Friday Hodgepodge

Tears, people. And partial bafflement.

This morning a new post appeared on my reader from my friend Amy’s blog. On Fridays she tries to post a Special Needs Spotlight, but today she decided to feature a video about the beloved American gymnast who emancipated from her parents when she was 16, Dominique Moceanu. If you know Amy’s blog, you’ll have a deeper understanding of why she posted the video. It’s inspiring even outside of this context, but nonetheless, I’m grateful she shared this video:

Two books, by worthy prizewinners:

Yesterday I finished Blindness, by José Saramago. Toward the end of my commute to work I finished a particular heartbreaking scene and held back tears while making sure my fellow commuters didn’t see how distraught I was. On my commute home I read another scene that brought joyful tears to my eyes.

This morning I finished The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. She won the Newbery Medal in 2012. This book also made me cry, also because of sad and happy moments.

Excellent writing about important issues. Call to action and most definitely to contemplation.

I highly recommend both novels.

The other day I observed a conversation where one person said to the other,

I don’t know what your political leanings are, but there is one side that does whatever they want, and then there’s the other side with principles.

As I observed this conversation, I realized I was the other person, and the one person was talking to me. Approximately 67 trillion assumptions bounced around in my head, attracting and repelling each other until an image formed — like the kind with a magnet and iron shavings — of a big question mark. I didn’t say anything, because there were stray thoughts circling this question mark, trying to find a niche but also seeming to defy the magnetic force. In this defiance, these stray thoughts kept my brow from furrowing; they allowed me to have mercy on the one person’s soul. And if all I wanted to say was, “Huh?” I know that the one person’s “principles” would have tried to replace my metal shavings with shavings made of soap. Because the one person stands on a box of soap. Which is fine. I respect the one person’s opinion and I won’t treat the one person like less of a human being. This kind of understanding and regard is a principle the one person and I have in common. So we’re actually on the same side.

But we’re so, so not.

At Church Yesterday

All the children stood in front of the congregation and sang two Christmas songs. One of the little boys standing near the pulpit caught my attention. He looked to be around 7 years old. He wore a lime green dress shirt and a dark, pin-striped vest. His lime green striped clip-on tie was slightly askew. He was cute. As his mouth moved while the music played, it became apparent that he didn’t know the words to the song. He just opened and closed his mouth to the beat, ba ma ba ma. It was a little bit funny at first, but then I admired his effort.

During Sunday school, an elderly man stood up and made a couple of seemingly unrelated comments about the Christmas lesson. He’s probably in his 80s, he only comes to church every once in a while. The teachers always do a good job of tying in what he says into the lesson, and yesterday was no exception. He usually talks about his childhood, his time at war; yesterday he recounted the history of man since Adam, and I realized that his comment wasn’t that far off. When we think about our origins, our history, our universal family, Christmas has as much to do with the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark as it does with December and eggnog and gift exchanges. More, actually.

The young and the old. Those who are most childlike shared themselves with their fellow church members yesterday. I am grateful to have experienced it. They reminded me of the spirit of Christmas.

“Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”

We were maybe a little shy toward each other for a few minutes. But they looked at you and something touched your heart. Besides, they don’t really care if your French isn’t perfect.

At the Koranic school, the girls sat separate from the boys, and that one boy recited only some of the Koran but he had memorized the whole thing by the time he was 11 years old.

I looked around and wondered who to talk to, there were so many youth, and the room became very noisy quickly. I took a few pictures, smirking at the stark contrast between my fair-skinned classmates and the rich darkness of the young students. The smiles sparkled the same.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around. A group of young women looked at me. Their leader asked me my name. We talked about school and what they might do when they grow up. They all say they’re going to university, and a lot of them want to be teachers. A few girls ask me to take pictures with their cell phones.

They wanted to teach me a dance.

Every girl wanted to teach that dance to all the Toubabs. And they laughed every time we did it.

That first evening in the village near Saint-Louis, the kids were all dressed in traditional clothes and makeup. One of the teachers played a metal bowl as a drum, and little ones took turns dancing in front of the crowd. A few of us danced, too. A bunch of us watched a little boy wearing a green boubou with a white turban. His eyebrows were painted white. He fought sleep while we laughed at him.

A young woman made eye contact with me and we smiled at each other and exchanged names. I asked her about school and what she did during the day. She told me that she helped her mom make dinner and take care of the siblings. We took pictures and we look like friends.

All the village kids sang and clapped, and the rest of us clapped along.

One day in Saint-Louis, Natalie and I were on an errand to buy some bug repellent, because mosquitoes had attacked me the week before in Dakar and it was only a matter of time before malaria ravaged my body. We stopped by a pharmacy that told us to come back in an hour because they didn’t have any in stock at the time and were ordering some from another store. That was convenient because we wanted to go exploring that day. We crossed a bridge onto the fisherman’s island, photographing just about everything we saw. It was a bright, sunny day, like most of the days there. We walked to a less busy part of the island toward some houses along the beach. As we neared the coast a group of kids saw us and we started playing with them. A family invited us into their yard within a wall, where we got to look at their water well and talk about what we were studying. For the most part, I avoided the adult conversation and continued taking pictures of the children. There was a little boy wearing a yellow shirt with a puppy on it, and he made angry-looking, monkey-froggie faces and somehow immediately became one of my favorites.

One day at the village we got to teach the students. I sat at a table of 10-to-11-year olds, and their teacher instructed them to draw a cylinder with a length of 5cm and a radius of 2cm. So, that’s what I taught them. I used a can to demonstrate the height and to show them that they needed to double the radius. Reaching back into my basic geometry days was hard enough, and having to do it in French was an especially fun challenge. But I repeated myself three times, and when I asked them if they understood, they said yes. So I believed them.

Whenever I asked the girls if they were married, they always giggled. Then I asked how old they were and some of them were 13 or 14, and maybe I met a 15-year old. They can get married at 16, and it’s no more being a kid after that.

After class at the village we were standing in the courtyard and some of us were swinging the kids around. Two little girls were hanging off the arms of one of my classmates, and we couldn’t explain that they needed to take turns. One of them didn’t talk, but I took her and swung her around in a circle until I got dizzy and let her land gently in the sand. She let me spin her about five times until it was time for us to leave. It was cool knowing what she wanted without her having to tell me with words. She just took my hands, and I whirled her around.

There was another day of teaching the kids and there was the best recess I’ve ever had, with relay races and balancing water on one’s head and potato-sack races and wrestling. They taught us a few things about running in the sand, but I think they taught us more about how to be gracious losers and entertainers at the same time. They made us laugh, and through our follies and falls and spilt water and goofs, we returned the favor.

Then there was the evening our guys (and Britt) played soccer against the village team and while the village kids chanted and clapped in solidarity for their team, we bit our nails and winced and cheered whenever we got even a little bit close to scoring a goal. We lost 4-1, but we sang and danced together afterward and maybe I taught some boys how to wink.

The last night at the village we watched all the boys strip down to their underwear and tie their t-shirts around their loins like a sumo diaper so they could show us wrestle. It happened so suddenly and it shocked us, but it was all business to them.

It was during this last night that I noticed more kids had runny noses; I noticed their clammy hands and remembered a few kids with conjunctivitis. There was talk of bedbugs and lice, but it seemed that those were the least of the problems they were better off not knowing. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about them.

I cried on the way back to the bus that evening. A young lady walked with me, and we talked about her family, that her dad was working in the Ivory Coast. She was 14, and she didn’t have to say she missed her father; that she even talked about it was enough of an indication. I asked if he visited often, and she said every month.  We hugged goodbye, and I told her to go to university and become anything she wanted. I told her I’d miss her, and I thanked her for being friends.

It was sad to go, not so much because I didn’t know if I was ever going to see them again, but I wondered how many of those children would live to see the next year. What’s so inspiring is that they weren’t even worried about that. They gave us hugs and showed us how disciplined they were and sang anthems with great pride. They searched our souls with sincere eyes and reached out to us. They trusted us when we weren’t so sure about ourselves. I was so concerned about their future, the conditions of their country, but they focused on their present circumstances. If they could smile and laugh and cheer, so could we. They lived in the moment, and we were blessed enough to have them share that moment with us.

In A Few Minutes

I’m going to meet with a few of my classmates from French for lunch. We’re going to try speaking to each other in French. Every week we’re supposed to converse outside of class for 20 minutes and submit a recap of conversation as part of our grade. Four of the seven of us are freshmen, and they’re terrific. The freshmen are especially tight, and I like watching them interact. We’re all in the same boat of trying to survive French, and when we’re not butchering the language, we enjoy each other’s company. We were going to do Olive Garden, but we decided on Cafe Rio instead. Should be fun. And delicious.

À bientôt.

Power

Primary is the Sunday school program for children in the LDS church structure. Today, during sharing time, we learned about baptism. The eight- to 11-year-olds had left for their age-respective classes (similar to grade school). The leader was in the front of the younger children (3- to 8-year-olds) asking basic questions to see how much the children already knew.

How old do you have to be for baptism?
Why aren’t we baptized when we’re babies?
Where are we baptized?
Are we sprinkled with water? How are we baptized, then?
Who baptizes us?

The children yelled out their answers for these questions, which, for the most part, were just as basic. We’re at least 8 years old when we’re baptized. We believe babies are innocent and have no need for baptism. We’re baptized usually in a font filled with water, where a man who holds the proper priesthood authority immerses us in the water. When it’s not a font, then sometimes it’s a pool, or the river or a lake or pond. That would be more after the manner Christ was baptized. The children really did know their stuff, and I was quite impressed.

One of the questions, however, seemed a little vague, though the leader was looking for a specific answer. She asked, “What do you need to be baptized?” Everyone who desires to be baptized and has reached the age of accountability (being able to tell and choose between right and wrong) has an interview with the bishop to confirm the person really does want to be baptized and become a member of the Church and live the best life he can and obey the commandments.

“What do you need to be baptized?” She asked again. The slightest of pauses lingered before a little boy in the back of the room yelled out, “Strength! Ability! Courage!” I bit my lip to keep from laughing out loud and caught the amused smiles in the other teachers’ eyes. One of my students looked at my face and could tell I was laughing silently, and he asked what was so funny, as if strength, ability and courage were exactly what you need to get baptized. Which, if you ponder for just a few seconds, isn’t entirely untrue. I mean, this guy is getting baptized this coming Saturday; he would know.

As members of the church, we’re kind of superheroes. I like that.