What is our legacy?

Is guilt ever useful? When does it help to ask ourselves what we have done for others, or to fault ourselves for not doing enough? Should we do that at 20? At 30? At 50? A good friend who lives in Maseru, some forty minutes away by car, came to visit me with another friend of hers today. She and her friend are Basotho women, well-educated, in their sixties, now retired. They were educators and translators, skilled communicators., and their feelings about Lesotho are deeply pessimistic. Continue reading

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From Bliss to Heartbreak in One Day

Pictures impossible. Electricity erratic. Hope I can post this.

Dawn walk, met Hlolofatsi, 19, and Teboho, 20, lovers who met, she told me, April 11, 2008, and hope to spend the rest of their lives together. With un-self-conscious curiosity she asked me, “Why are you here?”

I told her I taught here in the 90s and have missed it, and I’m visiting to feel again my love for the country and the people.

“I am glad to hear this. Most people, they hate it here. They say it’s too rural, too backward, too corrupt, nothing to do.” She looked at Teboho and they laughed. “Most people, whether they are from here or not, hate this place. And I think it’s sad. I love Lesotho.” Continue reading

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Arriving in Lesotho

I’m here, jet-lagged, ears ringing, wakeful in the night, bleary and unfocused by day, but in love, enraptured, swept away by the beauty of parched golden-colored land, by the warm shy smiles of strangers, by the two-handed handshakes of old friends, by the echoing racket of roosters, by the squawking of great gray ibises (called Ha-de-dah’s by the Whites). I’m here, intoxicated by great clouds of lavender blossoming Syringa trees, by cascading bright green willows, by a fine powdery dust that makes the air glint in bright clear sunlight, by the music of the Sesotho language, by dog-bark and laughter heard across mountain valleys. Intoxicated with my privilege, I’m here. Continue reading

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Not a witch

M’e MaAnna is so old, nobody knows her age, and she is fierce with the will to live, the will to create something beautiful, the will to persevere despite persecution, hardship, and hunger. When I took this picture of her in 1993, she was still building and re-building her shrine. Every morning and evening, she sang and danced alone, praying like a cantor around a shrine to her ancestors and to the Pope and St. Francis. People said she was mad. People said she was a witch. Children threw dead birds and rats into her garden. Several times people set her house on fire, her house being one tiny lean-to constructed of branches and sheets of masonite, with a corrugated tin roof held in place with old tires.

She ignored these insults. She crossed her arms and shouldered on. Every day she went foraging for weeds to eat, she tended her tiny garden, she searched the rubbish pit at the university for scraps of food. And every day, she tended her shrine, using bottle caps, shards of tea cups, bicycle spokes, scraps of cardboard, and plastic bags to create assemblages. (Click on the picture to see it larger if you like.) She built mounds of earth, she wove designs in the mud, she crafted a place of worship. People would walk past her and spit on her shrine, the ultimate insult. And she would cross her arms and lift her chin and ask her ancestors to stand by her. It appears they have done so.

In her youth she worked as a house maid in South Africa. She speaks a little Afrikaans, but no English. I often visited her, in 92 and 93. She always asked where I came from, and I would say, “The USA.”

“Ah,” she would say, “is that in the Transvaal?”

“No,” I said many times, in my childlike Sesotho. “It is across the sea, across the big water.”

“Is the water bigger than the Senqu River?” she would ask.

“Yes, bigger than that.”

“I cannot see it,” she would say.

The last I heard, she is still alive. She’s another person I very much hope to see again on this trip. I have two presents for her: a bar of Pears soap and a silk scarf to wrap around her head. But maybe she will weave it into her shrine.

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Marking passages: Christine

“They DO live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface, change, and frivolous external things. I could fancy a love for life here almost possible; and I was a fixed unbeliever in any love of a year’s standing.”
– Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Ch. 8.

Haworth, England. July, 1970. Wind over the moors. The Bronte house. A parrot squawks over an alleyway. A lonely, emotionally overwrought twenty-five-year-old American divorcee sits sobbing in the lounge of a small hotel. A Yorkshire girl barely twenty, spending the summer making beds and cleaning the hotel, finds the stranger, puts down her cleaning things, sits on the floor and says, “What is it?”

“I’ve never felt so lonely in my life,” the American sobs. “I love all the Bronte books, but especially Wuthering Heights, and I saved up all my money for the past two years and got here and–” she howls and sobs, “I’M THE ONLY PERSON ALONE HERE! All the people on the moors are in couples and families, and I’m alone, and the wind is blowing, and….”

“That’s it,” the Yorkshire girl says. “You’re going home with me. Go pack your bag. Tell the desk clerk you’ve had an emergency. I’m off work in fifteen minutes, and I’m taking you home to my family.”

This is how Kathy McQueen, American secretary as she was then, met Christine Kendall; how an American girl with a lurid, dysfunctional past became adjunct “family” to a thoroughly stable Yorkshire working-class family in a little mill town called Saltaire, and how Kathy and Christine began an odyssey that would include a life-long stream of letters (before email) hand-written or typewritten, folded into envelopes, stamped (the price of international air mail often a challenge to both of them), and a scatter of visits–two women, both with hardly a pot to piss in, saving up, stretching their budgets, striving to mark the passages in each other’s lives, to stay in touch, and to see each other every decade or two. Christine stayed in Yorkshire, married her first sweetheart, had three children, and became, when the kids were grown, an IT specialist in a nearby hospital, slipping off for occasional vacations in Mallorca. Kathy, who became Kendall, lived all over the planet, hurled herself into a multitude of attempts to do the right thing and to make art, accumulated four children and a dozen surrogate children, broke her heart over and over, and always yearned for Christine’s roots, solidity, and stability.

The Kendalls (the name–also Kathy’s great-grandmother’s name–was a coincidence) in Saltaire in 1970 consisted of Da and Mum, who had met while working at the mill and had fallen in love and were still in love; Granny (a bit eccentric, fiercely opinionated), Christine (the eldest), Shirley (Christine’s younger sister, with a passion for the French language even then), and Richard (a red-haired naughty boy); and they lived together in a row of tiny houses built by old Titus Salt, and they went to the pub together, and they took their American visitor in and made her welcome. And the great thing for me–I am what became of that Kathy McQueen–is that they were the most functional family I had ever met. They genuinely loved each other, they treated each other with respect, they all really wanted whatever was best for each other, they had a laughing appreciation for life’s ironies, and as Emily Bronte says, they were “more in earnest, more in themselves, less in surface, change, and frivolous external things.”

Christine and I visited York Minster in 1970, and she took this picture of me with my little instamatic camera. I took pictures of her, too, and sent them to her, and maybe she still has them. On our first visit together we arrived during a pageant, with children dressing behind wooden statues that were later destroyed in a fire. We listened to Evensong, which moved us both to tears. We found the tapestry that says, “In the work of our hands is our prayer.” The work–of our hands, of our lives–became a theme for us, a fugal theme in letters, and now in emails and on Facebook. Whenever I could get back to Yorkshire (in 1984 with Seth in tow, in 1993 after my first year in Lesotho), Christine and I went back to York Minster. We went with her children, with her Mum, with her sister-in-law.

We went back to Haworth in 1993, and her Mum shot this picture of the two of us, twenty-three years after our first meeting. In 2001, I went to London with Manko, my baby girl, fulfilling Manko’s wish, and Christine got a bus down to London and spent a day with Manko and me, despite asthma and bronchitis. She was that determined to see us. And now, on my way to Lesotho, I will have an eight-hour layover in London. Christine is coming down on a train for the day. She has had upheavals in her life over the last year, losses as devastating as anyone alive ever has to know, which it is not mine to talk about. But on September 30, 2010, we will meet in Covent Garden at a Brazilian cafe called Canela, and we will spend the day and laugh and cry again, marking the passages in each other’s lives.

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Seven days and counting

This time next week I’ll be on the way to the airport. It’s a THIRTY-NINE HOUR journey. Portland to Chicago. Overnight Chicago to London. Day in London with Christine–more about her to come, Christine, my friend since 1970, witness to each other’s whole lives. Then overnight London to Johannesburg. Layover. And finally, small plane to Lesotho. Three days in the same clothes. Two nights sleeping on airplanes. I picked up a package of something homeopathic called JetZone: “A homeopathic combination for the temporary relief of the disruptions in circadian rhythms and fatigue associated with jet lag from flying and the symptoms of insomnia, exhaustion, irritability, and anxiety.” Sounds like my kind of fun. And yet there is still the miracle of being able to fly. In the air. In a chair. To the opposite end of the world. Louis CK gets it right.  (Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy. Thanks to Nancy for posting that.)

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Underpants

For years I have worn simple, sturdy, colorful Fruit of the Loom underpants. This has never occasioned any comment in the USA, even from my most intimate friends, but when I lived in Lesotho, my friends and neighbors observed my underpinnings hanging on the washing line and began to covet them. I learned this by indirection. “Those are nice underpants,” escalated to “I wish I had some like those,” and “I wish I had friends in America who could get me some underpants like those.” I wrote to friends in the USA and requested various sizes of Fruit of the Loom to be sent me by air mail, and I gave them away at Christmas that first year. There were dances of delight and jostling for status to determine who got them. So I know what to take to Lesotho with me. Today I went out to the suburbs and purchased about sixty pair of undies of various sizes, mostly women’s but a couple of packages of men’s as well. I’m also taking a few bags of Tootsie Rolls, some school supplies, some toys, and a selection of books and CDs, but the real thrill is Fruit of the Loom.

On my way home, I wanted to stop at Ricky Point, a little spit of land at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. I never knew Ricky, but he must have been quite a guy because his old friends have hung some Buddhist prayer flags there, next to a beautifully crafted wooden bench in his honor. I’ve been out there many times, and the flapping of the prayer flags in the wind, the call of sea birds, the deep drone of boat’s whistles, and the rustle of cottonwoods under a cloudy sky is all I need of blessing. But some time in the past six months, the Portland Yacht Club has tried to seal off access to Ricky Point. “No Trespassing” and “Do Not Enter” signs have been posted. Fences have been erected. Gates are hung with heavy chains and padlocks. I was shocked to see this, and I felt instantly rebellious. I ignored the signs and went out to the point. If they want to arrest a sixty-five year old woman with a point and shoot camera, standing under those prayer flags invoking blessings for the people who will wear those underpants, let them.

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Faces of Lesotho

Pictures from all those years ago. Heartache. Haunting. And there is more.

I shot these with a Pentax SLR and then developed the film and printed it myself in the darkroom at the National University of Lesotho, using chemicals and paper I purchased with my savings, on long and arduous trips to Bloemfontein. There was so much I didn’t know, then, about photography. I didn’t know what it meant for highlights to be “blown out” or for the tones to be slightly off. I only knew to shoot from the heart. I hope I still know that.

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Gearing up

I bought my ticket the day before my sixty-fifth birthday. I had been thinking about it since I came back to the USA at the very end of 1998: when would I go back? As I turned sixty-five, I realized it’s unlikely I will ever be healthier, stronger, or more fit to travel than I am now. My savings is dwindling. I will never be richer. This is the old age I have saved for. I must do this while I still can: while M’e Mpho is still alive, and while my friend Chris Dunton is still teaching at the University of Lesotho and willing to let me stay with him. Chris is a professor of English, an iconoclast, a writer, a social theorist, and a wild man I dearly love. He lives in one of the houses on the University grounds, a house that has electricity some of the time, running water most of the time, sometimes even hot water. And a spare bed.

Continue reading

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Somebody else IS doing it!

Here is one of life’s great wake-up moments. Someone–a whole crowd of someones–in New York, at Mabou Mines, is looking at Lesotho, making sense of being an American woman in Lesotho, coming back from Lesotho…and making theatre with it. It’s my friend Katt, who has been working in Lesotho off and on since 2005, and who is so busy that she hadn’t even told me about this. She just sent me a link in an email. Read this and if you live in New York, maybe you can see it. It’s still in development, I guess. She says they were going to be in rehearsals for it now–but there have been complications. And if you don’t live in New York, wish you could go see it.

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