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.

Corner Store

I went to the corner store
all wild:
My hair unwashed,
shoulders draped in a Cambodian shawl,
wearing a sarong over sheepskin boots.
I went to the corner store
all wild
to buy a Diet Coke.
The store was full of unexpected men.
The recycling team, in their yellow reflective jackets,
had stopped their truck for a break.
They took one look at me
and nodded me to the front of the line.
Perhaps they thought I was ill,
or mad,
or a genius distracted.
I came back from the corner store
all wild
and looked in the mirror,
and laughed.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Resistance is Useless

I'm actually at the library. Next to me are three tomes:
  • Anthropology Today, circa 1953
  • Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge--I can't begin to tell you what that means and may not be able to explain even After reading the wretched thing
  • Power and Knowledge

Thus go my 'breaks' from the office these days. But I'm listening to Gillian Welch and eating organic white chocolate. And writing a quick post. So life could be worse.

This post is about a new person in my life, six year-old Malika Bah. Malika means angel in Kiswahili. Malika is angelic occasionally, when she is sleepy. Most of the time she is fierce and energetic and playful, a little girl from Sierra Leone growing like a weed--she's always showing ankle beneath the edge of her trousers. Her mother is doing a PhD and raising two kids on her own here in Edinburgh. So sometimes Malika and I go on outings. I'm attempting to inculcate an interest in birds in her unsuspecting soul (see that bird? what kind of bird is that? Umm... It's a mute swan, remember? Keep your hands out so she can see that you don't have any bread and doesn't come over here...) so that she can become the 4th member of the Bad Birdwatchers of Cambodia when she is older--you've got to start 'em young.

On Saturday she and I and a new friend and her 2 year old daughter and 7 seven year old neice went to the Children's Museum together. There we established once and for all that the Children's Museum is not particularly interesting if one is 6 or 7 or 2. In hindsight, Malika was cross with me for making her share our time with some strangers. She and the 7 year old, another colt-like girl, took their sweet time warming up to each other. In the meantime, Malika engaged on a variety of boundary-pushing behaviors--demanding to leave, taking off suddenly without warning for another level of the museum on her own--in the historic capital of body-snatching, mind you! (There's nothing like being out with someone else's little girl in a big city to push me into a state of constant vigilance and nervous paranoia. Where's a beast-infested wilderness when you need one?) Why is this fun, she inquired to me, as we stared woefully at the vast array of old and mouldering dolls behind glass. Why indeed?

We gave it up and finally hit the streets. This is when I realized that children play in the same way in the city that I played in the bush as a child. They crawl under sandwich boards, sit on the dirty streets and slide around on shop windows, blithely ignoring the passersby. Malika and the other girl suddenly decided that they liked each other and took to walking backwards down the winding streets. By the time we reached the park, they were friends for life. It was a park with steep near-vertical sides, and I sat down with the Adults while the Children climbed up and sprinted down the sides. At some point all the shoes came off.

And then, forgetting what is was like to be 7, I told her without warning that we had to go immediately, as I had to get her home and then head off to another appointment. I essentially wrecked her world without warning. She was completely undone. I asked her to put her shoes on. The angel flat out refused. Fine, I said, and picked up her shoes in one hand, took her hand firmly in the other, and said our goodbyes. I then set off straight up the side of the hill, past the grass into a world of sticks and dirt. I don't want to go this way! the angel protested. Then put on your shoes, I suggested brightly. The angel fell silently defiant. She climbed through the sticks and the dirt while her evil guardian kept a guilty eye out for broken beer bottles. We reached the street. The angel remained defiant. We crossed the cobbled main road, stormed down the rough pavement all the long way to bus stop, the angel limping along from the rocks but keeping up. Finally at the bus stop, I resorted to the most awful adult threat of all--the threat of separation. If you don't obey me, I can't take you out, I said, hating myself. She went very silent and submitted to having the shoes put on.

The bus came. It wasn't the right bus, she said tearfully. It would do, I said, and dragged her on it. While I was paying, she escaped and went and pitifully tried to hide in the back of the bus by curling up between two seats. I sat down next to her. She wouldn't speak to me. I didn't speak to her. We sat in perfect silence for about 15 minutes.

Then she spoke. I'm very tired, she said. I'll bet, I said. She lay down with her head in my lap and sucked her thumb all the way home.

I let her linger over a lovely tomcat on the way to her door as a kind of penance on my part.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Religious People

I went and saw Deepa Mehta’s Water last week, the last film in her elements trilogy. These films have made Mehta many enemies and many admirers. I fall firmly in the admirers camp. If I can someday do with words what she does with film, I will die happy. Water is a beautiful and shocking and heart-wrenching film set in India in 1938, not one for the faint of heart. But one of the things that struck me most about it was that everybody in it was a believer, a member of a religion. All Hindus. Except Gandhi, who gets portrayed as if he’d given up the pursuit of God for the pursuit of truth, which I take some issue with... But that aside, everybody is Hindu. And some of them are innocent, and some have blood on their hands. Some are cruel and hypocritical and others devout and earnest. Some are merciful and some are calculating. Some serve their faith and others use it for their own gratification. One of the most spiritual characters in the film is a young widow who used as a whore by high-ranking Brahmins—despite everything, she manages to keep hold of her faith, until love and despair undoes her.

Mehta is braver than I in her decision to have this enormous panoply of religious characters, some good, some bad. I noticed some time ago that everyone—well, almost everyone, in my Sudan novel believed in God. But some of them are awful people. And this gave me a long and unresolved pause, which I think stems from a heretofore unexplored concern that, as a Christian, I should not have Bad Christian Characters. That if I am to have Christians in my writing, I should only write about ‘good’ Christians--devout Christians, or at least ones with reasonably sound theology. But this seems to me now to be foolish. Mehta had the courage to hint that Hindus, devout or otherwise, are still just people. And so are Christians—just people, a motley crowd of people—some of us well-meaning, some of us loving and merciful people, and some of us downright wicked. And it would be nice if God turned up and knocked all of us wicked and hypocritical Christians off our horses like He did for Paul and demanded, What are you doing to my people? But God doesn't always do this. God seems to largely let us get on with it, for better or for worse.

And that, I suppose, is what I like to write about--how we get on with it, for better or for worse.

Friday, 8 June 2007

What if?

My wolf poem appears quite Jungian, look at this quote of his:

But what if I should discover that the very enemy himself is within me,
that I am the enemy who must be loved--
what then?

Houses and houses and houses

I have to move by the middle of July. This is my own fault. I have a flat and a kind flatmate, but I promised another friend that we would find a place together. This is proving difficult, but I have already given my notice. So I must move. I hate moving house. I hate it more than anything else that I can think of, and yet I do it, over and over.

One dark day in Cambodia a couple of years ago, the day when I came closer to despair than I have ever come, I found myself crying, I want to go home over and over again. Drying my tears, I pondered this rather absurd statement. What was it that I wanted? Where was my home? Was I just reverting back to the early misery of boarding school? Did I mean that cold stone mansion in Limuru with its kingly garden and endless fields of brilliant green tea, our first home in Kenya, the one I left for the dormitory with its linoleum floor and antiseptic bathrooms? Was Sudan home? If it ever was, it certainly isn't now.

The fact of the matter is that I don't think I have ever had a home. I've just had houses. Places I've lived with people I've loved. Houses and houses and houses. I'll revisit this, but for today I wanted to post a piece I wrote about two houses in Cambodia--well, ostensibly it's about houses. It's truly about looking for home.

...I lived for a time in a tiny walled villa with a fairytale garden: pots of floating lotus flowers lined the courtyard, a pomello tree hung her heavy thick-skinned green fruit over the verandah, bamboo rustled along the walls. I lived for a time with an Englishwoman in that precious villa, but I could not stay there. I could not breathe in the miniature rooms of the house; I could not bear our gated and guarded street where I knew none of our neighbors except for our shrewd landlady and her fragile spinster sister who worked as our maid. Sokhay came with the house. She worked for both houses; we paid her a salary, her sister’s contribution was room and board and a life of indentured service. Sokhay’s voice was always apologetic. She stroked our arms like someone petting a cat, desperate to please, and cringed each time she erred as if we might cuff her on the side of the head. One day she announced her engagement to a naturalized French Khmer machinist looking for a wife. She had never met this man, who remained in France, sending a family member to arrange the match instead. She was forty years of age and I had assumed that her relatives had resigned themselves to her unmarried state. I asked why she had agreed to the proposal and she told me that she would rather take the chance of life at this stranger's side than continue to live in her sister's home. She spoke French, after all.

Her niece had been married three months earlier in a stunningly expensive wedding in a great hall. Thousands of dollars had been spent and the bride had appeared in two guises: first as a princess of Angkor, draped with gilt and gold, and secondly as a Western bride in a floor-length white satin gown, a filmy veil, small white flowers woven in her long dark hair. But for the girl’s aunt no such effort was made. She was a traveling bride, leaving the nation and continent of her birth for a marriage and life to a stranger in a far off land. Her dowry consisted of two suitcases and a great package of dried fish made by her sister. I sat under their porch and watched the landlady scale, debone and slice a basket of fish that were transformed into fans of peach-colored flesh still joined at the tail, to be marinated and dried. My flatmate was indignant about the whole affair; I more resigned. Did she want to go? I inquired. Oh yes, she said. Maybe it will be better. She did not speak a word of French, and I squeezed her arm in concern and we gave her an envelope full of money and then she was gone.

I left soon after Sokhay did. I wanted to live alone near my office in the city. I moved to a cement and tile apartment, a single long suffocating rectangle on the second floor. My new landlords were dentists. A placard of an enormous set of hand-painted gums hung outside our gate to advertise their services; a small crowd usually waited on stone benches inside our compound. Their office stood across the cement compound from the apartments; the surgery had an uncurtained window facing the stairs. My landlady did most of the surgery. When I crossed the courtyard she was often bent over a patient seated in a black reclining chair. She would stop probing in the patient’s wide open mouth and wave a bloody gloved hand. I would wave back.

My apartment had a set of inner stairs to the roof of the building. I thought I would have this roof to myself, but the landlord’s Chinese parents had a longstanding claim. They had a key to the padlock on the back door. Each evening they slowly ascended the outside stairs to my home, passed through my spare kitchen, and climbed the inner steps to the roof. On the roof they had strung mosquito nets and hammocks, rigged up a fluorescent light with a long extension cord, and arranged a series of cots and wooden krays. Each morning they descended, their flip-flops slapping against the tiled floor, swept the stairs with a straw broom and left the door unlocked. I begged and pleaded to no avail. They were not accustomed to locking doors. They trusted in the barred gate and three German Shepherds who tore about the compound barking every night and slammed their huge furry bodies against the constraining bars of their cage in a frenzy whenever I passed by.

The apartment had white walls and a high ceiling, but all its windows faced west. The house was a furnace. I gave up entirely on sleeping in its stifling confines and moved up to the roof with the Chinese grandparents and whichever members of the extended family were visiting. I slept in my sarong beneath a single cotton sheet and a synthetic plaid blanket on a spare kray. They listened to their radio and rocked the grandchildren in hammocks; I read novels; we all relished the wind blowing across the roofs of the city. I lay awake longer than my Cambodian companions did at night and rose an hour later at six o’clock in the morning. After half a year I awoke one morning and found myself again. Who were these strangers lying under the thin veil of a mosquito net not two feet away from my own supine body? Why was I living in a furnace with a perpetual stream of unknown relatives tromping through my house, some of whom persisted in using my tiny bathroom? Why was I living in a compound with three dogs I despised, whose barking interrupted all my dreaming? I had never hung a single painting on the wall nor bothered to change the ugly curtains. I had lived there in a dream and when I awoke I swung open the doors and left.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Three Dreams

Three brides stand on a beach facing a wild sea. On the sea’s horizon is an island, where our weddings await. We run into the waves and begin to swim. But the sea is rough and our gowns Gothic, with long trains and long veils, and they wrap round our legs and pinion us, and though we swim and swim, we make no headway against the fierce swell. So we unfasten them and kick free and swim with sure strokes to the island. We arrive, and come out of the sea triumphant, but the waiting crowd is grim. By discarding our gowns, we have failed the test. There will be no weddings after all.

I have been given a baby to care for, and she is wrapped in a sling across my back, but I have a long journey to make. I am in a world where there are only islands and reefs, with sea between, and as I make my way between them, I wade at first. I wade along reefs where the water is up to my knees, then my waist, and then I reach channels that must be crossed by swimming. And I start to swim, then to dive, swimming underwater like a fish, and it is a consuming thing, like being a mermaid. I swim and tumble and dive, deeper and deeper, going from island to island. And I quite forget about the baby strapped upon my back. I remember, late in the day, and with great horror, I unwrap the sling. But it is too late. The baby has gills, the baby has turned into a green frog, a creature of water. I have failed her.

I am perched upon a cliff in a narrow ravine, thin as paper. My brother Jeff, young again, perhaps only four or five, blonde as can be and thin as a whip, is on the deck of an impossibly thin ship trapped in the ravine. I am anxious, for great swells of water keep crashing down the ravine from the open sea beyond, and the ship is struggling to hold together. Finally she is washed upon the cliff and it is all water and spray and I am crying out for Jeff, screaming and screaming. And finally the waves die down and there is he is, floating facedown in a shallow bay below, so very small. I leap down and wade out and lift him in my arms and run from the next incoming wave. I run up a long tunnel into an abandoned warehouse, where I find a single human being and beg him to call for an ambulance. But it takes so very long to come and although I know he is wounded, perhaps mortally so, the dream is getting boring. So he recovers slightly, and we find some coloured pencils and paper in the drawer of one of the empty desks, and settle down on the floor in the half light and begin to draw.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Unresolved Fears of the Imagination

I have a longstanding fear of using my imagination as part of my spirituality:
Of conjuring God up,
Of making God in my own image--
As if the Spirit has no place in my imagination,
Has no hope of blowing upon the embers of those fires,
And making something new.

Where does this fear come from?
In my private life, I have long written poems about God using untraditional imagery.
Yet I used to feel that whatever we say publicly about God must be Literal, must just be copies of what the Bible says, word for word, letter for letter--
A literal kind of faith,
A fundamentalist kind of faith.
I was raised on the inerrancy of Scripture. Did that result in this dread of creativity in my soul? This dread that, when named, is the fear of heresy,
which has somehow come to mean the fear of getting things wrong.
Which I have apparently decided is all right in private--God will forgive me, will let me do this sort of unsanctioned imaging in my own house,
but heaven forbid that I throw it upon public waters and lead others astray.

As if I have that kind of power. As if I could be the Antichrist in her bright and gleaming clothing. As if dreams and visions are only things for others, and not for me. I am Only using my imagination.
I am Only making things up about God.
I am Only Pretending.
Yet these Only Pretend Things stir my soul, like that occasional angel stirring the water of the Pool of Silom. And sometimes, when I am Just Pretending, something unexpected happens, wholly beyond my control or intention, as if the Spirit has come along like a Muse and taken over the plot and sent it all wildly spinning. Who knows? Perhaps She or He has.
So why do I fear what I write about God?
Does it matter that I don’t know
if or when it’s just my imagination
or the Spirit that dwells in us?
These are unresolved fears.
I just felt the need to voice them,
as I feel the urge to voice some of these untraditional
pieces I write.

As one in a besieged city
Who is this God? Will She save me as one in a beseiged city? Surely She beholds the armies encamped on the plain, the smoke of their cooking fires rising, ringing the walled city, keeping her inhabitants from food and water—starving me, bringing me to my knees with rib-thin hunger and a crazed soul. Will she swarm over their encampments, clear the ramparts in one long-legged leap, seize me in Her sinewy arms and bear me away to safety? Will She send an angel for me, wide of shoulder and pure of heart, with a quiver across his back, cutting a swathe through the beseigers and battling his way to my grateful side? Will She drop parachutes of food and water like the Americans flying over Berlin in World War II, precious floating bundles? Or will She burrow beneath the enemy, travel under the poisoned wells and the scorched earth and rise from below like a mole emerging from a tunnel, earth covered and mossy eyed, and draw me down into the dark and secret realms where the foundations of the world slide along each other's edges and coal becomes glowing diamond? Any way, any guise, as long as She comes, comes for me.

Monday, 4 June 2007

A Pledge Against the Wolf

Mike has arrived safely in Sudan and my friend is feeling slightly better in Bangkok, though not yet out of the woods. And I am back to my birds-in-old-stuff theme. I wrote this a long time ago--nearly ten years now, when I was living in Chicago. I found the pigeons there emblematic of the Spirit--they could be found everywhere, no matter how dark the alley and how desperate the company. They nested on the far side of our bathroom wall in some sort of abandoned chimney--if you put your ear to the wall you could hear them shuffling and cooing, and I found this comforting.

A Pledge Against the Wolf
I will not strengthen the wolf in me.
I will not feed its slavering jaws
I will not pace in its rough coat
down dark and ungodly places.
I will not dwell in the house of the wicked.
I will not feed the wolf in me.

I will be encircled by wings,
feathered denizens, the motley guardians of my soul—
the Spirit, near and fierce and fearless.
I am surrounded by pigeons
and no alley is too dark for their bright and unblinking eyes.
I call upon the winged creatures of heaven
to surround me, fluttering and fond,
to save me
from that which prowls and seeks to devour.

I will starve the wolf;
I will feed the pigeons
until they are too many to be counted;
until the wolf is thin and weak and to be pitied—
and then, and only then,
the birds will rise,
the air will shake with the beating of their wings and the peal of their cries
and they will carry bread in their beaks
healing in their wings,
and tend the sick creature,
and the wolf will become a tame thing
which loves the light,
and its Maker—
A forgiven creature,
that lies down and sleeps in safety.
Amen. May it be so.
* * *

When I first sent this to a friend, he wrote back and said that matters in his soul were more akin to a pack of weasels. I trust this is no longer the case and I close with Picasso...

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Mike Goes Back to Sudan

Right, I'm through with the anonymous thing. It's a waste of time. As far as I can see, the only people likely to read this blog are you, the various friends I've told, cajoled, and announced the thing's existence to.

Apologies to those strangers who got here by searching "blog Christian bad birder Cambodia spirituality." Of whom I'm sure you are legion.

So this is Lisa speaking, and this post is about Michael, my dear youngest younger brother, who has just headed back to Sudan to work in Darfur. He's probably inhaling the dust of Khartom as we speak, the city named for an elephant's trunk.

Mike is good for my prayer life. As in, he spends so much time in dangerous places that I feel compelled to pray for him often, and this results in me praying often. Convoluted logic, I know. The honest truth? I'm not thrilled that Mike is going to spend a year in Darfur. It frightens me a bit. On the other hand, I believe he will be good at the work and a blessing to everyone he meets there. All life is risk and the people of Darfur worth taking such a risk. So may blessing be on him as he goes, blessing as he stays, and blessing when he leaves again.

I will now attempt to lure you all in to Compelled to Pray world by putting up some pictures to introduce you to or remind you of him. Hmm. Maybe it's good that he won't see these while within Punishment of Evil Sister Striking Range. This was Mike at Christmas brooding on the whereabouts of Moriarty.
This is what possession of a new digital camera does to perfectly sane intelligent people.
This is Mike having a Moment with the tomb guardians of the dead emperors of Hue, Vietnam.
This is us in Cat Ba national park beginning our sea kayaking trip. That makes us sound Really Fit and Daring, doesn't it? And boy, are we tan.
This is sideways. Clearly not yet a master of the digital camera software, ahem. This is Mike on the side of the world in the Plain of Jars on the Bolavan plateau in Laos, leaning against the largest jar of all. These were hewn from stone, rolled an unknown distance, and scattered all over these beautiful green hills. The theory is funerary urns, but the only human remains have been found under the jars, not in them. Had Mike and I one extra day in our itinerary, we could have gone and scaled a mountain and gone to a cave full of ancient people's bones. Which apparently one can sit among and handle to one heart's content. Archaelogical preservation is not high on the priority list of the most heavily bombed province in Laos. In fact, most of the recent work done at the Plain of Jars was done by MAG, demining the place so tourists can walk around it without getting blown up. I can feel myself yearning to start on a long essay about UXOs and the need to ban cluster bombs and the terrible carpet bombing we Americans did to the Laotian people--but I'm holding back. Almost: you can find out more at

It must be said that I don't think Mike would mind this diversion, since it's victims of war that occupy his days.

Kynom srolan neak,
puon pouv.
Sok sabai tam plau.

Sunday Bird Photo-Op

Mum took this brilliant shot of a beautiful bird of prey. I post it in honor of the Windhover poem I have No Idea what kind of bird of prey it is. Anyone is welcome to let me know.

Doesn't this mute swan look lovely? Distractingly lovely? So lovely you might want stroke her feathery white wings and snap!! ahhh!

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Prayers for a Friend

I just found out that the woman of this lovely house I have been describing, a dear friend and a new mother, has been evacuated to Bangkok because she has contracted dengue fever. Her white blood cell count is very low, and her husband is trying to take care of her and the baby. I would ask that those of who you pray remember them both.

Thank you

Notes on a Place I Love

I went looking for my stuff on Mechthilde and found that the last time I'd written about her was in Mondulkiri, in northern Cambodia. I love Mondulkiri. I am hoping to do my fieldwork there when I become a real anthropologist...

And I started reading these short impressionistic pieces I'd jotted down about Mondukiri and started missing it fiercely. So here they are:

Christmas Day 2004
In a pioneer town. Golden morning light, wind howling between plank walls, the whine of electric saws, the road out of town boiling with red dust--Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri, on Christmas morning.

I dream a crowd of rough white men seek entrance to the house while my friends are away. I wake to find two utility vehicles loaded with guns parked at the guesthouse beside us. Their wealthy Asian owners shoot rifles at targets just a few metres from the workmen with their saws in the lot below. Semi-automatic weapons are piled in one vehicle. They drive away en masse--to hunt the endangered animals of the highlands? To hunt Montagnards creeping across the border to seek safe haven and to flee their troubled ancestral lands? Either way, something violent and terrible. At night they are loud and drunken, their laughter invading our quiet space. We would gladly see these men away, back to wherever they came from.

The red dust settles everywhere, even on the cashew trees with their broad spatulate leaves. The wind blows the earth over the landscape; the world is daubed with ochre, the sky full of pale light. The burned hills are black, then brights where the young grass has sprouted. The light is thin in this high place. My friend strums his classical guitar and wind whistles and weeps. The shell discs of the mobile by the window ring faintly as small tendrils of wind work their way through cracks in the wooden walls.

Generators throb
a woman washes clothes by hand in a basin
a cat curls beside me
the stilt-high house rocks gently under the wind's pushing hands.

I am reading early Hemmingway, A Moveable Feast:
By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.
* * *
The last time I was in Mondulkiri, in 2006, I wrote very little because I spent the greater part of every day birding in a "nice patch of wilderness" with my friends' dog Lucas. Lucas is a large lovely black Labrador and he is a bona fide non-human member of the BBC, as he is a bad birder. Well, he's good at finding birds, but not so good at keeping his distance. So birding with Lucas was more a matter of flushing birds and watching them flap frantically into the distance. Due to his presence, I saw, rapidly receding from view, a number of rare birds that normally skulk and never show themselves, like a Germain's peacock pheasant. I think. These rare birds, once flushed, weren't too pleased with either Lucas or I and refused to give us a second chance at sneaking up on them. I am, by the way, Lucas' best non-familial friend Ever. When I get back to Mondulkiri he's going to smell my hand and start leaping up and down going, Hurrah, the human willing to spend hours and hours charging through the woods, hurrah! You've got to love dogs.

Friday, 1 June 2007

My heart stirred for a bird

I was talking to my friend Nurina the other night, who was telling me about Sufis and the various symbolic birds of the soul--I think... We were at a pub. It was kind of loud. And I said that I had a Christian blog about birds. And she asked me if I was dealing with birds on a symbolic level, and I said, no, I just like birds. I'm a green christian. But then I remembered the German mystic Mechthilde of Magdeburg and told Nurina about her--I'll return to her in my next post. And then, once I had started thinking about it, I realized that birds have cropped up as symbols of the Spirit and the human spirit in my writing and in my prayers for 10 years. And I've only gotten interested in the real feathered material creatures in the last two years. As if this love in me had been lying dormant, occasionally waving a wing around, waiting for me to discover it and set it free.

So I've been looking at my old things and finding the birds. And thinking of other Christians' use of birds in their writing, writing I've already read. I haven't gone looking for anything new, as that would be like just openly admitting that I'm never ever going to get my dissertation written... At any rate, I thought I'd post some pieces in June on this theme. If you are a lover of English poetry, you might have already realized that the title of this post is stolen from the luminous Gerald Manley Hopkins. This poem is from 1918, and it was in an online collection,, so I have decided to place it here without guilt. I like to read Hopkins' work aloud, in one-long-breathless-breath. And the lovely bird art is by the extraordinary Sandy Arensen. Asante, msanii...

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.