The book is Sam’s story of going into a third grade class and teaching creative writing. In one portion, the classroom teacher asks Sam if he has any homework for the kids, and Sam remembers what he calls “the best assignment I was ever given. One that changed my life.” He tells the kids that on their way home from school, he wants them to, “Notice something new, something you’ve never seen before, some little thing you’ll be glad you saw.”
The other day, I got home from the store, walked into the kitchen with my hands full of bags, and saw this out my window.
Look close, all those little dots . . . that’s a parade of paddle boarders on Lake Austin.
This parade of paddle boarders was heading down the dead-quiet lake. There were at least a hundred of them, with boats escorts, and music, because all parades have music, right? I felt a little left out. Why didn’t anyone invite me? I googled and discovered they were a group benefitting Dam that Cancer, and they were paddling dam to dam on Lake Austin to raise money to help families dealing with cancer diagnosis. That’s over 20 miles of lake to paddle, and they’d been at it since early morning.
It was easy to notice that particular “something new,” but some days I may have to try a little harder, pay attention. I found this on the bathroom wall at BookPeople.
Graffiti on the bathroom wall at Bookpeople.
Wow. I’m in love with hash browns, too! There was more.
Who knew such wisdom could be found on the bathroom wall? Then I found these in the bathroom at the new Royers Pie Haven.
I love this “notice something new” idea of Swope’s. It reminds me of one of my favorite book characters. In Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Clementine is constantly being called into the principal’s office because she isn’t paying attention.
But Clementine is paying attention. She’s paying attention to the clouds out the window, or the fact that the lunchroom lady is sitting in the janitor’s car and they are kissing. Clementine is constantly “noticing something new,” paying attention, just not to her teacher.
Now that summer is upon us, I hope to have lots of time to notice new things, at least one a day. And I hope it becomes a habit I carry with me into busier times. As a writer it’s essential, and as a human, it’s a pleasure. I’ll allow my eyes to gaze out the window, my steps to slow on the sidewalk. You never know what you might find.
I saw this critter out the window of my car while driving down Koenig Lane.
Cactus blooms on a hike in the greenbelt.
Benji and his friends are masters of finding “something new.” They found this little turtle and kept him “safe” in a shoe.
If someone were to look at the google search activity on my computer, they might be puzzled. Banana sticker images? Leila’s hair museum? A video uploaded to YouTube on December 20, 2010 about Marilu Henner’s superior autobiographical memory? These are all things I’ve researched in the past six months while working on a middle grade novel, and I love it. I love where my writing leads me. Today’s work led me to the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin.
I took notes and lots of pictures and asked a few questions of the artist who made, and continues to make, it all happen, Vince Hannemann.
The Cathedral is 25 years old, and exists behind a quirky little house on a fairly ordinary looking street in South Austin. When asked to name one of the things he was most proud of, Vince said, “My building permit.” The structure seemed sound to me, as I crept all around, walking up and down stairs and under arbors made of twisting metal and repurposed mattress springs. It was solid.
When I asked Vincent what his grand plan was, he said, “I can’t tell you that.” It is the line many writers will give you if asked about their current work in progress. I sense that Vince’s work in progress will continue to progress and progress, growing up and out and winding around his yard. But also growing in, becoming more dense as he adds something here and there.
The CD’s that hang everywhere remind me of Christmas ornaments, and the silver duct tubing looks like giant tinsel. Bicycle tires, hubcaps, and an art deco light shade, it is unexpected and made me smile.
And when I asked if he could tell me where Darth Vader’s head was, he nodded. “Sure.” He could tell me where pretty much every piece of “junk” could be found. After all, this was his creation, and he knows it intimately.
I’m certain he could find the Simpson family, too.
In addition to getting some great ideas for my novel and my characters, I found this space required me to slow down. The slower I went, the closer I looked, the more I noticed. If I could only apply this to my whole life, not just the backyard at 4422 Lareina Dr. It is the purpose of cathedrals, I think, to encourage us to be still and notice and wonder.
Watch what you notice in these three pictures as I get closer and closer.
I spy toy cars, a meat fork, swing set chain . . .
The entire place was an act of trust. While some items were secured with wire or concrete, others were just tucked in here or there. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people visit the Cathedral of Junk each year. Vincent trusts that they’ll leave stuff where they find, and for the most part, they do. To me, this place was about redemption. Things that would otherwise be forgotten were being used to delight and to inspire. What better place for that to happen, than in a cathedral?
Check out the crutches framing this throne.
A colorful nest of wires
Old mattress springs, blue bottles and sunshine. A masterpiece.
Research for this novel has led me all sorts of interesting places. What’s it about? I can’t tell you that. Not yet. But I’ll tell you this. I sure do love what I do.
I have always been passionate about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. The theme creeps into my books, into this blog, and into pictures taken spontaneously on my iphone, as I’m struck by some such ordinary, extraordinary thing.
New Yorkers may find this sight ordinary, but this Texan was astonished. It’s buried!
Ordinary shoes, but I knew the boys they belong to when they were wee little men. And now, they are big boys with yeti feet, and they were all upstairs, at the same time. Good thing we have extra reinforcements in the game room floor, enough to hold a pool table, or this many boys.
Something I heard today made me realize that there are two ways to think about the ordinary being extraordinary. One is the whole David and Goliath story, where the ordinary looking person does something extraordinary. Like the story about a little eight-year-old girl who sold lemonade to raise over $100,000 to end child slavery.
And that’s wonderful, fantastic, and amazing. But when I heard the story, it also made me feel like a bit of a loser. I mean, what have I done lately? While these kinds of stories should be celebrated, I need to remind myself to look for the extraordinary in the truly ordinary. Like a carrot seed. I can relate to the lowly, tiny, strangely shaped carrot seed.
I remind myself that mysteriously held within the trappings of this little seed is something marvelous. This week I had the privilege of working in the Genesis Gardens in East Austin. This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never picked a carrot, so Mike showed me how to take a flat head screwdriver (no, I didn’t need an expensive tool out of the pretty gardening catalog) and sink it down beside the carrot to loosen it, and then carefully slide it up, out of the ground.
I cannot tell you how satisfying it felt, to pull up those carrots. To see this long, orange, weirdly shaped vegetable come rising out of the ground. I can’t say it as sweetly or as well as this little girl Ella (who is six, by the way). She explains how she pulls at the “bottom of the top” to reveal a “beautiful orange carrot (well, once you wash it off).” I wholeheartedly agree. And they all came from that seed that looks a little like a sticker burr. Amazing. The extraordinary in the ordinary.
I write all this because I want to point myself and others not just to the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but to the ordinary people doing ordinary things (like picking carrots) which are actually pretty extraordinary things if we open our eyes and really think about what might be happening. What might seem ordinary, like sitting around a dinner table, can become an extraordinary place where laughter and stories are created and family ties are knotted just a little tighter. A kind word to a stranger in a parking lot who’s dealt with a screaming baby for the last half hour can bring that stranger to tears and brighten her day (I was that stranger, and I still remember that incident, all these years later, and make sure to do the same for other weary mothers).
We may never know the extraordinary affect an ordinary smile or encouraging word may have on someone. We may never see our seeds sprout, no articles or spotlights or recognition. But that doesn’t make it any less important. We can arm ourselves with ordinary flat head screwdrivers, or ordinary words, and unearth treasure.
A sunset is never ordinary, it’s always worthy of celebration.
When I volunteered to drive on a field trip for Nate’s class, I was unclear what exactly we’d be doing, something about geometry and building a gazebo. We drove way out past the airport, curled around the east side of town, and turned on Hog Eye Road. Where were we going again? Something about Mobile Loaves and Fishes, but wasn’t that the organization that drove trucks around town, giving food and clothing to the homeless? We turned at the entrance, where little wooden birdhouses were attached to the fence, then drove down a dusty driveway and parked in some grass.
Entrance to Community First! Village on Hog Eye Road
It was here that we met Steven Hebbard, Coordinator of Genesis Gardens.
Steven Hebbard, Coordinator for Genesis Gardens
Steven explained that the land we were standing on would someday be filled with small homes, a village, really. The Mobile Loaves and Fishes web site says Community First! will be “a 27 acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.” The space is designed for 100-200 people to form community, and 80% of them will come from the street.
This is what one of the homes might look like.
Or maybe the homes might look like one of these.
Which sounds great, but big. I couldn’t quite get my head or my heart around something like that. How? When? What if . . . I needed something smaller, a part of the story that could be wrapped within the designated 32 pages of a picture book, something I could chew on. Like a garden, and the garden is Steven’s specialty.
Steven and volunteers in garden.
Five years ago Steven found himself with a community garden plot in a notoriously bad part of town. He rented a house a few blocks down, where he lived with a few other guys, and determined to love the land, his neighbors, and God. He says, “The way I like to think about it, once I got my fingers in the soil, my arms were pulled in, and then there was nothing for it but let the rest of my life follow in after.”
For two years, at least once a day, he harvested fruits and vegetables from his garden. As he walked the two blocks home, he’d stop and ask his neighbors if they wanted some squash or a melon. Slowly but surely, he built community with the people around him. He realized that all this growing he’d been doing wasn’t just about fruit and vegetables. It was about homemaking, which turned into village-making when he started working with the Genesis Gardens in the Community First! project.
Steven believes that working and respecting the land together builds the kind of community that lasts over time. The work and the respect help drive out weeds, and weather storms. So here we were, off Hog Eye Road, hearing Steven’s vision. I’d never heard the term “chronically homeless” before, but that’s the group they are reaching out to, people who can’t seem to get themselves off the street. Who have formed a community that has grown in some pretty rocky soil.
There’s a lot of rocky soil on the property, slowly being transformed . . .
When someone is tough enough to endure poverty, lack of shelter, lack of food, and lack of respect, all while dealing with their troubled pasts, whether loss of job or family, addiction or abuse, they have to grow a pretty tough community to get by. Like a cedar tree, they do what they can to survive. What would make them want to step away from this street community that they’ve worked so hard to cultivate?
How about some squash? Some chickens? Rabbits? Okay, how about squatting side- by-side, digging in the dirt, tending soil together. How about working all morning with a volunteer, sweating together, and then feasting together on food grown in the garden, cooked over an open fire. Steven explains that they “host the only slow food meal in the City of Austin where the hosts are homeless and the guests are housed.” Every Saturday they serve up delicious cowboy coffee and dutch-oven breakfast tacos after a morning of volunteers and homeless working together in the garden. It’s hard to tell who is who when you’re both sweaty and dirty and tired and hungry.
Right next to the garden is an old fashioned stagecoach and an open fire to cook the harvest Saturday mornings.
Maybe living and working with dignity in an environment that isn’t just functional, but beautiful, would draw the homeless out of their old, destructive communities and into a healthier one. Community First! is all about building a creative space in which to live in healthy community. Chicken laying boxes are made from old drawers that are painted and tiled.
These chickens are laying in style, producing fresh, organic eggs.
Someone took extra time to decorate the frames around the windows of the rabbit shed with reclaimed wood, and paint stripes on the roosts in the chicken yard.
Why have just a normal rabbit hutch, when you can make it artsy?
There is art out here, on Hog Eye Road, just as necessary to the human soul as food and shelter are to the body.
A cool wind chime hanging from a tree.
There are trellises made from old bamboo, and benches made from beautiful reclaimed wood, reminders that lives can be reclaimed, too, with a little help.
Soon these plants will begin to climb.
Steven walked us through a grassy meadow, past some scrubby cedar, and talked to our freshman kids about the cotton farms that once existed on that same land. How the land got overused, and terrible dry years came and blew away all the good soil that was left, and the rural people left their land to move to big cities. They were displaced. In a way, they became homeless. He talked about how the land fought back, with tumbleweeds, then short prairie grasses, cactus and foxtails, then shrubs, post oak and ash juniper.
The land is thick with growth. A lot of clearing had to happen to make room for the gardens.
The plants struggled to survive, doing what it took to hold on to water and grow roots. Today, the land we were standing on had nearly twice the percent of organic matter as the best organic farm in Austin, and now, the homeless are returning. The land has been cleared, it’s being cared for, and hope is in the air.
Steven challenged our kids to use their geometry skills to come up with a gazebo that didn’t just provide cover, but could serve other functions as well. Perhaps they could design a roof that would channel rainwater to a collection barrel. Near the gazebo site are terraced gardens that will catch and hold water to combat drought conditions.
Kids taking measurements and taking notes and taking their task seriously, because once you see it, you want to be a part of what’s happening on Hog Eye Road.
Steven opened our minds and stretched our creativity to think big, dream big, and then get down to work to make it happen. Next week, I’m going to volunteer in the garden, harvest a few vegetables, meet a few new friends. Who knew I’d find the beginnings of Eden, out on Hog Eye Road?
I gasped when I saw this sign. This is a place trying hard to bring stories together, in gazebos, on benches, and around campfires.
It’s funny the things you remember from a vacation. Sure, you remember the big events you went there for. The dives, the snorkeling, sand the perfect texture for drizzle castles and the water so clear you didn’t have to wear a mask to see the fish swimming all around you.
Drizzle castles are our favorite kind to build.
The water was so many colors of blue.
But there are other details you remember, too, little happenings you couldn’t have anticipated that make the trip something more than what’s promised online. Nobody told us about the cutest little hermit crabs in the whole wide world.
Nobody told us we’d find the biggest hermit crab in the world, either.
And nobody promised we’d come upon a pod of dolphins not once, but twice. There were dozens of them, their back fins slicing through the water, racing our boat, and beating it. One swam right side up and another upside down, the mirror image, just under the bow. Several of them jumped out of the water entirely.
As we rode at the front of a motorboat, our legs hanging over the sides and hanging on tight as it sailed over waves and slammed back to the water, we saw flying fish, their silver bodies catching the sun. We passed weathered old fisherman in weathered old boats, out for the day with their nets. We were told Honduras used to be second only to Texas in fish exporting, but that’s changed with the higher water temperatures and the bleaching of the coral and disasters like oil spills.
Nobody told us about the flying fish or the picturesque fisherman, and nobody told us about the Santa Claus of Roatan, otherwise known as the Banana Donut Man. We first saw him on Day One, as we hung out on the beach. He wore a hat woven from palm fronds, and he had a big plastic container tucked under his arm, and he called out, no, he sang out, “Ba-naaaa-na Donuts.” There were others selling sunglasses and bracelets and parasailing rides and cigars, but this man was different. For one thing, he looked just like a very tan Santa, and for another thing, he sang, he bantered, and he had friends. People up and down the beach called out to him. So that night, on our way down the beach to dinner, we stopped him for a few donuts.
He lifted the red lid, and inside were the donuts, sprinkled with sugar, only a few left at the end of the day. He gave us a deal, 4 for $5. How could we refuse? He explained that his wife made them, and he may be back tomorrow. Quite the salesman, he left us anxious, hoping we’d see him again as we bit into the moist, sweet, fried goodness that is a banana donut. Lo and behold we found him the next day, and we got to meet his wife, too.
She even shared her secret recipe. Use whatever donut batter you usually use (I need to find me a donut batter recipe), but instead of regular milk, use coconut milk. Add a few very ripe, brown and speckled bananas. She uses metal chafing dishes to fry them up. She just lays them across two burners on the stovetop, and fills the bottom with oil, making twelve at a time. Delicious. We got 7 for $10, and snacked on them the rest of our stay.
They tell you about the crystal clear water and the fine sand and the amazing coral reef, but they can’t tell you about the other stuff because it’s not guaranteed. But these other things, they are what make a vacation worth taking, worth remembering.
Alayna and I participating in the obligatory jumping at sunset picture.
Clay is always finding treasures under the sea, like this big sand dollar.
Will he remember the sunsets, the drizzle sand castles, the dolphins? I think we’ll all remember the banana donut man.
You may notice that Stories in the Street looks a little different. What would have taken me weeks to accomplish took my daughter a day. You can now easily access specific stories, posts relating to Rebeka or the adoption or travels, by clicking on that word under the book header. You can get to the beginnings of those stories, or see the posts written during our trip around the world in 2007-2008, by going to the links on the right sidebar.
Looking at these stories from a distance, I can see things I couldn’t see while in the middle of them. There is one thing they all seem to have in common; the idea of “getting off the bus.” You can see this literally in one of the most recent stories. Two months ago, we were getting ready for our trip to Rwanda. While there with our team of thirty, we traveled in a bus each day to various locations. Often we were traveling to visit a sponsored child. When we arrived at our destination, the sponsor family would get off the bus and walk off with a translator to find the house, while the rest stayed behind.
It was such an a amazing experience, getting off that bus filled with cameras and water bottles and people who spoke English, a little bubble of westernization, and visiting our sponsored kids’ homes. To sit on a makeshift bench or the floor, the only light streaming through the windows because there was no electricity.
No home had more than two rooms, separated by a curtain. No home had a working toilet. They were so remote, I marveled at how our bus found them. For our visit with Javinvier, the bus stopped near some stores. We got off and walked past the buildings, down a hill, over a small stream, past piles of banana trees and a few rotting piles of trash, then back over the stream on a rickety bridge, through the gate of a fence made from plants, and we were there.
We gathered around a small fire outside, listened to his grandmother speak of her love for her grandson and the small child she’s recently begun to care for. And we hugged her, and our boy Javinvier, who has grown so tall and works so hard at school.
We took family pictures with mamas and siblings and aunties and uncles, and began to understand the impact sponsorship was having on the entire family. This child was learning to read, to speak English, to do math and science and understand the bigger world outside their dirt walls, and we were now part of their big family in a way. The distant relatives from over yonder, across the ocean.
Ruth has lots of brothers and sisters. She is shy but is getting braver, trying out her English with us.
Annet was the first girl we ever sponsored. She sang us a song with her older brother, she is a beautiful young woman with a bright future. Rebeka got to meet all our sponsored kids, her wide eyes taking it all in.
David lives with his grandmother. We remembered her strong hugs and big smiles from our last visit.
Esdori isn’t much for smiling for pictures. He is shy but kind, his smiles are gifts.
It’s amazing to meet the people who care for our sponsored kids. This is Violet’s auntie.
We got to hold new babies.
Sweet Violet has a tender heart, and a persevering spirit. We pray big things for her.
These visits were joyful and teary and filled with hugs and holding hands , but it wasn’t always our turn. When the bus stopped for someone else’s home visit, we had two choices. I had two choices. I could lean my head against the window and gaze at the curious crowd gathering outside, feeling shy or tired or overwhelmed. I could take notes in my journal, stay removed. Or I could get off the bus.
Getting off the bus took effort. There were hands to hold, songs to sing. It was hard to communicate sometimes. This was the opportunity to make a fool of myself as I did the hokey pokey or acted out an animal for them to guess, oinking to make them laugh. It was the smiles I was going for. Those beautiful smiles. They were worth getting off the bus.
And the hands. They want to touch you. Look at you. Examine your arm hair. They want to be the one who gets the coveted spot right next to you. If you sit, they want your lap. They are needy and eager and most are totally uninhibited.
Getting off the bus, I was soon engulfed in a sea of children, and as I looked around I saw the muzungus had spread out, little islands of white in seas of dark bodies, each a little microcosm of love and affection, if only for a moment.
The kids were both terrified and in love with the puppets one team member brought.
It was hard to step off the bus sometimes, but it was good. Getting off the bus, being brave, being present, is so very good.
Blessed by a sticker, the kids love them.
Each day I have the chance to “get off the bus.” I can be brave and send out that manuscript or write that new story. I can let go of dignity and comfort and be vulnerable to get to know someone better. I can sit around the virtual fire of a coffee cup and take time to talk. And I can hold a hand. All it takes is the ability to see the opportunity, take a deep breath, get off the bus and step into story.
I intended for my next blog post to be about home visits in Rwanda. I have all these great pictures I wanted to post, of the different sorts of houses our sponsored kids live in, and what it’s like to be on the bus while someone else does a home visit. The kids that gather, their mortal fear of puppets, and their love for stickers and arm hair. But what’s on my mind, as I sit in the waiting room at Arise Medical Center, is not home visits, so I’ll save it for another day. Here’s a picture. I can’t wait to tell those stories.
This is our sponsored child Ruth’s home.
I have definitely spent more time in hospitals this past year than I ever have before (except maybe those ten days I spent in the hospital when my appendix broke). First with Rebeka, as we went in for surgeries and subsequent cast changes. Then with Clay, about a month ago. Those of you who haven’t heard about his daring (Clay says “dumb”) banister feat and resulting broken ribs and punctured lungs missed a great story. Maybe someday I’ll do a blog post about it.
Clay in the emergency room.
But this morning, it was Alayna we checked in, for jaw surgery. We’ve been meeting with her oral surgeon for over two years, and we’ve known for over a year that jaw surgery was in her future. It has been carefully planned between the end of dance team football season and cross country season, and departing for college. Her biggest concern leading up to this morning was whether or not her braces will be off before she goes to college, but I imagine there will be more immediate concerns once she wakes from anesthesia. We’ve been armed with a very large bottle of pain medication, liquid since she can’t take pills. Alayna hasn’t been able to bring herself to smell it.
We couldn’t help but remember and compare the hospital experiences of Alayna and Rebeka. Rebeka always arrived with “Georgie” (her Curious George stuffed animal) and her little baby doll (the one Clay sat on). Alayna arrived with her purple unicorn pillow pet.
Rebeka with Georgie and Baby
Alayna with Sheila the Unicorn Pillow Pet
But while Rebeka was deathly afraid of needles, Alayna tolerates them just fine. She just looked the other way when they inserted the IV this morning.
We never saw Rebeka’s IV inserted. She required Versed (a medication that makes you very sleepy and kind of happy) before she would even put on the “clown nose,” with its flavored orange smell that would send her off to dreamland. They inserted here IV back in the OR, It was a difficult procedure since her veins were small and hard to find, due to the arthrogryposis. One time she even had to have the IV inserted in her jugular because they couldn’t find a vein.
Because Alayna could have her IV inserted first thing, they delivered her Versed by IV. Rebeka always took hers orally, and it tasted horrible. She would be armed with a couple paper towels to wipe off her tongue (no drinks allowed), and there was lots of complaining and horrible faces when she took it. We remembered how scared she was, that first time she went in for the operation. No amount of preparation could have prepared her, or us, for that moment we kissed her cheeks and they wheeled her through the big swinging doors. That first time, she couldn’t speak much English. She was so afraid. That first time she didn’t take Versed, but she did every time after.
Alayna was big smiles just moments after the Versed hit the IV. She started giggling and covered her face, laughing, which made us laugh. Part nerves, part hilarity, I had tears rolling down my face, same as when they took Rebeka back. It was a good way to go to surgery, I think, laughing this time.
As they wheeled her away, we called, “Goodbye” and saw her hand flop in a wave from over the back of her bed.
As we waited, I tried not to think about the cuts her doctor was making in her jaw. I completely trust him, but still, he was cutting her bones apart Re-adjusting them. Three hours, and lots of prayers, later, we got a call. He was “closing her back up.” With Rebeka, we always scrubbed in and were with her as she woke up. Maybe because it was a children’s hospital. But here, we won’t see her until they move her to her room. I was anxious, wondering if she was afraid as she regained consciousness. Wondering if she hurt. She is eighteen years old. She signed her own release forms. I was sure she’d be fine, but all those protective instincts were tilled up to the surface, and I don’t like waiting.
So much of life is spent waiting. As a kid, we can’t wait for Christmas morning. I’m waiting for a book contract. Alayna’s waiting to hear from colleges. And I had to wait all morning to see my girl again. She can’t wait for the swelling to go down, and for the braces to come off. But I’m trying not to spend so much time looking forward, I forget to notice the here and now. We have plans to watch a movie this afternoon. Alayna will be on the receiving end of sweet friends and family in the days ahead, sending love and prayers and encouragement and soup recipes (liquid diet, two weeks). This has been a forced pause in the holiday hustle and bustle. I’ve realized, as I remembered Rebeka and received sweet texts and taken time to just sit still and pray for my daughter, that sometimes the wait, itself, is worth the wait.
Six hundred kids. Thirty Texans. Camp for two days, 9AM-3PM.
Since Rwanda is below the equator, this officially qualified as summer camp, Rwanda style. We arrived armed with Oriental Trading Company ornament kits, barrel swivels to make bracelets, white Christmas lights and extensions cords, Frisbees and soccer balls. We traveled by bus and van to Bugesera, an hour south of the capital, to the school where Rebeka’s sister, Medeatrece, and until recently, Rebeka, attended. All the kids in the community had been told of our arrival, and when we arrived we found them gathered, waiting for us.
I saw Rebeka’s sister, Medeatrece in her pretty pink dress (Rebeka has a matching one), and wearing a Spiderman pajama top wrapped around her waist. It was the same top Rebeka had brought to America, and it wasn’t until Rebeka had been with us several months that I realized she didn’t think of it as a pajama top, but a jacket. Seeing the familiar face of Medeatrece made me a little less nervous. At least I knew two of the hundreds of kids that had showed up for camp that day.
Rebeka and her sister, Medeatrece
They were divided by age into six groups, each with an animal name. I was one of three Texans assigned to the giraffes, a group of kids ranging from ages seven to ten. Our first activity took place in a classroom, making ornaments that said either “peace,” “hope,” or “joy.” The giraffes filed in and settled, three or four to a wooden desk and bench, and stared at us.We had an hour to fill.
A translator helped us tell them the story of baby Jesus, and then we passed out the crafts. The whole time the kids were silent and wide-eyed. These kids do not have much exposure to individually wrapped crafts, self-adhesive backing, or fake jewels. I expected them to rip into their small plastic bags, I expected bits and pieces of their crafts to get scattered all over the floor, and for them to charge ahead without listening to directions. I expected possible tears when their ornament didn’t turn out right. Instead, each child patiently waited until every craft had been passed out. All eighty of them.
They sat and stared at us some more. “First, you open the bag,” we explained, but they were hesitant to open the bags. I went from desk to desk, and each child would solemnly hand me their bag to tear open. “Look, you just do this,” I explained, sticking my finger into the plastic and making a small tear. “See, you can do it.” Still, the majority of the kids wouldn’t. Rebeka, who was in my group, was one of the few who was familiar with crafts, after her initiation in the states. She would prove invaluable as the day went on, helping us communicate with the kids and showing them what to do.
After we finally got all the bags open, it was time to take everything out. The kids took great care, emptying their bags. Next, we showed how to take off the sticky backing. And again, they wanted me to help. They were so timid. I never really figured out if they were worried they were going to mess it up, or were just unsure how to do it. Maybe they kept waiting for the punch line. In a life where the day is taken up with basic tasks of survival, getting water, making food, washing clothes, what is the point of this strange, American craft? They seemed even more puzzled when we brought in the two fake Christmas trees and showed them how to hang their new ornaments on it. I was worried they would be sad, giving up their precious new creation to sit on a tree. What strange people we are! But they seemed non-plussed, eager to please, happy to give what they never really counted as theirs in the first place.
That’s not to say that we didn’t find a few sticker jewels on kid’s ears as the day wore on. Remember, this was only the first station. The more time we spent with each other, the more comfortable they all became. We moved on to some more active games outside. Rebeka sat in the shade, since running around with a large group of kids is still difficult for her.
Rebeka’s sister Medeatrece is running around for duck, duck, goose!
A small group of kids gathered around Rebeka when she sat out, and I admired how easily she seemed to assume the role of interpreter and answer all sorts of questions about these people from Texas. Sometimes they would point to us, giggle, then go back to talking.
At lunchtime everyone raced to the water cistern to wash their hands, then raced to the food line. Two days later, I was asking one of the translators what activity she thought the kids liked best. Was it football? Or maybe making those cool bracelets which soon became a sort of currency with the kids, some stretching to necklace length as trades were made. Or did they like volleyball best? Maybe duck, duck, goose? “No,” said the translator. “I think they’re favorite activity was lunch.”
She wasn’t joking. For all the planning we did (and don’t get me wrong, the kids had a lot of fun), what they really needed was to have a basic need met. Food. Rice. Potatoes. A banana. And meat, a real treat for these kids. And to top it off, a Fanta.
There was another basic need we met in those two days of camp. Touch.
I never had fewer than four hands on me. They entangled their fingers with ours. Sometime the littlest ones scored a ride in our arms. If they could reach our hair, it was braided or knotted.
They soaked up physical touch like dry sponges, saturating themselves with affection. At the end of the day, our bus rolled away and the kids started home, some walking three or four miles down dirt red roads. A few kids wore remnants of the ornament crafts on their faces, stickers on cheeks and foreheads. A few had bits of a broken Frisbee tucked into their pockets. I hope they all went home with their bellies swollen and their hearts full. Our Texas bodies may have been weary, but I know our hearts were very, very full.
Our family spent Thanksgiving week in Rwanda. I gathered images in my journal, and now I spill them here. Because there are so many stories worth telling in this world, and I feel like we had our tank filled to overflowing. Twenty-four hours of travel, across the wide ocean, we stepped off the plane Saturday night, bleary and excited, eager to see Rebeka for the first time. She would spend the night with us until Thursday, five nights of sleepovers, sharing a bed with Alayna at the guest house, sharing meals with our team of thirty Texans. This trip wasn’t just about Rebeka, but she’s where it all started, at the airport, hugging her familiar neck.
Seeing Rebeka in the Kigali airport.
It was our third time to Rwanda. We would visit all of our sponsored kids over the week, seeing some for the third time, tracing their growth through six years of pictures, delighting in small changes and slowly growing, long-distance friendships. That first night we fell into bed, and woke to Rwanda. Misty morning, bird tapping on the window, soldiers running past outside, chanting. We stumbled into the day, wide-eyed. We ate breakfast as we gazed at the capital city of Kigali, spreading down the hillside in front of us, cupped by some of the “thousand hills” Rwanda is so famous for.
View from the back porch of the guest house.
Breakfast was warm bread and sliced bananas. We drank water from a bottle, careful not to ever drink from the tap. Then the team loaded up and took a bus an hour south down bumpy red roads to Bugesera for Sunday morning church service. As the world slipped past I saw and remembered. People walking, everywhere, hundreds of them. Crazy motorcycles, perilous traffic, and then into the country. Dusty, smiling children and lush, green hillsides.
Mud homes with metal doors, or curtains for doors, or sometimes no door at all. Cassava drying on a blanket outside, chicken pecking at it. Small children carrying big yellow cans, fetching water. Children chasing our bus, calling “muzungu” (white person!) and waving hard.
Women washed clothes in plastic tubs and hung laundry on bushes.
Cows with long, dangerous horns, walked gentle down the road. A baby crawled two feet from our passing wheels, women walked with huge bundles on their heads, men pushed bikes up hills, loaded high with bananas or water cans. Clothes tied on sticks were scattered in the fields to scare birds from the maize.
Rebeka’s sister Esperanza was at the church service in Bugesera, though we didn’t know it until after. She came, shy and curious, once it was all over (the two hours of dancing and singing and murmured prayers in a foreign tongue all around us, hands held high, two sermons, delivered passionate, translated for us). Esperanza hugged us, smiling, and sat quietly, sharing our lunch, trying popcorn for the first time. Rebeka translated for her big sister, proud and comfortable.
Then we were in a van, bouncing down a red dirt road. We stopped to pick up two women dressed in bright church clothes and gave them a lift, three or four miles down the road. From the backseat, Rebeka said, “My dad!” pointing at a thin man walking down the road, wearing a blue shirt. We stopped and picked him up, too, and he squeezed into the front seat. He was all big smiles and shaking hands and then we were off again. Rebeka’s dad chatted with the driver, Clay told me later he had already been to the lake near their house to catch fish, walked six miles to the road to catch a ride to the capital, took an hour there and back to sell his fish, and was walking home again. It wasn’t one o’clock yet. Had he fished in the dark?
When we arrived I recognized her house from the pictures, beautiful lake shining on the right, house up a small hill on the left, and neighbor children already gathering to witness the spectacle of muzungus arriving in their van. The first thing I saw when we stepped into the house was the pink dog.
When Rebeka first arrived in America a sweet little neighbor girl started bringing presents. Little bags with treats. The small, stuffed pink dog with giant eyes arrived on day two, and Rebeka kept it faithfully clipped to her shorts for weeks.
Now here it was, hanging from her ceiling, along with paper snowflakes and a few other assorted toys.
As we sat on either side of a small coffee table, and the translator helped us talk to each other, my eyes kept straying to the ceiling. That dog, those snowflakes, they told so much about this family. I have never been in a sponsored kid’s home that was decorated this way. There may be a calendar picture tacked to the wall, maybe a faded picture of the sponsor family, sent across the ocean, but this was special. This spoke of a mother who gave freedom to her children to express themselves. It was a reach beyond fetching water, washing clothes, cooking meals, and all the basic survival tasks that occupy their days. It spoke of creativity and imagination and the desire to make things pretty no matter what the raw materials. I hope if I had a small house made of mud in Rwanda, there would be snowflakes hanging from the ceiling.
We would spend seven full days in Rwanda, seven days worth of stories we encountered on those red, dirt streets, but I wanted to start with this one. This hastily sketched picture of what it looks like, what it feels like, to be in this country. And what it was like that first day, meeting Rebeka’s family and seeing that little pink dog.
Rebeka’s family, three younger sisters, a brother, and mom and dad. Her older sisters aren’t pictured here.
The last time I wrote a post, we were saying goodbye to Rebeka. Since then we’ve received a few pictures of her back home. My favorite so far is this one.
We feed on these photos, noticing every detail. Her hair is braided! She’s wearing that Dora dress she loved! She’s wearing the socks Kate gave her!
Clay asked us when we thought a day would go by that we wouldn’t think about Rebeka. It certainly hasn’t happened yet, things remind us of her all the time. There are pictures of her around the house, an unfinished craft she was doing with a friend, some picture books I read to her the last night, still unshelved . . . there are pieces of her everywhere.
From all reports, she is happy with her family and will soon be attending a boarding school a few hours from her home. She will miss her family, but they can visit once a month, and she will be getting the benefits of attending one of the best schools in the country. She will also be able to keep up her English, an excellent skill that can take her far. We are hoping to visit her and her family in November, but until then photos and videos sent back from friends on the ground or mission teams are the only way we stay posted. The rest, all those details and stories I wonder about, are left up to my imagination.
Kind of like the bear/moose Clay and I encountered yesterday. We’re in Aspen, celebrating our 20th anniversary a little belatedly, and yesterday we did a fun hike up to Crater Lake and then down and around a Scenic Loop Trail.
At the start of the trail.
At the last part of the trail, we walked past this big bush and heard the HEAVY BREATHING and SNORTING of some sort of BEAST. I’m serious, it scared the pee out of me. I turned around and grabbed Clay’s shirt, and then, in classic fear mode, I side-stepped him and got away from the heavy breathing.
They told us on the bus they’d seen bear and moose in the area. We’d been hopefully watching for them, but had pretty much decided we wouldn’t see one, when we heard the breathing. There was nobody around. Clay tried to peer into the bush while I perched on a tall rock a safe distance away, camera at the ready.Clay tossed a rock into the middle of the bush. Every once in a while we’d hear the breathing again. SOMETHING was in there, something big, I am certain. It sounded wuffly to me, surely sign of a bear. Clay wasn’t so sure. Eventually I hiked back past the breathing to join Clay and we walked slowly away, glancing over our shoulders.
A little ways on, there was a rocky place leading to a dry creek bed. Clay decided to walk back down, pushing through some tangled branches, to see if he could see something from the other side of the large bush. I took the camera and found another rock to perch on. He returned a little later, saying he’d found where the animal had pushed into the thick bush, there was a sort of tunnel he could have gone into, but, kudos to Clay for self-restraint, he thought there was a possibility that he could die if it was an angry moose or bear and he was blocking the animal’s only way out, so he retreated without actually seeing the animal.
That said, Clay thinks it was just a mule deer. I am sticking to my bear/moose story, and I’m almost glad the BEAST never came out of hiding, because I can go on believing our encounter with a bear/moose really happened. There is something to be said for not seeing every piece of a puzzle, for leaving some bits of it up to imagination. I think this holds true whether it’s Rebeka, a creature in the forest, or even my stories. I know readers bring all of their experience and imagination to the words on the page, and the story becomes much bigger than it ever could have been on its own.
Happy trails to you, and may a few of your questions go unanswered, may some of your stories go unfinished, and may your imaginations fill in the blanks.
The Aspen trees here are beautiful, their leaves all shimmery when the wind blows, and the white trunks like slender white columns, lining our path.
I love stories, and that’s what this blog is all about. My stories. Other people’s stories. Writing stories for children. This blog’s title, Stories in the Street, is a spin off of Faces in the Street, my blog about our family’s nine and half month trip around the world. We chose a G. K. Chesterton quote to represent our goal for that trip: “Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street.” To us, it meant that we were going to step out into the world and really experience it. We are surrounded by so many faces and stories in the street, whether those streets are in Morocco or Austin, Texas. As Mary Oliver says, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Thank you, Ms. Oliver. I will.