Monday, March 22, 2010

2 cups of coffee & the meaning of commune

by Holly
This morning I reminded myself of my grandmother. For probably two decades every time we have a family gathering she will at some point look around with pre-emptive nostalgia and say: “this might be the last time that we’re all together.” Her comment is inevitably followed by eye rolling and hugs.

Tomorrow I’m picking up the Kurtz family in Entebbe. The Hoins come in a month.

This morning, while Ben and I sat on the front veranda sipping our habitual coffee, I said it: “this might be the last time we’re alone like this.”—OK, I admit I’m being dramatic, but it really is going to be a much more rare occurrence that the two of us share the solitude of a quiet morning cup of coffee in a house where we’re the sole occupants. “Our life force is about to expand,” Ben smiles. “We need to buy more mugs,” I decide, and make a note on my expanding to-do list.

The other night I semi-jokingly told a group of friends that we were starting a commune. I say “semi” joking because—we sort of are. But I just feel goofy using the word, like I’ll either be dismissed as some kind of crazy hippy or like I’m formalizing and glorifying a rather common phenomenon: living in the same house with a bunch of friends. Someone asked, what I meant—and I responded something to the effect of: we really like each other, and want to do life together, encourage each other’s visions, and vocations and share resources. The questioner, asked, “then, you won’t, like, grow food together?” I don’t know why that seems to be an integral part of a commune—but somehow the collaborative production and consumption of food does appear a central feature of communal living. Yes, I answered confidently—we’re going to have a big garden and grow veggies—and keep hens and eat lots of eggs and vegetables together. Does that mean I will live in a commune? I didn’t really know, so I broke a sacred taboo. I did something self-respecting PhD students are NEVER EVER supposed to do, or at least, admit to doing: I referenced Wikipedia.

My synthesis of the authoritative wiki voice: A commune is an intentional community of people living together, sharing common interests, property, possessions resources, work and income. Decisions are made by consensus. We reject the idea of hierarchy and bureaucracy as necessary to have social order (on a small scale). We try to live with a light ecological footprint. We recognize the importance of a group beyond the nuclear family. We have emotional bonds to the whole group. We share housework, childcare and other communal activity. We’re profoundly egalitarian.

I think we’re starting a commune.

But I guess I can’t really decide that on my own. The 7 of us have to reach consensus. What do you think folks?

Wikipedia tells me communes are no longer associated with free-love and flower children. “(P)ragmatics rather than psychedelics” rule the day. I suspect the fact that they have to spell that out indicates more the presence of the continued association rather than the evolution of common perception. Well, we’ll see how it all unfolds, and keep posting.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Going south: false/wishful advertising & laughable logic


This is the bus I took last week from Gulu to Kampala
Scheduled departure: 8:00am
Time I was told I should come to catch the bus: 8:30am
Time I decided to show up (because I think I've learned from experience): 9:30am
Actual departure time: 11:47am

We really miss out if we're too aggravated to laugh at the irony. It reminded me of a similarly long wait for a bus a few years ago. After the wheels finally started moving, the bus made it several blocks before breaking down. We waited for the next bus which also broke down. When the third bus, which finally proved itself road-worthy came, it had a slogan painted across the upper part of the windshield: "God likes patience." The increasingly disgruntled passengers had to laugh in spite of themselves. Waiting patiently is a useful spiritual discipline. So much of life is waiting for something, without exercising it, we spend too much time frustrated and annoyed. There are many opportunities to practice. One little celebration of the road: hundreds of speed humps which have in the past apparently served some often-speculated but little-understood constructive purpose have been removed! I'll have to find something else to practice my Acholi counting skills to pass the hours heading south--but the journey is so much more painless without an hour of jostling over kilometers of bumps.

Proof that I really am learning from experience: I went to the bus park in Kampala early, booked my seat back to Gulu and left my luggage. Exchanged phone numbers with the conductor. "Waited" in a cafe for a couple of hours with a friend. Conductor called me 10 minutes before the bus left, just enough time to clear the bill and boda back to the park. It was great! I highly recommend the strategy.

A new feature of the journey: the police stop the buses at every check point. Ostensibly, this is because they register the bus at each point to regulate speed. At one stop, the inspector boarded the bus in an immaculately cleaned and starched white uniform and black beret. He introduced himself and gave us all his phone number. I still have it in my constant moleskine companion where I quickly tried to write every word he said--his logic was truly dizzying. He marched up and down the aisle of the bus for the next 15 or 20 minutes lecturing the passengers and driver in turn about the perils of speeding, societal ills of corruption, benefits of taxes and healthcare. Well, sort of. "You are bribing us too much!" he shouted. "You have bribed me enough. You're giving me that money and I am eating alone, yet you are the one's who are all dying just because you are in a hurry." He asked passengers if they were satisfied with the speed of the bus since we left Gulu and how we rated the driving of the man behind the wheel. We mumbled a mediocre response. He was driving fine. "You are in a hurry and going fast can end life! Then we catch you and you bribe us with fifty thousand (around $25) but how much is the life of a person worth? It's better if you get a speeding ticket to go to court. Then you pay the government. Then the government will use that money to offer you health care when you are all injured from motor vehicle accidents because of over speeding! You should pay your taxes and go slowly instead of me eating all this money from bribes alone and all of you dying!" He paused, for dramatic effect, I imagine, "Go safely!" He finally finished and the bus responded to this rousing end with a round of applause!

It's not every day a police officer admits to taking bribes and is publicly lauded. But then, no day, is really like any other day.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Blood & light: a lenten contemplation 'On Turning Ten'

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light -
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

-Billy Collins

When I read the poet say now he is mostly at the window, watching the late afternoon light, my memory responded with a quick flash of a history of evenings. It evoked two concurrent associations: coming home, and the end. In my warm surroundings I recalled an angled sun, pulling my coat tighter and turning my iPod up—Gnarls Barkley while I walk briskly over the Waterloo bridge after a lecture, or a cold drink and “a pile of meat” on the grill with Ben and Pete in the garden after writing all day. I remembered my short Denver commute, sitting at a traffic light facing west with cyclists and joggers rushing through the cross walk on their way to Wash Park, undiminished appreciation for the awesome Rocky Mountains behind them with snow turned pink and purple in the middle of summer. I thought of the golden light of Ugandan sinking sun pregnant with life reflecting off of ancient trees and red roads—work is done. I’m on my way home, on the back of a boda boda bicycle, or in CPA’s old pickup dodging potholes but still moving too fast for my eyes to focus on any of the blurred leaves in the bush I'm passing. But then there are the evenings by the window, that insist you acknowledge something is over, that a time you loved has finished. It is, indeed a solemn moment, almost holy. I don’t know why, but for me they always seem to happen in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the warmth, or all of the conversation and collaboration that happens around preparing meals. Yesterday I felt it here. I shooed a chicken out the back door, closed the screen and looked around my kitchen in the evening light. I’m not going far. But I’m acutely aware that my life is about to change.

Maybe it’s actually part of going home. Acknowledging all the little ends. Letting go. Embracing what is ahead and celebrating the ways that it expands our limits of being. Recognizing the new. Accepting loss that comes with it. To inhale, we have to exhale.

I felt this today when I was practicing yoga. A beautiful pose with my heart open. I took a deep breath and sunk in. Suddenly I became conscious that I was a little bit deeper than I have ever been before. I was experiencing my body in that state for the first time. I felt this rush of joy even while I noticed my tight hips and shoulders, smiling to myself and realizing a newness of being—like a child discovering her hands. We have so much that we have yet to explore. We have so many limits that we can expand, boundaries in our bodies, minds and spirits that can and do shift. I think we lose the wonder when we begin to believe the lie that all is known, experienced and stale. What is true: Everything is being made new.

There is a kind of solemnity and appropriate sadness that comes as 10 becomes 20 and 30 and so on—but this poem reminded me of a duality in being that allows for the cohabitation of child-like joy and loss:

When you cut me I bleed.

And I shine.

Both these things are true.