Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tribute to Bobbie


She's the first passenger.
Now is her time of waiting.
Rickety kombi* that's seen better days,
a misshapen headlight resembling
a wink. No one can leave until all have arrived.
Like God, the kombi leaves no one behind.

An hour passes.
A man slithers to the depot, clutching
a cane gnarled as his face. Indifferent wood
supports him. Skin matches the kombi's rust,
coppery staple of being overworked.

Another fifteen minutes.
A woman arrives, her garb a parade of
parrots. She's swelling from within,
spewing juices of a double-person,
a double shadow. Each step is a hardship.
South Africa's lush vegetation heaped on her head,
sprouting in her womb.

Meanwhile, the girl is learning to knit,
to knead disparate strands of herself
into a life. Overhead, cranes are shrieking,
wheeling themselves towards a destination.
She is overwhelmed with going,
the necessity of somewhere.
She's more content in being

It may be hours until departure.
In this country, they know how to wait.

*Kombi is a generic nickname for vans and minibuses in South Africa and Swaziland, often used as a means of public transportation.

**First published in US1 Worksheets, 2010


Too much silence can be exhausting...

Apparently, the only way to take a hiatus from the stillness was to volunteer in the bakery. The bakery was the monastery's primary means of income, producing delectable goods such as fruitcake, chocolate-covered fruit cake slices called fraters (I bought 4 boxes of these), and creamed honey in the savory varieties of rum and cinnamon.

After 3 days of silence, I entered the bakery amid the whirling and swirling of machines, loud instructions of the volunteer manager, and laughter of the volunteers. They joked, sang, shared confidences, and emerged changed somehow, knowing that they made a difference in someone else's life. I took my place on the assembly line.

That was where I met Bobbie. I had seen her during our meals together (we had communal meals), and felt a kinship for her since she was the only other female who seemed to belong to the laity. The other participants of the retreat were priests, one of whom I was acquainted with, a certain Fr. Frank who was a charming, motorcycle-wielding mechanic before joining the clergy.

Bobbie was a beautiful African-American woman in her early thirties from the DC area. She was sensuous, not in the commercial sense, but she positively glowed with a vibrancy that came from embracing life. She told me about the Peace Corp, how she spent several years serving in a remote village in South Africa. She learned how to celebrate from them, from those devastatingly poor folks who extracted every gem of happiness from their arduous lives. They celebrated for days. In a nation where time was a commodity, they always took their time. They did things deliberately.

There was an inter-village bus called a Kombi, which never had a departure time. They would merely wait until the bus was full, and then proceed on the journey. If you were lucky, you were the last one everyone was waiting for. If not, it may be 5 hours before the bus engine was turned on.

Hailing from the fast-paced city of Chicago, Bobbie learned the lesson of patience from South Africa. "What else did you learn?" I inquired.

"Before I came to South Africa, I only knew my own faith. Jesus. It was very clearly delineated in my mind who was right and who was wrong. Those who were saved and those who were destined for Hell. In the context of a foreign country and alien beliefs, I learned that love knows no bounds and God is not limited to one name. Light exists in many souls, in many forms, and inspires the most heavenly actions in human beings. Intrinsically, we are all the same and we respond to the same light, no matter what we call it."

She was leaving her non-profit job this month, intending to continue her spiritual journey via graduate school to study counseling and to help relieve the plight of abused women.

I was amazed by her courage, her ability to follow her heart, to relinquish the stability of a good job, and to follow her calling. I admired the freedom of her soul. She told me that she was in the learning and transforming phases of her spirit, and there will come a time when she will be called to teach.

"Transformation is never easy," she comforted me. "It is painful, intense, and consumes energy. Don't ever be discouraged. Even if you don't always see it or feel it, your heart is
always moving."

Bobbie is an old soul, a kindred spirit. Even though we haven't spoken for months, I believe we will always be connected. Here is the quote at the bottom of all of her emails.

Changing the world is not impossible. We have but to love ourselves, each
other and the Divine who made us. In this way, we will each find change in
ourselves, thereby changing the world one life at time, beginning with our

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Lesson from the Cows

All things seem manageable in the daytime.

As I learned from my travels in Alaska, the best way to handle silence is to go hiking. The monastery was situated in mountainous terrain (by my humble standards) or at the very least, rolling plateaus. The grounds were lovely and well-kept, particularly since one of the monks was a renowned horticulturist and planted thin stalks of bamboo surrounding small ponds. I counted at least six different species of butterflies and admired the circular wonders of spider webs, rivulets of water clinging like diamonds. Cows grazed every which way; the monks rented out their land to several nearby livestock farmers.

The very best, by far, was the Shenadoah River. It was some distance from the retreat house, where the paved roads ended and a narrow path led past an abandoned barn and a windmill-like structure to the riverbank. There was an abundance of trees and the area was wonderfully shaded, since mid-Virginia in mid-July is hot and stifling. Armed with a backpack, water bottle, plenty of sunscreen, paperback Bible, and my ubiquitous fedora hat, I explored the grounds with relish. At particularly scenic stretches of the river, I would pull out my Bible and read aloud.

It was pure harmony: my voice, streaming water, and rustling winds. The sun sought me in every angle, bathing me in golden light despite my determination to avoid sunburn. As a seeker, I found my faith here. As a writer, I found my inspiration here. As a lost soul, I found my authentic self here.

And the cows found me.

From afar, I regarded them with fascination. Some were lying lazily in the ponds or at work chewing in a green patch of meadow. They were constantly chewing, and I remembered someone telling me cows have four stomachs, and that they swallow grass whole, regurgitate it, and ingest it again until it passes through the multiplicity of stomachs. Yes, I happened upon the word cud somewhere in the Bible and triggered this very interesting stream of consciousness.

So I was happily hiking and daydreaming along the riverside, when I chanced upon a long trail of cow dung. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one seeking shade. I looked up and sure enough, at least fifteen cows were arrayed several yards away, blocking the only route back to the path. I came closer slowly, not making any sudden movements as they began to look at me suspiciously. A mother cow was nursing her two calves, and she paused to stare at me, a territorial glint in her eyes. I remembered how ferocious animals could be when their young were threatened. She snorted and moved her hoof, ready to charge.

I ran. In my haste, I splattered mud on myself from the marshy, moist soil touching the water. I jumped for dear salvation, right into the middle of brambles and burly weeds. I suffered all varieties of insect bites that night. Later, I discovered that cows aren’t all that bright. Brother Barnabas told me they had a greater chance of falling and being trapped on their side than chasing me.

So what was the lesson? (Besides the fact that I must be incredibly bright to be running from not-too-bright creatures). You project your fears and insecurities onto others, including harmless cows. Because I was afraid, I assumed they were going to charge at me. I acted out of panic. Fear and anxiety had been my primary motivations throughout life. I had reacted to the “belligerent” environment.

And I have the thorns, bristles, and scars to prove it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Entering Monastic Life (Sort of)

Brother Barnabas asked me why I was here. I answered that I was searching for my direction and my vocation, where I belonged and where I was being called. The vague notion of becoming a nun entered my imagination, it always did whenever I was in the presence of a priest. No matter where I was in life, my fascination for living in community with likeminded sisters who were devoted to a noble cause, namely the service of God, never waned.

Brother Barnabas was surprisingly frank about his life. Evidently, he had hurt those closest to him so that now his children no longer speak to him. He became a monk in the spirit of redemption. What is about strangers that allow us to confide in them our deepest failings and our most regrettable mistakes? I wondered if my own father seeks out innocent youngsters to tell his lamentable story.

By the time I arrived at the monastery, dinner was over so I served myself. Believe it or not, priests eat extraordinarily well. Every meal I enjoyed at the monastery was exceedingly well-catered, from tender chickens to pot roasts to succulent lamb to savory tilapia. The luscious rum-laced fruitcake, specialty of the bakery, was served at every other meal and I must have gained a few pounds from that mouthwatering cake alone.

There was a volunteer, Michael, who spoke so speedily and covered such a multitude of words in a single breath that I wondered what he was doing at a silent retreat house. He told me how the Trappist monks had prayers and sang psalms around the clock. Such was the typical schedule:


3:15 am Vigils
5:45 am Lauds
6:15 am Eucharist
7:30 am Terce
12:15 pm Sext
2:15 pm None
5:30pm Vespers
7:00pm Rosary
7:30pm Compline

I dragged myself through the darkness once to attend Vigils and saw the sun rise before Lauds another time. The aura of holiness, the flickering candlelight, and the chanting, an anomaly how the baritones of old men could utter sounds so beautifully. Even if I was not inclined to prayer, it was impossible to keep from praying here. It was effortless, as if the entire congregation was already praying for you and you just happened to join in. Your voice melds with one collectively exquisite voice as if you were part of that universe, such an intimate universe in that enigmatic and sacred hour.

Back to that first night. I entered my room with cinderblock walls and proceeded to continue reading the third installment of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, an amalgam of modern-day New York teenage wry humor and ancient Greek deities who spawned offspring with humans as a recreational activity, thus creating many demigods. It was in the vein of the Harry Potter series: creative, addictive, but uniquely American.

I was prepared to deal with the silence with quite a bit of amusement, albeit of a bookish kind. Of course, cell phone reception here was abysmal.

Despite the books, I had a long, painful, and sleepless night. I cried a lot. I encountered my demons. I was stubborn. I was inflexible. I was judgmental. And I was not entirely blameless in my past troubles. In the silence is the beginning of learning to truly see yourself as you are, not as you would like to be. And when you begin to hold that mirror up to yourself, there are some very visible flaws, peculiar ugliness that you would rather not be aware of.

Is this the dark night of the soul?