Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Rainy Season in California and Congo: The Ordinary as Extraordinary

“In creative work – creative work of all kinds – those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. … Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come – for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.” ~ Mary Oliver, Upstream

We woke to rain in L.A. today, and from my desk I hear the consistent pattering of it, and passing cars’ tires parting the standing water on the street, the sound almost louder than their engines, passing through, in, on top of, parting water to make way. At this moment this is my connection to the nature of my city, the courtyard beyond our front door filled with succulents and flowers – a lone iris in full bloom closed in on itself in the cold and wet in the midst of a tangle of rosemary that the gardener cuts back to keep clear the path for us, our neighbors, and the feral cats that stroll through as if they own the place (which they clearly do), sunning themselves with one wary eye open for the footfall that announces the mailman, the UPS delivery. It is 6:28 a.m. on the 11th of January and dark, cars spray water from their tires, and the cats must be in hiding in some dry, underground crawl space somewhere. They have survived the coyotes who brazenly wander the neighborhoods in the mid-afternoon sun and now, they will survive the rain.

This is the ordinary, and extraordinary. Mary Oliver has been my teacher in paying attention, to the small moments in life, how extraordinary is the movement of an insect or the soaring of a hawk if one simply pays attention.

The rainy season in Los Angeles reminds me of the rainy season in Congo. It was this time five years ago that I first stepped foot on the muddy roads of rainy Mumosho with Cate Haight, my friend and Action Kivu co-founder. So much has changed, in my life and in the life of Action Kivu. I am now able to work part-time for this organization, communicating with our partners in Congo, taking the photos and stories they send and sharing them with you, thinking up fundraisers and event planning and working on budget details and grant applications and learning the tricks of QuickBooks and a bit of French and why goats are so important in Shi culture.

This is my art, my commitment to the unknown, stepping into the fear that I am not enough, that I don’t know how to properly convey all that is bursting inside the stories of the women and girls in our Action Kivu family, that I won’t raise enough money, that I’m not doing enough, there is so much to be done. I must find my art in the ordinary made extraordinary by my attention, in the QuickBooks entries that I usually find the menial part of my work. Entering donations, I wish I could see each entry as the gift it is, how someone chooses to send $10 or $100 each month, a portion of income earned from their work, whether it is a teacher who stays up late reading the spelling words of a ten year old or the arguments of a college student, a dentist who peers into the cavities of someone who squirms under the bright light and knowledge that they didn’t floss as much as they had promised, a sewing instructor who doesn’t make quite enough to buy all the material she wants, an artist working in paint or on a desktop, a filmmaker putting ideas into pictures, each not sure what tomorrow will bring, but choosing to share part of their life by giving to a group of women and girls in Congo. They send money to pay for a sewing instructor to go to work each day in Mumosho, for a literacy teacher to prepare her lesson, a baker to prep ingredients for her bread-making class. In cities and towns around the U.S. and the world, artists and teachers and makers and doctors and students and poets send a portion of their earnings to Congo, to bolster up a community of women and kids they’ll probably never meet, knowing that their money is helping weave together a strong, supple fabric that holds up and wraps around us, that is the society we all live in, no matter how many miles separate us.

It’s rainy season in Los Angeles, and the cars cut swaths over wet roads, swishing as their drivers navigate traffic and potholes and stoplights on their way to work: to teach, to clean, to operate machines or on people, to serve food or coffee, to type reports, to make calls. It’s rainy season in Mumosho, and cars slide sideways on muddy roads, transporting workers to the bigger city of Bukavu, women walk carefully, picking their way through the mud to the Peace Market where the roof will keep them dry as they sell bananas, fish, and loaves of bread made at the Women’s Center.  We shake off umbrellas, drops of water making entryways and the floors of buses slick, they shake off rain drops from dresses and brush off jeans that will dry while they spend their day inside the center, learning to sew, to weave baskets, to bake bread and to read and write, an alphabet denied to them as little girls who were not sent to school.

We celebrate the rain in this California drought, but as we head home at the end of the day, are happy to see the sun breaking through the clouds, low in the sky as it sets over the hills, the Pacific. The women and girls in Mumosho walk back outside into the late afternoon, the sun out and low in the sky over the surrounding mountains, making a muggy, warm evening. They make their way home, stepping through the wet grass along the muddy road, minds churning with a new trick of a stitch learned, arms filled with finished woven baskets to sell at the market, and the magic of an alphabet coming to life to tell their stories.

This life is extraordinary. Make art out of every bit of material it gives you.

Photo credit: Hélène Estèves

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