Thursday, September 10, 2015

How Watching ‘The Visitor’ with Refugees Changed My Life: Movie-watching, Tea Drinking, and Lessons in Connectedness

The sound of someone playing a bongo drum came in through our open window. “Maybe it’s Walter,” Pieter, one of my English-language students, teased. We all crowded around the second-story window, looking down at the pedestrian path of Mother Teresa Boulevard in the center of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city.  I was teaching English, living in Kosovo that fall of 2010, my third stay in the country.  I’d just shown my advanced class the movie “The Visitor,” in which Richard Jenkins plays Walter, an isolated, grieving widower whose life is upended upon meeting, and subsequently living with two illegal immigrants in New York City: Tarek, a musician from Syria, and Zainab, an artisan selling her jewelry at a street market. I assigned homework for my students to write a few paragraphs in English about the theme, about what they took away from the movie. 

“As I saw and understood this movie I think it helps people to re-open their eyes because sometimes it is difference [sic] between things we see and things that really happen,” wrote Besim, a man in his mid-20s, who had grown up in Kosovo, who had known what it was to be a refugee. 

In fact, it was rare to meet a Kosovar who did not flee from home during the war with Serbia in the late 90s.  On my first visit to Kosovo in 2003, traveling in the role of writers with a team of documentary filmmakers, I met Lulzim, a young artist, writer, and filmmaker.  In his pocket was a photo he had taken in 1999, having packed into a bag those possessions he could carry on the road out of town, the click of his camera capturing the last image he had of his house: a plume of smoke rising from the burning homes of his neighborhood. 

Collecting stories, we spoke with many people through our translator, a boy in his late teens, who spoke at least 4 languages by the time he was 17.  Sitting in his family’s living room, he listened carefully to Habib, his father.  He translated word for word stories he must have heard a dozen times: his dad’s memories of running an underground school for kids whose families couldn’t afford books or supplies, of sharing one pair of shoes with his son, taking turns so they could each leave the house. Habib told of the time the Serbian troops began clearing out their city, how he wasn’t feeling well and had instructed his family to leave him on the road if he couldn’t go far. Our translator shook his head, unable to imagine fleeing home without his father. Habib finished the journey to the refugee camp with his wife and sons.

In another family room in a village outside the city, we sat on long cushions that lined the small, square space, faded colorful rugs covering the cement floor.  The family patriarch and his neighbors welcomed us with stories, while his wife and daughters hunched before us, offering us trays filled with small bowls of pretzels, nuts, cookies, followed by cups of caj, strong black tea served in delicate, hourglass shaped glasses, a small wedge of lemon and a tiny spoon resting on the saucer for us to stir in the copious amounts of sugar added to each glass.

So warmly welcomed, I asked about the hospitality Kosovo is famous for. As Noel Malcom references in Kosovo: A Short History, “there are stories of Albanians sacrificing their lives to protect a perfect stranger who had taken shelter with them for one night.” In response, our host told us a story. 

During the war between the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) and the Serbian forces, both military and paramilitary, entire Albanian villages were forced from their homes.  The refugees would move on to the next village, where the people would welcome them into their homes, knowing that at any moment, they all might be homeless, relying on the kindness of their neighbors. In that sense the phrase “feel free to come and go in my home as you wish,” (the Albanian version of “mi casa es su casa,”) took on greater and more immediate meaning, the tradition of hospitality now a necessity.  He indicated the floor space of the room in which we sat, and said sometimes one hundred people would stay in his house – forty of fifty packed tightly on the floor to sleep. 

Later that month, I played the host, making caj on the wood-burning stove at the house of my American friend, who was entertaining our documentary team during our stay.  We perched on her Western furniture, drinking tea with Ardian and his wife and their beautiful, plump, rosy-cheeked baby.

Ardian leaned back into the soft sofa, in a place of safety, to recall the time he was chased from his home.  He, his little sister, mother and father had had just enough warning to pack their small Yugo to flee their home. In the rush, Ardian’s father brusquely told his daughter that she could not fit her favorite doll into the trunk, and she would have to leave it behind.  As their father turned away, Ardian stuffed the doll into his sister’s bag, barely managing to zip it closed.  They closed the trunk on all their possessions that would fit, and drove away from their home. 

To reach the border, they had to cross a river patrolled by Serb paramilitary.  Choosing a shallow crossing they began to drive across, when true to its reputation, the little Yugo stalled. 

Ardian’s family froze in silence, not daring to look out of the windows, for fear of whom they might see.  His father tried to restart the car, several times.  When the engine finally caught, they continued across the river, only to be stopped by the Serb forces.

Obeying the soldier’s directive to step out of the car, Ardian, his little sister, and mother watched as the soldier ordered his father to open the trunk, allowing the soldier to rifle through their few possessions.  Ardian watched as the man chose his sister’s bag.  Unzipping it, her favorite doll sprung out like a jack-in-the-box.  The soldier’s face changed as he looked from the doll in his hands to the little girl standing next to the car. 

Without a word, the soldier zipped the doll into the bag, placed it back in the car, and closed the trunk.  He turned to Ardian’s father, and directed him to drive straight to the border, not to stop for anyone. 

As they made their way safely to a refugee camp outside of Kosovo, Ardian tried to imagine the soldier’s story.  That perhaps he too had a daughter or a sister, and the doll reminded him of all that connected them as human beings.  Perhaps it looked like the doll he was embarrassed to play with as a little boy.  Whatever the reason, the moment changed the course of Ardian’s story: he saw a fellow human being in the Serb soldier.  He could only guess how the moment may have altered the soldier’s day, or his family, or his life.

It’s been five years since I left Kosovo, since I sat with former refugees who had returned home to study, to work at museums or in an office or to launch a community-based magazine. Five years since we watched “The Visitor” and talked about the character Tarek’s life, and what would happen to him when he was deported back to Syria, where his journalist father had been imprisoned for his writing.  Five years after a myriad of reports of the civilian toll of the civil war and protests in Syria, the world is suddenly aware, awakened by images of drowned toddlers, lives cut brutally short in their families’ attempts to escape the horror. 

Fleeing Syria, did one artist stop to snap a photo, one last look at the neighborhood where he grew up? Where his father had bought a house, gotten married, had children?  Did a little girl try to pack her favorite doll in her small bag for the journey?  Did her mother look back at the remains of the home where she taught her daughter to read? Syrian refugees are running from the rubble of their homes, risking their lives and the lives of their children to escape the horrifying civil war and terrorist attacks, looking back to see their homes decimated, choosing what to pack for their children’s long-journey, not knowing where they will land, but desperate for safety and peace.

We watch in horror on our television and computer screens, not an edited film, but the reality of refugees. We wonder why governments will not open their borders. As my sister Christina wrote, “My emotions stem from my strong sense that people around the world do realize our connection to one another and are acting out of love in spite of the choices of our elected officials. My hope is that we now consider what our true interests are as global neighbors and work to create systems of governance that mirror our real values.”  She then referenced Alan Seal:

"So here’s the fundamental shift available to us right now. If we are willing to step beyond the head’s fears, anger, doubts, and discomfort for even just a few moments and focus our attention on the heart, something changes in our awareness and perception. The human heart has an uncanny ability to embrace the full spectrum of what is happening without judgment and, somehow, to begin making sense of it. Somewhere from within our greater knowing, a new level of understanding begins to emerge."

Watching innumerable refugees stream into cities, it can be overwhelming, difficult to relate to the individual’s story, to see our connectedness, to "embrace the full spectrum without judgment."  To remember what one former refugee wrote in Kosovo: “As I saw and understood this movie I think it helps people to re-open their eyes because sometimes it is difference [sic] between things we see and things that really happen.” 

We watch movies like "The Visitor" and walk away more aware, awake, connected. We listen to each other’s stories to remember a soldier and a little girl’s favorite doll. We welcome the stranger as family, and know one day we may need similar hospitality.  We serve each other hot cups of tea and snacks, create paths for connection and roads to safety, knowing that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Perfectionism vs. Clementines: It's not about the feelings or the fruit, it's what you do with them

I've been struggling with an extra dose of crippling perfectionism in the last few weeks.  Acknowledging the reasons why in an email to a trusted friend (but then, you're ALL my trusted friends, right, people of the internet?) I started to have the smallest of anxiety attacks. My chest tightened, I seemed to have forgotten how to swallow, and my temperature went up a couple degrees.  What the hell, mind?  What is it so afraid of?  I say "it," because I'm trying to remember that my true self is a free spirit, limitless.  "It" doesn't feel that way.  I think it is time to re-read The Untethered Soul, one of my go-to guides, a book the above-referenced trusted, smart friend introduced me to. To practice observing my mind, and training it to go along with my free-spirit self more frequently.

What's happening is this:  I sit in front of my computer, trying to compile a collection of essays, to expand on them, to find the cohesive thread to tie them together into a book, and fear gets the best of me, and I stop.  Fear of having nothing to say.  Of not being as good a writer or as intelligent a thinker as Rebecca Solnit, so why try? Of public mocking.

Standing to fill my glass of water and hoping I'd learned how to swallow again by the time I drank it, I remembered a day, years ago, when I went to see my hair stylist at her little bungalow cottage in the middle of Hollywood.  I can't share here why I was feeling so much stress and pain, but it had to do with helping a friend to safety, and it was hard to think about anything else.  Even my hair.  When she asked simply, "How are you?" tears started to well up in my eyes, and I explained briefly my fears. 

She hugged me, beckoned me to follow her to her kitchen, poured me a glass of water, and placed a small, perfect clementine into the center of my palm, bright orange and easy to peel.  "It's important to feed yourself good things when you're feeling stressed," she told me.

My thoughts returned to this week, my physical anxiety having abated a bit.  The friend I was writing to is one who listens when the universe nudges her, and checks in on friends who are in her thoughts.  The universe gave her a nudge in my direction these last two weeks, and her text message was a shot of confidence for me. I met this friend when she "blog-stalked" me (her words), and shared that she had read my writing and felt a connection to me. We had friends in common: she hailed from my grandmother's small church in Portland, and we'd gone to the same small college, a few years (five?) apart, and after a few of those soul-baring e-mails and coffee dates that I love because I have no filter, we became fast friends, and confidantes. 

Anne Lamott writes how she has an inch-sized square picture frame on her writing desk, an icon to remind her to write just what she sees if she looks at the story through that one-inch square. When you get overwhelmed, Annie teaches us all, you take it bird by bird

I plan to frame a photo of a clementine and place it where my eye can catch it.  To remind myself that when I'm feeling overwhelmed, or I'm letting the voice of perfectionism win, it's important to feed myself good things, to hone in on the good thoughts in my head, and hold the fearful ones tenderly.  I mean, my mind is a rough place for those thoughts to live. I feel for them.  The feelings will come and go. What matters is surrounding yourself with friends who check in, who understand, who place a good piece of fruit in your palm.

(Photo credit:  SFGate - where you can learn how to prune your clementine orange tree!)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Joshua Tree: My love affair with the desert begins.

“I’m not really a “desert” girl,” I’d explain when someone asked why I had never camped out in Joshua Tree National Park.  I grew up in the lush green of Oregon’s rainy Willamette Valley.  The desert just leaves me thirsty.
“I may be a desert girl,” I said to the boyfriend while we sat on the cold wall of the patio of a Joshua Tree house, watching the sun rise over the stark mountain range, the sky slowly turning a baby blue with streaks of golden-tinged pink, quails waking to scuttle across the hard-packed dirt that is spotted with succulents whose beauty is neither flashy nor brilliant, but spare, somehow both delicate and hardy.
And then I entered Joshua Tree National Park, and I GOT IT.  It’s a magical place.
Initially created as an 825,000 acre National Monument in August of 1936, Joshua Tree was designated a National Park on October 31st, 1994 by the Desert Protection Act, adding an additional 234,000 acres to the park. The rock formations look like they must come alive at night, gentle giants that stomp through the park, illuminated by moonlight, campers exhausted from a day of bouldering and hiking too deep in sleep to know. Each rock-monster step shakes the ground, witnessed only by the slow-growing, deeply rooted Joshua trees.

“Yucca brevifolia” the plant species now known to Bono fans and desert-lovers as a Joshua tree was so-nicknamed by a group of Mormons, settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. According to Wikipedia, the tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.
Joshua trees may need more than prayer; the Wiki entry notes that conservationists are concerned that they will be eliminated from the National Park, “with ecological research suggesting a high probability that their populations will be reduced by 90 percent of their current range by the end of the 21st century, thus fundamentally transforming the ecosystem of the park.”
- Read the rest over at The City Farm

(Photo Credit: Rebecca Snavely)

Friday, September 19, 2014

I Know You: Singing Lessons from Mike the Bus Driver

I'd just crowded into my seat, squeezing between my knees the bottle of water giving life to my bunch of sunflowers wrapped in plastic. A man boarded the rapid bus behind me, and I watched as he stepped past his fellow passengers who were huddled in a bunch, tapping passes on the fare reader or ironing dollar bills against their pants before guiding them into the machine.

The man got close to the driver and leaned in, asking if the driver needed to see his card.

"No, it's cool. I know you," the driver replied.

The man's face broke into a toothy, beaming smile. "He knows me!" he announced as he made his way down the bus aisle.

Taking his seat midway through the double carriage, he arranged his bright blue earphones and pushed play on his potable CD player. It wasn't long before the sound of his singing(?) filled the bus.
People looked over their shoulders, trying to identify the source of what could barely be called a song, more an off-key mrowling-howling-growling that hit occasional notes of pain and momentary highlights of someone recovering from a root canal yet attempting to learn to incant a sermon in Hebrew.

But when the crooner's critics noted that he was developmentally disabled, they turned back in their seats, resigned to what is with a grimace of annoyance. Maybe actual aural pain.

"I don't know this tune," my seatmate, a man with wavy Paul McCartney hair and a nervous, sweet smile whispered to me, pained.

"Likely not a top 40 hit," I replied.

A few blocks and bars of UNIMAGINABLY bad music later, McCartney leaned his head toward me again. "Are you tempted to harmonize?"

I laughed, and to illustrate how god-awful my own voice is, told him the story of how my father, a pastor, had a naturally off-key singing voice, but loved to sing to God so much, he just belted it out, without a care. Until the ladies down in the nursery watching the babies, who listened to the Sunday sermon via the mic my dad wore during the service, made a request. "Could you turn off the mic during the singing?' they asked sweetly. "You're making the babies cry." 

My father turned off the mic, took a singing lesson or two, and continues to sing songs of love, in a more tear-free key. And though the idea of harmonizing with this bus-serenader triggered visions of the BEST FLASH MOB EVER in my head, you know, the one where the whole bus joins in and makes sense and real song of this man's guttural whining, bringing tears to the eyes and reminding millions of YouTube viewers how we're all connected in the greater song called life, it didn't happen.

Instead, at the next stop, the driver walked back to the minstrel's seat. Driver Mike, let's call him, smiled, leaned down, and said in a low voice only audible to me and the man, "Hey, man. I know you like to sing. But it's really loud, so I have to ask you to stop."

Immediately flustered, the man started apologizing and growing agitated, but Mike the driver calmed him. He stood up straight, looked him in the eye, and said, "It's all good. You're my friend," before making his way back to the front of the bus.

That's the song Mike and the bus-minstrel left me singing tonight. That it's all good, as long as someone takes the time to look you in the eyes and say, "I know you." 

(And tells you to keep it down, you're making the babies cry.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tales from the L.A. Bus: Tips from a single mom on school, sex, and syphilis.

She was a a young, lovely African-American woman in her late 20s. She leaned forward to emphasize her points as she sat on that side-facing bench that straddles the middle of the extra-long Rapid-line bus.  Her two-year-old perched next to her, her little legs sticking straight into the aisle, mostly ignoring her mother, who was talking to a couple of older Latina women.

eavesdropped on jumped into the conversation a little late, and missed some salient parts about bed bugs and Ebola, but caught up when the young mother started discussing where she was headed: community college. The older women asked about her daughter traveling with her, and she informed them (and any other interested bus-rider) that the community college provides day care for your kids if they're potty-trained. "So there's no excuse not to go to college," she said. She laid it down, in that way that people do who have made the decision to change their life, and are ready to evangelize to the lazy or mis-informed.  She was making a change in her life.

And she was NOT having any more of what gave her her precious two-year-old. 

"Do you have a boyfriend," the women asked?

"Oh.  Oooohhh." the college-student nodded emphatically.  "I know what sexy is. But." She held on to a long, pregnant pause.  "Syphilis. Syph. AH. LIS. Syphilisssss."

She nodded, apparently having avoided a fate that others she knew had not.  (I mean, what Angeleno has NOT seen the sad bear with the shame of "We're #2!" weighing heavily on its California pride?)

When she was certain that she had convinced the women that she was oh-ver men who did not meet her high standards, she asked how old they were.

"60?!  I cannot WAIT to be 60," she told them.  "I'll have worked my job, raised my little girl, I won't care what the world says.  I'll just be Living. My. Life."

It seemed she was already doing just that.  My hero. 

(Photo Credit: DailyBillboardBlog)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Car-Free Day in L.A.: It Has Been A Beautiful Fight

One day in L.A., and I'm surrounded by life in all its messiness and beauty. In just one day, a walk down steep city stairs that are a respite for the homeless: scattered bottles and trash mix with succulents and pink flowers and palms. 

A delicious latte at Muddy Paw Coffee, where part of their proceeds go to animal rescues, and a chat with the proprietor about the health of organic, whole milk, and his childhood in Vermont.
Catching up on life with an old L.A. friend, and how the city and our relationships in it and to it change as life brings new experiences, a child, a longer-than-I've-ever-been-in-a-relationship, the unknowns of new jobs. 

A bus ride with a lovely driver, friendly and helpful, to downtown L.A., to continue to foster a friendship that was birthed in my junior high years in Tennessee, and get to know her husband. To watch the police respond calmly to a man off his meds, wondering if he'll be sent to jail to get two square meals, and drifting off into other conversations before we can solve the lack of mental health care in our country. 

Walking to the bus stop at 11th and Broadway, stopped by a homeless man asking for a frozen mocha at Starbucks. Buying a banana for a different homeless man, hovered over a city trash can to eat from the food we waste. 

Boarding an empty bus with my choice of a seat, to watch it fill in front of me. A 50-something resting her head on the shoulder of her 70-something mother/friend as the bus drifted down Sunset.

A load of fresh laundry done, folded, and put into drawers. A boyfriend to welcome home later and talk about the day and odd news and conversations about books or where science makes life more fascinating and known-yet-mysterious. 

"IT HAS BEEN A BEAUTIFUL FIGHT" ~ Micheltorena Stairs, Silverlake

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Hollywood Highs & Hell: Finding Beauty and Balance at the Bowl

Standing before my bench seat at the Bowl, a cup of wine in one hand, a fervent patriot a few rows back singing along with the L.A. Phil to the national anthem, I sat down as the sun set, and had one of those moments.  Looking at the curved lines of the bowl, the lights inside growing warmer as the night sky changed from blue to navy, listening to the sounds of the Phil playing, clapping after Joshua Bell made magic come from his violin, sitting in awe as Glenn Close sang "One Look" from the film Sunset Boulevard. Where I realized it felt like I was living in a movie. The first time I saw the Bowl was in Beaches, Bette Midler singing "The Glory of Love." Now the Bowl is a normal part of my summer plans, buying cheap seats for nights of music ranging from the Ray LaMontagne to Dolly Parton.

My movie-like night started as most of my days do, sweating as I walked through the July afternoon to catch the bus down Sunset Blvd.  Smelling odd odors that wafted from my seat-mate's canvas bag. Watching the overweight driver labor out of his seat to help a mother situate her son's wheelchair, spending an extra few minutes listening to the beep beep beep of the automated ramp that allowed him to wheel onto the bus.

Walking amongst the tourists milling about Hollywood & Highland, their traveler's disorientation palpable as they circled blocks and got swindled into paying for photographs with one of the three Captain Jack Sparrows working the boulevard.  Climbing past them to the Bowl, my friend and I finding a picnic table to share, sitting with cheese and cherries and a bottle of pinot noir to catch up on life. 

A violin will almost always bring me to tears, whether from the horrific sounds of an eight-year-old's first lesson, or the heart-breaking beauty of a virtuoso like Joshua Bell.  When he brought out his friend Frankie Moreno, a pianist and lounge singer from Las Vegas, I was skeptical, until their rendition of one of my favorite Beatles songs wrapped around me.

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

A conversation from earlier that evening about the hell that this world can be came to mind, a story of a girl tortured and killed.  Someone known, not just a news story.  As I sat wrapped in a world of classically trained artists and music and light filling the amphitheater, a police helicopter buzzed overhead, on its way to shine its searchlight into a dark part of the city. A bird flew by the conductor's wand, a large, winged bug landed and breathed its last right on his score, as he shared with a laugh.  And in the midst of all the beauty, I was highly aware of all the lonely people. 

I woke to open Pema Chödrön's quote of the week:

Joining Heaven and Earth

"Recently," she writes, "in a friend’s kitchen I saw on the wall a quotation from one of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s talks, which said: 'Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Then the warrior can make a proper cup of tea.'

"I was struck by it because when I read it I realized that I myself have some kind of preference for stillness. The notion of holding the sadness and pain of samsara in my heart rang true, but I realized I didn’t do that; at least, I had a definite preference for the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. My reference point was always to be awake and to live fully, to remember the Great Eastern Sun—the quality of being continually awake. But what about holding the sadness and pain of samsara in my heart at the same time?

"The quotation really made an impression on me. It was completely true: if you can live with the sadness of human life (what Rinpoche often called the tender heart or genuine heart of sadness), if you can be willing to feel fully and acknowledge continually your own sadness and the sadness of life, but at the same time not be drowned in it, because you also remember the vision and power of the Great Eastern Sun, you experience balance and completeness, joining heaven and earth, joining vision and practicality."    ~Pema Chödrön