xmlns:og>='http://ogp.me/ns#'> Pedals & Pencils: 2012

December 27, 2012

Thankful Thursday #85


This week I'm thankful for...
  • Christmas Eve service
  • listening to my hubby read the Christmas story on Christmas morning
  • homemade fudge
  • time off with the hubby
  • walks on the river trail on frosty mornings
  • the smell of my Christmas tree
  • lasagna in the Crock Pot
  • sleeping in
  • a fresh haircut
  • warm clothes straight from the dryer
  • snow
  • the blog The Middlest Sister, which had me laughing out loud in obnoxious guffaws and snorts

December 21, 2012

Dreaming of Africa

It's been an incredibly sad and somewhat scary week to be a teacher.  I haven't been sleeping very much this week, three to four hours a night at the most.

Last night I slept soundly and dreamed that I returned to Uganda.  Uganda has been on my heart so much lately.  In truth Uganda and my children there have been on my heart since I stepped foot on the plane back to California last July.

I miss my beautiful Ugandan sons with such acuteness that often it's a physical ache in my heart.

In my dream I was on an airplane descending through the clouds.  When the clouds cleared, I looked out my window and Uganda was spread out beneath me.  But the landscape wasn't trees and dirt, it was a painting alive with color.  Blues and oranges and greens purples and pinks all teeming with life.

I recognized the artist of the painted land out my airplane window right away.  Somehow Tricia Kibler, the amazing artist who comes to my classroom and teaches my little ones (including her son) art lessons every month, had managed to paint the whole of Africa.  I love that things like that seem completely ordinary in dreams.

The splendor of the painted landscape took my breath away and in my dream I began to cry.

My alarm clock woke me and I was surprised to find myself wiping real tears from my eyes.  I stood at my bedroom window watching the snow fall, the white world a transfixing juxtaposition to the vibrant Africa of my dream.

I sent Tricia a message telling her about my dream.

Last night I had a...

Little did I know that just minutes before I'd messaged her, she'd begun to dream up a painting of Africa for me.

This afternoon she brought me a Christmas present and when I unwrapped the painting, I cried for Africa for the second time in the day, this time not just for the beauty of my dream, but for the very real ways God sends assurance that I will return.  As Christmas draws near, I'm especially grateful to love a God who speaks to my broken places in such tangible ways.

Dreaming of Africa by Tricia Kibler
Dreaming of Africa by Tricia Kibler

December 19, 2012

Thankful Thursday #84

Image courtesy of polish-my-crown.com
Image courtesy of polish-my-crown.com
This week I'm thankful for...
  • snow
  • slumber parties
  • time with the hubby
  • making Sweetmilks for breakfast
  • the rogue tree that is growing in my backyard
  • the grandfather of a kindergarten student who gave all the teachers at my school heavy-duty staplers
  • writing winter poetry with my little ones
  • the brave faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary
  • the fact that all 30 of my little ones are safe and sound

December 13, 2012

Thankful Thursday #83

This week I'm thankful for...
  • crisp clear days when I can make the short drive to school with the top down and the seat warmers on high.  34 degrees out?  Pffft!  Perfect convertible weather!
  • my little one who sang Silent Night to the class.  She didn't quite get all the words right, but frankly "holy infinity so tender and wild" is beautiful and profound
  • coffee with good friends
  • Christmas music in the morning
  • reading The Velveteen Rabbit to my class
  • the melted crayon Christmas tree batiks I made with my class and the parent volunteers who made painting with hot waxy cups of melted crayons with 30 first graders doable
  • the fact that I did not set the off the smoke detector when ironing the wax out of the batiks-that's a Festivus miracle right there!
Here's one of my favorite Christmas tree batiks painted by one of my little ones.
Here's one of my favorite Christmas tree batiks painted by one of my little ones.

December 5, 2012

Thankful Thursday #82

This week I'm thankful for...
  • the little boy selling sprigs of "kissletoe" outside the grocery store
  • my fence that stayed standing in the fierce windstorms
  • holiday sweater sightings
  • Christmas carols
  • Salvation Army bell ringers
  • peppermint hot cocoa
  • spin class on rainy days
  • clothes warm from the dryer
  • scarves

November 28, 2012

Thankful Thursday #81

This week I'm thankful for...
  • NaNoWriMo even though my friend, Ed, beat me to 50k words.  Good job, Ed.  Sorry, did my begrudging tone come through there?  Seriously, Ed, congrats.  Darn, there's that tone again.
  • the smell of rain
  • morning snuggles with my littlest nephews
  • sweet time spent with friends doing absolutely nothing
  • travel
  • the joy of coming back home
  • my umbrella
  • my Little One who wrote a love song to the whole class
  • Jack the dog
  • my husband's laugh

November 22, 2012

Spoken Over Me

This is a special edition of Thankful Thursday, birthed out of a writing prompt from the National Writing Project Annual Meeting.  The direction was to take a moment to write a thank you to our writing mentors in the project.  I, of course, DID NOT follow the directions and instead wrote to my very first writing mentor.

Dear Mom,
You were my very first writing mentor.

You put books into my mind before I was old enough to hold them in my own hands. You took me to the library and let me read whatever I wanted just for the pleasure of reading. Even when it meant I only read Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club. You had faith that I'd grow out of those books, that I'd grow up into richer things.

Thank you for giving me crisp notebooks to fill and for always reading my poems, even the really dreadful rhyming ones.  Maybe especially those ones.

You were careful with criticism and generous with praise, honeyed words that drew me back to the blank page time and again.

Thank you for understanding that my first language is the written word and for speaking it to me fluently in notes in my lunch box, birthday cards, post cards when you were away and hosts of other scraps of your writing that I've squirreled away.

Those scraps of paper have bound me into the writer I am today.  You were the first person to call me a writer and I'm starting to believe you.

I walk this earth, from the sunny skies of California to the humid heat of Africa, I walk with my pen in hand and a blank notebook because I am a writer.

I am a writer in large part because you first spoke that word over me.

Thanks, Mom.

November 17, 2012

Everything is Upside Down

Everything is upside down because you are not here.  It hits me in the most unexpected places, on the most unexpected days and today is one of those.  I can't call you and tell you about the books I'm reading, about the speakers I'm hearing, or about the big thoughts I'm thinking.

I thought about you as I slid into the cab and the driver spoke in a thick Eastern European accent.  His voice was so deep, so low that I had to lean forward in my seat to hear.

"Where to?"

"MGM Grand Conference Center, please."  I hold my bag on my lap and look out the window at the drizzle raining down on the Strip.  It's not enough to fill puddles, just enough to give the street the illusion of being clean.  It's the quiet of morning, no flashing signs, no men snapping fistfuls of paper women at passerby.

"Where are you from?"  I ask, watching the corners of the windows etch with steam.

"I live here.  Where are you from?"


"Los Angeles?"

"No, Northern California, the pretty part of the state-with lakes and mountains."

"I lived in California many years ago."  He waits for the light to turn from red to green.

"But where are you from?"

"Romania."  He clips the word and I hesitate for a moment, wondering why he left Romania, wondering what he isn't saying, always wondering, always wanting to know the rest of the story.

"I've been to Romania.  My grandmother took me on a bus tour of Eastern Europe for my thirtieth birthday.  Romania is beautiful.  I always had my nose pressed to the bus window when we drove through Romania."  My rush of words fog up the cab window.

"What towns did you visit?"

"Oh, I'm terrible with names.  Say some of the names and I'll tell you if we visited the towns."

"Romania isn't very big.  Only the size of Oregon."  His eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror.  His are brown almost black and mine are turquoise today.  "Of course there's Bucharest.  And there's Brashov."

"We visited Bucharest, but Brashov was my favorite.  I prefer smaller towns."

"I am from Brashov."

"Do you visit Romania often?"

"I haven't been back there in twenty-six years."  He says, the decades stacking in his throat, the lapse of time thick in his tone.  He pauses and I don't say anything.  "But I'm going back in March."

"This March?"  I resist the urge to ask this stranger about the long stretch of years between homecomings.

He leaves me wondering and asks another question instead, "Why did your grandmother take you there?"

"For my birthday." I repeat.

"But why Romania?"

"She loves, um, loved-" I correct your life to past tense and it stops my heart for a moment.  "She loved to travel to places she hadn't been before.  She had a heart for meeting people all over the world."

"She gave this to you."

"Yes, it was a present for my birthday."  I fiddle with my wallet, slipping out cash, guessing at the number of bills I'll need to pay when we arrive at my destination.

"No," his eyes smile in the mirror.  "You're here.  She gave you a love of travel."

"Yes, I suppose she did."  I smile back.

"Her heart is your heart.  Her blood is your blood."

The taxi comes to a stop at the curb.  I hand a wad of folded up bills over the seat, more bills than I'd first counted out, still a paltry offering for this taxi driver who has walked the same streets you and I walked, an entire ocean and calendars of years away.

I think about how the cash I give him isn't nearly enough for the man who reminded me that you're still here, that my blood is your blood, that your heart is my heart.

"Thank you.  Have a safe trip home."  I say to him.

"You, too."  He tucks the bills in his back pocket and flashes a last smile.

I step out onto the curb and I no longer feel so upside down.  The rain holds its breath and I begin to feel righted again.

November 1, 2012

Thankful Thursday #80

This week I'm thankful for...
  • waking to the sound of rain
  • rain that stops just in time for recess
  • chocolate covered pomegranate seeds
  • my NaNoWriMo writing buddies
  • rain boots
  • parent volunteers who literally did all the heavy lifting for me on our field trip when my back was out
  • the chiropractor who opened his office on Saturday and put me out of my misery
  • ice packs
  • my hubby, who does everything in his power to make me feel better
  • Mexican food
  • the scent of rain on asphalt
  • the kid who dressed as Clifford the Big Red Dog on Halloween
  • my little ones who are donating their Halloween candy to Treats for Troops
  • the safety of my loved ones and my home

October 31, 2012


National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) stands tiptoe at my door.  It's a wild month of writing 50,000 words in 30 days and hoping at least
25,00025025 of them are good words.

Usually a plot idea strikes me or comes to me in a dream a couple of days before November 1st arrives.  This year?


No ideas.

No dreams.


So I'm affectionately calling this year NoIdWhToWriAb.  Rolls right off the tongue, right?  It stands for No Idea What To Write About and I'm fully embracing the sheer terror of just sitting down at my computer come November 1st and starting to type, hoping that my fingers will transcribe an idea to my brain.

Questions are jostling around in my brain.  There's the big one.  What on earth am I going to write about?  Insert your suggestions here:


Perhaps I could cobble together a novel sort of Mad Libs style wherein you give me stuff and I mash it all together into sentences that kind of make sense.

Will I finally be able to kill off a character this year?  Probably not.  I like them all too much.  Even the jerks.

Will I actually write the ending to the book within those 50,000 words?  Probably not.  Let's face it, there are times when somebody just has to die and I just can't seem to make it happen.  Thus I have an unhealthy stack of unfinished novels and undead characters.

Will I ever develop a taste for adverbs?  No.  Meaty verbs always clobber them and I like it that way.

With 1, 666 words a day vying for my time, will the laundry get done?  That's a good one.  Does it ever?  I may be venturing into an unhealthy definition of 'clean clothes'.

Will I beat my friend Ed?  Yes, my word count will make his word count weep.  Sure he's already got an idea and everything, but what I lack in ideas, I make up for in blind confidence.  Sorry, Ed, but you're going down.

And finally, what songs should I add to my writing playlist this year?  Tell me your favorites.  Maybe your song will be just the thing that inspires my magnum opus.  No pressure or anything.

To my fellow Wrimos, happy writing!  And yes, that shirt's clean enough.  Set down the laundry basket and pick up your pen.

October 23, 2012

10,000 Percent

Dear Little One,

You aren't easy to teach.

You're headstrong.

And opinionated.

And passionate.

And hilarious.

Nobody makes me laugh like you do.

I love you for all of those qualities.

Last week, when we were writing for the National Day on Writing, you gave me a peek at your softer side-a side you usually keep safely hidden.  We sat in the quiet of the library ruminating on this sentence stem:

I write because...

Other kids wrote about how fun writing is, how great it is to write with friends or how much joy they find in making up stories and writing the pictures.

Little one, your response brought tears to my eyes.

"I write because I like writing love notes to my big brother in the Navy.  He is 20 years old and I love him 10,000%!!!"

I hung all the responses in the hallway and when I showed your paper to your mom, she teared up and rested her head on my shoulder for a brief moment.

What I want to say to you, Little One, is that I love to teach writing because it births moments like that where love is spelled out so clearly in blocky first grade handwriting.

The other thing I want to say to you is that I hope you continue to be brave enough to give voice to that softer side of yourself, to let that meek voice speak as clearly as your voice that keeps me in stitches with laughter.  That still, small voice is just as important.

Loving you 10,000%,

Mrs. McCauley

October 22, 2012

Dear Lance Armstrong,

Dear Lance Armstrong,

You've been quoted recently saying you've had a bit of a rough week.  I'll say.  Don't worry, I'm not going to add to it.  Am I glad all the doping in the cycling world is coming to light?  Yes, yes I am.  I love the sport of cycling and I look forward to the day when I can love it for its purity.

I've read a lot of articles on you this week, Lance, and a singular thought keeps rising to the surface: Thank God I'm not famous.  I'm profoundly grateful I don't live a life where my mistakes are broadcast to the world, where the publicity of those mistakes negates any good I've done.

Whether you doped or not, whether you lied about it or not, whether or not you deserve your Tour de France wins or not-frankly I'm not interested in being the judge on any of those fronts.  Judgement doesn't birth healing.  Truth does.  I can't attest to what the truth is in any of those situations, but this is a truth I know: LiveStrong has helped many of my loved ones who have battled the beast of cancer.  For that I'll always be grateful.

It appears that you've hit bottom, although you said yourself last week that you've had worse days.  So perhaps this isn't rock bottom, but I think it may be close.  I like what Anne LaMott has to say about grace and mercy.  "Mercy is that we don't get what we deserve. Grace is that we get what we so don't deserve."  I wish you measures of mercy and grace this week because if I were in your shoes, mercy and grace are the things that would make me take a step in the right direction.  You've got a great opportunity to decide what's next in your life and, frankly, I hope you're looking up because watching you climb has always been exhilarating.

Kind regards,


October 18, 2012

Thankful Thursday #79

This week I'm thankful for...
  • cherry flavored soda
  • Siri
  • cheeseburgers on pretzel buns
  • pumpkin shaped candy corn
  • walks with Jack the dog
  • my husband, who holds me until I fall asleep
  • The Writing Project
  • the fact that in one more day I will no longer be master teacher to a student teacher.  Seriously, I shouldn't mentor anyone.  Ever. Again.
  • my teacher friends who have taken a sworn oath to repeatedly punch me in the neck if I ever take on another student teacher
  • pink carnations from my little ones on Think Pink Day
  • writing with my little ones who constantly surprise me with their wordplay

September 20, 2012

Thankful Thursday #78

image courtesy of thetomkatstudio.com

This week I'm thankful for...
  • the sounds of train whistles echoing up from the canyon
  • Library Day
  • parent volunteers
  • walks with friends
  • my husband's arms
  • unexpected cash
  • thank you notes
  • the men who continue to hammer and drill and make a clatter outside my classroom every day trying to get my air conditioner to work
  • the colorful words aforementioned clattering men shout outside my door when their attempts fail.  I can count that as vocabulary instruction minutes, right?  Right???

September 13, 2012

Thankful Thursday #77

Image courtesy of sweetcarolineblog.com
This week I'm thankful for...
  • my husband who tells me I'm smart.  Since he's genius level smart, I absolutely swoon when he tells me I'm smart, too.
  • my student teacher who climbed in the A/C closet every morning for two weeks and battled spider webs to manually turn on our classroom air conditioner
  • the little one who beaded me a keychain with my name on it.  My last name is long, so it was quite the gift.
  • my little ones, even the one who pulled the fire alarm.  Maybe especially him.
  • my parent volunteers
  • the families who donated extra money to make sure everyone in our class can go on field trips
  • the return of Parenthood.  I just love that show.
  • So You Think You Can Dance.  I know for a fact that I can't dance and I'm left in awe each time I watch an episode.
  • my Ugandan sons
  • frozen yogurt
  • the opportunity to help my friend buy her very first computer
  • days spent helping That Laura decorate her living room
  • the firefighters who worked tirelessly these last few weeks to save homes and forests
  • my friends at Writers Forum

September 12, 2012

The Great Machine Strike

Hello, dear ones.  It's good to be back with you.  I know you all have lives and other bloggers you love, so you may not have missed me, but I missed you.  I love writing to you and thinking of you looking at your screen while I'm looking at mine.  I've got so much to write about, but first let me explain why I haven't been around the old Pedals and Pencils neck of the woods.

The machines have been against me.
*I'm far less embarrassed by that reference than I should be.  I watched it when I was sick at home once, k?
Not in a Transformers Dark Side of the Moon* sort of against me.  There aren't huge talking robot cars breaking into my house or anything.

It all began when the air conditioner at the school broke.  My classroom A/C worked just fine mind you.  But when the men in coveralls came to fix the school-wide A/C, mine stopped working.  Stopped working as in it was eighty-eight-lord-have-mercy-degress inside my classroom.  Dear ones, let me tell you that there isn't a tougher crowd than 30 five and six-year olds who are too hot to move and/or think.  Due to the smoke from the fires blazing around us, we couldn't even open a door or crack a window.
TeachingSweating profusely for upwards of 10 hours a day and then driving home in a cauldron of smoke made me contemplate 2 things:

  1. How hot can hell really be?

  2. Am I in hell right now?
Truth be told, it also made me long for my days in Uganda writing with my sons and daughters in their beautiful open air classrooms that don't need pesky things like air conditioners or for that matter, electricity.  It made me long to sit under the trees with them, looking out over the bush while they entranced me with their stories.

Once word got out that one of my machines had gone rogue, the others followed suit.  My router went on the fritz, taking my internet access and printer with it.  No amount of cajoling could bring the router back to life.  Believe me I tried.  I tried to fix it with the help of customer service agents from all over the world.  I was on the phone with customer service for 5 unholy hours which led to me saying very bad words and entertaining thoughts of taking the business end of a screwdriver to my router, which I may or may not have done while having a full on fit in my garage.

So while I would have loved to write about said ridiculous fit in detail here, the last thing I wanted to do after sweating through my clothes all day was vagabond myself out to free WiFi spots.  The only thing I wanted to do was come home and take an icy shower.  Trust me, sparing the public of my presence during those days was really an act of community service because let me tell you, the funk rising out of my skin was so strong it sometimes brought tears to my eyes when I happened to catch an errant whiff of myself.  There aren't deodorants strong enough for that people, there just aren't.

After the A/C, router and printer went on strike, my classroom projector and camera followed suit.  I swear it's because they were melting in the heat.  My classroom A/C has now been out for 2 weeks.  Luckily for me I have a student teacher who climbs into the spiderwebby A/C closet every day and manually starts the thing up.  What better way for him to get a glimpse of the realities of teaching that to do that every morning, right?  Unfortunately once it's on, it will not be stopped, so we've moved from the sweltering fires of Mordor to the frozen tundra of Antarctica.

But today, dear ones, is a turning point in The Great Machine Strike.  Perhaps they saw the damage I can do with a single screwdriver.  Perhaps their little metal innards were scarred by a full-grown woman melting down in all senses of the word.  Today two men in coveralls came and banged on things in the A/C closet outside of my classroom so I'm hopeful that tomorrow it will be humming away again.  Also a man with a jangling tool belt came and did things to the projector and it's all bright and happy again.  I bought a new router that is speedy and quick and smiles at me with a pretty blue light.

The last hold out is the printer, but I think it knows I mean business because it's beginning to perk back up and make clicking sounds and flash cheerful blinking lights at me like it wants to be friends again.  Just in case it needs a little more convincing, I left the screwdriver out in plain sight.

Image courtesy of flatheadscrewdriver.net

August 23, 2012

Thankful Thursday #76

image courtesy of frugalzealot.blogspot.com
This week I'm thankful for...
  • a new school year
  • my student teacher
  • double stick tape
  • freshly sharpened pencils
  • the sound of my husband's voice as I drift off to sleep
  • parents who are already offering to volunteer in class and/or take tasks home to complete
  • the firefighters working so diligently to put out the fires burning all around me
  • my Ugandan children

August 21, 2012


Hello, dear friends.  Lord have mercy, it's been a long time since I've been here with you and I've missed you.  The past few weeks have been filled with funerals, weddings and the beautiful frenzy known as Back to School.

Good, good things are happening and I'm dying to write about them and also to write more about my beloved Ugandan children.

But the thing that's on my mind tonight as I stand tip-toe on the doorstep of a new school year is how ripe with possibility the new year always feels.

image courtesy of quick-growing-trees.com
Have you ever eaten a peach straight from the tree?  Yes?  Then you know the sensation of the flesh bursting with juice as it runs in warm rivulets down your chin, dripping onto your shirt.  That's the kind of ripe I'm talking about, the kind of ripe that only comes after months of effort from the loins of trees, the kind of ripe that gets all over you.  The kind of ripe that is blissfully messy.

Year after year I find myself rippling with excitement on the eve of the first day of school.  I barely sleep and I'm all a-twitter the morning of the first day.  I never know what the first day might hold.  I could be peed on.  It's happened before.  I could be puked on.  Also happened.  My shoulder could be damp with tears.  It's happened, courtesy of students and parents.  I could also receive drawings and love notes scratched out in blocky phonics.  It happens every year.  I could get hugged so many times that my arms ache.  That happens every year, too.  It's a blissfully messy day.

Tomorrow when my little ones settle on the carpet and look up at me with beaming, hopeful faces, I'll be thinking of ripe peaches.  When I eat a peach, I don't care about the mess or the stains on my shirt, I only care about the sweetness of the peach.  Tomorrow may hold some surprises-the first day always does-but what I know for sure is that the day will be ripe with sweetness.

August 2, 2012

Why I Write

October 20th is the National Day on Writing. It seems a long way off, but as I prepare my classroom for a new group of young writers, there are two questions on my mind.  Why do I write?  And why do my students write?  On October 20th, writers, educators, students and all kinds of other people across the nation will answer one very simple and simultaneously complex question:

Why do I write?

Here's my answer.
  • I write because words are like air, if I don't inhale and exhale them, I will die.
  • It's fun.
  • I love to laugh at myself and make others laugh along with me.
  • I have the memory of a goldfish-writing helps me hold onto memories I don't want to lose.
  • Some stories are too painful to say out loud, but those stories find respite on pure white pages.
  • I like the way words feel in my mouth.
  • When writing, I can revise as many times as I want. When I talk, the words are just out there and can't be polished once they're free of my lips.
  • Writing helps me make sense of things.
  • Life is full of great stories waiting to be written.
Your turn.  Be daring and brave and tell what it is that compels you to write.

July 26, 2012

Thankful Thursday #75

Painting by Omuny
This week I'm thankful for...
  • pink eye.  No seriously, I'm thankful that I have it now in the summer when I don't have to write sub plans.
  • dresses with leggings
  • quiet time
  • catching up with friends
  • 75 weeks of gratitude.  I can't believe this is my 75th Thankful Thursday.  They've gone by quickly because I have so very much to be thankful for.
  • my old friends who have mourned with me this week
  • Enjoy magazine for featuring an article (p. 52-53) on the importance of authentic writing instruction and the work I do with the Northern California Writing Project.  It's an important time to recognize the value of meaningful instruction.  Thanks, Enjoy magazine and writer Claudia Mosby for taking a stand for education.
  • my littlest brother who is building a school in Ecuador.  I'm so proud of him.
  • my friend, Emily, who leaves tomorrow to tend to orphans in Africa.  My heart is with you, friend.
  • The father who prays in Mark 9:24 "I believe.  Help my unbelief!"  Boy can I relate to him and, man, has that been the prayer of my heart lately.
  • the painting at the top.  I bought it in Uganda and it makes me think of a mother surrounded by her children.  It hangs in my hallway just outside my bedroom and when I lie in bed I can see it.  I miss my Ugandan kids terribly and this painting brings a little relief.  Here's another up close shot of it.  The lines and texture leave me stunned.
Painting by Omuny

July 24, 2012

Dancing with Dan

As soon as I heard the first pair of lyrics, I made a beeline inside where the dance was taking place. It was our song, our joke, and I knew Dan had requested it and would be scanning the dance floor for me.

I don't remember how 'Lady In Red' became our song. I don't recall either of us ever wearing red, or for that matter, acting like ladies. And trust me, that song was cheesy even when it was popular. I guess that's what made it perfect because we, too, were pretty cheesy. I was a gangly teenager and he was a fatherly peace officer who often carried stickers in his pockets.

I caught a glimpse of Dan from behind and watched him for just a second as he looked for me. I tapped him on the shoulder, he turned and bowed, I curtsied and we both smiled at this ridiculous routine that had become tradition. As we danced, holding our chins high and our frames locked, for that song I was his daughter and he was my dad.

Over a wide span of years, we staffed many youth conferences together and at the requisite dance on the last night, one or the other of us would plead with the deejay to play our outdated, cheesy song. When the song came on, we left conversations mid-sentence and danced together, giggling like school kids at this ridiculous song that became the soundtrack of our friendship.

Throughout my high school years Dan I and I wrote letters back and forth, his always on colorful paper with stickers in the corners, of course. Dan's letters always seemed to arrive just when I needed a fatherly presence in my life, when I needed someone to encourage me or to tell me that they were proud of me. Dan's blocky handwriting spelled out belief in me. I'm lucky to have many father figures in my life who speak wisdom and kindness into the broken places I otherwise keep secret. Dan was one of them.

Dan died of cancer last week and although we hadn't seen each other in years, the loss leaves a sad metallic taste in my mouth and a vacant space in my heart where he used to be.

After finding out about his passing, I tried to write something to honor him, but none of the words felt right in my mouth. None of the words felt adequate in describing a man who inhaled the pain of those around him and exhaled compassion.

When people die, the survivors are prone to exaggeration, our brains are prone to protect our hearts and only allow the good memories to surface. But the true testament of Dan's character is that he was as beloved in life as he is in death.

As I sat trying to write about him, my fingers just wouldn't type the words. And so I did what all writers do when paralyzed at the keyboard, I went grocery shopping. So there I was in the bread aisle pondering the difference between 'whole grain' and 'whole wheat' when 'Lady In Red' came over the loudspeakers. I turned my face toward the towers of loaves on the shelves and cried, wishing for one last dance with my old friend. A particular lyric caught like a sob in my throat.

I've never seen you shine so bright. You were amazing.

And then I laughed because that song, our song, our ridiculous joke broke my writer's block and in that moment I knew just what to write to Dan, one last link in our chain of correspondence. When I got home, I shoved the bags of groceries into the fridge, not bothering to unpack them. I dug down deep into my special basket of kept notes and letters until I found Dan's letters, Warm Fuzzies from my youth.

A handful of Dan's Warm Fuzzies

He spoke to me once again in the words he penned to me. And now at the close of his life I speak them back to him.
The community you live in is a better place because of you.

This is a better world because of you.

You are a treasure, unique, a natural at anything you do.

I'm very proud of you.

It's been great because you were here.

You are where you should be.

You are a bright light for all of us on Earth.

You smiled upon us and spread your magic.

My wish was answered.

Cancer can take the body, but it can't take the spirit or the memories we possess of our loved ones. It can't erase Dan's gracious words to me. Most of all it cannot wipe away my sweet memories of dancing with Dan.


July 19, 2012

Thankful Thursday #74

This week I'm thankful for...
  • my husband who loves me so well
  • messages from my Ugandan children & friends
  • blackberries fresh from the backyard
  • my friend who is walking with integrity through a refining time when her integrity is being questioned.  You know who you are and I'm thankful for you.
  • reading in bed
  • my washing machine.  I never did get very good at washing my clothes by hand.
  • sleeping in my own bed
  • time spent reconnecting with friends
  • mint iced tea
  • my skin that is three shades browner because it reminds me of my Ugandan children
  • my brilliant friend Jenna who posted this on Facebook today "Love now. Speak now. Follow now. You have great influence. Use what you've been given. Be brave."
  • the new album 'Young Man Follow' by Future of Forestry.  I never, ever buy whole albums.  After listening to song samples, I bought this whole album and I LOVE it.  Be warned, when you buy this album, you will want to swallow it in big gulps and not consume any other music for a while.  Your happy finger will just keep hitting the replay button.  My favorite song is 'Love Be Your Mantra' and here's my favorite part of my favorite song:
And you tasted grace, kindness too
My friend you’ll know what hands and feet will do

Take what you’re granted
Love be your mantra
Take what you’re handed
Love be your mantra

July 10, 2012

The Pearl of Africa

In the stillness of morning I sit in my living room.  The lights are out and my husband is sound asleep in our bedroom.  The sky outside is just beginning to be edged with light.  It's one of my favorite times to write and I sit in the company of the stories of my Ugandan students.  I'm editing and revising, marrying their written pieces with the notes I took from our one on one interviews.

One particular story grips me today.  It's the story of a girl who was never expected to be born, the story of a girl with a heart that beats for the orphaned girls all over the world.  This is Kakayo Beatrice's story.

Uganda is called the Pearl of Africa and as I sit with Beatrice's words spread out on the carpet around me, I can't help but feel the weight and truth of that name.  Natural pearls are born when an irritant like a piece of sand or a broken bit of shell works its way into an oyster, or more rarely a clam or mussel.  As a defense mechanism the mollusk secretes layer after layer of a crystalline fluid called nacre that coats the irritant and turns what was once a broken bit of shell or an insignificant piece of sand into a lustrous pearl.

Kakayo Beatrice
Beatrice is smart, kind and has a quick wit that had me smiling at something new each day I spent with her.  Did I mention she's a poet?  Beatrice is a girl cut of my own heart.

I met Beatrice when I was sitting behind a hut on campus.  I was flicking through yearbook photos on my camera when she and two friends sat down near me.

"Hi.  What are you girls up to?  No class right now?"

"We want to have a discussion."  Beatrice said.

"Oh, let me move out of your way so you can have some privacy."  I began to collect my things, wanting to respect their space.

"No, we want to have a discussion with you."  Beatrice laughed.

"Oh, okay." I blushed, feeling silly that I didn't understand the first time around.  "What should we discuss?"

"California."  Beatrice said decisively.

Our conversation began with California, delved into this crazy book project that brought me to Uganda and then sunk down deep when brave Beatrice began to share her story.

Beatrice was born to a mother with special needs, a woman who cannot think or speak on her own.  It's not known how Beatrice's mother came to be pregnant or who Beatrice's father is.  Even her mother cannot give voice to how it came to pass that she grew this child inside her.  I shudder imagining how the pregnancy began and yet, my arms prickle with goosebumps that such an amazing life began with such an unlikely start.

Beatrice and her mother were raised by her grandmother and her Uncle Angelo, a man who loved to read, a man who tells Beatrice with assurance that she is a blessing to this world.  In writing about her Uncle Angelo, Beatrice says he is everything to her because he instilled in her a love of learning and gave her all the things that other children with parents had.

Every little girl should be so fortunate to have an Uncle Angelo who coats their most broken places with layers of blessings.

Beatrice aspires to be a lawyer.  And an accountant.  And a politician.  In fact she's got her sights set on being a member of Ugandan Parliament.  She wants to push corruption out of Uganda and help her country shine brightly.

Her other goal is to care for and educate orphaned girls because according to Beatrice, "When you educate a girl, you educate the whole nation."  I'd wager to say that the reaches of educating this particular girl stretch far beyond the borders of Uganda.

As my trip was drawing to a close, Beatrice asked if I'd help get her story out to encourage other girls.  When she tells her story in our upcoming book, I have a feeling it will strike a chord in the hearts of girls all over the world.

Until the book makes its appearance, I leave you with a snippet of Beatrice's encouragement for young girls.  "Take care and know that your life is important.  The world is because of you.  It is up to us to make the world shine."

As I lay out Beatrice's story in our book, as I look at her photo, my heart is full for this girl who blesses the world with her very being.  She's right, it's up to us to make the world shine. Across the ocean, ten hours ahead of me, where night is beginning to draw the curtains on the day, there's a girl who already is the bright shining pearl of Africa.

July 7, 2012

Drinking the Nile

On one of the last days in Uganda, my friend Colin & I rafted the Nile.  THE NILE!  Let me just say from the get go that it was as cool as it sounds.

One of the best things about my time in Uganda were all the amazing people I met.  Around every corner there were people with fascinating stories and our rafting trip was no exception.  Meet the players:

Team Tuutu
Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear were in Uganda working with AIDS orphans.  I can only remember Baby Bear's real name: Eva.  Incidentally Eva is afraid of water and extreme sports.  She also has extremely poor eyesight and didn't wear her glasses.

Next up was our terrific guide, Tuutu, pronounced tutu, although he didn't seem overly thrilled when I told him his name was also the name of a pink tulle ballet skirt.  After we survived each rapid, we'd all put the tips of our paddles in the middle of the raft and lift them up with a hearty, "Team Tuutu!", which I believe is the Lugandan translation for 'Hooray, nobody died!'

Johan, a Finnish Red Cross worker, was also in our raft.  He was in Uganda helping people recover from the massive mudslides there.  He also wore a Speedo, so he's daring in lots of ways.

Rounding out our boat was Canadian Rob who was spending a long holiday traveling the length of Africa.  Johan and Rob would have been thrilled had our raft capsized in every rapid.  Such boys.

After lunch a pair of Turkish doctors, Turkish Neurologist and Turkish Pediatrician, joined in the fun, but more on that later.

After learning paddle commands and what to do if the raft capsized, we were off.  The Nile was beautiful and to my delight we didn't see a single crocodile or hippo.  We came upon our first rapid, a 3 meter drop down a waterfall, which is as scary and thrilling as it sounds.  I'm the one with the big grin on my face, fourth from the front.

Down a Waterfall
We paddled down the Nile enjoying calm spots in between lots of Class 4 and 5 rapids.  The funniest part was when we'd approach the rapids, Papa Bear and Mama Bear would describe what the rapids looked like to Baby Bear Eva, who couldn't see anything beyond the raft.  I'm not sure if their descriptions assuaged her fears or not, but it made for good entertainment in between Tuutu's commands of, "Paddle, paddle, paddle!!!" or my favorite "Get down!" which meant get down in the boat, hold on for dear life and try not to pee your pants.  It's quite a mouthful really.  I can see why Tuutu went for the much simpler "Get down!"

Paddle!  PADDLE!!!
Under Tuutu's excellent guidance I was having an amazing time.  The rapids were really spectacular.  We even saw a tree full of giant bats take to the sky.  Along the shores people fished and went about their daily business.

Prior to my trip, I met with a travel nurse with lots of good advice, but mostly she reminded me not to drink the water.  Don't drink it.  Don't brush your teeth with it.  Keep your mouth closed in the shower.  I did all those things vigilantly.  And then I rafted the Nile.

drinking the Nile
That can't be good.
In the middle of the trip we stopped for a delicious lunch and sadly, the Bear family and Finnish Johan only signed up for a half day of rafting and so we said goodbye.  They were replaced with two rafters from another boat, Turkish Neurologist and Turkish Pediatrician, also known as Ahmed and Assad.  After asking a few times I still wasn't clear on who was who.  Turkish Neurologist knew a little bit of English, which is far more Turkish than I know, and when he said "Turkey Neurologist and Turkey Pediatrician", I entertained brief thoughts of doctors performing brain surgery on turkeys and taking care of tiny poultry.  My waterlogged brain discerned that perhaps they were doctors from Turkey instead.  So disappointing.  The doctors were a perfectly lovely addition, even if the language barrier meant that they didn't always understand when to paddle.

As the trip drew closer to an end, we faced one more class 5 rapid.  Much to Canadian Rob's delight we flipped.  Big time.

Colin and Turkish Neurologist were bounced around so much in the rapid and ended up so far away from the raft that they had to be scooped up by the rescue kayakers on standby.  When the raft capsized, I found myself underneath it briefly which is not ideal in calm waters, let alone a churning class 5.  I kicked my way out from underneath the raft and grabbed onto the rope lining the side of the now upside down raft.

In between getting dunked by the rapids, I spotted Turkish Pediatrician and, there's really no other way to say this, he was FREAKING OUT!  I'm not sure he knew how to swim and the poor guy kept getting submerged and he was on the brink of hyperventilating.  His 'Doctor In An Emergency Mode' didn't kick in, but to my surprise my 'Teacher Mode' did.  It's the same mode that kicks in when I'm making sure all 30 of my little ones are accounted for on field trips.  I held onto the raft with one hand and did a one-handed doggy paddle with the other.  I paddled over to him and grabbed his hand pulling him to the raft, where he grabbed onto the rope next to me.  Canadian Rob popped up on the rope on the other side of Turkish Pediatrician and I couldn't help but laugh at the huge grin spread across Rob's face.  Finally we'd capsized and he was thrilled!  Turkish Pediatrician was not.  He was still panicking.  So I held onto the rope with one hand and patted his back with the other.  "It's okay.  You're okay." I told him in between getting slammed by the raft and the water.

Our fearless guide Tuutu, clambered on top of the raft and clipped one end of the strap to the raft and the other end to himself. We'd practiced this in the morning.  Tuutu was going to jump off the raft, effectively flipping it right side up.  Tuutu yelled down at us, "Let go of the rope!"  Canadian Rob and I let go and swam a few feet away.  Turkish Pediatrician maintained his death grip on the rope.  I paddled back to him.  "You have to let go.  Tuutu's going to flip the boat."  Turkish Pediatrician shook his head.  And so I peeled his claws off the rope myself and grabbed the back of his life jacket and swam away with him.

Tuutu flipped the raft and helped us all back in.  After we cleared the rapid, the kayakers deposited Colin and Turkish Neurologist back into our boat and we all put our paddles and gave a hearty "Team Tutuu!"  After which Colin and I high fived because hooray-nobody died!

After the end of the trip we stopped for a delicious BBQ where we relived the glory of the day.  In bed that night I prayed that drinking the Nile wouldn't come back to haunt me and then I swam into my dreams with a huge grin on my face.

July 5, 2012

Freedom Falls

I've been home a little over a day now.  To get home I passed through five airports and flew on four different airplanes before my hubs drove me the last leg home.

I flashed my passport through countless screenings and talked with several new friends on the planes home.  Each time someone discovered that I'd spent the month in Uganda, they'd ask two questions.

"What were you doing there???"  I'd tell them about helping 50 or so kids write a book about pivotal moments in their lives.  We'd have a brief conversation about the kids and their writing and without fail they'd ask the second question.

"So how is Uganda doing?"  This question was often times paired with a gulp and a brow wrinkled with equal parts fear and worry.

I loved this question.  It's one of the reasons I took this journey to begin with.  I wanted to see how Uganda and her people were doing.  I wanted to hear and help record firsthand stories from her children.

The best way I can answer the question of how Uganda is doing is to tell you a story about two waterfalls in Uganda.

Murchison Falls
This is Murchison Falls.  It's a mere seven meters wide and at one point in time the whole of the Nile had to pass through this narrow gap.  It is staggeringly beautiful, but make no mistake, Murchison Falls is a crashing, thundering force to be reckoned with.  Living beings who have the misfortune of falling into the crevice of the falls do not resurface again until the water has suffocated all of the life and breath out of them.

In 1962 Uganda was granted freedom from Britain.  This may surprise you because even Uganda's most recent history is marred by dictatorial leaders and bloodthirsty warlords, not to mention the corruption that has taken root and entwined itself around the hearts of most of Uganda's politicians.  But indeed on January 15, 1962 Uganda was declared an independent country.

Another surprising thing happened in Uganda in 1962.

It rained.

Hear me out, during the wet season, it rains a lot in Uganda.  Almost daily rainstorms roll in with the evening and pelt the earth until the morning sunlight glistens in the pools of rain atop the sodden earth.

In 1962 the rains didn't roll in and out.  They rolled in and stayed, pouring themselves into the mighty Nile who rose to the challenge.  Her waters ascended like never before, sending creatures to higher ground lest the Nile drink them in.  Day and night the rain fell until the unimaginable happened.

Instead of squeezing herself through the oppressive rocks of Murchison Falls, the Nile burst over the land and a completely new waterfall was born.  It was like the whole country, from breathing men to teeming rivers, rose up and claimed freedom.  The second waterfall was called Gulu Falls.  Gulu is a Bagandan name meaning 'God of the sky'.  However most locals call it by another name: Freedom Falls.
Gulu Falls (left) and Murchison Falls (right)
Each time I answered the question 'How is Uganda doing?' I thought of Gulu Falls and I thought of the students I worked with in Uganda.  After living through a time of thundering, crashing oppression, there is a generation of young Ugandans rising up.  They're dedicated to justice over corruption, love instead of vengeance and healing for their scarred land.

How is Uganda doing?

She's headed for a bright future because when young people have hearts full of love, minds dedicated to justice and a yearning for freedom, well, that's a force that simply can't be contained.  And when it spills out over the land, Uganda is going to find herself completely sodden with the kind of freedom that once caused the Nile to entwine herself over the land and move in a completely new direction.

Freedom Falls

July 3, 2012

Sunday's Promise

“Do you realize that not everyone writes like this? You’re a gifted writer, Sun. Has anyone ever told you that?”

Sunday, or Sun as he likes to be called, tucks his head into his chest and smiles. He is quiet, always sidling up to me without a word, never stealing the spotlight.

For a moment, I watch him, marveling at what a perfect name Sun is for a kid with a luminous face. His face is always lit up like this and as we sit side by side I look to the sky to see if the sun is shining down on him.  Afternoon thunderclouds have rolled in, blotting out the sun.

We work side by side on his story about his grandmother. I swallow the memories of my own grandmother that have knotted in my throat. I ask questions and Sun answers thoughtfully, pausing to be sure of his words.

He tells the story of how his grandmother saved his life by hiding him under a blanket when the L.R.A. penetrated his house. He paints in the details of the end of her life, looking out over the horizon, not meeting my eyes. I look toward the horizon as well giving him the smallest measure of privacy and holding off more questions until he turns his face toward mine.

We’ve finished talking about his story and I have a lingering question.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A peacemaker.”

I smile thinking of the many children there who have answered the question of what they want to be when they grow up with that same answer: a peacemaker.

"And I want to be brave and kind and keep hope like my grandmother."

It's all I can do to hold back tears at this beautiful boy.  I clear my throat and we finish up notes for his story.

A week or so later the time has come for me to say goodbye to my Ugandan sons and daughters, to begin my trip toward home. I'm hugging and snapping photos and saying goodbye. I feel him at my side before he speaks.

“Alicia, can I talk to you?”

“Of course. Let’s walk a bit.” We move away from the throng of kids.

“What’s on your mind, Sun?”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’m going to miss you, too.” I squeeze him and give him a Ugandan hug, first on one side and then on the other.

“If I write a story about you, will you come back to read it?” He stares at his feet.

“Sun, first of all I’m coming back no matter what.”

“People say that and then they don’t.”

“Then I look forward to the day when I prove to you that I mean it.” I smile at him, willing him to believe me, knowing that he is steeling himself against a litany of broken promises. “Secondly, yes, I would love to read one of your stories. But, Sun, I won’t be back for many months. Are you really only going to write one story for me to read?” I challenge him.

“I think I’ve got many stories.”

“I agree. You need to write them and when I return I’ll read them.”

“You’ll return?” Sunday questions me again.

I nod.

“You’ll write?”

Sunday nods.  "I promise."

I watch him walk away and can't help but think that Uganda has a bright future.  A future as bright as Sun.

June 29, 2012

Lanyero Mama

“Mum, ask me a question.”  Martin doodles on his notebook.  We are seated side by side, so close that our hips touch.

“Let me think of one.”

“You always ask me challenging questions that make me think.”  He smiles at me, pausing in his drawing.

“I’m sorry, son, I can’t think of one today.  My brain is too sad to think of a question.”

“My brain is sad, too, Mum.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“Me, too, but African men don’t cry.  When we’re sad we just feel out of place.”

“That makes sense to me.  I feel out of place, but I’ll probably cry a little tomorrow.”

“Don’t cry, Mum.”

“I might.  But I did think of a question.”

“What is it?”

“My question is ‘What have you been thinking about today?’.”

“What have you been thinking about today?”  Martin bats the question back to me with a familiar twinkle in his eye.

“I asked you first.  So you have to answer first.”  I nudge him with my elbow.

“Give me another question.”

“Okay, how about this.  My boda driver asked me if any of the students had given me an Acholi name yet.  I told him no.  He said I should be named Aber Alicia because ‘aber’ means good and he says I’m good to everyone.  Do you think that’s a good name for me?”

“No, it’s no good.  Your name is Lanyero.  Lanyero Alicia is what you should be called.”

“What does it mean?”

“Lanyero means peaceful, joyous, happy.  It also means comforter.”  He meets my eyes and mine well up with tears.  He looks down at his sketches.

“I love it.  Did you know that Alicia means ‘truthful one’?”

“No, I didn’t know it.”

“So Lanyero Alicia means ‘one who takes joy in telling the truth’.”

“Mum, I’m really going to miss you.”

“Me, too.  I feel like my heart is in my throat.”

Martin shoots me a puzzled look.

“That means I’m really sad.  I’m having a hard time swallowing my sadness back down.”

“You’ve taught me something new, Mum.  My heart is on my throat, too.”

I feel a smile slip through my lips as I picture his heart on his throat.

“You can cry if you want to, Mum.  African women cry very loudly.”

“I’m not African, Martin.”

“Yes, you are.  I just named you so.  Lanyero Alicia.  But I won’t call you that.”

“You won't? Why not?”

“I’ll call you Lanyero Mama.”

“That’s my favorite name.”  I put my arm around him and squeeze this boy who named me, this son who has claimed me as his unlikely mother.

Martin & I

June 24, 2012

A Different Drum

“The reward of our work is not what we get, but what we become.” Paulo Coelho

I’m becoming someone different, different and yet the same. I’m the same person who loves my husband with abandon. I’m the same person who squirrels away pockets of time just to write. I’m the same person who loves teaching kids.

But I’m also becoming this other person. I have a different idea of who God is. I have a different definition of what a mother is. My heart beats to a different drum. I’m becoming someone else and I think she’s the woman I was always meant to be.

This woman packs her bravery into a suitcase and ventures out to help kids write their stories. This woman has a looser definition of clean. This woman walks the world with curls blazing out of her head in a mad frenzy. This woman swims in the coal black eyes of orphans.

I worry that when I return home, I won’t belong. I'll always belong in the arms of my beloved. And in the arms of my mother. But everything feels different.  Even my own skin is shades darker, like my Ugandan children have laid their hands on my arms and claimed me as their own.

I think of money differently, like how can I make more in order to do more good? I think of time differently. One of my Ugandan boys chides me for “walking too fast to think”. I think of food differently, watching my children dig and sow in the rich earth.

I feel like my heart is split in two. No, not even that, more like I now have two hearts beating in syncopation. One is the steady pulse of the life I’ve always loved-the life I love still-and the other is the patter of midnight hands tapping out life on drumskins. The rewards of this work are many and surely one of the richest rewards is who I’m becoming.

Still I wonder who I will become when my feet return home.

June 22, 2012

Geoffrey's Ear

“He’s the one who cut my ear.”  Geoffrey looks at the ground and twists a piece of grass between his fingers.  It surprises me how in this moment, nineteen year-old Geoffrey reminds me of a little boy.

“Do you want to tell me more about that?”  Up until that point my questions about his story for our book were benign.  How old are you?  How long did you live with your grandmother?

I’d known Geoffrey for going on 2 weeks, and I’d come to love this orphaned boy.  He is sweet in unexpected moments, mischievous in others and I love both sides of him.

I’d noticed his ear on my first day at the academy, when he saw me with a camera and asked if I’d show him how to use it.  I didn’t ask him about his ear, figuring he’d tell me if and when he was ready.

Geoffrey Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee
What I didn’t know is that when he was ready, he’d tell me a story for which I’d never be ready.

Geoffrey’s parents died when he was a young child.  His father died at the hands of a LRA soldier and his mother died shortly thereafter of an illness.  After their deaths Geoffrey lived with his grandmother, but unfortunately her hut was located in an area that was soon infested with LRA soldiers set on kidnapping children to turn into child soldiers.  To protect fourteen year-old Geoffrey, his grandmother sent him to live with his uncle.

Geoffrey’s father was a rough man; prone to acts of abuse inflicted on his children and even his younger brother, the uncle Geoffrey came to live with.

“Why would he cut your ear?  I don’t understand.”  I stammer.

“He was taking revenge on my late father.”  Geoffrey meets my eyes and I blink back tears.

“I still don’t understand.  Why would he cut your ear?  How is that revenge on your father?”  I probe further.

“I went to church in Gulu to pray and my uncle, who didn’t believe in God told me not to pray.  When he found out I’d gone to church to pray, he told me ‘You never listen!’ and then he flashed a knife and cut off part of my ear.”

I will the hot vomit rising in my throat back down into my stomach where it gurgles and boils.

“Did you go to the hospital?”  I gulp for air, trying to give him the space to continue if he so chooses.

“I walked to the clinic.”

“Did you continue living with your uncle after that?”

“No.”  He shook his head.

“Where did you live?”

“On the streets.”

“For how long?”

“Two years.  Then my cousin’s sister found me and I lived with her for a little while and then more on the streets.  Now I live here.”  He looks around at the academy.  “I have my own place in town.”

“How do you pay for your own place?”

“During holidays I work here at the academy doing construction and I save that money so I can have a place to live.”

He keeps talking and I look at his ear until white-hot fury blinds me and I have to blink it away.

It is enough to be orphaned.

It is enough to leave your home to avoid becoming a child guerilla.

It is too much to suffer violence inflicted by the very family meant to protect you.

It’s too much.

On the inside I am choking on my anger, willing myself to remain calm while he unpacks the rest of his story.

Geoffrey continues, telling me about school and about the American family-his family- who helps pay for his school fees.  He tells me about his future plans to open up an orphanage to care for lost children and my heart swells with pride for this boy.  My fingers can barely keep up with him as I take down his words.

The day I showed Geoffrey how to use my camera, he took off with it for a couple of hours, snapping photos all around the school.  That night back in town, I looked at the images he’d captured.  I was taken aback by some of his shots.  He has a natural way of seeing people and capturing light.  I suspect this comes from watching people from the outside.

I suspect that as he grows into a man, Geoffrey will always have an eye for seeing people.  I also have a feeling that throughout his life he will hear the voice of God speaking clearly, whispering into his severed ear that he is loved, he belongs and that he is in fact a valued part of a big family.

“We need to work on your title a little bit, Geoffrey, to make it match your story.”  We toss ideas back and forth for a few minutes and then Geoffrey smiles.

“I know what to call it.”  Geoffrey grins from ear to ear.

“Tell me.”  My fingers hover over my keyboard.

“I want to call it ‘Finding Family’.”

June 21, 2012

My Ugandan Son

Before leaving home for Uganda, I promised Terry I wouldn't return with an orphaned baby.  Frankly, the motherhood gene skipped me completely so it was an easy promise to make.

Until I met Opiyo Martin.  I call him Martin for short, but nine times out of ten, I call him son.

He is a gorgeous boy, loving and warm.  Oh, and he's 19 years old-way past the drooling baby stage.  Thank God.

Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee
One day I was hen-pecking Martin about something, like taking time to eat or straightening his tie, and in his best teenage boy voice he replied, "Okay, Mum."  "You're a good son, Martin." I smiled.  And that was it, I was a goner.

As so many unexpectedly sweet things do, it felt natural and right, like I'd been calling him son all his life, like this child was born out of my heart, if not my womb.

He greets me every morning with a "Hi, Mum." and a hug.  He finds me during lunch time to make sure I have food, often times offering me his food if I have yet to get mine.  This act may not sound like a big deal, but if Martin gave me his food, it would mean he wouldn't eat lunch that day.  And yet he offers, knowing full well that his offer comes with sacrifice.  At the end of the day if Martin knows I'm leaving, I get another hug and an escort to the gate.

Martin devours literature.  He sings all of the time and I can't help but giggle when he sings the wrong words, kind of like someone else I know.  Ahem.  He writes songs, raps, poetry and anything else he can think to scrawl on a piece of paper.  He wants to be a writer when he grows up.

He is so obviously my son.

Martin has his own family here in Uganda.  Two of his younger cousins attend the academy with him.  His uncle teaches literature.  He has an older sister who is already married and a nine-year old brother still in primary school.  As with so many students here, he is impoverished of his parents, but rich in non-traditional family members and I'm blessed to be folded into his family.

Today I had the pleasure of working one on one with Martin on the story he's penning for our book.  Earlier in the week, Martin mentioned that he wanted my help in writing, so when it came time for us to work, I didn't hold back.  I asked question after question about details he'd left unanswered.  He answered each one, painting in gritty details that cut to the heart of who he is.

In the face of evil that threatened to end his life, Martin, my beautiful son, chose to forgive.  Typing that word 'forgive', it's the only time I've ever felt the word doesn't adequately describe the depth of forgiveness.  Martin didn't just forgive, but he forgave with utter absolution that I can only begin to fathom.

I'm not writing his story here for two reasons.  First of all, Martin's story speaks for itself and when it's finished, I'll let it stand on its own two feet in the book and maybe even here.  Secondly, his story pierces such a raw place in my spirit that I physically cannot type it through my tears.  I'm profoundly proud of him, proud to know him, proud to be called Mum, proud to call him son.

In this surprising and wonderful mother-son relationship, I'm teaching my son to write with heart while he teaches me to live with heart.

June 17, 2012

There is Always Hope

Hopeful William
William stands in the hot Africa sun, squinting up at me.

“There is always hope.” he says flashing a smile.

“Yes, there is always hope.” I agree.  “William, may I take your picture?  I want to remember your story.”

“Yes.  And then I will write my story for you so you won’t forget.”  He smiles again and I feel my face mirror his.

This is William’s story.

When William was thirteen, he and his two older sisters were abducted from school by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  They were enslaved for 4 months, forced to carry weapons and heavy loads of food and other supplies.  They marched all day and slept in the open at night, sometimes marching straight through the nights, never uttering a word of complaint.  Complaining meant death.  Marching meant life and maybe even a little food.

But William was smart, is smart.  He knew he could escape if they were ambushed by the government army.  During ambushes, everyone ran in all directions, firing in all directions, not paying attention to the children.  And so William and his sisters waited for an ambush.  When one came, William ran as fast as his legs could carry him.

William stares at the ground and stops telling his story.  William made it back home.  His sisters did not.  He tells me he is still waiting for word from them.  William is 19 now.  He meets my gaze and I press my lips together, folding them into my mouth, unwilling to say the words that he can't.

Upon returning home, William found that his parents had divorced.  What marriage could survive the abduction of three children?  William's father couldn't stand by any longer and joined the government army in opposition to the LRA.

Shortly after their father joined the military, their mother passed away, leaving William and his older brother to care for each other.  When they would see their father, they’d beg him to stay home to raise them, to quit fighting and take care of them.  But their father could not, could not let the LRA continue to rape Uganda of her children.

William’s father was shot in the arm with a bullet filled with acid and didn't recover from his injury.  He passed away leaving William and his brother orphaned in every sense of the word.

William pauses and I offer my condolences, weak words that can't begin to match the loss of his father, mother and sisters.  William puts his hand on mine.

"All God's servants pass through hard conditions.  Glory, glory be to God who lifts us up."

I swallow the lump in my throat, trying to digest this proclamation of glory in the wake of devastation.  I wonder if I would be so quick to praise God after such hardship.  I know the answer and swallow the ugly truth back down.

William graduated from high school in November, 2011.  He works at that school now as an assistant in their science lab.  He will attend community college or university next year where he'll earn a degree in business.  His brother, now a local pastor, is happily married with seven children.

William smiles talking about his nieces and nephews.  In their faces he sees the future of Uganda.

And it’s a good future.  Because of men like William who know that in the harrowing shadow of loss, there is always hope.

June 16, 2012

Piercing the Sky

Lakot warms up.
The school I'm teaching at in Uganda is home to, a young woman named Lakot Nancy, the Ugandan young women’s javelin champion.  She’s seventeen years old and can throw the javelin 45 meters.

Yesterday I happened upon Lakot on her way to practice and I asked if I could tag along.  She welcomed me on one condition; I had to throw, too.  Which is AWESOME in my book.  I agreed in a heartbeat and Lakot and I set off for the field with a javelin, a pair of discs, three shot put balls, and two empty water bottles filled with sand.

“What are these for?”  I asked, turning the sand in the bottle.

“For practicing the javelin.  They’re heavy and good for throwing.”

“Okay.”  I merrily trailed behind, excited for my lesson.

Lakot threw first.  She took a breath, centering herself and clearing her mind of outside things.  Then she cocked her arm back, ran forward and pitched the javelin.  Her sinewy arms and strong legs worked in tandem, like they were born for this, born to run and throw, born to launch the javelin in a perfect arc, piercing the blue sky.  The javelin landed in the middle of the field spiking itself into the ground, an exclamation point to her statement that she is an athlete to be contended with.

She retrieved the javelin and threw again.  This time it landed prostrate on the ground.  She ran and picked it up.

“This javelin is no good.”  She shook her head.

“No good?  Why not?”  I laughed, thinking that’s something I’d say after a throw that didn’t land.

“Look at the middle.  It’s broken.  They pieced it back together.”  She held the javelin out to me.  Sure enough the javelin was broken in half and had been pushed back together.

Javelins are WAY heavier than they look!
“Now you.”  She handed the javelin to me and I held it in my hand, measuring the balance and weight of it, while Lakot coached me.

“Hold it in your right hand.  Bring your arm back straight and when you’re ready, open up.  Open up your hand and release it.”

I practiced moving my arm and hand and then I exhaled like Lakot had done, trying to clear away outside things, trying to clear out the past.

Throwing a javelin is hard in a dress!  Ready...set...
I hiked up my dress and I threw.
My throw landed significantly short of Lakot’s and it flopped on the ground.

“Good job!  You did it!” Lakot cheered like I’d just set the world record.

I threw a few more times, each javelin landing limp on the field, each attempt celebrated by Lakot, the ever-patient coach.  She also showed me how to throw shotput and discus, and though I was equally terrible at both, Lakot had nothing but encouraging words and suggestions for how to improve my next throw.

The current women’s world record for the javelin is 72.28 meters.  Lakot has to throw 49 meters to qualify for the Junior Olympics.  She has her eyes set on the Olympics, on wearing the gold around her neck and standing on the podium for Uganda.

It's a lofty goal for a girl who practices with a broken javelin and water bottles filled with sand, but Lakot is strong in ways that leave me stunned.  In a single breath, she closes out her past and in the moment she throws, she is a woman moving through this world with agility, strength of mind and depth of heart.
Lakot Nancy throws and shows the beauty of clarity and strength.
Legend has it that Hercules was the first to throw the javelin, using his superior strength pierce the hearts of his enemies with the javelin.

Hercules has nothing on Lakot. 

She is a woman who aims for the sky and hits her target.  When the 2016 Olympics come around, I’m confident that Lakot will make her mark on history and indeed pierce the hearts of men and women all over the world.