Saturday, June 19, 2010

Gulu Scenes

The sky here is enormous. It goes on forever in every direction, clouds billowing high and low. You could lay in the long grass and watch them forever.
Gulu is fantastic.

We drove for five hours to get here from Kampala, and the highlight of the trip for both Kevin and me was the same. We rounded a bend and there it was...massive, raging, scary and beautiful. The Nile. Pictures will absolutely not do it justice. We could have sat on that bridge and stared at the river for days. We get to ride a ferry over it tomorrow, but apparently that will be at a calm spot. The place we saw on our roadtrip had rapids rated something higher than Class V, as in, perilously unnavigable. There's a small part of me that wants to take it on anyway.

Today we visited the Gulu Hope Alive site, which was amazing. We played with the kids, they made up songs and skits, Kevin taught them how to make paper airplanes, I put countless fake tattoos (my specialty;) on eager arms, and enjoyed a meal of casava (a sort of potato) and sweet tea. The site is in an area which used to house internally displaced persons from Sudan, and so there are dozens of huts left over from that in the surrounding areas. I took a walk through grass about twice as tall as me, wandering as I'm prone to do, until my little friend Mark, he's about six, came and found me, taking me by the hand back to our building for tea.

You should know, if you haven't been here before, how amazing the childrens' smiles are. It's not just the smile itself, it's how it happens. The kids are observant, watching you as you move past, not afraid to look right into your eyes, but their gaze is serious, curious and respectful. Then if you give them a smile, and if you hold it for at least a second, and they break into a smile as well. A shy and delighted smile that lights up their entire face. Also difficult to capture on film. No worries, because I know we won't ever forget it.

all in a day

* Relaxed dinner with new friends that don't feel so new since they know several members of my family pretty well already.

* Driving on the left side of the road, with, as Kevin put it, more almost head-on collisions than he's had in the past few years combined. Just a standard cross town trip in Kampala.

* A sudden thunderstorm around noon, that came down hard and fast, and left as soon as it arrived. I stood on the porch and overlooked the city from the Hope Alive office and soaked it up, since rain in warm air is a novelty and a delight for me.

* Ugandan food... varieties of potatoes and rice and banana dishes and chicken and beans...delicious.

* You must speak slow here to be understood by Ugandans. But more importantly, you must listen hard to understand their English. To get every word, it's best to lean in and silence your own thoughts and focus on every word. Think about the context and wait before asking them to repeat themselves, since if you pause and review, you probably got it the first time. This is a great lesson.

*Fatigue. I know we have jet lag, but I started this trip sleep deprived, and maybe a couple months of too much too fast are catching up with me. There's nowhere like here to be able to slow down and rest. Even when the night sends through my open window the loud sounds of people cheering the World Cup game at a party in the distance. It didn't keep me up, but I fell asleep with a smile.

roots of a tree

Five years ago I was heading back to Santa Barbara from Ensenada, Mexico, returning from a trip with a team of Westmont College students and other alumni. As we crossed the border I pulled my phone out to check messages that hadn't gotten to me while I was so far south. There was one from my mom, wanting me to call her - it was urgent. I did, and found out that my grandfather had passed away a couple days before.

It was expected, as he had been battling prostate cancer for several years and for a couple months we knew he could go any day. As we sat in the pews at his funeral, I looked around at all the men in the family; my strong and kind uncles and cousins and brother. I observed the women; my loving and wise aunts and mother and sister and Grandma. Although we and hundreds of others were mourning, strangely, I didn't really feel like my Grandpa was gone. I contemplated how to describe what Cliff Coon and his wife, my grandma Lucille, meant to our family and to so many others, but it was years before I found words that described it.

When I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller last year, I came across these words that finally explained my feelings.

"I knew he wouldn't die, because his life was like the roots of a tree

that went miles into the soil and miles around its trunk

and came up in my cousins, in their faces and their voices and their character.

I didn't think you could kill a tree that big."

And that was it. I got it. Cliff & Lucille lived a life of intention and virtue and achievement that grew roots so deep that though he passed away, everything they instilled in their six kids and fourteen grandkids and respective spouses was palpable and evident in the spirits and actions of each family member. It made sense why it often felt like he was still around... giving quiet words of wisdom, scribbling puzzles on napkins for people to figure out, tending his world class ivy garden while listening to the baseball game on the radio, writing his novels.

One of my grandfather's final wishes was that he and my grandma would pay for my sister and cousin Stephen to go to Uganda to visit our aunt Catharine. She has lived there for eight years and founded an organization called Hope Alive, a relief and development project focused on orphans and fragile families.

Last year, when the trip finally came together and Calista and Stephen were sent off, my grandma asked me if I'd like to go next year. I was floored. She said she had decided to send two cousins every year, an extension of my grandfather's original wish sprung from the joy she felt in sending her grandkids on this incredible experience. This is a sacrifice for her, and one that she has taken on with patience and generosity, and never with a hint that anyone owes her anything for it. She is faithfully ensuring that the third generation is inspired to live a life where their roots can grow deep too.

So off I go, along with my cousin Kevin, to Africa. 2010 is our year.

My grandparents live a life that has meaning, a life that makes for a great story. So do their children. The cousins, in our twenties and teens and gradeschool years, have been blessed with the encouragement and support to do the same.

So here's some more words from Donald Miller, in hopes that as the Coon family ventures out to Uganda over the years, we will take them to heart...

"No, life cannot be understood flat on a page. It has to be lived; a person has to get out of his head, has to fall in love, has to memorize poems, has to jump off bridges into rivers, has to stand in an empty desert and whisper sonnets under his breath... We get one story, you and I, and one story alone...

And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can't go back to being normal; you can't go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time."

Here's to a great story... for your life and for mine.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

try a little tenderness

He'd just made us some rice and chili for a late night snack. Brought two big glasses of milk over. Settled down on the floor in front of a fire and a movie playing in the background. His housemate was asleep on the couch. We'd all had a pretty fun and long day. A lot of sun, quite a few watermelon mojitos.

We started wrestling a little bit, just jokingly. When he seemed ready to stop letting me pin him, like he was about to really prove who was stronger, he said something about not wanting to hurt me. The words slipped though the laughter and my automatic response cut through it right back:

"You can't. You can't hurt me." I stared right into his eyes.

A few moments later the same exchange happened again. "You can't hurt me." I felt physically compelled to state it again, with an unblinking gaze.

"Okay. You have a heart of steel then?" he asked amiably but laced with understanding.

"Yep." I replied.


I can feel the reflex. Vulnerability peeks over at me from it's far away retreat, and I throw daggers and flying kicks to send it back to hiding. Don't mess with me, I tell it. I tell him. But from the other direction creep in my very real feelings and a sense that I shouldn't miss out on something. Even if it's just fun.

It's been a couple months now and after a bunch of back and forth, ignoring him, reconsidering, distraction... even a conversation after two days on a boat together about the fact that I don't feel enough to respond as affectionately as he wanted me to since we aren't dating and I am not in a place to date...

After all that, um, here we are this week... Looking like I'm going back on things I said and thought. Goodbye kisses, inside jokes, meaningful looks. Whoa, how did that happen. Somewhere between him telling me exactly where he stood and our singing along to Jack Johnson and the talk about WWII history on the ride home, I suppose...

Crap. Get me out of here. Wait, hold that thought... I'll hang out for a bit.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

every moment red-letter

I don't know how old I was when I first realized that music pulsed through my veins as thickly and essentially as my blood. I know I loved to sing and so I did so in musicals when I was little. I know it felt natural to want to pick up my dad's flute and join the middle school marching band. Come high school, I didn't think twice about trying a new musical direction and joining bell choir (that's another story ;). And in college, my musical desires were fulfilled in tiny bits with a year in gospel choir and a semester leading worship every Sunday for several dozen students in Europe.

But I don't know when I knew that a beat can make me overcome almost anything. That I want to live and die to music. I'm quite positive that the last year and a half my music blood rushes through me more than ever. I have to either sing, dance, or be happy if the right tunes are on and I don't have the words to explain how it's so powerful.

Last weekend, on a four day houseboat/wakeboarding trip, I was struck by this again.
The music was always playing. Whether it was:

Jack Johnson in the morning as we crept out of our bunks and woke ourselves up with bacon and coffee and dives off the patio into the lake.

Jay-Z during the morning boat run to get us rocking with the wind in our hair and our first tries on the wakeboard.

Girl Talk during the afternoon boat runs which pounded so fiercely through the speakers and out to me as I was pulled over the water that I felt I had my own private dancefloor as I sped by on my board.

David Guetta to get the evening party started, no matter how tired I was, I would go nuts when he was on.

And then when we'd create our own music late at night, after settling in on the roof while the guys with guitars led us in rock slow jams, pop favorites, and Disney songs. And I could sing with my full voice. And the stars looked on, and no one but the 20 of us could hear what we were doing as we sang out on our boat in our little cove.

I couldn't have been happier. My many cares were a world away, to be dealt with after this holiday. And then, the lead guitarist began a melody I knew too well, and I thrilled and sang while I thought about how applicable the song was to this rambunctious group of men and women in their late twenties who are all still figuring things out, and doing our best to have as much fun along the way...

"Either way, I wonder sometimes
about the outcome
of a still verdictless life...
Am I living it right?"
-John Mayer