Sunday, 24 February 2008

one Sunday while birding

Nature was my church today. I am so tired I can hardly lift my arms. I carried a friend's laser printer over to the office and then went birding for four hours, which involves holding binoculars up around the level of one's face, as you doubtless all know... Hence the arm-weariness. I reached my one hundredth bird sighting today on my European list. There were three finches, linnets, pecking for worms on a lawn. I am excited about this.

But I went birding with a Real Birder a few weeks ago, and that made me realize a few things. I am too focused on seeing new things, for one thing--my only record of birding expeditions have been these lists where I record each new sighting. Mike was like, don't you take field notes? and I was like, huh? He has this wee notebook in which he writes down everything he sees, and notes where, and how many of them there were, and sometimes he sketches them. So you have this record of everything that was in a place, all mixed together. And--this was particularly mind boggling--he made me leave the Collins guide in the CAR. We'd refer to it later, he said, and wandered off. It turns out that you're not supposed to waste time birding referring to the bird book and staring fruitlessly between the page and the feathered creature. You're supposed to just look really hard and--of course--take field notes. You identify it later. In the moment, on the strand, in the dunes, in the thicket, you just look. You look so hard that you can remember it later. And you write it down.

That takes a particular kind of attention, a particular kind of gaze. I bought myself a field notes book today, in honor of Mike, and went out to the sea alone, and wandered around for four hours in ever changing weather, and watched birds, and took field notes. Here are some random and lovely sightings:

The high high sea was making all the sea birds reckless and crazy. Ten long-tailed ducks, Arctic ducks, were honking and flying about in a group of males, and then landing like bouncing water skiers then diving, then coming up and flying by again. They are white ducks with domed heads and chocolate and black and pink patches of color. Two long curling pintail feathers fan over their backs. Spectacular ducks.

A kestrel was struggling fiercely to stay in one precise hovering spot in a strong wind, waiting for the mice to show themselves below.

A sea gull flapping by suddenly shook its body like a dog coming out of a pool, a sudden silly shimmy.

The ponds were full of hundreds of waders and ducks. Oystercatchers huddled in a tight black and white mass with their red beaks poking out of the chiascuro. Teal scooped for food--the males have brown heads with green patches rimmed with yellow. The females are clad in a boring variegated brown but have a bright green speculum on the side of their wing. Four enormous shelducks, which are actually related to geese, towered above the smaller birds.

A flock of goldeneye on the river Esk were diving and diving, some of the males doing this display they do where they tilt their heads all the way back and then pump their necks up and down. It's ridiculous and delightful. The males' heads appear jet black, but in the light they shimmer jet green or metallic purple.

After a sudden squall, a full double rainbow spanned the sky, their ends planted in the waders' pond and in the restless sea.

That's it. Those are my sightings, and the sea itself was like the sea in my dreams, full and restless and steely grey. Things to dream upon, things to sustain me for the week ahead.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008


My friend Erin left this morning for Namibia, after a long and loving goodbye party last night that started at a bar and ended up hours later at my house with whiskey (which I avoided) and pizza (which I didn't) and people in my kitchen and bedroom hanging out until I forced them all out onto the cold foggy streets of Edinburgh at midnight so I could go to bed and watch the room spin. Spinning rooms is the reason I rarely drink red wine anymore. Then our friend Nathan came over for breakfast and more farewells and there were suitcases to pick up and hem and haw over and eggs to be eaten and then the real farewell and then the inevitable sad little text messages from the woman with long hours moping in an airport in London on her hands, before the journey really begins, the journey you don't come back from, or you return from strangely changed, the attempt to enter and understand another world.

My friend Erin left this morning, and when I came home late this afternoon I walked into a house shrouded in silence, blanketed in quiet. Quiet like the tendrils of the fog, lying over everything. It's been so frantic, so much worry and concern and love these past few months--for before Erin there was Laura, who is in Africa now too--so many outings and talks and meals and quarrels.

The quiet is palpable. I can reach out my hand and touch it. I can feel my heart beating. I can hear the wind in the garden, roaring and ceasing, roaring and ceasing. The alarm clock is ticking like my grandfather's beautiful old clock that hung on the wall in Kijabe, with the iron hands, so loudly I want to bury it deep.

I have so much to do and yet I have stopped dead, paralyzed by all this stillness. By the cessation of life swirling around me, lives heard through the thin wall between the two bedrooms, tugging me along, and me tugging them too.
It's so quiet.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Sending the Beast Away

The wild beast of procrastination,
of dread,
has me by the neck and is tugging at me,
trying to take me out of the white house with
the red windows into the woods,
where I will be scratched and bruised,
where I will be lost in the darkness between the trees.

The wild beast has hold of me,
hear her growl, throaty and low.
Her red tongue laps hot against my neck.
The wild beast has hold of me.
She has had me for days.
I am prey.

And where is the sword of determination,
the grappling hooks of will?
First there was a multitude of worries and wonderings,
then there was illness, and now, such news I have
received, such tidings! A new home offered, and new funds for
the learning, and perhaps even more happiness for the taking.

It is no wonder that I let her in the door,
that I opened to her soft knock,
that I am now held fast.

But I must break free.
I must brace myself against the door,
must struggle and cry out,
must sit down and write,
bidding the beast of fur and fang and dread and fear,
Be gone.
Be gone now.

Time now for sacrifice,
time now to be poured out like water upon stone,
time now to face the ever empty, ever awful page.
Time to stand free and send the beast away.

Friday, 15 February 2008

this thing we sing

There's this song we sing at St. James, when children are baptized, and it's playing in my head this dark afternoon in Edinburgh. It goes like this:

God to enfold you,
Christ to uphold you,
Spirit to keep you in heaven's sight;
so may God grace you, heal and embrace you,
Lead you through darkness into the light.

That seems like a good prayer for the day.
We're meditating on freedom and its opposite, the things that hold us fast, that bind us, this Lenten season at my church. We decorated the church for it by wrapping the walls with cloth like parcels in India, then stringing and tying them up. My friend Erin and I made the front altar table into a cross between Lazarus' burial slab, covered with shrouds, and the mast on a sailing ship. Happily, everyone else liked it.

And last Sunday, in lieu of a homily, we all sat in silence and made these tiny books, in which we wrote the people, and the places, and the things in the world that we feel are bound and captive, for which we long for freedom, and then we encircled them with string in good Celtic fashion, and tucked them into the string-wrapped walls, where they surround us, as prayers, for the rest of Lent.

Everything I've written on here lately seems to be sad or angry, so never mind the contents of my little book. Let me say instead, Praise be for a community of people willing to hold sorrow in their hearts, willing to wrap walls with string and struggle with the staple gun, and make little books of prayers. This one guy was there on our art day who I didn't recognize. Turns out he doesn't go to church at all. He's friends with a couple in our church and his daughter heard about the art day and was insanely excited and he said he'd come with her, to see this place that his friends spoke of so often and so warmly. So this random lovely man held up reams of cloth and wrapped things in twine with perfect strangers and took his daughter home when she got too tired for words and stopped liking her companions, and it doesn't matter whether he ever comes back, it matters that he felt able to come. I am deeply and dearly grateful for my church.

This is a vampire bat head I made for my friend Nathan's birthday party, which is tonight, while feeling ill the last couple of days. It was supposed to be a crocodile, and there was this website with very clear instructions, and I didn't have a rectangular box but rather a square one, so I got crazy. The first one is a 'card' for him, since he's mad about the vampire bat head. Yeah, no kidding--I CLEARLY need some children.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

remembering the ordinary people

These are all pictures taken off the Associated Press. I chose them because they remind me of what most of Kenya is composed off--millions of ordinary people, trying to live. Lots of them small. I think they are good to see with, to think with, as we continue to remember the situation in Kenya and pray for peace and reconciliation. We redecorated my church for Lent on Sunday, and lots of the children were there. Some were helping paint. Some were playing with great enthusiasm and abandon around and occasionally right in the midst of what the rest of us were up to. Our theme for Lent is the freedom to be, acknowledging that which binds us and holds back from our freedom in Christ. This sort of conflicted with telling the children to stop messing about... For our art theme, we decorated the church with all kinds of rope and twine and cloth, like wrapped parcels. My friend Erin and I did the altar table at the front, which looks like a shroud on a slab, maybe the tomb of Lazarus, maybe Christ himself.
At any rate, on several occasions children came up to me and said why are we wrapping things up with string? what does it mean? and I tried to explain that some things tie us up or keep us from being free and they nodded wisely and ran away. And I assumed that it didn't mean that much to them, the idea of being constrained, or bound, or tied.
But it would mean a lot to children sitting in IDP camps, waiting to go home, or to go elsewhere, or for the next meal, hoping that nothing bad happens in the camp itself. Such camps are the epitome of constraint, of a lack of freedom.
Children have been staying home from school, and the leaders from both sides have asked them to go back. So here some of them go. Let us not forget for a moment, as Tagore once wrote. Let us remember in our dreams and in our waking hours.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Last words

This was on a friend's facebook page from Kenya, the text of a letter that was printed in the letters to the editor in the Nation newspaper last week. It is a hard read, but I have decided to put it up here, to honor this man, whose identity is, as he says, irrelevant. His words, his life, his death, are not.

I write this letter as my final mortal action upon this earth.
I have determined to collect email addresses of the prominent people that I know and my friends and send it to them from an anonymous email address for two reasons. First, to spare them the distress of know before-hand what I am doing, therefore saving them from culpability, and second, because my identity is now and in future irrelevant - it could be any of those men around the country who feel like I do.

As you might guess from my style of writing, I am a well-educated man... I am a graduate of NAIROBI AND STRATHMORE UNIVERSITIES. I have been privileged to be educated around the world. I have worked in Berlin, Stockholm, London, New York and many other places. I speak six languages fluently.

Even with these achievements, I have no more reason to live. If you will want to look for me as you read this, go to City Mortuary where I have determined to fester among the anonymous people there. I will explain why in this letter, and like Pavlov, I shall retire.

This is my protest. Mr. Kibaki, I indict you.
You stole the election that I stood for six hours to participate in. By your actions, my life irrevocably changed. History will now forget the great achievement and legacy that you were poised to make and it shall remember that for your self righteousness, people lost lives, property, and most of all, hope.

On the blood of my people, I indict you. Mr. Odinga, my chosen president, on the blood and tears of my people, I indict you.

Because of your bitterness, justified though it is, my life irrevocably changes. My greatest achievements, my family, died in your name. My son, my heir, named after my great ancestors, went up in smoke before he could say my name, or his great name, Koitalet. My twin daughters, Wanjiru and Sanaipei, were found by my burnt house in Eldoret, having bled out of their wounds. My wife died with the seed of six men inside her, demented and finally catatonic.

This happened in your name, Sir. Because you have to get justice. Because my wife was from the wrong community. Because you must get what is yours. You will read this and feel nothing. You will rationalise it as accepted collateral damage. Some must die in the pursuit of justice, isn’t it?

Kenyans, on the blood of my children, I indict you all. You lost the ball. You forgot that our ethnicity is something we joke about, as we go about our business. You forgot that we do not fight, we mediate. You forgot that we are a great people, built on the back of great people. You forgot its just elections.

On the blood of my children,
on the tears of my dead wife,
on the tears of our mothers,
on the tears in the sheets of those people who are sleeping in the rain,
I indict you.