The Patience Path

I’m inspired to write again. I’m changed, in many ways I know not yet. What I learned cannot be taken back. Where I went cannot be driven out. What I did will forever be a filter, waxing and waning, covering and uncovering. I’m still me, as my sister told me. She said, “You’re still the same idiot you always were (lovingly, idiot in that weird, pull your shorts up around your upper thighs and walk around like a dinosaur type of idiot).” She said, “You’re just more of that idiot now.” And I am. But there’s a filter, waxing and waning. One day I’m an American, and all I want is to work and buy and work and buy and then the stress catches up with me and I’m a Kenyan. All I want to do is relax. I’m a Kenyan and all I want is for there to be nothing to buy except onions, tomatoes, cooking fat, eggs and maize flour. I want my only pleasure to be conversation with friends, half not understood, roasted goat, a few Guinesses and a football match. But I walk into the supermarket and have to look at 30 types of bread, and I know what to do, because I’ve done this all before, and I now know this isn’t necessary. 

This is the patience path. I’m going to start writing again. I asked God what I’m supposed to do now, and all He said was, “Be Patient.” 

Someone in the restaurant, after asking me, “Sir, would you bring me another soda?” proceeded to comment, with a witty smirk on his face, that, “You’ve probably never been called ‘sir’ before have you?”

I told him, “You have no idea.” Because he didn’t.

Seventy-six students in one classroom called me ‘sir’ everyday, sir. Another fifty-seven, forty-five and forty-seven in other classrooms also called me ‘sir’, sir. You have no idea. 

If you don’t believe in God, start praying, then do the opposite of what that little inkling tells you to do, and when you have to scrape yourself off the floor, you’ll know you’ve butt heads with a living God. If you don’t get it, I understand. Had I never experienced what I have, I’d be with you. I’m going to talk about God a little bit in this blog, if you don’t believe, I understand, I’ve been there, just stick with me for a second. I did enough cocaine to kill myself one night, I finally slept, I finally woke up and I realized $2,000 a month for the past four months was gone in my lungs and up my nose. I moved home with my parents. I started slowly turning around.  I have been given an incredible dose of faith, and I’m finally willing to talk about it. Stick with me. There will be a little about God in this, a little about life, and to start, a story about a man who does something really nice for other people. 

There’s a man named Mark who lives in my town. Mark must be sixty-somthing. Mark told me, with tears in his eyes, that he knows he’s got some mental handicaps. He told me one time, after giving a woman whose loved one had passed away a card, she hugged him with joy and he almost started crying and he knew what he was doing was worth it. It’s something he can do. It’s his piece of the puzzle. If one small piece of the universe gets fixed, maybe the whole thing starts to fix itself. 

Mark is mentally handicapped. It’s apparent, mostly, in how he talks, walks and interacts with people. When someone in our small town passes away, Mark goes, on his own accord, to the store to buy a sympathy card. Mark walks through town, to every business, and collects signatures. What results is a card, filled front to back in tiny scrawls, notes of sympathy from an entire town. People see Mark and ask if they can sign whatever card he may have, others see Mark and feel uncomfortable. They think it odd, they look at the card and say, “I don’t know them, I’m not going to sign it.”

But that’s not what this is about. Mark doesn’t care whether you know the family or not. A tiny thread that’s stretching to pull a little town together. Mark sees us all connected. He doesn’t understand that we don’t know the people on the cards, but the people may know us. The people who get them see a card filled with their town, and they know they’re not alone. A thread as precious as Mark, pulling us all together, and in talking to him I know he feels like he’s alone sometimes. I take extra time, extra patience, to talk to Mark, no matter the conversation. He fills those cards for unity every single day, he buys them with his own money, but will never fit in completely. He has patience that I can’t imagine. 

I’m going to have patience to learn what I can before I’m gone again. 

 

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Just Wait On…

Sometimes I can’t believe it was two years. I lay down in a small but comfortable bed, I’ve eaten a typically American meal and I made enough money today to last almost three months where I was. I made more today than I used to make in a month.

The hyenas in the documentary made me miss my bedroom with the mosquito net and scorpions. 

The “Constant Gardener” almost made me cry. They said Marsabit a few times. I anxiously waited to see the places I know. The train tracks through the slum. The white guy with the backpack who’s always sweating through his shirt. That was me. That is me…

I will, I shouldn’t say will because I don’t want to negatively lock myself into something, but I will, for a while, live in a shadow of a really cool thing that I’ve done.  Did you know I taught chemistry. I can show you how to find a limiting reagent, how to determine whether or not the two solutions you’re about to mix will form a solid precipitate. I taught biology. I can tell you how the nutrients you drink and eat are digested and absorbed from the mouth to the anus. I taught guidance and counseling classes. I can tell you that one young girl faced her boyfriend’s drug issues, based on my personal story, and he stopped and got things back on track. I taught kids how to protect themselves from HIV, I helped de-stigmatize an otherwise dirty topic. I went somewhere. Now I’m back, and sorry to say this, but most of the time I really wish I wasn’t your server, I wish I wasn’t making your coffee. I wish I didn’t have to see old friends see me in a restaurant that I used to work at when I was sixteen. This is not who I am anymore. I’m in transition…again…and it scares me to be on a path of never settling.

There was a girl, she was beautiful, she could have been the one. Someone told me if you truly love somebody you’ll find a way to go after them. I think I’m in love with leaving, however much it hurts, however unfamiliar. I feel more comfortable knowing I’m supposed to be uncomfortable, than knowing I’m supposed to be comfortable and being uncomfortable none the less….get it? I’ll explain.

Matatus are mini vans designed for 14 passengers that typically hold 20, a few chickens, a goat in the back, etc. They are worn down, the music’s loud, there are bars on the windows that, God forbid you get into one of the many head on collision accidents that occur everyday, would bar you from any attempt of crawling out. They suck. There’s no space for your knees or head, but follow me. There is another option. For twice the price, you can guarantee yourself your own seat with few distractions. The shuttle, they call it. Shuttles are far safer. They are meant to be a more luxurious option for getting from point A to point B. Shuttles are meant to be comfortable, but they’re not… Why pay double on something that’s supposed to be more comfortable but isn’t, when you can have better conversation, better stories, and be slightly less comfortable on something half the price…and thus is my life.

I need a story now. I can’t stay in the shadow of what I’ve done, because the skinny story I can give you isn’t nearly what my brain remembers. A baboon in your house is a cute story, but the flash of color and madness that goes through my head when I think about that hot afternoon can’t be erased. I can’t erase sitting in a rank hotel room at four in the morning and seeing the head stomping and gun shots. 

I don’t want my story to end in a restaurant in Pella, it doesn’t feel quite right. I don’t want to retell those stories very much anymore. I’ll write them down one day, paint a picture from the beginning, but there’s a Peace Corps shadow looming. My Dad let it sink in one night, telling me something to the effect of, “You were selfless over there, now you’re just making money and buying things like you always did before.” And he’s right. It’s not quite right for me.

I think I’m going to Asia in the fall. I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’m finding the light in the shadow, trying to break out. Recent art explorations are one thing that could keep me, it makes me and other people happy, which is right up my ally. 

If you see me riding my bike to George’s over Tulip Time, I’ve been somewhere, and there’s a bright light and a story building up inside of me. I plan to stay slightly uncomfortable, to constantly shift in my seat, to jump on the matatu over the shuttle and tell some stories while the wind blows on my face and the music blares in my ears and the bars on the windows keep me stable.

I’m not in high-school, thanks for asking. I’m not just a waiter. I feel better having said something.

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Change Jar

I’m back. I don’t know if you heard. I’m back and the transiency of Peace Corps has left me itching to move, itching to do something, or nothing, or do nothing while feeling like doing something…it’s tricky really. So I was back. Now I moved. I know, I need to call some of you and let you know that our Friday plans won’t work out now, but I had to go. I hope you understand.

I’m visiting this draft three weeks later, and I’m back. Again. In Pella. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, the world is calling (so they say), how far will you go?

“So what’s it like being home?” They ask.

“It’s pretty much the same except my stories are a little cooler,” my go to response.

I need an elevator speech now. An elevator speech to describe the last two years. It’s impossible, I had a lot of fun though. I passed a hyena, a baboon came into my house one time, the government is corrupt. Ding. Top floor reached, get off the elevator and the silence returns. There’s a tang of that awkward elevator silence, not with everyone, but enough of it to know that things have in fact changed a bit, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy to catch up. In Kenya storying is a commonly used verb. I’ll put the stories into chapters one of these days. Better start taking St. John’s Wort and find some motivation. Better find a job and pass some time.

It’s scary, actually, and growing scarier as I realize I’m not going back to teach my kids next week. It’s scary as I realize the sun went down at 4:30. It won’t come up until 7 something or 8. It’s confusing. It’s dreary and cold and gray. But I have a car. Which is awesome. The roads are paved. Which is nice. And I’m on the road again. See you when I see you, we’re okay with that.

I got a job. I got three jobs. Well, if you count doing portraits on the side, four jobs. I’ve realized why this place is so different. There’s always money to be made, no time to stop, because there’s always something else to buy. As soon as one thing is bought the next comes to mind, or they compound. When they’re all bought I won’t have many stories to tell. Nobody wants to hear about my 54 hour work week, my plans to get out again. The plan is to keep working, making and spending money. But that’s not what I want.

I miss Kenya sometimes. I miss having time to read more than a few pages of a book at a time. By the time I get home from work I’m too tired, and if I try to read at work I get through a few pages before my concentration is broken. I miss chai and mandazi at 10:30, running at 4:30, dinner and a movie at 8:30. I had time to read during the day, nothing to nudge into my space but a beautiful sunny day. I miss my kids, their comments burned into me. No need for a tattoo for this one. It’s there already.

“We’ve never had a teacher like you. You brought us from nothing in chemistry to complete understanding. You’re a dear friend and great teacher Kuti. We miss you.”

“You were a great teacher and our coach. We’ll never have somebody to play rugby with us like you, to be with us in the morning, all of us carrying each other on our shoulders. You made biology and chemistry make sense. Especially chemistry. I’ll remember your contribution to my life forever. You were the greatest teacher I ever had.”

Other’s comments I’ve lost the words, I can’t lose the sense of both fulfillment and loss. Someone’ll fill my shoes, time’ll work a wonder, but I think I’ll hold something, as will my kids, for as long as we live. There’re some things I miss about Kenya.

There’s a lot I don’t miss. A lot that jades me. A lot that I don’t want to think or talk about. A lot of stupid things that won’t change for a long time. I’ll be glued to the tv in March. The elections could affect some of my best friends, some of my family.

I’m not 100% here yet. I think it started at 50% and increases and decreases with the day, the mood, the thoughts in my head. Today I’m not here at all. I’m ready to travel again. It’s almost time for that likizo, that break after 3 months of work. I engrained that into my mind over the last two years. I’m ready to get on a train and wake up in Mombasa, be on the beach by noon.

I made over 100$ tonight. That’s enough to support me for a month, if I had to, in Kenya.

I made it in four hours.

The first time someone threw away almost an entire pizza where I work I almost cried. Not because “there are starving kids in Africa”. I know that’s true, but I don’t buy into it. It’s a scapegoat…more like there are many greedy politicians and tribal conflicts and people who want to make money off of that relief food and those clothes you donated so people are needlessly hungry in Kenya (Africa’s a big place to clump all together). I almost cried because of how much we have and how much we don’t care. I made enough to live for a month tonight. To buy food, pay rent, go out for drinks on the weekend. That doesn’t feel real. That pizza cost a months rent in Kenya. Not that it can feed anybody there. It can’t. I know that. It’s just…I don’t know. It’s been a long night, and I’m not 100% American tonight.

I have a change jar. I’m gonna donate it monthly to someone who won’t throw it away. I think that’s a good place to start.

I’m gonna start writing again. I have some thoughts that are ready to get put down on paper. I’ll start a book maybe. There’re things we haven’t talked about. Let me tell you a story.

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Ex(c)it(ement) Strategies

Boredom is but lead nitrate before mixed with potassium iodide, but a calm pond away from catching a fish, but an idle bomb away from an explosion.

I confused a firefly for a meteorite.
I got excited and then not,
But I quickly realized the firefly was a rather beautiful streak across the starry night.

It’s a trick of the mind really, this excitement of mine.

As a kid I used to get too excited for vacations. I was, although I couldn’t admit it happily at the time, my father’s son. He would set a “be on the road” deadline of 4 in the morning. I wouldn’t sleep those vacation nights. At 3:30 you’d find the two of us going over last minute details while the coffee brewed. My sisters and mom stirred reluctantly from the last minute dreams that women dream.

Mom forgot something, without fail, every time. Dad used to get so mad, it drove him crazy that you could forget something every time, but I know they love each other more and more with the passing years. We all forget sometimes.

Rasha rasha, rain on the tin roof. This is excitement that I used to have. The circumstances a bit different.

I spent the last hour soaked, transferring bucket after bucket from the tin roof draining. I pour the water through a sieve made from an old t-shirt with the top of an old water jug inverted as a funnel. I pour the water through the sieve into an old battery acid jug. We pour the water through another sieve into a big clay jar, and we have drinking water for the next few weeks, and this is excitement.

Church can last all day, so I’m a Catholic here. The songs and sermon may be Swahili, but the timing’s not.

I was sitting in mass yesterday and in walks a guy with his head covered with a checkered scarf. By all outward appearances, this guy’s Muslim and he’s shaking madly.

He’s doing all sorts of unpredictable gestures; standing when he shouldn’t be, hands poised, then twitching, shaking unnaturally, as if something is really disturbing him.

The primary school girls with their beautiful voices and blue school dresses start whispering. The adults who can see what’s going on start wondering, start praying…

You’ve read the news I’m sure. Some idiots making a film that never should have been made. The Libyan ambassador murdered, Sudan and Tunisia pulling all but essential U.S. government workers, and Kenya’s at war with Al Shabaab. Garissa, Kenya; Churches have been blowing up since last year. A few months ago a grenade attack planned for my church was stopped at the next town down. An IED was diffused in a local hoteli in July, and here’s this guy, this guy wearing a kufiya, four rows up with a packed sanctuary behind.

Bam. Here it goes…He stands quickly and starts up the center aisle for the back of the church. All the while he’s yelling something about the holy spirit in Swahili at the top of his lungs. He pulls something out of his shirt and starts waving it around. People are frantically searching for an answer to what this troubled man is doing, or about to do, or whether he’s doing anything at all except being mad.

Hearts are racing, beating out of chests, like that time I saw a wild lion growl from five feet away. He sits back down. He starts dancing in front of the church to the last song. We finish the service.

God must be mad. Or maybe we’re supposed to laugh in church, or maybe we’re supposed to fear Him. Or maybe, during an otherwise exceptionally boring sermon, we’re supposed to be excited. Maybe he had a grenade packed away and God answered our prayers. It was exciting. The circumstances different now than then.

My journey has changed some things. I’m old enough to start my life. I’m weird enough not to care about what they think. I’m ready now.

I’m excited; for so many things have passed, for so many things to come.

This excitement of mine, but a figment of my imagination, or experience, or possibility…I’m excited not to worry about the little things anymore.

See you soon, and I’m excited for that.

This is it, thanks for reading.

This is Mista Kuti, signing off from Marsabit.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that testing your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)

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Seasoned

You’ll find yourself in the hazy evening, the dimming light. The sunflower yellow against the maize green. The forest on the edges, the red dust in between.

You’ll find barefoot footballers of every size. Plastic bags wrapped up in discarded strings, a soccer ball of discarded things.

You’ll find dimly lit dukas with good friends inside. Your wave saying hello, turning good bye.

It’s jet black, the foggy bands of the milky way, like steam from freshly boiled camel’s milk, stretch their wispy fingers from a million light years away. The light so old. Do those on the other side see our sparkling memory too? Do we burn within a great constellation of another’s imagination. Somewhere across that vast sea of nothing, everything’s changing so slowly. It’s so slow that they don’t even notice it happening, like seasons that just aren’t changing. Like here.

The hyenas, hunched in their peculiar way, are in front of my gate tonight. They’ve not yet gone into complete desperation mode, and tonight, thank God, they escape, we escape. Five thirty in the morning and I come to the bottom of that one hill where the cows were piled and the elephants walked and I see two of them go scattering away in the morning fog. I started carrying a club at night, stones in the early morning. This is not worthy of writing about, this is normal, or so I thought.

I’m on a late night run along a paved road punctuated by the pale yellow glow of street lamps, like giant stepping stones, as far as I can see. A deer goes sprint clattering across the road and I almost go down. The music through my headphones restores the peace almost as quickly as it was interrupted. The dark isn’t so dark. Like here.

“Oooooaaaaaahhhh, oooooaaah!”

From the forest edge across the road. Loud, the low, strange call of the hyenas is surrounding us.

I don’t run at night anymore. You’d have to be mad. People would think you’d stolen something. What an awkward thing to do. There are elephants and water buffalo and hyenas and huge, nocturnal porcupines. Don’t run at night, not here, that’s a very good way to get killed my friend.

There’s excitement in the air.
The cornfields’ transpiration in the humidity of July has a particular smell. Take a big, long inhalation of the pavement after a thunderstorm for me, emerge from a pile of fallen pin oak leaves and tell me what it’s like. The air so frozen, everything so crisp and clear, the smell of absolutely nothing but cold. Everything changing so slowly.

The rainy season is here and it’s cold. I walked into class and the storm is drowning out the silence as I look around my classroom. Everyone’s black. They’re really all black and I’m white but who cares anymore. I start yelling at the top of my lungs that it’s time to take out your biology notes and we all start laughing at my stupid joke. I turn around still yelling something and walk out of class and back across the yard to the staffroom. The rafters are exposed and the floor full of mud. The windows are broken and when it rains, you can’t have class. The rain pounds the tin roof with it’s deafening fists.

I get flashes of seasons sometimes here. A split second on an evening walk when I can feel spring. A faint lingering at a Saturday morning football match, of autumn. A wool sweatshirt tempting the snows of Kilimajaro to blanket Loitokitok, tempting winter to freeze my nostrils again.

The sky is jet black tonight and the milky way scintillates like memories into the dark.

I found a book of half scribbled pages, of ants and heroes, of dust and rain. Of grandpa and letters to grandma, of forks in streets and growing pain. A little story of space and time, of jumbled words falling from a jumbled mind.

Change on little story, we’ll be just fine.

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Coronary Thrombosis

The wind down is in the wind. I feel it deep inside, the frequency of leaving conversation is steady on the rise.

Kamau and I can’t talk about it. I don’t think we’re quite who we used to be. We started running a few kilometers a day in the field behind the school almost two years ago. The smell of the latrines marks the final corner, something time and routine have numbed, something we’ll surely miss. He told me it just won’t be the same without you Kuti. It’ll be hard to run with tears in your eyes and your head full of memories. We don’t like to talk about it.

Our English language debates and word puzzle challenges to each other in the boredom of the day will never be forgotten. Our unlikely friendship, he on this side of the world, me from mine, has changed our lives. I once said I’d eventually have a family here.

He showed me how happy a young tree in the desert gets after it’s watered. I planted my first trees here. They’ll outlive my memory.

He taught me to laugh at the stupid things we can never get used to. He wrote me a story about a king and a skunk.

Is there a stronger word for ‘miss’, because Kamau I surely will.

Ombongi and Masongo and our vikau. I once put my pops on hold at one of our kikaus knowing that if I didn’t the goat and ugali would surely be gone when I got back. We eat like animals. There’re no girls allowed here, this is an understanding among men. We piss on the same internal clock, we dance and laugh and make fun of politicians and each other and became a family. Masongo is the best, funniest dancer I’ve ever seen. I laughed until I cried. I don’t really want to talk about it.

They taught me what it means to be down, what it means to be up in the midst.

Musungu moved in over a year ago. We annoy each other together. We laugh together. We pray before we eat together. We wash clothes together. We walk to school together. We walk home together. We’ll move out together.

Brothers who will soon miss all those little things together.

Diramu taught me to take proper risks, that bravery can lie in simple things. She taught me to laugh and jump in the hammock despite your size. She taught me about the most beautiful people and their hearts of gold.

Ali, Doreen, Sarr, Kimani, Choke, Guerre, Hawo, Dahabo, Noor….brother, sister, brother, brother, brother, sister, sister, brother. Man….

My heart stays intact until I remember why I’m here. Two hundred and thirty some high school kids who make me laugh far more than I deserve.

Salim Swaleh and his goofy self. He’ll never forget the Spanish and Greek I slid into my lessons. Adan Galma will never forget our conversations, Bore Kassa and Abraham and carrying each other for rugby physicals as the sun rises, Grace and Athi and the novels I gave them, Hassan Bando, Jamaal Kutara and Abdikadir Mohammad will never forget their crazy white chemistry teacher. They’ll never forget my potato story, my life skills lessons, all the stupid faces I make and my even stupider laugh when they do something stupid in class. They know what sarcasm is now. When we talk about the heart of an arthropod the whole form two class says ‘tubular’ like we’re fresh off the surfboard…God I love them. They’re my kids. I laugh with them and punish them when they do something wrong. One time I turned around from writing on the board and a kid had a huge purple play dough mustache on his face and I laughed like a little kid.

I’ll miss them so much.

I think pieces of our heart are given each time we fall in love. I think pieces of other people’s hearts are given to you each time they fall in love with you. The memories but fragments flowing through ourselves, like platelets, sealing the otherwise deadly wounds left when you leave what you love.

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If You Could, Would You Light the Way

There’s a world out there open to the dreams of white people. Dreams of a better life under a tin roof and mud walls. Dreams of forgetting materialistic passions and hearing God tell them good job, you fixed everything. Dreams of changing. Dreams of caring for people who look at us like we’re made of golden tickets.

They dream in paved streets and dollar trees, overpaid jobs and under budget bills. The Wonka door will open and a better life will emerge from the crumbling mud walls, the rusting tin roof.

They dream of ending child prostitution with education. Of ending hunger with free aid, of clothing every barefoot child with what’s cluttered their closets over the years. They dream of curing AIDS with nothing more than their big hearts.

They dream of a better life using God’s gift of beauty. They dream of their gardens growing endlessly, of selling salvation army clothes back to tourists wandering through their markets. They dream of curing AIDS but need mpango wakando, their side plans with side plans who have side plans who contracted HIV from a fisherman who wanted a side plan.

We all just want to live and laugh until we cry. We want to know God and never have to ask why.

We want endless tears on apathetic days, endless sex in the most beautiful of ways. We want frozen time on perfection’s dime, an open door taking all of eternity to explore.

I’m in a weird place tonight. I read about all of our good intentions and am compelled to pray for those seeking fulfillment in their journeys. Those called to serve in the field, those with big hearts who stay put, those drifting on their paths of solidarity.

I want to hope for a better world. In hoping for a world of equal distribution, I have to wonder if love, compassion or generosity would still exist.

Would our human connection be nearly as profound were the lines of incongruity erased? Would we have any reason to wake up and move across the world anymore?

I thank God for those with crumbling mud walls to teach about preservation and patience. Those with brick homes to share the value of resilience.

Those with no shoes to teach innovation. Those well clothed to learn about fairness.

Those with hunger to teach perseverance. Those with plenty to give generosity.

Those faithful in marriage to teach about sacrifice. Those with their side plans to teach about loss.

I hope for a perpetual shift in the riches of the world. I pray we never stop learning the value of one another, pray for glimmers of hope scattered about in the madness. I thank God for teachers and students, for our eternal exchange.

The world may never be a better place, but in our exchanges of who we are, may we laugh until we cry endless tears on apathetic days, and maybe, just for an instant, cause that glimmer of hope in one another. May the glimmer scintillate endlessly into the dark.

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