And They’re Off…

India3 This is a big day today for a handful of bloggers.  They're headed to India, to the city Calcutta (or Kolkata, as I think we're supposed to call it now, but I'm sorry, the old 5th-grade geography sticks with me).  They're going with Compassion International to live-blog what they see.  I suspect that they, and those of us following along at home, are about to have our comfy American socks knocked off. 

When Shaun was first telling me about this trip several months ago, he mentioned what a challenge it would be for those bloggers who will try to describe it adequately.  He explained that the poverty on the streets of Calcutta is like no other poverty in the world, so vast is its scope.  Please join in me praying for these bloggers–for their safety, for their families back at home, for their own hearts as they try to tell us some powerful stories.

And please pray, most of all, that their words will resonate with those who have not, perhaps, heard of Compassion's powerful work.  If people can see and understand how Compassion is bringing true hope to a dark situation, and if they'll join in the effort, children will be sponsored.  Lives will be saved. 

So please pray, and follow along with these bloggers as they tell their stories.  (Barring any technical or logistical issues, I'm hoping that one of the bloggers, my friend Robin, will be guest-posting here next week.)  I shared a couple of days ago my concerns about what is not, perhaps, quite right with the blogosphere, and many of you kindly expressed they were concerns you shared too.  But this India trip?  This is the power of the blogosphere at its highest and very best.

Be a part of it, and help spread the word.

No, Really, I’m Fine

I've gotten many kind e-mails from people who have wondered why I've not been blogging as much lately.  Are you shutting it down? they've asked.  Is something wrong?

(By the way, thank you to those of you who have asked.  I'm amazed and flattered that anyone would even wonder.) 

No, I'm not shutting it down, and no, nothing is wrong.  On the contrary, things feel very right right now, as I've wandered through a sweet period of reflecting and wrestling and breathing and re-evaluating what my place should (and shouldn't) be in this curious on-line world.   

I've wondered if I should articulate some of things I'm learning and realizing.  I have now officially started and then deleted eight posts on the subject.  It's the quintessential dilemma for a good Southern girl–balancing one's need to offer an explanation without presuming that anybody really requires one.  Not to mention, one of the most convicting realizations I've come to is that blogging may just fuel in us (and by "us", of course, I mean "me") a need to articulate everything.  I wonder sometimes if our culture is veering away from the very fine art of simply keeping some things to ourselves.  Sometimes the best words are the ones we don't say.   

(In other words, I think writing a 47-part blogging series about Why We Probably Shouldn't Be Blogging So Much might be a little disingenous, don't you think?)

In a nutshell, I entered the Lenten season several weeks ago in a state of burn-out and exhaustion–all of it entirely of my own making.  The reflectiveness and quiet of Lent helped me get a fresh perspective on a few things–things in both my on-line world and in the real one.  I'm coming more and more to the conclusion that we (I) seem to be operating in a fog of sensory overload.   We blog and Twitter and Facebook.  We have cell phones and multiple e-mail addresses.  We're so plugged in we're almost motorized, and it's exhausting. 

I have (and please, insert giant flashing lights here, because I want to be sure I make this clear) been able to witness some beautiful, even life-changing things happen as a direct result of blogging.  There's plenty of good in it, and I would be remiss not to point that out.

But there is undendiable part of blogging that feeds a part of us (me) that is, perhaps, not the most sensible part: the part that craves to "measure" ourselves, the part that is naturally drawn to a false sense of urgency, the part that needs to be heard even when there's not really anything to say. 

In other words, I've spent a little time evaluating (unpleasantly, at times) whether I was not only affected by this problem, but maybe I was also part of it. 

Ouch.

Despite a very sweet time of feeling refreshed and reflective, I can't say that I've come to any brilliant conclusions.  I do not think that blogging is pure evil and must be avoided or society will surely fail.  But I also think that I've probably let myself go a little off-course, when I reflect back to why I started doing this in the first place.  I look back and wonder if I've contributed to the "noise level" that seems to be wearing out me and so many of the women I know.  I think I have, at times, and I'm sorry.

What I do know is that I want to keep at this, but in a way different than I've done it before.  It's almost become something of a personal exercise, seeing if I can navigate this peculiar world in a way that is more balanced.  A very dear friend (and brilliant writer) reminded me recently that the best words are the ones that are punctuated with enough silence between them.  

As evidenced by the rambly length of this post, I clearly do not have much of a track record with silence.

But I'm working on it, and this, for now, is my little workshop. 

Jury Duty, Part Two

:: (For part one, click here) ::

It's a strange thing, jury duty

One minute, you're snug in your predictable suburban life, driving carpool and paying bills.  The next, you're tossed into a group of twelve strangers, sitting a few feet from a man whose entire future rests in your hands.  It's surreal (for us), terrifying (for him) and messy (for all of us).  It's a system just unnerving enough to make you want to throw out the judicial baby with the judicial bathwater, except that the alternative is no justice at all.

So we did what free and reasonable humans do, I suppose:  the best we can.  We listened carefully.  We held evidence in our hands.  We didn't speculate when there were objections or moves to strike or your-Honor-may-I-approach-the-bench?  We listened to the instructions, and then we read them, and then we read them again.  We handed over our cell phones, for Pete's sake.  We argued (a little) and compromised (a lot) until the wee hours.  And then, our reasonable doubt easily but sadly put to rest, we did justice.

Guilty, on four counts.  Four very serious counts.  Even though the judge gave us clearance to discuss the trial in detail, I don't feel quite comfortable with it, and I'm not sure why.  Maybe because it doesn't feel, entirely, like my story to tell?  

It's probably too easy, I think, to neatly tuck an accused criminal into a safe category of Those People, the ones who walked a path I would surely never walk, who have hurt so many for so long, who must be made to pay. Take a bite out of crime.  Only YOU can prevent forest fires.  But when you sit a in crowded deliberation room with twelve strangers, when you turn a man's life and future over in your hands like State Exhibit 7, when the defendant's mother makes eye contact with you during closing arguments, the lines feel blurry.  The humanity gets a lot more real.

We did the right thing; of that I'm sure.  All the facts in the trial were crystal clear; the facts the judge could share only after the trial were even clearer.  When compassion bumps up against the law, the law wins, because we shaky humans don't have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to establishing order.  When we delivered our verdict and received our instructions for determining the sentence (something Oklahoma criminal juries are uncomfortably required to do), we were given our first access to the defendant's long and overwhelming previous record of convictions.  It was long.  LONG.  As the list was read, I couldn't help but think of the One who listened to my outrageously long list of offenses, signaled the Judge, and said (not being bound, thankfully, by the Great State of Oklahoma), "I've got it covered."

The whole thing lasted until the wee hours of a chilly Friday morning.  The judge dismissed us with a twenty-dollar-a-day stipend and, for dramatic effect, an armed escort to our cars.  In an strange mix of exhaustion, relief, peace and sadness, I cried all the way home.

It's a strange thing, jury duty.

Brothers

They're brothers, ages 10 and 7.  They share a bedroom, a love for soccer, a penchant for skateboarding, and a tendency toward violence of the brotherly kind.  They are mortal enemies and the best of friends, the pendulum often swinging from friend to enemy and back to friend again within 60 seconds.

They're both athletic dynamos.  The older of the two is lean, small, and lightning-fast.  The younger is tall, thick, and strong as an ox. 

Last night, after an especially vigorous session of carpet wrestling, I heard them pause, breathless, to formulate impressive plans.  They determined that they would take the professional soccer world by storm someday, two feisty brothers who would team up to strike fear in opponents.  The oldest would be the speedy, agile Scorer Of Many Goals.  The youngest would be the brick-wall goalie around whom no ball would fly.

Then they went back to the floor for more wrestling, until I went in to interrupt and tell them it was time to head to bed.  We sat on the couch, mom in the middle, for bedtime prayers.  Their sweaty, smelly heads leaned in on my shoulders.  They were still out of breath.  It was the first moment of quiet that room had seen in hours.

The oldest said his prayer, and then I said mine.  And then the youngest, in a voice thick with sincerity, said softly, "Thank you, God, that my brother and I enjoy each other."

I caught my breath.  Yes, thank you, I thought.  Then–I couldn't help it–I peeked open my eyes at the two boys, still sitting at my side.  Something settled over them. 

They were struck by the moment, too. 

The oldest looked over at his little brother, affection unmistakably written on his face.  He gently, quietly nudged him with his elbow.  The youngest returned the glance, and the nudge. 

There was a perfect pause.

And then, at exactly the same moment, they erupted into grunts and laughter, diving for each other and heading straight for the carpet.  I think the .7 miliseconds of tenderness was all they could bear. 

I watched them, smiling, observing to myself that the moment had surely passed.

Or had it?  I'm inclined to think–to hope–that a moment like that settles deeply in the hearts of two sweaty boys.  It surely settles deeply in the heart of their mother. 

One Year Ago

Last February, I went to Uganda with Compassion International and a team of amazing bloggers to get an up-close look at Compassion‘s work.  If you’d like to read the whole story, you can click here.  But I wanted to re-run this particular post from one year ago.  As long as I live, it is hard to imagine I’ll ever see anything like what I saw on February 14, 2008:   

This morning we visited an HIV/AIDS hospital.

That is not a sentence that I, in my sheltered little life, ever expected to write.  Then again, most of my expectations about everything have been blown out of the water these last few days.

We visited Mildmay HIV and AIDS hospital, one of only two hospitals in the entire world devoted entirely to treating HIV and AIDS (the other one is in the UK).  Compassion partners with them to obtain treatment for Compassion children.  We were greeted by the staff with overwhelming hospitality (upon first meeting you, Ugandans always say “You’re welcome”—this is one of the most endearing things I will remember about them), and they gave us a thorough presentation about the history and funding of their facility.

I’m counting on some of my fellow team members to blog these statistics—they’re interesting and important, but I generally try to steer clear of anything resembling math.  Anyway, the statistics aren’t what I’ll remember about today.

For privacy reasons, Mildmay doesn’t allow photographs to be taken on-site, so I once again am going to try to find the words to tell you about this place.  It was nothing short of remarkable.

All throughout this city, the poverty is rampant and in your face on every inch of the roads.  When I have a faster internet connection, I’ll be able to show you what I mean.  But amazingly, we entered the gates of Mildmay to a different world.  It’s built into the side of a hill overlooking the rolling hills of Kampala.  The grounds are lush and meticulous, and the buildings are spotlessly clean.  The facility is actually dozens of smaller red-brick buildings connected by winding covered pathways.  Like most Ugandan buildings, they are all open air, but fans blow a gentle breeze through the windows and corridors.  The rooms are freshly painted, the grass is inches thick.  A deliciously sweet smell—presumably from the lush landscaping—hangs in the air.

It’s a place of gentleness and dignity, and you can almost forget, for a second, how sick the patients are.

We wound through the waiting area—it was a sea of people.  Some of the faces looked hopeful, some of them look frightened, many looked terribly empty.  The staff hosted us for a proper British tea (this is a former British colony, and there is still a strong British influence in the culture), and then they took us to the “Noah’s Ark”, a center for HIV-positive children who haven’t yet developed full-blown AIDS.  The children laughed and played, while a cartoon hummed happily behind us.  I knelt down to speak with a little nine-year-old boy named Bosco.  An interpreter helped me tell him that I have a nine-year-old son back in America, and Bosco laughed, giving me a big hug.  I gave him a sticker.

We headed to a clinic for the HIV-positive children who are beginning to develop some signs of infection.  A breeze blew through, and the room smelled clean.  A little boy lay groggily on a cot, while his mother sat next to him.  I walked over to him and stroked his arm; it was burning up with fever.  The mother looked tired.

We continued to wind through the facility, visiting the dentist office and library and other departments, finally coming to the top of the hill to Jajja’s Home.  This is the pediatric facility for children that have developed full-blown AIDS.  Sophie and I shot each other a look, trying to brace ourselves.

Several of the children were outside under a tent for a special presentation by a well-known local gospel singer.  The singer was HIV-positive himself, and our interpreter told us how he was singing about how God had carried him through his illness.  The kids danced and sang and jumped and waved their arms—evidently this was quite a special event.

We walked into the sick ward.  We weren’t able to approach any of these children—we carry germs that are a risk to them.  But we were able to wave and smile—I saw one little boy, about 6 or 7, struggle to raise his arm in a return wave.  Before we left, I passed a mother sitting at the side of her baby’s bed.  He was probably no more than two years old, and he was motionless, an IV strapped to his arm.  The look on the mother’s face will stay with me forever.  It looks just like you’d expect the face of a mother to look when she’s watching her child waste away in front of her.  I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder.  “God bless you,” I whispered to her, and she smiled back at me.  In those brief seconds, I think I prayed harder than I’ve ever prayed in my whole life.

Our tour ended in the cheerfully decorated classrooms.  Every inch of the walls were covered with bright posters and chalkboards and bookshelves.  In a quiet room off to the side were rows of neatly-made mattresses, where the littler ones could nap in the afternoon.

Because I have absolutely no way to wrap a post like this one, I’m going to leave you with the one photo I couldn’t help but snap.  This is the prayer painted on the walls over the children’s little sleeping mattresses.  This one photo says more than this entire post could:

Prayersmall

To learn more about Compassion‘s work, and to sponsor a child, visit Compassion.com.