Ten Years Since Sénégal

I was emailing a friend whose birthday is today. And I know that only because it’s two days before mine. And I wouldn’t have known this except I became friends with him and his wife while studying abroad in Sénégal.

Ten years ago.

This occurred to me today, and so I texted a different classmate from the study abroad. This classmate remarked that we were babies then. Maybe she was; I wasn’t so much. I was 34 when we started the trip, and I turned 35 while in our fourth week. I think I’m about nine years older than the married couple who befriended me. Not like it’s a contest. But I tried hard not to feel self-conscious about my age at the time.

It was such an eye-opening experience. Although I struggled with the language, I picked up fragments of comprehension about slavery and colonialism. My French did improve over time, but wow, I hadn’t been challenged like that in a very, very long time.

I wasn’t sure if these costumes are just for show or are actually part of the culture.

It was good to walk among people of a different religion, too. There were rules to follow while visiting mosques. We heard the calls for prayer fives times every day. Y’all, America can be wonderful, but it isn’t the best all the time. Or even close to perfect.

What a beautiful country. It’s hard to believe that whole experience was 10 years ago. I’m grateful I went; going made me a more compassionate, open-minded person. I made lifelong friends. This part of the path opened up the way to where I am now. Which is where I want to be.

AAPI Heritage Month

Maybe 15 or so years ago when I lived in New York, I was talking with a Filipino couple from church at a picnic. I told them how long I’ve lived in the United States, and how long it had been since I visited the Philippines. I came to the US in 1978, and I visited Philippines for a month in 1983/4.

The wife of that couple, with no malice in her voice, matter-of-factly told me that I had lost all the culture in my blood.

I’m still trying to figure out what that means.

May is AAPI Heritage Month, which seems a meaningful gesture on the part of the government, especially in light of the prevalence of Asian hate and violence in the news, though I’ve been navigating my Asian American heritage for my entire life.

Whenever I see a Filipinx public figure, I feel connected to them through our common heritage. Our culture. Although I no longer understand or speak Tagalog, I can still recognize it, I love when my mom comments in Tagalog on my social media posts.

Mom and I sometimes talk about food and entertainment; customs, as well as genealogy.

I have memories of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and villagers from my visit in the 1980s. Humble and happy. Hardworking and hopeful. Qualities I want to sustain in myself.

How much culture is in my blood? How much do I understand from my ancestors? The country’s history?

However much there is, I still want to celebrate it. I want to accept myself exactly where I am, to assess how much my heritage influences my identity. And be ok with whatever that is.

At least for now.

Object Lessons and Objections

Object lessons are incredibly effective teaching tools, especially in religion.

There’s the one about nailing a board to a wall or a tree. If you put one nail in the board it can still spin around; the board is unstable. But if you put a second nail through the board, the board becomes anchored. This object lesson often taught the importance of the Book of Mormon, the second nail that goes with the Bible.

There’s the one about sticks or pencils. You can break one or two or four at the same time, but if you gather 10 or 15 pencils, they’re much harder to break altogether. This object lesson illustrates the importance of unity or contributing talents or time to a single purpose. Strength in numbers.

An especially popular object lesson is where the glove represents your spirit and your hand represents your body. Without your hand, the glove can’t do anything, but when the glove is on your hand, the glove becomes animated. The combination becomes a living soul.

I remember these object lessons from when I was a child. While they tend to be taught in cycles, my ability to remember them pretty well demonstrates their effectiveness.

Elizabeth Smart recalls an object lesson pertaining to sexual purity. About a used piece of chewing gum. She spoke about it at a conference about sexual trafficking, and the Christian Science Monitor reported the story.

On Facebook over the past few days, many people provided links with important conversations about sexual purity, abstinence education, and reassuring victims of sexual assault that they are not sinners/dirty/impure. Here are a few of the links I happened to click on:

Religion Dispatches

Blogs: Flunking Sainthood

Experimental Theology

I’ve read these articles and many of the accompanying comments. Being a victim of sexual assault, I think back to the object lesson with the chewed gum. I wonder what specific connections I made when I was a young girl. How could I have made sense of my worth when the person who had supposedly “taken away” my virtue was the same person who presented the object lesson at a family home evening nearly 30 years ago? Would I have been able to overcome my confusion without therapy?

That reminds me. Because I am May, and this is my month, I should remind you that May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Maybe we can come up with different object lessons that help and inspire instead of harm and instill fear.

Gearing up

I like my little stack of French books. As I read them, I come across a lot of words I don’t know, but that’s okay. That still happens to me when I read English, too.

Le Livre de Mormon/Les Doctrine et Alliances/La Perle de Grand Prix.  Can I just say right off how literary tenses are just weird? I actually ordered this triple combination for an upcoming trip, where our little branch of 20 people will meet every Sunday for church, probably in the hotel lobby. I needed a complete set of scriptures. So, I also ordered La Sainte Bible, though it isn’t an LDS edition.

L’enfant noir by Camera Laye. Autobiographical; tells of a boy’s life between the village and the city. Going to the Koran school, going to the university and leaving his family and missing his mother.

Bescherelle’s Complete Guide to Conjugating 12,000 French Verbs. This reference book will teach you how to conjugate a bunch of verbs (12,000) based on 82 verb conjugating patterns. Super useful. I use it a lot, and it’s great for learning verb vocabulary. Verbcabulary.

La Château de Ma Mère by Marcel Pagnol. Autobiographical, nostalgic. It’s beautifully written. There’s a lot of childhood joy of the French countryside mixed in with sorrow and sadness that’s so typical of the French.

Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Oh, you know the story. Antigone’s brothers kill themselves over throne succession. One’s buried, the other’s left for the vultures. Antigone pushes for the birdfood brother to be buried, but Creon won’t have it, because he needs to teach the kingdom a lesson. This is a tragedy, and the Chorus has sung from the beginning that Antigone dies at the end. It’s her destiny, so she and some other people die. Resistance/Compliance, tragedy/drama, DeGaulle/Pétain.

Une si longue lettre by Mariama Bâ. Semi-autobiographical. Talks about the heartache of polygamy in African villages. A woman’s husband decides to take another wife after 30 years. Tradition doesn’t mean there won’t be resentment and pain.

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A really special story. Popular. Read it.

I also have a book of fairy tales, and I ordered another book that I hope will arrive before my trip. I need to read it.

Before the Bushwalk

So, Tuesday morning here (early Monday evening for most of you) greeted me with an experiment in toast. Toast is one of my favourite (hee) foods, and while I like it mostly with just butter, it’s fun to try with a variety of other toppings. This is what I tried:

I ate two pieces of toast and a crumpet. Crumpet. That’s a fun word, a word that transcends me into an non-American state of being. I put butter and creamed honey on the crumpet. I eat creamed honey in America, and it tastes like the honey that most people are familiar with. It’s just spreadable instead of squeezable. The “appel stroop” is a spread made of apples and beets. It’s a Dutch product. People really like beets around here. This was a stiffer jam, but not impossible to spread on toast. I liked the taste of it: sweet, tart, maybe a little nutty. And then, the famed vegemite. Kraft seems to make everything. Becky prepared this slice of toast for me, so that my first impression wouldn’t include fainting or licking the sidewalk to scrape away the taste. I like the flavor of it just fine. As long as the layer is very thin, I could probably eat it on toast pretty regularly, especially if I were in the mood for something salty. I can NOT imagine entire sandwiches of vegemite, however.

Becky decided to help me document this event. I had just stepped out of the shower, so I apologize if the photos breach anyone’s sense of decency.

Girls’ Night Out

It’s Monday, about 6PM. My friend notices me outside the Village East Cinemas on the corner of 12th Street and 2nd Avenue. She’s tall, easily 5’10, slender; long, dark brown hair to the middle of her back. She’s wearing black slacks and a black shirt, over which is a cute, off-white crocheted top that I can’t imagine her not having. Her accessories are black, strappy heels, a short necklace that looks like moderately flattened reddish-brown marbles (the mashers, not the little ones) strung together, and a backpack. Her oval face shows off high cheekbones which her smile always obeys; a cute, slightly pointed nose that tames the cheekbones, but not too much; brown, deeply discerning eyes – thoughtful eyes that I’ve never been able to not see a friendly glint in – they beat the crocheted top, hands down.

So, you may say her face is well balanced; it’s very appealing. While it is beautiful and familiar and comfortable, I don’t know if I would say it is balanced. It’s that way all the time. Those eyes capture a lot. They hold sincerity and curiosity: those oglers are constantly hungry. Always reading and inquiring and seeking understanding. Cynicism and bitterness simply cannot fit into those eyes. Who needs that kind of balance, anyway?

I buy my ticket and we stroll toward the restaurant. It’s a little Korean place; very minimalistic, but the food is fabulous. I order the tofu, and she gets the prime beef lettuce wraps. The conversation expands and shrinks like a bellows. We talk about news and NPR and music. We talk a lot about books and authors we adore. We talk about blogs, each other’s as well as our friends’. We try each other’s food. It’s all spicy, so I end up drinking a lot of water and getting full a lot sooner than I wanted. I don’t finish my plate. I build a pyramid out of my leftover tofu cubes. My friend takes a picture. She has a laugh that has a life of its own. I want to be friends with her laugh, all shouty and cheerful. After offering her what I didn’t eat, she takes a cube from the bottom of the pyramid, which doesn’t topple.

The food is cheap. Come visit me, and I’ll take you there. They serve little spicy appetizers before the main course, then they cleanse your palate after the meal with a perky, mysterious cinnamon elixir served in what looks like half a large test tube with a flattened bottom. Liquid Big Red. Spice, spice, spice. We talk about our favorite parts of town and the endless choice of fooderies. She’s a good conversationalist, asking questions that I can always turn back to her. She mentions browsing the website for the Jordanian Royalty regularly, similarly to fans who follow British Royalty. She self-proclaims her dorkiness, while I think of my other friends who have been chosen for Jeopardy, or whose favorite metal is titanium, or have a photo of part of the ceiling of the Library of Congress as her Facebook profile picture. This friend sitting across from me? fits right in with my crowd. Except she’s the only one who has met Desmond Tutu.

We leave the restaurant. It had been raining all morning and afternoon, but the evening is cool and overcast. We enter a little market to search for movie snacks. She intends to buy junior mints but picks up some haribo gummy candy instead. She grabs a wrapped bar of marzipan and shows it to me, and I take it, deciding to try it.

We walk into the theater. We find the ladies room. We wind up the stairs to the theater. No one takes our tickets. We are watching a film starring a friend of ours who was a member of our congregation and whose family moved to Utah about a year ago. The movie is part of an independent film festival. The movie is about a man returning home from serving a mission. He’s engaged; his fiancee has been waiting for him. His sole purpose, other than getting married, is to baptize his mom. He has a death experience where he’s told he has 60 days to fulfill his purpose. Of course he faces some obstacles. Of course a heartwrenching twist is at the end.

We sit in the midst of a bunch of other curious Mormons for the film. I’m usually a bit skeptical about Mormon cinema, but it isn’t as awkward as I expected. Our friend the star was supposed to attend, but the director announces a family emergency and relays an apology to the audience. A question-and-answer session follows the film. The director gets emotional as he explains the commitment and work that goes into creating a film. The next presentation is about to begin, so the crowd exits the theater. One of our friends dares us to ask the costar who is not the star’s wife if he is a good kisser. I stand in a procession of fans who want photos taken with the cute costar. The line seems neverending. I tell her I’m friends with the star, and I laugh nervously as I ask if he’s a good kisser. (I don’t want her to think I’m asking for me, but $20 is on the line here.) She laughs and says it’s like kissing your brother – it felt like he was looking after her. Plus, he’s married with kids. And he’s “older.” My age? Hmm. HMM.

We board the subway. I start to run out of steam, but my friend, she keeps asking questions. She’s genuinely wants to know me better. Am I that interesting? I think about her husband, who’s the bishop in our ward; her two adorable children who would probably be fast asleep when she got home. The last conversation is about politics and our favorites for president. My stop comes pretty quickly. I thank her for her time and company. And she smiles that smile that takes no effort and we wave goodbye. I am so lucky to be going to church with that one.

I remember running into her at Target a few years back. She mentioned her husband working toward his PhD and how their family would lead a quiet, intellectual life. I can still see it. She’s very gentle-spoken; she seems she would never lose her temper. Nice, cozy home. The kids would be off somewhere, being precocious, and she and her husband would have their books, sitting in big, cushy chairs not quite facing each other. They’d discuss the issues of the world, things that matter. The tireless smile, the wiser eyes, still seeking understanding. Then her husband would make a joke. Could someone bring out another chair? That laugh needs a place to sit, too.

Oh. Sidebar. The Jones Family. She’s the webmaster over there. If it suits your fancy, take a clicky gander.

Bethesda and Frick – Solo Culture Day

So I left the Angel Bethesda and headed toward my original destination with a quicker step. The building to the Frick Collection is very stately and handsome. I walked in, and it felt like a huge living room. After I checked my bag and paid my admission (I wish I could do that for MY living room!), I walked toward the galleries.

Without the audio tour, you could probably cover everything in less than three hours. The place is a delicious accumulation of paintings and sculptures. Everything is well-placed, and not everything by the same artist is clumped together. The first piece I recognized was a Jan Ver Meer; it’s so easy to look at his work and tell. Frick also has El Greco, Rembrandt, Whistler, many others. He has an entire room dedicated to Fragonard. (Remember studying all the naughty interpretations of The Swing?) HUGE panel paintings whose frames are just inches from touching the high ceilings.

I love looking at paintings. Not very good at interpreting them, but it’s enjoyable just to examine them on micro and macro levels.

Macro: Wow, that’s a huge painting. I don’t like that rendering of George Washington. I like the red against the black. I like the soft lines. What’s the big deal about fruit in a bowl? Where is that place? I wish I knew the stories behind the portraits; maybe I can make up my own. The beiges and browns make my eyes lazy. Pink, that’s cool. Who can paint things that tall? How do people accomplish painting what they see?

Micro: Look at how thick the paint is there. Look at the strong lines. The dark folds. Look at how they show the eyes reflecting light with just the tiniest stroke of white. Or is that the glare from the lamp and too much shellac? Who takes the time to paint that many sheep in such great detail? Why are some close up items in better focus than others? Why must the men wear lacy collars and cuffs? So, THIS is how people accomplish painting what they see …

The museum was fun. I crossed Central Park again, gave my regards to Bethesda; descended into the underworld to catch the train. I got off at 125th Street to transfer to the express, and while I was waiting, someone called my name. I recognized her but her name completely escaped me. She was someone I’d known while attending the Brooklyn Branch. She was with a friend, and they were on their way to the Cloisters. They asked about a place to eat in my neighborhood, so I recommended a decent Indian Restaurant. We got off at the same stop. I pointed them in the direction of the restaurant and the Cloisters, then the girl asked if I wanted to join them for lunch. And of course I accepted.

We chatted and ate and had a good time. When we finished, we walked in different directions. She said it perfectly: We have to take advantage of chance encounters. Thus, we do.

It was a good day. Time with friends. Time alone, fed my mind and spirit. And I have church today. Couldn’t have been a better lead-in.