In July of 2017 I made my first solo trip to Rwanda to do interviews for my most recent project, based on the true story of Rebeka Uwitonze. I had been to Rwanda four times previously, with family and sometimes teams, but traveling alone for the specific purpose of interviewing Rebeka, her family, and others who know her brought a new level of intimacy and understanding. It was a privilege, and I learned all sorts of things I never knew. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Augustine, who made room in his busy schedule to translate for me and shuttle me around. We dug up old files and found treasure.
Augustine was my translator and general “make it happen” man
left is Rebeka’s sponsorship photo, right is Rebeka when she returned from US
Rebeka’s two youngest sisters have grown big enough to wear the clothes Rebeka once wore in Austin.
left to right: nephew, Ooweetayka (sp?), Medi and me
Rebeka’s parents were gracious and invited me into their home two days in a row to tell me the story of Rebeka, starting with her birth.
I got to see beyond the living room where we usually sit to the bedroom Rebeka shares with her sister, and the small dirt yard out back where goats and a cow hang out and maize dries in the sun on a blanket. I heard for the first time that Medi, Rebeka’s younger sister, was the first to go to school, before ANLM moved into the community, when the family only had enough money for one tuition. She would come home with chalk and teach Rebeka what she was learning by drawing letters and numbers on the concrete floor of their home. I saw the learning continuing with chalk letters on their back fence, scrawled by her little sisters.
I met some of Rebeka’s friends who went running to find Rebeka when we arrived at her boarding school. She had no idea I was coming!
left to right: Grace, Rebeka, Sharon and me
I had to break the news that it was just me visiting this time, and then I got to ask her a question that made a lump rise up in my throat. I couldn’t wait to tell her about writing her story, but what would she think? Would she want to tell it with me? Because I wasn’t going to tell it unless both our names were on the cover, side by side. It is truly her story. I just wanted to help her write it.
She said yes! She is excited to share her story and she answered my questions patiently. One of the things I have been curious about since she left in 2013 is how she described America to people back home. When I asked, she didn’t say anything about the fireplace that turned on with a press of a button, or the trampoline, or the grocery store filled with food. “I tell them about the ocean,” she said.
“What do you tell them about the ocean?” I asked her.
“I tell them it’s very big.”
Clay holding Rebeka in ocean-California-Sprint Break 2013
The ocean is a great image, a great metaphor, for Rebeka’s time in America. It was big, from the surgeries to all her new experiences, including her first glimpse of the big blue ocean in California. Writing this book about Rebeka has been a little like wading out into the ocean. I’ve been knee-deep in facts, there have been some waves of uncertainty, but on the horizon is a big old story I can’t wait to share.
We are not allowed to share names or identifiable pictures of the foster children we care for, aren’t allowed to share details about their backgrounds. What I can share is how these tiny bundles of flesh shape and change my family and me personally. How they make us slow down, realign priorities, and inspire us to be better people.
Without further ado, I’d love to introduce you to Baby #1.
After a lot of prayer and discussion, Clay and I decided we would only foster babies, taking in children ages 0-6 months. We could have these children anywhere from one day to two years, and we weren’t ready to care for children over two. Let’s be honest, I don’t know if we are ready to care for children of any age that aren’t our own. How do you prepare for potential brokenness coming through the door? How do you prepare for the unknown? This will be an exercise in letting go on many levels.
We were officially licensed to foster babies on Friday, May 12, 2017. We were told we may not get a call for months – not many babies in the system recently. That was fine. We were busy with the end of year senior activities, thesis week and graduation, plus Alayna was coming home to intern and Benji needed to practice driving . . . basically, we were busy. There was a crib in our exercise room/library, and a bouncy seat and foldable bassinet shoved behind a chair in our bedroom, but they had blended into the tapestry of graduation gifts and laundry. Fostering a baby had been pushed to the far corners of my mind, something to be dealt with in the summer, once school was out.
We got a call Monday, May 15th. That’s right, three days after getting our license. I was sitting in a senior’s thesis presentation when I saw our caseworker’s name pop up on my watch. I hit “ignore” and tried to keep listening, but it was impossible. I figured it was most likely a problem with paperwork or something, but the possibility lingered that it could be something more. Indeed, I discovered after listening to her message and then a quick phone call, that there was a baby who needed a home. It happened fast, as it often does. By that evening, Baby #1 was in our home. We were told it was respite, we’d have her no longer than two weeks.
We stepped into the unknown with equal doses of fear and excitement. We had to borrow a car seat. We had to google how much a twelve-week-old baby eats, and how often, but none of our ignorance mattered once I saw her. I swooned as she was lifted from her car seat. She came out in the classic little baby pose, her arms bent by her head, elbows to ears, her legs folded up and her diaper-padded booty sticking out. She had the most darling elf ears you ever did see. They stuck out from her head like little sonars, perfect dishes of pink flesh. She examined the world around her with wide eyes. I could already tell she was exceptionally observant and intelligent.
She was passed from friend to friend in our community those first few days, she was loved well by strangers and marveled at by our family as we hovered over her. But eventually, it got real. When babies are tired, why do they cry? Why can’t they just go to sleep? Apparently, lots of parents have the very same question. They congregate online, everyone asking the same desperate question, bastions of disillusioned parents. She woke up around midnight, again around 4AM, and then she was up for good by 6. Even splitting the shifts between Clay and Alayna and me, it was rough. During the day, she was happy in the same spot for about fifteen minutes and then she wanted moving, or holding, or maybe she wanted to sway and bounce, or we tried going outside, a stroller ride, a car ride.
Babies require a great deal of attention. I knew this, we were ready to give this, and yet no matter how willing you are, it is still exhausting. We began to wonder if we would be “one and done,” as in one baby, and call it quits. We were only kind of joking. Don’t get me wrong. We loved her, oh how we loved her. We took dozens of pictures and videos I wish I could post. We lost our minds when she rolled over, tummy to back, for the first time. We laughed uncontrollably, giddy and in love, when she had her first belly laugh. Clay discovered Baby loved rasberries. He made a fool of himself and got the biggest smiles out of her.
Once a week we took Baby to see her biological mom. We gradually learned, from various sources, a little more about Baby’s history. We were asked if we would be willing to have Baby for longer if things didn’t work out. It could be a year, maybe two, if right were terminated and she was adopted. We said yes. We went there. We went beyond babysitters to something more, and then we got a call. It was Wednesday, June 7th, a little more than three weeks after Baby came to live with us. The woman was from CPS.
“Can I pick her up this afternoon?” she asked. I put her on speaker so Clay could hear because I was certain I hadn’t heard right. “The judge has granted kinship care,” the woman said. “I can be there in a couple hours.”
My stomach dropped. My heart flipped. Major organs rearranged. While Baby napped peacefully in our exercise room/library/nursery, Clay and I cried on the couch. We got it all out. Then we woke up Baby so we could hold her, and play with her, and feed her one more time. We packed bags, did laundry, washed bottles, and by 5PM, she was gone. Whisked into a stranger’s car, gone to live with her aunt.
By the next afternoon, all the baby stuff had been packed up and put in the attic. Our house was quiet. We slept all night. We got all those things on our lists done. And we scrolled through all those pictures and videos of Baby. We did it. We brought her in, loved her well for as long as she was with us, and we let go. She made us slow down, and it was good. She made us be patient, and it was good. She reminded us that we aren’t really in control, that it’s okay to let go of calendars and to-do lists, and it was very good.
I want to say we are ready for the next call, whenever that call may come. Maybe months. Maybe tomorrow. But I don’t know if you can ever really be ready for the unexpected. You can just be willing to step into the unknown. The world of fostering is a strange new world, but we’re willing to keep stepping for now. Towards Baby #2, and beyond.
Although my last post was from August 2014, that doesn’t mean nothing has happened in the past two and three quarter years. Alayna has weathered the college years with great success and looks forward to studying abroad this fall in France and graduating from A&M next spring.
Nate just graduated high school and is taking twelve hours this summer and another full load in the fall at ACC with the hope of transferring into UT in January. His playlist is diverse, his friends are plentiful, and he makes a mean omelet.
Photo credit: Courtney Cope www.courtneycopemedia.com
Benji has grown, he is no longer a tiny little guy but taller than both Alayna and me. He’s into acting, and soccer, and friends, and he’ll be driving a stick shift by the end of the summer.
Photo credit: Courtney Cope www.courtneycopemedia.com
Clay still works at LiveAnew, plays some golf, and is currently growing extremely hot habanero peppers at a rapid rate. He is my biggest fan and my best friend, we recently celebrated 24 years of marriage and adventuring together.
I am still writing stories for children, and for the last few years I’ve also had the opportunity to be part of the Austin Stone Story Team. I’ve learned how to interview and I’ve worked with some amazing editors. It’s been awesome to see my stories come full circle as they make their way into the world.
There will be some particularly interesting “stories in the street” in the coming months and years. It seems adventures come in cycles for the Davis family. In 2007-08 we traveled around the world for nine and a half months. In 2012 we hosted Rebeka from Rwanda for almost a year while she had surgeries on her feet.
When Rebeka returned home we started asking ourselves what our next adventure would be. I don’t mean to say that we do these things for the sake of having an adventure, but it’s what ends up happening when we say yes to big things. It took a while for the path to materialize, but here we are in 2017, our path strewn with diapers and pacifiers alongside diplomas and driving permits. The Davises are stepping into foster care, willing to take a baby for a day or a year, maybe two. It is a world just as foreign and strange as Morocco or Vietnam. A world of plastic, vibrating bassinets and tiny tubes used to suck boogers from teeny noses (I refuse), a world of massive paperwork and massive heartache, a world that is broken and filled with everyday heroes. I hope to tell you about some of them here. These are the kinds of stories where real names can’t be shared, and pictures can’t be posted. I hope I can do them justice.
I’m also traveling to Rwanda solo in June 23rd to interview Rebeka and her family for a book I’m working on. There are many adventures ahead, and many in the rearview mirror. Stay tuned for more stories in the street.
I want to quote the whole thing, my highlighter will run out of ink before I finish it, but here’s just a taste: “Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.” (p.117)
These words struck a chord with me. They reminded me of Benji’s shoes. See, our kids wear uniforms to school, and at the beginning of the year they get nice, new shoes. Regulation brown shoes like these:
Benji’s 2014-15 school shoes.
As we were getting ready for school this year, I discovered Benji’s old pair of shoes from last year.
Benji’s 2013-14 shoes
Benji’s 2013-14 shoes.
Benji lived a lot of good life in those shoes. He played a lot of gaga ball, chased friends, hurried to class, and wore a path to school and home again. He spent some life, and he left a few wakes. I loved finding those shoes. And I loved finding this shoe.
The shoe Rebeka wore when she arrived in the US, summer 2012.
Talk about a shoe representing a life. I shadowboxed one and sent it with Alayna to college, and kept one for ourselves. Rebeka’s is a life filled with struggle and fight and victory, and we got to see some of it unfold on our own home soil.The shoe looks tiny because it only needed to fit the top of Rebeka’s foot, contorted and curled. The shoe represents such a big story, on a grand scale. Ten-year-old Rwandan girl travels to Texas to live with a family she’s never met and undergo painful surgery, unsure how long she’ll be here or if the surgeries will work. She learned how to speak English, how to read, how to turn on a light switch and a water faucet. That’s drama. But there’s drama in Benji’s old Sperry’s, too. Much to be thankful for in both of their stories. Here’s one more quote from Death by Living.
“Imagine sticking your finger on your pulse and thanking God every time He gave you another blood-driving, brain-powering thump. We should. And we shouldn’t, because if we did, we would never do anything else with our living; we wouldn’t have the time to look at or savor any of the other of our impossibillions of gifts.” (p. 108)
“Impossibillions.” It doesn’t matter what’s going on in our lives, whether life is good or life is hard, we have much to be thankful for. We take breaths, “pie smells like pie and hangnails heal and honeycrisp apples are real and dogs wag their tails and awe perpetually awaits us in the sky.” (p. 108) I framed Rebeka’s shoe, but I wonder if I should have framed Benji’s shoe, too. To remind myself that time is always passing, life is always being lived, no matter how “blog-worthy” it is, and it should be appreciated even if it can’t be held. Benji bought another pair of new shoes this summer, lacrosse shoes.
They hold all the hope and promise of a wild, passionate time of his life as a new season begins. These particular shoes are made for running, playing, and stating to the world, “I am Benji, hear my turquoise roar.” And by the end of the season, may they be ragged and worn through, soaked with sweat and striving and learning and living well.
For all the Rebeka fans out there, the ones who followed her journey to Texas, her surgeries and casts, those who prayed for her and cheered for her and loved her story, here’s another little chapter. My dad, my sister, and her three kids recently traveled to Rwanda and while there, they were able to visit Rebeka.
From left to right, Wyatt, Leslie, Rebeka, Emma, and Claire, with my dad in back.
I asked my dad if he could make sure Rebeka wasn’t wearing her braces anymore. Her physical therapists had stressed before she left that if she wore the braces after she had grown out of them, they could rub blisters, and because of the arthrogryposis, she may not feel them. These blisters could get infected and . . . well . . . my imagination filled in enough scary details to make me just a wee bit worried. I knew she had been wearing her braces recently because a friend had seen her in them at church, and I knew she must have grown out of them by now because her toes were at the ends of them in November.
Dad sent this video the afternoon they saw her. Notice the lack of braces. Notice how quickly and easily she’s walking around. How strong her legs have become. Notice how long her hair is, all braided and coiled into a bun in back. Notice how she wears those cute pink tights under her skirt (that’s our Rebeka) and notice that cute-patootie mousey shirt that was one of my favorites. It makes me sad to think she’ll grow out of it soon, but this video, it makes me very, very happy.
I worry too much. I know that. Our oldest is about to leave for college and it feels a little like Rebeka leaving all over again. She’ll be far away and I won’t be able to check in and see what time she went to bed, if she ate a good breakfast, if she’s tired or needs a smoothie. Yes, she’ll just be a few hours down the road in College Station, but still. She won’t be here, sleeping under our roof, and I’ll miss her terribly. I know she’s ready, though. She’s ready to race into her future and meet new friends and learn new things and walk without the braces of our home and all things familiar. Rebeka was ready to fly. Alayna is, too. They were the best of friends, almost sisters, for about a year.
There will always be something special between those girls. They shared a room, and their lives, and they learned a lot about each other and themselves. One of Rebeka’s old teachers came up to my dad while they were in Rwanda, and couldn’t wait to tell him about Rebeka’s transformation. The teacher said before Rebeka came to America, she never smiled. She had no friends, and kids at school called her a cripple. She spent a lot of time in the principal’s office, and she didn’t do well in her classes. But when she came back, she was smiling. She makes friends easily, and she’s respected by her classmates. She even finished second in her class!
It made me think about Alayna and her transformation. While not nearly as dramatic, she learned a lot from her time with Rebeka. She learned she could do hard things like take care of a leaky nerve block bag at 2 in the morning. She learned how to have perspective about getting braces after watching Rebeka get cast after cast after cast. And she learned that she might want to be a physical therapist, after watching Rebeka at her appointments. We may never know how much those girls shaped each other’s lives, but I do know this. Alayna has shaped up into a beautiful young woman, and we can’t wait to see where her path will take her. Godspeed, sweet girl. We love you.
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.
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.