Monday, 10 December 2007

What of the night?

What of the night?
Morning comes and also the night.,
If you will inquire, inquire,
Come back again.
Beloved, I inquire, I return again—
What of the night?
And it is all night lately, less light and less light and the days grown dark and ragged at the edges, curling in against the cold, and I vanish under layers of clothing and the weight of the world.

There is a lot of pain here just now, in the lives of those I love, and sometimes I feel I am swaddled in it and like an infant, struggle to get an arm free, a foot, to be just a little less bound. My nice clear path through the woods of academia ended or I wandered off of it. Either way, Dantesque, I have awakened in a dark wood, lost and lanternless.

And I need to light the lantern, with whatever comes to hand. So I am turning off my phone and disconnecting the internet, and descending into the dark well of my heart with my books and my notes and the yawning blank page, hoping to climb back out in a week's time. Wish me luck. Two quotes by wise women come to mind:

It always comes back to the same necessity:
go deep enough and there is a bedrock
of truth, however hard.
May Sarton

So finally a writer must be willing to sit at the bottom of the pit,
commit herself to stay there,
and let all the wild animals approach,
even call them up, then face them,
write them down
and not run away.
Natalie Goldberg

And now I descend, hand over hand, on the rope down into the quiet dark.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

a wakeless world

Mr Badger's boat--do you think he'd marry me? I could keep flowers in pots and write novels and brew tea...
It's Sunday and I am turning to memories and trivia to dispell this disquieting winter's eve. My friend Nathan and I have this endearing little habit--at least we think so--of texting each other Paul Simon's lyrics at odd moments. We were at this seriously old cemetery with the oldest tree in the United Kingdom, a yew tree, which has the disappointing habit of dying back to its roots and growing again, smaller and more spindly as the centuries roll by, so that we got to see a not all that impressive looking gnarly tree with a lovely huge ring of stones showing its ancient girth. Essentially, we had to take the tree's past on faith, and I count on trees being something you can actually put your hands on--I'm like a Tree Thomas.

Anyway, in this very old cemetery were all these old gravestones and there was one that said simply, Asleep in Jesus. This was really and truly puzzling to my friends, who aren't Christian and thus aren't used to our platitudes, and the grammar worried them too--why wasn't in asleep in Jesus' something? Jesus' arms, for example. And Nathan suddenly declared that he wanted his tombstone to say, Asleep in Paul Simon. I am telling this story simply because it makes me laugh. The story goes on and has druidic stones in a field and bulldozers chained to trees in a forest and a terrifying slither down a ravine in an enormous ball of leaves, but I'll stop at Paul Simon. Anyway, this is our favorite stanza at the moment:

A man walks down the street,
It's a street in a strange world--
maybe it's the Third World,
maybe it's his first time around.
He doesn't speak the language,
he holds no currency,
he is a foreign man,
he is surrounded by the sound, the sound
of cattle in the marketplace,
scatterlings and orphanages.
He looks around, around,
he sees angels in the architecture,
Spinning in infinity,
he says, hey, hallelujah...

It's a good thing to be able to say hey, hallelujah on a winter's night. I'm posting some pictures of narrow-boating with my uncle and aunt and cousin and husband and wee Lisa, my namesake, back in sunny July. Narrow-boating is just the most wondrous activity in the history of England--it's an epic adventure for the lazy and slow moving. With physics and navigation and landscape and boats! I was utterly enchanted, except for the frightening bits where my uncle got me to steer and I desperately clung to the tiller trying not to run us all aground. My cousin's husband Matt became the master steersman and we soon were able to whisk ourselves through the tiny narrow arched bridges with nary a screech nor scrape (this was not the case at the beginning of the day, ahem...) and I got obsessed with opening and closing the locks. Like really obsessed. At one point, my uncle pointed out that I didn't have to actually Run to open the locks, but I explained that this was somehow just part of the pleasure of it all, running-and-cranking-and-locking-and-pushing-open these mossy iron doors... I just couldn't believe that I, with a tool and my shoulder and feet braced against the gates, could get our boat to rise or fall 12 feet (while I danced madly about with excitement on the side of the canal) and then open her way to the river above or below... Basically, I Became Ratty, mad about all things with boats and river. It was just the most enchanting Wind in the Willows sort of activity. You could stop anywhere and have coffee on your gas burner or eat sandwiches. You could get out and run along the towpaths while the boat putted along behind you, bonding with the cows and the birds... Clearly, I have a little much energy for the whole slow moving aspect of this holiday, as the family pointed out--a common 'bumper sticker' on the other narrowboats--for we are talking about a world entire on these canals--read 'if you can see your wake, you're going too fast.' Anyway, here are some pictures of this wakeless world and other English holiday shots.

children's expedition by a pool, which reminded me of my own childhood
guy with flask and dog and walking stick, sitting on old Roman market square (this isn't narration so much as description, is it?)
See, I closed them in there and am making all that water pour out the gate below, the boat descends, the river behind is where we came from--I am Lock Master...
And this would be why I refused to steer the boat through most of the bridges.... Wee bit tight, no?

Friday, 23 November 2007


There was this astonishing lecture tonight about ruination and afterwards there was a party and Katie was there. I taught her Khmer last semester as she prepared to return to Cambodia for the second time in her life, to volunteer at an orphanage and do some research for her undergraduate thesis in anthropology. She came across the room, we hugged, I asked, how was it? She said amazing, it was amazing. And she told me of living alone in a Khmer neighbourhood called Break Bra and how her neighbors insisted that she be in by dark and feed her noodles every morning, watching to be sure that she ate every last spoonful.

And then she said, and it was terrible, and she started to tell me stories. They tumbled out, one after the other, with hardly a pause for breath, thin stories, more just a listing of losses—five orphans dying of dengue, her own grave illness, watching a family riding a motorbike killed in front of her, giving mouth to mouth to a dying stranger covered in blood, being surrounded by machine-gun waving bodyguards when her friend overtook a powerful man’s vehicle on a road. There was so much anger, she said. I didn’t know, before, when I was a tourist, that there was so much anger. Before I could speak Khmer. And then she said, I’m bitter. I feel bitter that my family and friends can’t understand. I’m going to become a human rights worker so I can help. I don’t know if I can take it, this kind of work. I’m going to go to dinner with my friends now. And then she left, and I watched her go.

And I remembered. That this is what it is like to lose your innocence, your naivete that if you mean well you can make things better, in any world you choose. And I thought of what my friend and mentor Sue said to me the day I went to her weeping, guilty, afraid that my lack of action had cost a child’s life. Sometimes, Sue said, we are just here to witness suffering. It was not what I wished to hear. It was not why I was there, not why I had gone to rural Cambodia, not why I was enduring the incomprehension of my Khmer neighbors, the stifling heat and the long lonely evenings alone with the geckoes and a half-crazy cat. I had not gone to witness anything. I had gone to change the world, as respectfully as I could, but to change it nonetheless. To do good. To be of use. And yet. I had not realized that suffering filled the land, that it fills every land. I had not realized how dark or how vast suffering could be, that I could not stem its flow, that I would fail time and again, that I was fallible and frail and sometimes hateful.

Sometimes, Sue said, we are just here to witness suffering. I told Katie. I don’t know if she was ready to hear that, if she will be able to bear working in a world where one is confronted daily by scenes that shatter the heart. I just wanted her to know that it is normal to be bruised by your inability to save the world, and that when we open our hearts, when we open our eyes, that it is then that we are overwhelmed and battered by the cruelty of the world. This does not have to be the end of us. I still hope for a better world.

I have learned, Thomas Merton once wrote, that one cannot truly know hope unless she has found out how like despair hope is.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Poems by Sheenagh Pugh

This poetess humbles me with her skill. So few words,
yet she reached my heart and stays there.


Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best intentions do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

The Bereavement of the Lion-Keeper
for Sheraq Omar

Who stayed, long after his pay stopped,
in the zoo with no visitors,
just keepers and captives, moth-eaten,
growing old together.

Who begged for meat in the market-place
as times grew hungrier,
and cut it up small to feed him,
since his teeth were gone.

Who could stroke his head, who knew
how it felt to plunge fingers
into rough glowing fur, who has heard
the deepest purr in the world.

Who curled close to him, wrapped in his warmth,
his pungent scent, as the bombs fell,
who has seen him asleep so often,
but never like this.

Who knew that elderly lions
were not immortal, that it was bound
to happen, that he died peacefully,
in the course of nature,

but who knows no way to let go
of love, to walk out of sunlight,
to be an old man in a city
without a lion.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

thoughts on how we make the world

I’m thinking about Mondulkiri again. And about my research interests, which are strong and rather inarticulate at this point in time. (Yes, this is a problem.) My own memories of Mondulkiri are, shall we say, elemental, stripped... I posted a few of them here back in June, Notes on a Place I Love, and I can see that stripped quality to them. I have a strong physical memory of the wind and the light and the weight of the rain—my times in Mondulkiri have always been a conscious retreat, and the conditions have acted like a spiritual trope—I have gone to the hills to let the wind and the emptiness scour my soul.

But it’s not an empty place; it never was. I have always stayed in my friends’ homes, or in a guesthouse run by a Khmer family with known shady dealings. There have been webs of relationships all around me—and the sharing of food, of stories, of troubles, the intersections of grace and violence that make up any human society. But I went there to escape the webs of my relationships in the plains below, and so my very presence there was self-interpreted as being a retreat from somewhere else. And made so by me as well, through my actions and my practices—I remember once, while birdwatching down in the valley with Lucas the dog, that I hid in a thicket when I heard voices, because I wanted to be alone and to see the landscape as unpeopled, as wild. I didn’t want to interact with other people or acknowledge other people. I needed it to just be me and the dog and the birds--who were, by the way, busy hiding in the thickets as well, also hoping that we would all just go away.

And I think that all of us in Mondulkiri do this, ‘native’ or expatriate, local or foreign. We interpret or read the landscape and the people there—including ourselves—according to our own scripts. I want to call this ethnogeography, although I suspect that ethnogeographers do something quite different. At any rate, the issue is that these landscapes and representations clash. They are contested, struggling for dominance.

Is this particular hill, for example, the sacred home of some local spirits, a prime site for a Khmer Buddhist temple, or a site for a new plot of pine trees for the Chinese plantation? And what kind of people will people the site? Worshippers, labourers, tourists?

If one position becomes dominant, everything changes. And what then will befall this highland province and its residents? Anyway, I think this is what I am interested in studying. The competing representations of (peopled or unpeopled) landscapes. Before. And now.

Huh. You have now read my attempt to articulate what I’m about. Thanks for listening. Below is a short memory about an interaction during one of my trips:

Len, the self-styled first indigenous reporter for the Bunong, wants to write about land seizure and corrupt chiefs and the neglect of Bunong orphans in the local orphanage. He works for an NGO, not a newspaper, and is supposed to be making a general easy reader paper for literacy practice that won’t offend any of the powers that be in Sen Monorom, and I, as the visiting writer, have been asked to give him some ‘journalistic’ advice. Personally, I would like him to be able to do exactly as he pleases, but he walks a fine line, with the spectre of being shut down altogether only a snap of the Khmer governor’s fingers away. We discuss what he can and cannot safely write about. Then he brings out a photo. He wants to print a publicity still taken from some tourist brochure in the Bunong news sheet. In this photo, Bu Sra women and girls in spotless traditional garb stand arrayed around the waterfall for which their town is named. He has titled it, even, “beautiful women at Bu Sra.” He wants to print a picture of the Bunong posing as traditional for the Bunong themselves. Why are they dressed like that? I ask. To sell cloth, he responds—we both know the drill. The visionary women descend to the tourists splashing about in the waterfall, then on the way home, after paying a small fare for the use of an impossibly long bending bamboo ladder down the cliff, the same tourists find wares laid out in baskets by the path—the same traditional clothing on the women, now for sale in the forest! This is clever marketing. But none of this is what Len wants to write about—this is all understood. He wants to simply print this photo of these women, with no commentary on authenticity. And I wonder, why does this photo please him? Is he trying to create indigenous pride? Is this the only decent photo of Bunong women in public circulation? Or are they truly just, in Len’s eyes, some beautiful local girls?

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A Few Pictures

This is my brother Jeff's photograph of a tree in Masai Mara. I can't stop looking at it. It's so Edenic it makes me want to cry or just stand up and walk into the frame and fall into another world. You know, the way the Pevensies or whatever their last names were stood looking at the picture of the Dawn Treader until the sea itself reached out and washed them into a watery Narnia...

This is my brother Mike's photograph. Somewhat less highbrow... This is me, a massive stone potato. I'm standing in one of those ancient stone jars on the Plain of Jars on the Bolaven Plateau in Laos.
This is me and my friend Nathan at a birthday party for another friend of ours, in case anyone cares what I look like at this particular juncture in time and space. My hair is now officially long and lives permanently tied up at the back of my head. Happy day.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Winter Came Today

Winter came today. She’s been slow in coming;
autumn has held on hard and long. But when I
left my office at half past seven this evening the
cold took my breath away. (In case you’re overly
impressed by the long hours I keep, let it be said
that I don’t start at 8 like people on a proper work
week. I’m often in the swimming pool at 8, doing
lazy laps and panting for breath.) There are fireworks
going off all over the city—remember, remember, the
5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot…
The United Kingdom is celebrating Guy Fawke’s foiled
attempt to blow up Parliament along with the gleeful
acknowledgement that blowing things up is really really
fun. So is burning people in effigy, apparently, but that’s
a little dark for me. Besides, it’s Cold outside.

I’ve been absent from this site for ages. I’m not sure why.
I was avoiding all kinds of reflection for a while, but I’m
done with that now. I’ve gone birding a few times—it feels
like a life-affirming act somehow, like a centering, leaving
all the people in my life behind for a while, getting on a bus
by myself with my binoculars around my neck and riding all
the way out to the where the River Esk empties into the sea.
Passerine migrants have been coming through—wild geese,
and sea ducks are turning up for the winter, some from the
Arctic Circle. I saw four new species of bird on my first trip—
the goosanders and wigeons were particularly exciting. The
wigeons were in eclipse, which means that their plumage is
turning and is currently a crazy patchwork of russet and brown.
Andthey had, I kid you not, bright yellow blazes on the crown
of their heads. Think little ducks with Mohawks. They were
amazing. On a more solemn note, the wild geese called when they
flew over my head and I remembered that they are the signs of
the Spirit in Celtic Christianity and wished that I could be so
innocent and so free.

Friday, 12 October 2007

A Very Old Poem

My first year out of university I lived in Uptown, Chicago. We lived at the top of our apartment building. In the bathroom was a window painted white; beyond it lay a cove in the roof. In the cove the pigeons roosted. Whenever I showered I heard the purr of pigeons, invisible but very near. If I pushed open that white window the bathroom might have filled with whirring wings,I might have been encircled by birds. This is a poem I wrote that year, 1998, about the women I worked with at Deborah's Place.

The company she seeks is
only that of pigeons. The
woman in a dark turban
and draping robes feeds
the birds of the city soft
white bread from her perch atop
her belongings, the heavy bags
roped together on the pavement.
Silent and Samson-like, the
birds are her voice. But one
day when I pass by Moira
is standing, shouting,
crying out at the unheeding
traffic, her pigeons flown
away in fright.

Her self-confidence is a fragile
egg she clasps between ringed
fingers. What should I do
today? she invariably asks at
the shelter, and my spirit wants
to cry, Become strong. But
there are no spaces in our world
to express such hope, and so
instead she sits crafting bright
glittering jewelry like a magpie
decorating its nest.

Doris is small, old, and wild,
coming to roost only at night.
Sharp-tongued, the first time
we meet she defies my feeble
offers of assistance, fiercely
cutting her own tousled hair
with the paper scissors. Tufts
pile up in her lap on a paper
towel like plucked feathers,
and sometimes she opens
her mouth and utters
oracles, leaving us dumb.

Beatrice is a maddened
hawk. Most days she
cries violence down upon
us all. Set yourselves on
fire, she says. But one day
her talons are gone, and she
sits and cries that she loves
us, drowning out the sound
of the television. It’s safer
to fly home, she mutters as I
depart, and I almost feel my
shoulders for the trace of wings.

In the fourth century a Syrian
holy man crept forth at
night to observe an insane
girl. As flames descended from
heaven upon her out-stretched
hands, he cried out: Surely God
loves people who are mad like this!
There are sparks beneath
Beatrice’s nails, wisps of
smoke in Doris’s hair, tongues of
fire at the hem of Moira’s
garments—portents of
God’s fiery love. They
are birds of flame:
phoenixes. Any day
now, I expect ignition.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Some Thoughts on Dirt

I just cleaned the kitchen.
I clean more thoroughly than any of my other flatmates.
I see all surfaces when I am cleaning, with a horrified eye—
each grubby corner,
each ball of lint trapped below the wainscot,
each greasy light bulb specked with moth and fly spittle.

I feel compelled to yank up each and every movable object
and scrub like hell at the detrita beneath,
to poke chopsticks down radiators to reach the hairballs hiding within,
to pry loose screws and nails and matches out of the
cracks between the wooden floorboards.
I am wild about disinfectant, mad for bleach,
fond of tossing out rags and scrubbing brushes
and opening packets of crisp new ones, which
I must stop myself from tossing after one use.

I always stop cleaning exhausted and cross,
knowing that the battle has not been won,
that some dirt has eluded me. I have to stalk away and distract myself,
today with candles and dark chocolate.
I know that this is not a normal relationship to have with dirt.

The brilliant anthropologist Mary Douglas revealed that
dirt is matter out of place—like shoes on the table in America,
no matter how clean the shoes or how dirty the table…
Life in Cambodia taught me the truth of this idea that dirt is constructed
by turning this commonplace Western notion on its head.
My maid’s attention to dirt was the exact inverse of my own.
I would come home from the office to a house
where you could eat off the floor—and you were supposed to…
Cobwebs on the ceiling and dirt on the coffee table, on the other hand,
went utterly unnoticed, these being negligible surfaces to Genta.

At term’s end at my boarding school in Kenya,
those boarders who lived in other countries were taken away to the airport—
we none of us begrudged them this,
for they spent long months away from their families,
often taking midterm holidays with those of us who lived in Kenya.
But after waving them off, we had to earn our freedom—
we were not permitted to leave until the dormitories were clean.
Our escape to the cars and trucks and planes that would take us home,
back to the arms of our families, was so close,
so tangible you could taste the longing in your mouth—
yet a sea of filth lay between.

We had daily chores all through the terms, but this was large-scale
cleaning—scrubbing the wax off the linoleum floors, for example,
and cleaning myriads of windows. Dirt was an obstacle to freedom,
the last locked door between school and home.
These cleaning days were tedious and exhausting.
Fantasia-like scenarios, such as dancing with mops
or strapping your feet to scrub brushes in flooded hallways,
never really worked that well. Sooner or later,
one gave in to the inevitable and got down
on your hands and knees and remained there.
Five years as a boarder and I can’t begin to tally how many hours
I spent up to my elbows in dust and hair
and brittle-bodied moths and muddy water.

You couldn’t just stop when you’d had enough either.
You had to be Inspected, Approved, and Released.
The legendary Miss Debbie, no longer operative in my time, thank God,
used to slip white gloves upon her hands when she entered a dorm
and run her searching fingers over surfaces.
We shuddered at the thought of those hands, those gloves.
Sometimes they actually sent us back in with a checklist
of spots that needed more work.
I’m not saying that all this hard labor was harmful,
but it does help me understand my current habits—
I clean as if my freedom depends upon it,
because it used to.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Two by Janet

roof of the National Galley
Edinburghians on Calton Hill on a Saturday
Our dear Baloo posing in front of Arthur's Seat, which is, believe it or not, right in the middle of this fair city...

Sorry for the lack of writing, friends, the PhD is catching up with me.
And we're having a crazily lovely October,
clear warm sunlit days in the changing leaves,
and I have spent every spare moment running about
in the Meadows, or climbing great hills...

So here are another's words--two poems by the inimitable Janet Frame of New Zealand:

When the Sun Shines More Years Than Fear

When the sun shines more years than fear
when birds fly more miles than anger
when sky holds more bird
sails more cloud
shines more sun
than the palm of love carries hate,
even then shall I in this weary
seventy-year banquet say, Sunwaiter,
Birdwaiter, Skywaiter,
I have no hunger,
remove my plate.

Rain on the Roof

My nephew sleeping in a basement room
has put a sheet of iron outside his window
to recapture the sound of rain falling on the roof.

I do not say to him, the heart has its own comfort for grief.
A sheet of iron repairs roofs only. As yet unhurt by the demand
that change and difference never show, he is still able
to mend damages by creating the loved rain-sound
he thinks he knew in early childhood.

Nor do I say, In the travelling life of loss
iron is a burden, that one day he must find
within himself in total darkness and silence
the iron that will hold not only the lost sound of the rain
but the sun, the voices of the dead, and all else that has gone.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Go gently, love, and soft

Go gently, love, and soft,
Wake not the sleeping lion,
But steal by in light slippers
Wearing tenderness like a knitted shawl.

Go gently, love, and soft,
Step through the river lightly,
Letting it part around you and rush on by—
Try not to gather up the water
But rather let it slip through your parted fingers
Blessing its sweet caress.

Go gently, love, and soft.
Near not the precipices of your soul,
Not today. Not today.
Walk safe paths, build a small cairn with fallen rock,
And offer up a prayer
for courage, gentleness, and peace.
Go gently, love, and soft.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

grace, or a story I tell on certain occasions

On certain occasions, more times than I can remember now, I have
sat with other women telling the stories of violence attempted or done
to us at the hands of certain men and there is a kind of grace just in the
telling and the hearing and the praise we offer each other for surviving
such things and going on, but when such rites occur, I also often tell this
story, which is not my story, but a true story nonetheless:

Two young women were visiting Cambodia and one night they stayed late
at a friend’s house and then hailed motorbike taxis to take them home. And
the drivers they hailed were evil men who had formulated a plan, and they
drove in separate directions in the dark so that the girls would lose their way.
And one girl knew instantly that the way was wrong and she threw herself off
of the back of the motorbike and was saved. But the other girl was not the sort
who paid much attention to strange places, so she did not notice that she was
being taken to a new part of the city, did not notice for a long time that she was
being taken, until the city suddenly fell away and they were on a road in the dark.
And then she hoped for the best, for she did not know her way home. And finally
they stopped, at the door of a brothel, and she knew it somehow for a place of evil
and said she would not go in, and then he drove away into a dark field and then stopped
the motorbike and fell upon her and she fought him, harder than he had expected,
and he grew afraid and released her and ran to his motorbike and drove away. And
she rose from that field in a strange land and began to walk in the dark and then she
saw a light, a candle in the window of a small wooden house. And she climbed the
stairs and she knocked and a middle-aged Cambodian woman opened the door, and
looked at the bruises on the girl’s face, and let her in. She stayed that night in the
house of the woman, and they had no language between them, but the woman sat
the girl down before her and took a brush and brushed her hair for a long long time.

I think that perhaps the image of grace does not get any stronger, any purer, than this,
than a woman in a small wooden house
on a dark night, brushing the hair of a stranger who
needed her. And I tell this story time and again so that those of us who did not
have anyone to take us in and comfort us in the aftermath of violence
can imagine what it would have been like if we did,
if we could only have had a mother’s hands in our hair,
taking all the fear and the anger and the shame away,
one slow stroke at a time.

Sunday, 16 September 2007


Yesterday was Mexican Independence Day and I walked to my Mexican friends' flat in the wind and the rain and climbed the stairs and ate flan and drank rather a lot of tequila with five humans and two beloved guinea pigs--the pigs, refraining from the liquor, ate strange woody pellets instead... And I am sure that the evening's conversation turned political at times, but since those times were in Spanish, which I don't speak, I couldn't follow, but this morning I dragged out this poem I post below, written by Vidal de Nicolas, once a political prisoner in Burgos jail--in Argentina, maybe? Clearly, I should turn to someone else's words this morning, and these are words that ring in the heart for a long time after...

A Wish

That son of Cain, let him have no more power
to loose his fury on the unfettered spring
or deal death to the kiss.
Let hatred be restrained from flooding
the pristine margins of the air.
Let knives become impotent against swallows, and the assassin
powerless to garrotte the dawn.
May war never again
batter the skulls of newborn babes, or sever
the exultant arteries of a man.
Let poisoned fangs and pistols
and slavering jaws be done away,
and nevermore let frenzy lash us
with its insensate waves.

Let nothing remain but a love
as vast as all the oceans,
pouring like a cataract across the pupils
of our eyes, flooding the planets,
filling the songs of poets everywhere.

And here is a kingfisher, for it was high time one turned up here--and may birds like this tiny malachite kingfisher in my cousin's hand live long lives full of fish and sparkling water...

Friday, 14 September 2007

Words by Rumi

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving--
It does not matter now.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken
your vows a hundred times.
Come, come again, come.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007


I left America yesterday, but I could not tell you when.
Half a bag of pumpkin seeds,
one car, two airplanes, and three buses later,
hollow and husked,
a shell of myself,
I came back to my new flat—
which has two new flatmates,
men I scarcely know,
and a hell of a lot of dirt.

I was unhappy and my
feet were cold. I inadvertently missed
the official induction meeting
of my school this morning, and
deliberately missed the social gathering
this evening, being in no mood for
making new friends while still mourning
leaving old ones.

I gnawed on bread, fretted over my
laptop, which doesn’t travel well,
and finally set forth to the grocery store,
the one I used to go to, far from my flat,
but with familiar shelves and cannisters.
En route, I found Michael examining a traffic cone by the library.

Michael and I have a strange friendship.
He’s in his last stage of writing up his PhD,
one of those phantom people who flit in and out
of their offices at terrifying hours.
We have never done anything social together;
yet he has walked around the corner
of various streets just when I needed someone most.
This past year he helped me process
the death of my grandmother,
the stress of undergoing an HIV test,
(yah, long long story involving my foot and a hypodermic needle on a beach
in Cambodia—a story that no longer matters, praise be),
and the decision to apply for a PhD.

Michael was delighted to see me.
Michael is always delighted to see me,
which is part of the reason Michael is
a glorious friend. We processed whether
or not I can pass my transition boards on
an accelerated schedule in order to go on
holiday in May. We decided that I could,
and I proceeded on to the store. It was full
of confused new undergraduates, and I had
the singular pleasure of being able to feel
myself past those early interminable searches
for the cherry tomatoes and the free range eggs.
I know where things belong; I’m not new anymore.

Then I walked home in the late afternoon sun,
and cooked pasta with mussels, which are such
fearsome looking creatures that they cheered me up,
and two of my other guy friends from the Centre for African
Studies texted me about going to a movie together—to be honest,
I don’t think they realized I had gone anywhere, and I felt
inside my chest that slow shift of the heart
back to some strange sort of equilibrium.

Oddities for My Sweet Brother

I’m told that this account amused him so I thought I’d give you my version, along with some odd pictures of our family. Mike, I'm counting on you still being in Nyala and looking at these photos with the same sense of bemusement.

The day after my arrival in New York I had a headache and accidentally took a prescription sleeping pill that, for some mysterious reason, my father had placed in the Advil bottle. Several hours after settling down with a magazine, I woke up face down on our wee dock in the sun in a state of high confusion and thought that was the end of it. We went off to uh, somewhere, to play miniature golf and eat pizza, and everyone kept teasing me and I kept insisting that I was fine.

But the fact of the matter is that I don’t remember posing for or taking any of these pictures at all. I turned on my camera in the airport in Philadelphia and ended up laughing out loud.

This is my brother Jeff and his wife Sarah, soon to be studying in Brighton for a year... But This is where it becomes Really Strange and Undignified....
I love my family.

Sunday, 9 September 2007


Tomorrow I leave America.
I came home seeking retreat, renewal,
thinking I would go the Abbey at the Genesee
and find silence amongst men vowed to it.
I usually see our family home as a den or a burrow—
close and warm,
full of merry company and clamour—
more than I can bear some days.
I thought to flee it
but the land kept me.
We have a pond
ringed round with forest,
and here is holiness uncloistered—
for vespers, the wind sighing in the trees
and the drumming of woodpeckers,
the water disturbed, time and again,
by unseen frogs or angels,
where you can be baptized over and over
amongst the fishes.

Once, in the poorest province in Cambodia,
a denuded region ironically named
Long Forest, we drove through a massive
grove of bamboo on the backroads.
I was standing in the bed of the truck,
an unwomanly habit which bemused my
Khmer companions, and I threw back my
head and saw a vast vaulting arch of feathery
rustling green—heart-stoppingly lovely, a
cathedral of bamboo, and I looked down
and there was a young girl and her younger sister
walking down the road, the baby with lambent
frangipani tucked behind each of her small ears.
And I forget so much, but I promised myself
to hold them and that place, uncloistered,
in my heart forever.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

What will become of us?

I am in western New York for two more days,
with my parents. And last night I could hardly sleep,
which I blame entirely on my friend, Dave Huth.
No, I’m kidding. But a conversation with friends
had taken a dark turn, to the precarious state of
our world, to the disasters that could soon befall us, to
those that already have, time and again, in the harrowing
history of the world, to the difficulty of holding on to hope
in times so unjust and so uncaring, and I had the awful thought—
what if those stark teachings from my childhood
where God ends the world in fire, were in fact about us—
what if we end the world? What will become of us?

And then a new friend drove me home,
talking of stars and flying. In the black
night, we startled a line of deer, their eyes glowing
like tiny moons—they ran from us, afraid,
and later, on my ceiling,
a leggy spider gathered and swung
and somersaulted along an invisible web
as if afloat, or aloft on some tenuous strand
of hope. She did not fall, and I was glad, but
we are not as innocent as spiders, as deer, and
the question remained: what will become of us?

Sleepless, I went seeking poetry, and the anthology
had included a passage from Romans, so I brooded on that:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
Shall war, or genocide, or poverty, or wealth, or consumption, or greed,
or apathy, or denial, or despair, or debt, or greenhouse gases, or the loss of this
good green world?
Nay, for I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor principalities, nor governments, nor disease, nor great disaster, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor
any other circumstance shall be able to separate us from the love of God.

I believe that this is true.
But I also hope and pray, how could I not?
that these present terrors cease,
that the others that threaten do not come to pass,
that we survive ourselves,
that we can live.

Rabbi Heschel once said:
Just to be is a blessing.
Just to live is holy.

I believe that this is true.
Yet I want so many things
from this sweet brief life
allotted to me—here is one such wish—
to stand next summer in Namibia
or my beloved Mondulkiri, in the wind
on a dark night
and see the stars clearly again.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Something gentle, something wild

I. something gentle

Below is a poem written in 1927 by Kadya Molodowsky.
I don't know who she is, but I have loved this poem for years now.

Songs of Women

For poor brides who were servant girls,
Mother Sara draws forth from dim barrels
And pitchers sparkling wine.
Mother Sara carries with both hands
A full pitcher to whom it is decreed.
And for streetwalkers
Dreaming of white wedding shoes,
Mother Sara bears clear honey
In small saucers
To their tired mouths.
For high-born brides now poor,
Who blush to bring their patched wash
Before their mother-in-law,
Mother Rebecca leads camels
Laden with white linen.
And when darkness spreads before their feet,
And all the camels kneel on the ground to rest,
Mother Rebecca measures linen ell by ell
From her rings to her golden bracelet.
For those whose eyes are tired
From watching the neighborhood children,
And whose hands are thin from yearning
For a small soft body
And for the rocking of a cradle,
Mother Rachel brings healing leaves
Discovered on distant mountains,
And comforts them with a quiet word:
At any hour God may open the sealed womb.
For those who cry at night in lonely beds,
And have no one to share their sorrow,
Who talk to themselves with parched lips,
To them, Mother Leah comes quietly,
Her eyes covered with her pale hands.

II. something wild

This isn’t my picture. I’m not in the plane or lying with the lions. It was sent to my friend Paul by someone named Noel--but it’s a pretty damn fine picture nonetheless.

Monday, 13 August 2007


I have been reading books
by other footloose expatriates.
This is, in retrospect,
a mistake.
As of late, I find myself half mad
with boredom--
with the academic life,
with this everyday of small
pleasures in a good city
that holds few dangers and
fewer challenges to my heart
and my soul.

I suffer, like so many others of my ilk,
from restlessness, like malaria
in the blood, the type that subsides
and then reoccurs time and
again, in dark waves of longing.
I wish I could say I fight off its fevers,
but I usually succumb.

I have been here nearly a year.
Maybe the problem is that simple.
My life here is simple and good--
and maybe the problem is that simple.

I have grown accustomed to being in over my head,
to treading waters of rougher seas,
of my work mattering more than it ought to have,
of facing a harsh world
every day
and struggling to be honest with myself,
to keep seeing and not turn away,
to resist my own darkness and that of others.

Here we take ghost tours and talk of Old Edinburgh's
torture and violence as if it were entertaining,
which is the luxury
history affords us.
Here we joke about hell, about going there,
as if a great portion of our world were not there already.
Here I walk past the homeless people on the street
and I do not know their story
and I feel little pity,
because they're better off than a lot of Cambodians.
This is a heartless way to feel.

I am not being of any use to the poor and the vulnerable here.
Yet why should I constantly have to be of use?
Why am I not content with this time of rest and preparation?
Merton wrote once of the violence of activism, of doing and
doing and doing and never feeding the soul until we are
hollow shells of our former selves, spirit-starved.
I worry that I have something different--
an addiction for activism,
the need to be doing something for someone else
to feel life worthwhile and myself of worth--
or, perhaps, to not feel guilty
for being wealthy
and safe and fat
for not sleeping under the trees
in the mountains
without blankets,
like those my brother works among in Darfour.

I need to find the ways to feed my soul
when I cannot be an activist,
or an adventurer.
I need to find the way to be present here,
open-eyed and open-hearted here,
in this city that I,
for the time being,
call home.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Holidays and other journeys

It feels like years since I’ve attended to the piece of my life this blog represents. I am sorry for that. Things have been mad, if that’s any excuse. My thesis is due in TEN DAYS. Eek. At this very moment, I’m supposed to be reading a cheery article called Agents of Death, about genocide. But fie on that!

I went on holiday, you will remember. A lovely lovely thing, holidays. I went to Italy. This is the main reason I went to Italy:

That’s Victoria and little Sofia. We’re eating gelato by the duomo in Florence. It was deliciously roastingly hot in Italy. We wandered around sweating drinking coffee and eating gelatos, looking briefly at architectural wonders. Sofia is at the what’s-there-to-eat-and-can-I-finally-run-around-rather than-being-restrained-by-various-strait-jacketing-straps stage of life. I did see Michelangelo’s last Pieta, though, where he roughly chiselled himself as Nicodemus, holding Christ in his arms. I found it a little audacious, to be honest. I’d be more likely to cast myself as Judas or Zaccheus or the dazed disciples on the road to Emmaus.

I was meditating one night and fell asleep—which happens to everyone, I tell myself—and I ended up riding along next to Christ on a pair of white horses across a coastal plain in Cambodia towards the mountains, which was clearly the end of all things. We were merry companions, and there was even a dog running along behind us, and I distinctly remember teasing Jesus about it. TEASING JESUS! And he didn’t mind.

And then I had this absolutely terrible moment, heart sinking, when I realized that I hadn’t told anyone I was leaving on this journey, this journey from which I would not return. All I could think of were those harsh verses about not turning back from the plough and the dead burying the dead, and I just knew Jesus was going to be angry or worse, send me packing, but I just had to go back and see if my friends in Phnom Penh would come with us and so I mentioned it, throat tight with misery, and he acquiesced. Just like that. He said he’d wait for me and that I could go and try to bring the others with us. None of the people I went to would come, as the dream would have it, but that’s another story. What mattered most in the dream was just how perfect a companion Christ made. I honestly think I understand the heart of God better when I’m sleeping. That’s about enough of that.

This is me and Sofia getting into taking pictures of ourselves. She was wild about the flash in her eyes, crazy girl. The next morning I got on a plane bound for Bristol and she will have forgotten me utterly by now. Good for her. Reaching an age at which you become aware that you are forever saying farewell to people you love is nothing to look forwards to.

And in Bristol I met this little wonder, my wee namesake:
Baby Lisa!!! She is a much nicer baby than I was, I think. My mother says I used to just sit and stare intensely at everybody, taking their measure.
That's the sweet lamb getting into the pasta eating thing.

Now, ahem, here’s the bad birding news from my chapter of Bad Birders of Cambodia & Friends: in all my travels to Norway, Italy, and Bristol, I saw, wait for it,
4 (4) (four) new species of birds.
Yep, that’s it.

Lots of cheerful fallen-fruit eating fieldfares
A solitary great crested grebe on Lake Maggorio (Big Lake, I believe would be the translation)
A hovering diving common tern
Goldeneyes with hysterical diving ducklings. Apparently these young ducklings are born in trees, throw themselves out of their nests, and bounce along the forest floor.

Here’s the reason why, which I’ve decided to turn into spiritual currency. The much loved people I was with weren’t into birds. So there was much mention of reservoirs and wetlands and whatnot where the birds where, and we actually shot past a knot of vest-wearing binocular-slinging English folk watching peregrine falcons nest--but no interest on my companions' part to actually get out there.

I need a community to be a birder—other wacky dedicated people willing to go on long and possibly fruitless quests, in chance of kingfishers…

I went back to church on Sunday after at least a month’s absence and realized that I need a community to be a Christian too, at least an attentive one. I’d been away so long I felt like I was watching a church go about its business rather than actually a member of its community. Like I didn’t belong anymore.
But I do.

Monday, 16 July 2007


There was a brown-striped snail on the window frame beside my bed this morning. She had climbed--and what a slow laborious work of slithering that must have been! all the way up from the tangle of weeds and flowers outside my high Georgian window to the open louvre at the very top, and then over the rim and down the long stretch of wall to my bed. My new window is enormous and framed with green vines and wild garden, but it does not open. The square at the top that does open must be worked with a long iron rod with a special grip for twisting open the metal handles of the window. You can't just step from my room to the green world outside. So finding the snail seemed like a good omen, one journeyer greeting another. Not that I was kind--I opened the French doors in the kitchen and tossed her back into the rain, sat down and had my toast.

My belongings are now all stored in their new home; all that remains is for my heart to arrive. I do not own any sheets yet and am sleeping on a bare mattress under a duvet--but the mattress is good. I unpacked on Saturday, and spent three hours cleaning a wretchedly neglected kitchen. The two guys who live in the flat seemed bemused--they live on the surfaces of the flat, never throwing away any of the detrita of past tenants and lives. I even took apart and reassembled a peppermill. For no reason at all. I have a pepper mill. Looking back on it, it seems clear that the peppermill was a manageable artefact, unlike the rest of my unruly life.

I reassembled it Sunday morning sitting in the French doors. The weather was allowing a few hours of sunshine, hot on my legs, bare for the occasion, and I ate breakfast and permitted myself a few imagined moments of summer.

Then the clouds returned and the wind started to blow. And the peppermill still doesn't work very well.

I went out to a dinner party Saturday night and had my first walk home in the hours after midnight to my new flat. I now live on the corner of a large lovely park lined with trees, which I will never cross at night. So I walked along the roads, past gently swaying couples stumbling home, around construction sites, under the orange street lights, taxis flying past, testing the waters of the night. It felt pretty safe. I suppose you're wondering what I would have done if it wasn't. The usual panoply of responses, I suppose--bluff, run, rage, scream, fight, weep. Whatever is called for or possible at the time. But it seems that these will not be required, for which I am grateful.

And then there was Sunday. And now it is Monday, cold wet fog trolling the streets, the high hills and Arthur's Seat wiped from view, and I am sitting in my office, scowling at the draft of my thesis, longing for its completion.

The end is near--two days from now I will fly away to Italy, leaving the completed draft in the hands of my advisor, and then on to Bristol to meet my cousin's baby, little Lisa. All I need is to travel the pages of this manuscript one last slow laborious time, mending it as I go. Snailwork. My reward is a few days somewhere warm. With new birds. I will be back in August.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

saints and rain

I have returned from Oslo to Edinburgh.
I didn’t see much of Norway, but
it was as I had imagined—
a few million tall blonde people,
(some largely ignored immigrants)
flush with oil wealth in a land filled
with fjords and mountains and deep
green forests and tunnels, where the trolls
wait for the unwary traveler. A land whose
denizens consume vast lots of sour
cream and berries and sausages and waffles.

We went to a park, which is full of human
statues by Gustav Vigeland. He worked on them
for twenty years between the two world wars.
They became his life’s work, and as I gazed upon
the hundreds of human figures, some in trees,
some fighting mythical monsters, most just
living, I remember Kierkegaard, writing on

The saint, Kierkegaard wrote, wills the one thing.
The saint does not bemoan the weakness of the body,
the wickedness of the heart. The saint does not heed
a frail stomach or a fragile soul. The saint pursues the
gleaming fish of truth through the passages of her mind
and soul until she hooks it, reels it in, and guts it. The silvery
scales of captured truths lie in great mounds round her
olive-skinned feet; she wipes her blade clean upon her robe
and never chokes on the bones of her emotions.
I am no saint. I float on my back in an ocean of feeling,
my sodden robes billowing, pulled this way and that, raising
the level of the sea with my endless tears.

It was raining the second day I came to his cold people
frozen in bronze and granite
they did not heed the rain
but it dressed them anyway
in watery clothing.
The rain too, does one thing,
and does it well.

O to be rain, a saint,
to do one thing well,
to do it utterly

Saturday, 7 July 2007

A conservation NGO recently flew over a great swamp in southeast Sudan on an aerial survey, to ascertain if there were any animals left after the long years of war. To their delight, there were. Thousands upon thousands of white-eared kob and many other antelope. And elephants. There is great excitement, there is talk of a national park. But these animals do not live an uninhabited swamp. They are in Murle territory, and that is where the story of my life begins, or very nearly. Soon after the civil war unfurled, the Murle struck a deal with the government of Sudan—arms for their allegiance. Once armed, they maintained their “borders” from their traditional enemies. Their land, in the middle of the southern forces, was officially aligned with the north. So there was little fighting in Murleland, all through the long years of the war. And its swamp became a haven. It could be possible to have a park and a Murle homeland smack dab on top of each other. I tell this story more for its sheer incongruence—that old enmities and modern weapons somehow were of benefit to the most innocent creatures among us. And I tell it with a wish—that both the Murle and the animals and all their enemies may finally have lasting peace.

Below is an excerpt from my long-unfinished novel, but the story of the moon and the sun does indeed belong to the Murle.

The stories of our beginnings matter. The myths of origin shape the world. But stories are notoriously untidy. The anthropologists have had to take matters into their own hands. They have netted the nebulous creatures. They have trussed their waving limbs, peered at them from various angles, and taken samples. They have classified them into types and set them free. We are an advanced race. We have parables and folk tales, legends and myths, epics and oral histories. Some are theoretically more factual than others. These categorizations mean nothing to the Murle people, who do not apply any standardization of belief to their tales. They do not differentiate between a folk tale, a history, or a myth. One such classification of story is the aetiological tale. These are the tales that explain how things have become what they currently are. The reason, for example, that the woodland kingfisher throws back its beak whenever it swallows. The reason the gazelle’s tail never stops wagging. The reason the leopard has spots, the ostrich a long neck, the elephant a trunk, the crow a white bib. I am telling you the reason things are as they are. I am telling you the story that comes before Eve is left alone in the floodplain. I am telling you what happens to girls without mothers.

This is the Murle tale of why the moon and the sun never meet. A long time ago the moon and the sun were both wives of the same man. They lived together in one homestead. The man was not around much. Not that it matters. Not that it would have made any difference. This is an aetiological tale. Its ending is set in stone. The moon and the sun lived together in one homestead. They didn’t get on very well. One day the sun went to collect dung from the cattle bier. The Murle people use this dung to make fires in the center of the homestead. Dung fires create lots of smoke, and this smokes helps keep the mosquitoes away from the people and their cattle. The sun went to the bier to collect dung with a cow’s rib. The moon was sitting outside her hut, stirring clotted blood with a stirring stick. The blood would have been cow’s blood. It is collected, carefully, from the jugular vein in a living cow’s neck, not more than once every six weeks. The people eat it. It gives them strength. The moon was stirring this blood in a hollow gourd with a stirring stick. The sun was collecting dung in the cattle bier. They were close enough to converse, and they began to argue. On and on they continued arguing, exchanging heated words, until it became a bitter quarrel and they ran outside of their compound and faced off. The sun took the cow’s rib and began to beat the moon. The moon staggered but hauled off and hit the sun across the head with her stirring stick in retaliation. The people ran to them and separated them. This is why the moon, struck with a rib, is white and the sun, struck with a blood-stirring stick, is red. This is why they travel on different paths and never meet. This is why the moon has great craters scattered across its body, marks from the blows of the sun.

When I first heard this tale I wept, for even the moon bears scars.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Devoured by Children

Yesterday was a children's day at my church, which means that instead of having a homily, we acted out Daniel and the Lion's Den, and all the wee children were ferocious lions. I was one of King Darius' advisors and was thus devoured by children.

Malaika returned to church for this thrilling event, having made a lion-face mask the previous week. I fear that she thinks church is much more fun than it normally is. They gave every child a book and had a bouncy castle out on the lawn afterwards and a barbecue under a marquee--it was raining, as it has been for days. The British Isles are considerately blocking the rest of Europe from storms off the Atlantic by absorbing every last drop of rain and howling cold wind for her longsuffering citizens. At any rate, we all stood around shivering and eating sausages and envying the small people throwing themselves around in wet abandon in the bouncy castle.

When I got to her house in the morning, M was leaning on her windowsill, waiting for me. Apparently she'd been up since six. Waiting for me. It almost feels wrong, how easy it is to steal the heart of a child. She wouldn't say goodbye when I left because she's cross that I'm leaving for Norway.

I won't be posting anything much there. I'll post some pictures when I get back. Even bad bird shots, perhaps, as I'm going to a Whole New Bird Zone. Yee-ha.

But I'll leave you with some astonishingly beautiful photos. These photos were taken by a guy whose name is, I think, Craig Parker. The titles are his. He has many more unusual images on if you're out there, browsing...
The Bridge

The Gathering

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Cambodia Redux

I'm missing this country today, as another grey dusk falls in Edinburgh...Missing the fish that were caught in nets like this by the rice fields, deep fried, and eaten bones and all.
Missing the color of rice. No doubt the back-breaking labor of transplanting rice shoots in mud all day would change my nostalgia--but, in my defense, the city people love the rice too.

Anyway, I close with my favorite language primer text in the world. It's from SIL materials of the 1960s in highland Vietnam, and is of a language closely related to the Bunong tongue spoken in Mondulkiri:

Central Mnong Language Lessons, Richard L. Phillips, Y Kem Kpor

Lesson Fifty-Nine (59)
Are there rats in America?
Yes, but we don't eat them.
We Mnong like to eat rat meat.
Do the Mnong eat the rat's tail?
Yes, we usually eat the tail and also the feet.

Lesson Fifty-Eight (58)

Yesterday afternoon a rat sprang my trap and was caught.
A cat didn't catch it, the trap got it.
The trap trapped the rat, I got him and he was already dead.
I took it from there and threw it away.
This morning Nek took it, roasted and ate it.

Lesson Sixty (60)
How do you roast rat?
First you singe off all the hair.
After that get water and wash it till it's clean.

After washing it, cook till it's done. When it's done we'll eat it.
Can rats bite?
If they bite our hands, we'll have a sore.

Much better than Dick and Jane and the little dog Spot, hmm? Maybe when I get to Mondulkiri in 2008 I can finally try some rat for myself... I'm thinking No to the tail and the feet, though. Rat's feet? Can there be any meat on a rat's foot?

Friday, 22 June 2007

Norway and Nauticalia

The weather outside is frightful, but I don't care, because on Tuesday I’m headed to sunny Norway. I’ll be writing up my thesis alongside my colleague Kate, who lives in Oslo, with some bird-watching and fjord-swimming breaks.

I can’t wait. On the down side, this means writing up a long way from the library, so the week has been swallowed up in reading and writing notes on everything my argument might lumber over...

I needed a little break from the academics, so I am writing up some advertisements from Nautacalia for your perusal. N. is this male-oriented J. Peterman-style catalogue, James Bond adventurer type meets bourgeousie (can Anyone spell that word Ever?)values extravaganza. It gets sent to my friend Laura for reasons unknown. I have to admit that I find this catalogue Hilarious. Maybe just because it offends me in so many different ways.

So here’s some random copy from Nautacalia, without alteration on my part:
We owe the hammock to Christopher Columbus, who discovered Caribbean Indians sleeping in cotton nets slung between trees.

Lifelike Models of Intrepid Ships’ Cats
Cats have been welcome aboard ships as rodent catchers for thousands of years...Our models...are surprisingly lifelike and most uninitiated people will go up to, and start stroking them without realising they are models! ...The sculptures are formed from cardboard and the coats are hand-coloured rabbit pelts, a left-over product of sustenance food farming in northern China, where the ingenious artists work.

Mrs. Chippy (actually a tomcat!), recruited by Sir Ernest Shackleton to control rodents on his ship Endurance, sunk by pack ice during his illfated 1914-16 Antarctic Expedition. Along with everything else that was not absolutely necessary, Mrs Chippy had to be sacrificed despite her popularity with the crew, as there was no spare food.
Yes, this is Mrs. Chippy. I stole him off their internet catalogue,

Kalashnikov Watches: Rugged and Reliable—Just like the Gun
Mikhail Kalashnikov was drafted into the Red Army at the start of the Great Patriotic War. Hospitalised, and outraged that the enemy had automatic weapons whilst his compatriots could only fire single shots, he set to inventing a new gun to help defend the motherland. His AK47 was brilliantly simple and brutally effective—with only eight moving parts it was easy to build, easy to service and highly tolerant of abuse. Today, Lieutenant General K. puts his name and efforts into the development of more peaceful machines, but built to the same principles.

The Globe That’s a Bar!
Gentlemen often liked to discus the shape of the world and perhaps their next ‘voyage of discovery’ over a glass or two of something special. ‘Bar Globes’ were thus a natural progression and became an essential piece of furniture for the well-equipped 17th century home...

And you can even buy shipwrecked items, should they tickle your pocketbook. What's amazing is that the stuff in the photos looks Exactly like the Vietnamese pottery available in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, the celadon bowls and the blue and white dishes... Hmm.

Rare Chinese Porcelain from the Desaru shipwreck c1830
The Desaru shipwreck was discovered by Sten Sjostrand in May 2001, lying off the Malaysian coast at a depth of 60 feet. Buried in thick silt, its porcelain cargo had been protected for over 170 years...She is thought to have been sailing for the port of Malacca, and there is some evidence of fire, which may indicate the involvement of pirates—who were prevalent at the time—in her sinking...All of these items have been hand picked by us at the wreck retrieval sites, and will be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity...

Right, that's about enough of That. Poor Mrs. Chippy, eh?

Wednesday, 20 June 2007


A lot of contemporary anthropologists are populists, as in pro-marginalized people groups, and a lot of us have taken to writing about resistance and hegemony (oppressive dominating forms of power). A while ago I read an interesting essay by an anthropologist named Sherri Ortner, which was about ethnographic refusal to recognize and acknowledge that which doesn't fit with our platform. She accused a lot of the resistance writers as ignoring the members of a population or group who don't resist, who collaborate with the dominators for power or profit etc. She accused us of being starry-eyed romantics, basically--of overstating our case by refusing to write about the bits that don't fit.

I've been thinking of her last night and today because I have been on a brief and sweeping review of Cambodian history, particularly the Khmer Rouge era, when about 2 million Cambodians died--and hundreds of thousands more had died in the war in the years preceding the KR victory. I saw something I didn't like in one historian's account, so I sort of ignored it in my mind, and then I saw it in two more articles today, and realized that I'd been engaging in exactly the kind of refusal she was talking about.

Here's the gist of it--a number of sources argue that 'forest people,' highlanders, made up some of the early Khmer Rouge forces. Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, two of the Maoist intellectuals who were the architects of the Khmer Rouge, lived in the northeast from 1967 to 1970, with some of the highland peoples. And they liked them a lot and actually employed hilltribe guys as their bodyguards until late 1977, when the northeast minority groups were also purged for not being 'pure Khmer.'

It was something I really didn't want to hear--it made me realize that I have this framework in my head that argues lowlanders oppress highlanders and always have done and that realizing that some highlanders were actually complicit in Pol Pot's agenda complicates this picture.

It's funny how hard it is to stay objective. The other thing that mightily upset me in my reading was finding out that Phnom Pros, the hill temple just outside of Kompong Cham, the pretty town where I spent my first year in Cambodia, was a major execution centre--they estimate 10,000 Cambodians were slain there and buried in mass graves all around the base of the hill.

How could my Khmer companions bear to go there? None of them mentioned this to me. We took the girls from the shelter there at Khmer New Year and everyone danced in circles with the crowds of local folk and threw white powder and water at each other. I suppose it's a testimony to how life goes on, regardless of the horror of the past, but it also makes me sad. I don't think I could have danced if I had known I was dancing over unhallowed bones. So much of Cambodia lies just below the surface like that, badly buried, rising from time to time like ghosts and unsettling us all.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Dream of Serpents and My Father

Yesterday was North American Father's Day, and although he Does Not Blog, I told my father I'd write something about him. But I'm a little busy, so I'm using yet another old dream of mine. This is my favourite dream about my father... And some lovely random coral snakes from google images...

Dream of Serpents
I am back in the first house I ever knew, our house in Sudan. The concrete block walls perspire and steam from the heat of the sun. I am standing with a great crowd of strangers and my father. When I look up, I see that the ceiling is all strung with snakes, writhing garlands of serpents. They wear the vivid colors that herald venom: scarlet, emerald, and onyx; they are banded and solid, bright-eyed and flicker-tongued. I am frozen with fear. One of the snakes detaches itself from the others and darts across the ceiling to the door, flashing over our heads like lightning. It is followed by another, then another. Somehow I find my voice. The snakes! I cry to my father in great fear. He looks up and begins to recite their names: identifying each poisonous species as it passes over us, like Adam. He knows what I only fear. He does not even acknowledge my fear in all his intense and joyful naming of serpents. And then he and all those unknown people are gone. The house is on the edge of the Sahel—there are small villages scattered between the dunes. It is cool and quiet. The snakes are gone. Instead, two friends are present. We are, each of us, seated with our backs to a different wall. The room is vast and cavernous; we are very far apart. One friend hums, the other is organizing her life in the pages of a book. I am sick with longing to be able to remain here, on the margins of the world, in a cinderblock clinic where the women bring their babies for the precious vaccines. Yet I know that it is a dream and that soon all of us will wake; I know that we have so little time.
I love this dream with my father like Adam. He is a namer, a collector of knowledge, and I am like him in that respect. And I do wonder about this dream--would knowledge of the serpents remove the venom of its fangs? Was my father safe because he knew each snake by name or had he just replaced fear with joy? If I knew all the world, if I understood it, would it lose its power to wound and stun and destroy?

Sunday, 17 June 2007

A Weary Christ

I don't think I've mentioned Jesus once yet in this online journal. It wasn't on purpose. I love Jesus. I've noticed that when I write I often write Christ rather than Jesus--maybe because I secretly feel it's more Sophisticated, maybe because I like the distance between me and my child self and saying Jesus diminishes that space, pulls me right back to illustrated Bibles and enforced devotions and songs we sang too often. But my child self needs some redemption. And I think avoiding the name of Jesus is a habit that I might need to break.

Anyway. I'm really tired right now, and I wanted to post something about Jesus, and I thought of this old reflection of mine:

On the 14th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew
Christ is weary. He has asked the disciples to go off in a boat, he dismisses the crowds, and he climbs a mountain to pray alone. Down he comes, now, so tired that he hardly distinguishes between the molecules of earth and water—all elements turn and quicken beneath his feet—so weary perhaps that he does not even consider his action as he steps out upon the water as if it is dry land. He threads his way through the swells, rising slightly, descending, foam streaming between his toes, fish turning, turning, beneath him. Slowly he traverses the waters to that small boat full of humans he loves. There they are, finally, their craft plunging wildly to and fro, swollen with water, their eyes ringed with exhaustion. Their faces whiten with panic as if a sea dragon pursues him, as if the Tempter has returned to gyre whirlpools into motion and draw sea spouts up to the sky. But no, nothing hunts him, it is him they fear, as they have from the beginning. Have you noticed that Divinity is always telling humanity not to be afraid? Why did you doubt? Jesus asks those men in that small swaying boat. Why do we doubt? Doubt love, doubt goodness, doubt that light will overcome darkness? What can we say to our weary God on the water with waves rolling over his ankles? That we do not trust ourselves? That our children are so very fragile? That a great wind is blowing and we are but grass and ashes and dust? Have mercy on us, God. Make us better than we are--braver, gentler, more loving. Overcome our unbelief; destroy the darkness in us. May we be willing to lay down our lives for one another. May we be able to believe in love no matter what befalls our weary world. May we also leave the solid ground for the shifting swells, and may we not drown. And may we not drown.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Beasties of Scotland

There aren't enough photos on this blog, I fear.
Mainly because I take bad bird photos. It kind of goes with the Bad Birder of Cambodia territory.

But as I am on my home computer, trying to screw up my courage to revisit my thesis outline, I realized that I could and perhaps should put up a few other photos on the beautiful and bizarre beasties of Scotland.

Sheep on the Isle of Arran. Very pastoral day-in-the-life shot. I love the wild olive look of the wind-shaped tree behind them.

We have sexy cows in the Highlands of Scotland. Having now lived here for 9 months, I find myself envying the woolly windblown hide.Seal, chilling. And stretching a bit--foolishly, it turned out, taking his eye off jealous rival rock-stealing seal sneaking up on the right side of the rock...
O, to be a seal.
I'm not joking. This seal is in nirvana, and all it took was rock, a fish, and some sunlight.

Now I'm going to do some work. Honest.

Girls in Church

I was drinking wine with Malika’s mother one night this week,
and revealed that my parents were Missionaries in my youth,
and she half choked, and I said, come on, didn’t you know my family
is Christian? And she said, I know you go to church, and told me that Malika’s
nanny used to take her to church and then, improbably, asked if I
would take Malika to church, and I said, if she likes, and she said
she believes
but she wants Malika to have an open mind,
and I said she’d be the only little black girl in an ocean of
white folk,
and her mother said, well, this is Scotland, and besides,
haven’t you been the only white girl sometimes,
did that hurt you? And I said no,
and her mother said to Malika, curled up on my lap,
some people believe in God and some people don’t
and I don’t but Lisa is going to take you to church like
your nanny used to and some people say God is a He
and some a She, and Malika said
God is a He.
And her mother and I both looked askance and asked how she knew
and she said
God told me.

So tomorrow I’m taking Malika to church, which I am a little uneasy about.
What if the other children treat her like an exotic flower?
Shades of my youth, visiting America, Sunday School rooms full of strange
children with stupid questions about Africa, until I got tired of explaining and
would say yes, I had my own camel, and yes, we all knew Tarzan, and no, we often didn’t have enough food.
There’s nothing like lying in Sunday School to confuse your sense of spirituality.

I have other concerns.
How am I going to explain theology to a 6 year old if she asks?
I’m far too ecumenical for this.
What if she converts?
I know, I know, I sound like the Worst Christian Ever.

My brother Jeff has suggested that I blame my evangelical childhood for
but he’s wrong.
I’m not saying that I didn’t have my angry phase in college,
largely based on a sense of injustice of the Why Did No One Ever Tell Me Any of This? variety, but that’s largely sorted.

I recall, several Christmases ago,
various Adkins, my brother Mike and I, on the old airstrip in Kijabe, drinking wine,
(does everything wonderful happen over wine?)
establishing, once and for all,
that our somewhat restricted childhood on a mission station hadn’t done us any harm,
had in fact served us well,
but just didn’t fit anymore.

The thing is, it never fit for me, not in terms of spirituality—
spiritual personality, if you will, spiritual style, the way one best communes with God.
The public-ness of the evangelical tradition was a bad fit—
I still remember the keen dread of the last night of Spiritual Emphasis Week,
when the microphone was open for all our peers
to go to the front of the auditorium,
climb the stairs,
confess their sins and recommit their lives to Christ.
No one got saved, we were all saved already,
and those of us who weren’t were sitting in the back
living their own lives.
It wasn’t just the torment of the emotional pressure on my young soul
to enact out such public ritual,
though I never budged from my seat;
it was the horror of watching others do it, of having to listen to them
unburden their souls.
It always felt
too personal,
like having intimate matters forced upon you.
Plus, as far as I was concerned, they were always the most pious of students anyway,
confessing petty sins,
like walking past a piece of rubbish,
which apparently Christ would have never done.
Those were the early days of the What Would Jesus Do? bracelets,
a question I found
I mean really, how would you know?
It struck me then, and strikes me still,
that if Jesus had been on his way down to the bier of the son
of the widow from Nain,
that he would have walked past all kinds of rubbish
straight to her side.
But I diverge.
Is public-ness a bad thing?
Am I suggesting that religion should be private? Secret?
No, I am not. I think what did me no favours as a child was that all this public talk
assumed or prescribed that we all felt and operated the same way inside ourselves, because we believed the same things.
And that is my main issue with the Christianity of my boarding school.
And it stems from years of listening to talk about how I should be feeling,
trying to have those right feelings, or manufacture those right feelings, and experiencing the unease of not having them—
asking myself, over and over, does Jesus not talk to me or make me have a glow of inner joy or put a song in my heart
because I am doing something wrong?
And not wanting to be found out, the good Christian who was dead inside.
Only I wasn’t dead inside. Ever. God was always there, and I was always there, loving each other. I just hadn’t yet found what made the shoots of my spirit unfurl and grow.

So I swung pretty far the other way on the pendulum of Christianity
when the choice arose, to the Anglican Communion with its love of liturgy,
to various communities committed to social justice and acts of mercy,
to worlds where no one prescribes how you worship and how you feel.

It was such a relief, that permission to fall silent.
And some days I think that this is why people take vows of silence and mystics like Julian of Norwich commit themselves to live in one room for the rest of their lives and only talk to people through a wee window--
so they can concentrate on listening to the voice of God,
however that voice comes to them.

So evangelidzo, to testify, about my faith,
is not something which comes easily to me.
It never has, and it probably never will.
But I am taking Malika to church,
and we will see what else God has to say to her.

Friday, 15 June 2007


I have spent an entire week working on one abstract.
One bloody outline.
Of an argument that I just can't seem to lay out as a sweet logical little skeleton. Instead, the bones of the argument poke up every which way and every model collapses when I step back to take a look. And when I get so far inside my head I can hardly even bring myself to talk to other people for fear of shrieking at them. And I have somehow lost my confidence and become this O what if he doesn't like it person in relation to my supervisor, who is trying to help me find my way.

It's hard to imagine that doing practically nothing is so Hard. And I'm not dealing particularly well with the stress.

But I guess that’s why I’m here, after all. To learn how to do this kind of thinking, this kind of research—the effort to understand one another, from society to society, person to person, heart to heart. At the moment I want to say that it doesn't matter if we don't understand each other as long as we look after each other, and go running back to my development activist world—but how can we love each other if we do not understand one another? As I recall, we did some good and also some damage storming around where angels fear to tread. Maybe the damage would be lessened if we understood things a little better. Perhaps I am a bit of an intellectual after all. I am tearing my hair out trying to figure out how to write about why Khmer development workers are so ambivalent about change. And I am doing this because I want to understand.

And that reminded me of this quote by Baruch Spinoza that I used to bring myself back to in Cambodia, time and again, when living in another culture got hard:

Do not weep.
Do not wax indignant.

I never followed it very well. I did a lot of weeping and a lot of waxing indignant. I still do. But I also have found myself on a journey that I think will never end--the journey to understand and then to translate that into writing--which is one kind of testimonio, bearing witness.

I need to see this world of academic writing as another kind of translation, another kind of testimonio, another search for understanding. Then it will perhaps become not only endurable, but a quest. And I like quests. Quests are exciting. Ride on, Quixote, to the endless line of windmills and the search for a life worth living! That sort of thing.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Mystics and the soul like a heavy bird

I keep forgetting to post this thing I wrote--I had promised to return to the little-known medieval mystic Mecthilde of Magdeburg and her bird-work.

Is she truly little-known? Well, we’re not talking about a woman of Hildegarde of Bingen’s status. I stand in straight-up awe of Hildegarde, Germanic warrior priestess, with her ciphers and her herbal remedies and her choral compositions (her Canticles of Ecstasy are still performed), dressing her nuns in white and marrying them to Christ in mystical bridal ceremonies, breathing down fire on corrupt bishops… Yet her visions and her writings are too bracing for me, I admit it. I prefer the soft mystics—Julian of Norwich in her hermit’s cell, seeing that all will be well… John of the Cross with his love poetry for God… And my dear St. Ephraim, who instead of sitting on a pillar like his Syrian counterparts, wrote theological hymns for a women’s choir… In case you’re wondering, on one of those many life paths we end up not taking, I would have studied Christian mystics. Instead, they are just old and strange friends, and I take license with their works.

Like Mecthilde. I’m forgotten all of her showings except the one that caught my imagination. She saw the undisciplined soul like a great heavy bird—like a kakapo, maybe, New Zealand’s flightless parrot, or the hapless dodo.
The soul wishes to reach the sun, that is, mystical union with the divine, but it is near pinioned by gravity. Its first efforts are feeble and slow. It is too heavy to fly, too weak to flap for long. An earth-bound bird of a soul. But if it struggles on, persevering, it gradually becomes stronger and lighter, until the day it is able to fly. And on and on, stronger and lighter, lighter and stronger, able to fly higher and higher until the day it finally reaches the sun and becomes one with God.

I think this is a brilliant image for the practice of spirituality. For the spiritual disciplines, to be catholic about it. I find any kind of spiritual effort terribly hard at first, be it contemplative prayer or lectio divina or fasting or silence or plain old-fashioned mercy. The soul, or the heart or the mind, does not find it easy to fly. And I don’t know that such flight is a linear path, like Mecthilde did, but I do know that such disciplines grow easier with time and feel nearly impossible after long neglect.

I guess I should be clear about this—this image isn’t about salvation, about flapping one’s way to God’s side on one’s own wings. This is about seeking communion, a life closer to God, a life in which there are no guarantees.
And to me that seeking means putting oneself in the way of the Spirit, in case that unpredictable wind happens to blow.
And it’s the seeking that I think is so hard at first for the soul, the lazy flightless soul that prefers to stay close to all the lovely worms and beetles in the rich earth.
And it’s the seeking that I think becomes easier the longer the soul tries to fly in such a way.
I think that God can blow any flightless bird off its feet.
But I’d rather be in the sky, learning to fly, looking for the faintest wind, not wanting to miss a moment.