creative place. C and I could see spending a few months in N.Y. someday, if we could swing it--maybe an apartment-swap of some kind...

Friday, August 03, 2007

It has been a most amazing week, and I have been a lame correspondant. Amazing times with my family, all 100,000 of them--siblings, spouses, step-siblings, step-siblings-in-law, nephews, nieces, and my Dad and stepmother whose new Buddhist name is Samayadevi. Everyone healthy and doing well, and so loving, it's hard to put into words. I am lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky!

For the last three days we've been at a little hotel close to JFK airport in NYC. Everyday we've taken a shuttle to an airtrain to a subway and tramped all over NY in the 95 degree heat. I am beginning to get a grasp of the subway system. I now understand the differences between downtown (the Village), midtown (all the expensive stuff, plus Central park, plus the big museums,) and uptown (Harlem.)

Today we went to the MOMA to see the Richard Serra installation. He has these huge sheets of iron that make curved round walls you walk through and around, like a labrynth, or a ship listing at sea. C commented that he felt like a paramecium crawling through the sculpture. I felt like a bit of food being passed through the small intestine of a giant. It was a parasite's eye-view.

I couldn't help thinking of the incredible expense--in all ways--monetary, time, effort--to make these monumental pieces and then somehow ship them and install them. It's inconceivable. It's like the Pyramids or Stonehenge or something. What nkind of ego would you have to have to conceive of such an artwork and then be confident that the resources would be there to help you execute it and exhibit it? I'm not sure how I feel about that but I'm glad we saw the sculptures. They were inspiring and humbling.

There were also six floors of other paintings at the MOMA--everything from Monet's Water Lilies--I hadn't realized it was so big--to Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso, a bunch of paintings by Miro, by Chagall, by Jaspar Johns, by Joan Mitchell (my favorite), by Jackson Pollack. and Matisse, and dozens more which I am neglecting to mention.

The women are so well-dressed in this city I was constantly gaping and appreciating. I am embarrassed to say how much I love fashion. It's not politically correct, it's completely weird given that I am on my way to one of the poorest countries in Africa, but the sight of all those well-constructed flouncy skirts and interesting drapey tops, and colors and patterns and textures made me happy. The women were like walking works of art themselves.

In fact, I've been blown away by the beauty of New Yokers in general. I don't know if it is because I am in love and seeing everything through rosy-colored glasses, but the average Joe or Jane on the street just glows to me. And the city is beautiful, even in the stifling August heat. It's amazingly clean and user-friendly, probably one of the best-organized places I've ever been. Central Park is like Paradise. Tomorrow I say good-bye to C early in the a.m. as he gets on sa plane and goes back to California. And then I'm going to go back to the Park and just sit on the grass and people-watch and write all day. And then tomorrow night--the plane to London--and then onward to Malawi!