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Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Walk Inside My Soul

It’s Easter. I am exactly halfway through my Peace Corps service here in Indonesia. 405 days complete – 405 days to go till “Close of Service.”

My first born child will have his first born child any day.

I think it is a good time to examine “Why am I here?” “What is wanting to be born from the tomb/womb of my own life?”

The questions flow freely from my fingertips. The answers are a lot harder.

This morning when I was walking I was watching the moon. There was only one star in the sky – the Eastern star, Venus.

Unexpected, spontaneous joy. I’ll begin with that. My “work” here: I think up creative ways to teach English to students in an Islamic High School. My room, board, health insurance & vacation pay are a result of my “job” playing with cardboard, colored pencils, pieces of paper, songs and stories. All my physical needs are met because I make students smile and think.

This yearning to be creative inspires something that satisfies deep inside. It’s what I give, but it’s also the atmosphere in which I receive. When the students (and my co-teachers) are actively involved in this imaginative endeavor it’s like I’m the midwife.

My job description according to my supervisor, the Vice Principal at my school is to be a Model and an Inspiration.

Of what? I sometimes ask myself. Much as I try to be a “Good Indonesian Teacher” I know parts of my hair poke out of the jilbab, my ankles sometimes show, sometimes I yawn and forget to cover my mouth and my classes are much louder and chaotic that other classes. Ultimately I model “me.” I expose the students to this one life –so different and so similar to their own.

Then there is silence. I simply cannot express many things – sometimes it would be culturally inappropriate, sometimes I don’t know the words, other times I am watching and listening so intently that I almost dissolve.

I walk an average of 2 ½ hours a day. I have a substantial amount of reflective time. It’s not always quiet. Right now there are several lively conversations in the local language in the teacher room. Because I don’t understand this language, I pay more attention to the body language, the intonation, the laughter, “how” they are speaking rather than “what” they are speaking.

Not understanding so many things is sometimes difficult. We humans generally live like we know what is going on. There is a certain numbness that’s almost peaceful when I am just believing the story that is running through my head. And then in an instant it all unravels – where I saw clarity before, I now see ambiguity. My certainty become a watchful curiosity.

My English co-teacher just asked to borrow my computer mouse. I asked her if it is better now and she said “No,” but she is smiling. I think the mouse is working for her computer – what did she mean when she said “No?” It may be that people don’t understand me or that I don’t understand them. The way we say “No” here is by saying “Thank you.” It that really what she means?

Even giving examples reduces it further into something that seems manageable. It’s challenging to “embrace the ambiguity” rather than searching for the reasonable.

It’s like always being in an earthquake. If feels as if the world is just a little off balance all the time. At some point I just give up and go with the flow. Living with the uncertainty becomes the standard.

There are some hard parts. Not being in my grandchildren’s lives. It’s been how I define myself. I am a grandma. My Indonesian name is “Oma.” If I let go of that definition of who I am what will be left? Why am I clutching it so tightly? I’m afraid to let that crack in my heart find the end of it’s journey. Maybe this is just another area where I’m being invited to surrender the things that have seemed so clear and so dear.

The lesson I taught on “Embarrassment” was instructive. I gave examples to the grade 11 students of times when I was embarrassed, shy and ashamed.

The things I am ashamed of –

I often forget people’s names. I know I can’t remember all the words I want to, but it feels especially awful when I can’t remember names. I think if only I tried harder, I would remember. But I can’t. It’s humbling.

Secret eating – I have kept a stash of snacks in my room (in Tupperware so the ants won’t get them) and I hide in there and eat my cookies and candy by myself. In an ideal world I would just eat the food I am served and feel satisfied.

I can already hear the voices of the people who read this blog. “It’s okay. You don’t need to feel ashamed.” Maybe I do. Maybe it’s time to let go of this yearning for satisfaction. Maybe the “me” who is yearning to be born needs to feel dissatisfied and not numb out.

It’s only when I pull the secrets into the daylight that I can see their shadows.

The current journey is labeled Peace Corps but the real journey is so much more.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Pray Day

Pray Day

Students and the big drum on the porch of my mosque.

Today is an all day prayer day. There is no teaching at my school. All 900 students, 60 teachers and staff and several hundred parents, grandparents and other dignitaries have gathered in the large mosque and have been praying for 3 and a half hours. I just took a break and came back to the teacher room. We are all praying so that the seniors will pass the national exams.

All the teachers got a notice yesterday stamped with the official school seal that we were to wear white clothes today. My ibu-mama loaned me a frilly white shirt and some white pants that are a little bit tight. My co-teachers also told me to wear make-up and jewelry. In fact, one of the teachers was doing a good business selling bracelets and jilbab jewels for $1 - $3. I bought one of the strings of sparkly plastic peals and pinned it on my jilbab where the scarf part goes around the back and attaches to the top of my head. The shirt sleeves are almost down to my elbows, so I needed to wear the arm warmers too, so that I’m covered to my wrists.

It was raining hard so the tent which was set up yesterday was flooded and all the activities had to move to the giant mosque next door. There was a steady stream of people arriving from 7:00 till 9:30. It’s called “rubber time.” There are many reasons why things don’t start on time and a giant rainstorm means that usual method of transportation – motorcycle - just isn’t as easily accomplished. I was impressed with how many grandmothers came. Every single person was wearing white. Most shirts are long so that when you sit, the bottom of the shirt touches the floor. Some are down to your knees. This is a lot of clothing to be wearing in a hot tropical climate. The men wore either short or long sleeves and their heads, hair, neck and ears were exposed.

There prayers have now shifted from chanting Arabic to a speech in Indonesian. I can sit on the floor for a few hours but then my old bones just beg for a little padding. Actually about 10% of the teachers are in the teacher room now. The prayers are being broadcast over the loudspeaker system, so I guess we’re still praying. There are also dishes of snacks here – boiled peanuts, cassava and bananas – each served separately.

I asked how long the prayers were going to last. No one knew. The students were told to bring a rice box – the equivalent of a lunch box. It isn’t considered to be a meal unless there is rice. I think the people in the 6 little shops which make up our canteen are there, but maybe they are busy preparing food for someone else.

I just asked one of my co-teachers what the speaker is saying and she told me that he is imploring people to ask Allah for help. The speakers, distinguished Islam men called Imams wear a shawl around their necks. At least that’s what I look for to tell who the dignitaries are.

All the teachers were served an elaborate meal – buffet style. We get our plates of rice, cooked vegetables, piece of fish or chicken, fried tempe and sit on the floor. Most of the teachers eat with their hand.

Now the meal is finished and we all go home early! I really do pray that the seniors pass the National Exams. Our teachers will go to other schools to monitor the testing so that the urge to help the students is reduced or eliminated. Last year every one of our Seniors graduated. It’s important for schools to have everyone graduate. That’s a lot of pressure on students and people who are grading the exams. Prayers and mandatory passing -Education is a different system here in Indonesia!

Monday, April 18, 2011

I miss my family

My family is circulating an update email where each one of us checks in and talks about what is going on in our lives. I have 6 brothers and sisters and a zillion nieces and nephews and a whole new crop of children in the generation beyond that. I’m including some of my family conversation so that other people who follow this blog can grasp what it means when I say, “I miss my family.”

If I could capture the essence of "missing my family" and put it in my water bottle it would be overflowing with my tears. These 27 months are so much harder than I imagined. I just never thought I would be homesick. That's something kids do. I mean I've lived on my own so much and my kids have left home and I've left many homes. It's hard to even say where my "home" is. Is it the home in the forest in New Mexico where I lived 13 years ago and have been renting out ever since? Is it the little apartment in Salt Lake City that I rented for 2 years to be close to my daughter and grandchildren? I have 2 Rubbermaid bins with all my worldly belongs stored at her house, but the idea of “home” is hard to define. But “missing home” is perhaps the hardest part of living here. Yesterday was my youngest son, Peter's birthday and this week is the "due date" for David, my oldest son and his wife Anna to have their first child. I will have a new grandson living in Boston very soon.

When my first grandchild, Talon, was born I was at Hurricane Katrina and volunteered to drive a big truck to Cody Wyoming. When I stopped in Boulder to spend the night with my daughter, Katrina, she was in labor when I left. I dropped off the truck in Wyoming, flew to New Mexico and drove up to Boulder so that I was there within 24 hours of when he was born. When my second grandchild, Kira, was born I was living 2 blocks away and took care of Talon when she and her husband, Matt went to the hospital and then Talon and I got to see little Kira when she was just a few hours old. The thought that I will not be able to hold this grandbaby until he is over a year old is just painful!

This morning I got up at 4am, like I usually do and went for a 2 hour walk. I love the relative cool in the morning. Of course I'm sweating by the time the sun comes up at 5:15 or so but I love the quiet and the stillness of the early mornings. I live on the most densely populated island in the world! (At least that's what they say - I would think Manhattan would be more densely populated but maybe not.) My ibu-mama is already up when I leave the house, cooking rice and boiling water in a wood burning fireplace outside. The first person I usually say good morning to is an elderly lady leaving the little mosque where she has gone to say her morning prayers. Today I picked up several bunches of sprouts that had fallen off the motorcycle delivery cart that the vegetable seller, Dewi, drives. She was appreciative of me returning them to her.

Then I walk for about 1/2 hour to a place where the houses end and the rice and corn fields begin. For about 20 minutes I can sing my heart out because it's still dark so the farmers have not yet come to the fields. Then I'm in another little village. I follow a winding road down to a big river, cross a bridge and go past a graveyard build into a steep hillside. All the graves are the same direction so that the people can be placed in them lying on their sides with their faces west - toward Mecca. Then I walk past a slightly rural area to another village where there are a lot of dogs - I counted five! (Yes, 5 dogs in a village is a LOT of dogs.) Muslims are generally not allowed to have dogs so there must be some Christians living there. Then I walk past the place where they make bricks by hand out of concrete and past the little ditch where I always see villagers squatting and pooping.

Things I have seen in streams and ditches: People washing their goats, people giving their cows a drink of water, people herding their ducks to get a drink, people washing their clothes, people cleaning out the canisters of pesticide that they spray on the fields, people brushing their teeth, people washing their children, little boys peeing as far as they can, and of course people squatting and pooping. Before I came, I had read that most rural homes in Indonesia do not have toilets, that people use the streams.

There is no school this week because it is the National Exam for seniors. I went back to my Pre Service Training Village – where I lived for the first 3 months and visited with the family and spent a few hours with the new Peace Corps volunteer who is now living in my house. There are 30 new ones who are learning the language and culture and in 3 months will graduate and join the existing 17 of us from the first group. I’m still the oldest.

It’s been really hot lately, as opposed to just regularly hot. Two other volunteers have said that they will come on Friday and we will go swimming at the new pool just 2 blocks from my home. I’m looking forward to that.

At my new house, where I’ve been living for the past 6 weeks we eat a lot more tofu and tempe and a lot less fish heads and tails. The wonderful thing is that they have figured out that I like fruit – I brought some apples home from a trip I took – and so we have fruit almost all the time: bananas; pineapples; papaya; apples; Asian pears; selak which looks like snake skin on egg size balls and it sort of tastes like pears; hairy fruit which looks weird but tastes good; & oranges!

I miss you guys! Love and hugs from ½ way around the world, Colleen

And a response from my sister, who is a nurse-

We miss you too. It will be wonderful to have you back home - when will you be coming home? I think it is in May of next year is that right? You can almost start the count down. Just think off all the stories and adventures you will be able to tell for the rest of your life about your being a Peace Corps volunteer in Indonesia! Are you more glad than not glad you did it? I hope so. I'm sure there are days you wish you never did it though. I just hope the more glad over all out weighs the not glad.
All those things happening in the streams and ditches is enough to make me seriously cringe. I am bringing toilet paper with me no matter what and even though I hate to use the stuff normally I think I will bring a gallon of hand sanitizer with me! Actually, now that I'm thinking of bringing Calvie wipes (not sure of the spelling) but the kind they use in hospitals that kill all kinds of big bad bugs. How is your health? How do you wash your hands? Do you wash them often? My god the sanitation conditions sound bacterially awful! Okay, I'm not freaking out - well, maybe a little - I still want to come but I will definitely listen to every bit of advice Matt our doctor gives on how to stay healthy while there!
Stay healthy - stay away from those ditches and streams!
Your sis Pinky

(My daughter, Katrina and her husband Matt, the doctor, will visit me in June of this year and Pinky is planning to come in March of next year.)

My response to my sister-

It's not as bad as it sounds, Pinky. I have been wiping my butt with my hand for the past 13 months and I'm still alive! I used to get diarrhea pretty often, but now I sometimes go several months without it. Water is so cheap - you just keep washing your hands with soap when you are finished, over and over until you can't smell poop any more. Actually sometimes I can still smell poop - I'm careful not to floss my teeth after that because when you floss you really do wind up putting your hands in your mouth.

People are very careful about only using their right hand to give you things - the left hand is the butt washing hand. But sometimes I forget - oh well, the students still love me even if I pass out papers with the wrong hand and the shop keepers still keep the money even if I reach in my purse with the wrong hand.

Of all the things I deal with in life - the hardest is missing my family, the 2nd hardest is not understanding what is happening (language and cultural differences). Heat, mosquitoes, transportation difficulties, incredibly loud prayers, the smell of burning trash, sanitation issues and strange food are really just minor annoyances.

Easter Sunday is day 405 in Indonesia - exactly half way, only 405 more to go. I really am glad I came. I have so many grandma stories to tell, but I better tell them fast. I can already tell that my memory is going...

Love you guys, Colleen
(My due date for going back to America – close of service - is June 2, 2012.)