Friday, December 23, 2005

At a local school, delivering Christmas boxes given by Samaritan's Purse

Even with my limited understanding of Albanian, it seemed to alarm some of the teachers when I asked if I could take this guy home.

Listening to Ardian read the Christmas story

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Learning to Winter

Living in Kosova has expanded my vocabulary. I know how to say “good day,” “good bye,” and “he’s sick in the head” in Albanian. It has also taught me that “winter” can be a verb. For example, I feel compelled to stay inside after dark, which in the bleak mid-winter of Kosova, is anytime after 4 pm. Many factors contribute to this, mainly, my safety, the below freezing temperatures and the need to stoke my fire to keep warm against the cold. As I cuddle in a blanket with a hot cup of tea, alone and loving it, my guilt alarm sounds. I came to Kosova to write about the people here, not about the books I am reading. But luckily the guilt is easily contained, and for the majority of my day, I hear a voice saying, “there is time.” I also hear a voice saying, "What the heck were you thinking, leaving Los Angeles for negative 12 degree weather?"

A long-time resident of Southern California, I am learning to winter. The season forces me to slow down, even when walking. If I try to gallop, I fall on the ice. So gingerly, I place one foot, bulky in two wool socks and a waterproof boot, in front of the other. It looks similar to a giant, blue marshmellow performing Buddhist walking meditation.

I do visit families, and even at my winter pace, the social pressures of Kosova are beginning to overwhelm the introvert within. Agron, a man who takes care of Maria’s house and of me as he comes and chops kindling for my fire, mentioned today that I should come to his home for tea or coffee. He said his wife told him today, “Rebecca has been here two weeks and has not come!” His imitation of his wife made her sound upset, and rather masculine. Though I thought about arguing that I have only been here ten days, and that hardly constitutes two weeks, I opted for social graces and an easier second language conversation, and asked when I should come. Agron laughed, and explained that he does not set the date, I decide when I will come, and just stop by.

The unexpected guest explains much about Kosova. The homes are always clean, warm, and inviting. There is always hot water ready for tea or coffee, and snacks ready to eat. This also explains why the woman of the house looks so tired. And why I am glad that the doorbell on Maria’s gate is broken.

Friday, December 16, 2005

River Ibar and bridge to north side of Mitrovica

Luli and me - first day of Luli's shoot

Luli, Besim, and Isaac

All I Want For Christmas - blow-up Santa Dolls are all the rage.

Merry Mitro Men

Men of Mitro

The youth shall lead them

Photos of Mitrovica

It's early morning (1:30) - I waited once again for the power to come on. Apparently Maria's house is in the bad grid. As far I can understand, there's some kind of "power caste" system in place. And it only makes it worse if you pay your electricity bill - then the company assumes you have money, and hikes up your rate.

Today I went with Isaac and Luli to the cultural center - patrolled by the French troops. Once we passed the check point, we filmed Luli leading an advocacy meeting. Kids from rural villages bussed in for the meeting, to learn how to meet their own needs, that Luli asked them to identify. The two groups decided they would work to get 100 chairs needed for their schools, and to start a computer lab. Next, they work on defining the activities they need to complete to do so, and begin work on project proposals. The kids were packed into the narrow room, as you can see in the pictures. I provided the entertainment as I attempted to sneak out, wearing my giant puffy parka that either suffocated half the class, or smashed into the mini-blinds.

The other pictures are from around the city. The shots of the bridge are from the south (Albanian) side, where I am staying, showing the North side of the city. I'll write more about that later, but most of the city is on the North side, and many Albanians rent homes on the South side, while they're own homes are occupied by Serbs living rent-free. Still many issues like this that I thought would be resolved six years after the war.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Let It Snow

I'm waiting for the power to come on - I've been showering at night when it comes on at about midnight, to guarantee I get to wash my hair with hot water. We went south to Ferazaj tonight to watch the footage Luli shot on Saturday, and when we came out of the studio it was snowing. Second time it has snowed since I've been here. It had just begun to stick, but by the time we were back in Mitro it was clear - we live at a lower elevation.

Did I mention that those in the know (which is everyone excluding me) say that it's supposed to be the coldest winter in 80 years? When I heard my friend Habib say "30 below" a defense mechanism kicked in and all I heard was a low buzzing.

Language learning is fun - I feel like a five year old. In the car on the way home from Ferazaj, Luli taught me how to count to five. He is determined to force me to learn Albanian. When we visited his family last night, I soon realized that he was mis-translating my English. I would say something quite bland, he would translate, and they would fall off the couch laughing. Later, I realized he had told them I was homeless, and his mother offered that I could stay on their couch. Thus, I must learn Albanian in self-defense.

Today a woman named Aferdita came to clean Maria's house. Naturally, the power went off before she had vacuumed, so I offered her a cup of coffee. If I am her only experience of an American woman, I apologize. I appeared quite incompetent as I first poured salt into our mugs, took a big gulp, and spit it into the freshly cleaned sink. Then I took another five minutes to find the word "salt" in my dictionary, and try to pronounce the word in Albanian. Later, she walked me into the bathroom so I could see where I had been burning a hole in a cabinet where I placed a candle, so I could see to put on my lipstick. The oddest part was having her sit and wait patiently for the power to come on, while I tried desperately to mime that I could vacuum the house. I think she misunderstood my charades to imply that I thought she should be working, so she mimed the electricity was out. Finally, after she sat for an hour watching me write (about the fact that she was watching me) she left with the guarantee that I would not burn down the house and finish cleaning. Communication is my life.

Luli asked if I can help him wrap some gifts for children up in the village of Trepca (where the mine is located that is the setting for his short film). We'll do that on Saturday, and go to pass them out on Sunday. I'll post some pictures from that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Meredita from Kosova

After 30 hours on planes and extra-long layovers due to weather, I arrived at the Pristina airport, quickly passed through customs and was overjoyed to see that both my checked bags had arrived as well. I walked out into the dark and cold (I have no idea HOW cold - anything below 50 feels the same to me - freezing.) Maybe it was 30 below - 35 F. Watching others reunite with family and friends, I stood with a smile of expectation, which quickly froze in the cold and the thinning crowd. Soon there was just me, the police patrol, and the taxi drivers who looked ready to pounce upon my bags and take me somewhere, anywhere. Since I didn't know Maria's address, that was out of the question.

I stood in the dark, watching airport employees leaving, realizing no one was there to greet me, and I had no cell phone with which to contact them. I asked a policeman about a phone, and he found another who could speak a few words of English. The airport was closed, I was informed. I'm sure I was still smiling, mostly because I was too tired to move my facial muscles. I asked if I could pay to use someone's mobile phone, and the policeman offered his for free. Maria answered her phone, called Isaac, and then called me back to say Isaac was running late. This didn't surprise me, but it wasn't the welcome I had envisioned.

The remaining airport personnel (the cleaning ladies) allowed me to stand inside while I waited. Isaac arrived with a story of taking the wrong road and being stopped by police. I was too grateful for a familiar face to worry, and then too scared by European driving to care about anything else than safely arriving at Maria's.

Since the book is tentatively titled "Christmas in Kosovo" I thought I'd comment about the celebration of the holiday here. They do celebrate in Pristina (the capital) and there are plastic Christmas trees for sale, and I saw a plastic Santa mask at the market on Saturday. Almost as scary as a clown in a horror film. We were in Pristina yesterday to go to a couple of bookstores for Luli, the filmmaker who is the subject of Isaac's documentary and a good friend from our time here in 2003. Luli's in charge of buying a bunch of books for the NGO office he works at, to start a library. There were white lights lining the main street. I asked if that is because it is where the UN is - and there's such an international presence they now celebrate and decorate, but he said that they've always celebrated Christmas in Kosovo, by going to Pristina. When I asked why they do so as a Muslim nation, he said it was out of respect for their "neighbors," people who live there, Catholics and Orthodox, who do celebrate. We're going to go down for Christmas Eve.

It's fun to hang with Luli and Aferdita, who used to translate for Maria and now works for a magazine, and is an actress - does a candid camera show and others for local TV. We had a "housewarming' last night at Maria’s - the power had been out all day, so we sat in candlelight and watched some footage on Isaac's (battery powered) laptop. Then sat and talked - Luli shared more of what he wants to do, how I can help. They talked about me creating a curriculum for kids to learn about writing/journalism. Luli also wants to start a cultural magazine - a monthly b&w. I also need to work on my alphabet - it's hard to wrap my mouth around some of the sounds that we just don't have.

It's good to be here. This morning, the power was on, so I listened to a CD while I made breakfast and cleaned up a bit. Still having to stoke the wood stove to cook on - the power is too unpredictable to cook or heat by it. It's losing a little (okay, a lot) of the romanticism, when I can't get the fire going, I’m choking on the smoke that is filling the room and I just want to cook an egg. But in comparison to many, I am living in luxury in Maria's western-style home, so I'm trying to remind myself of that when it gets frustrating.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Murphy's Law

I sold my car, and I am heading to Kosovo to live and finish writing the book I began in 2003. The woman who bought Oscar agreed that I could drive him for the next week to finish my time house-sitting and working, and we would complete the sale after Thanksgiving. Provided, of course, there was no further damage to the car.

Perfect timing for Murphy’s Law. The next day, a man opened his car door into traffic, where I happened to be driving. My mirror busted, my car scratched, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I did both - somewhat simultaneously. My car is now in the shop, I am out $500 for my deductible, which I hope will be returned quickly, as the witness and everyone I’ve talked to says the other driver was at fault. Except, of course, for the other driver.

Many people asked whether I thought this might be a form of spiritual warfare. I have never been one to jump to that explanation for bad things in life – my understanding of the world tends towards the view that horrible things happen all the time, because we live in a broken, dark world. Considering the collision, I think that spiritual warfare is something that is constant in our lives. The battle within – how I respond to this, or any frustration or trial, is the true war.

Perspective: As many people pointed out – no one was injured. I will most likely get my deductible back. And I am still on my way to Kosovo! It’s a monetary set back, and I am losing all my last moments with Oscar, who has seen me through a lot, but in the end, most of the situation is out of my control, except for my response to it. And, if this gets me down, how can I expect to find peace and joy and perseverance in Kosovo, when I am dealing with people wounded by war crimes, constant power outages, and squatty potties?

Friday, November 11, 2005

"Tikkun Olam" the Healing or Repairing of the World

I learned something new today, while reading Kenneth Turan's review of the film "Bee Season" in the L.A. Times. First off, I can't wait to see the film - it sounds like an excellent adaptation of the book.

Turan references the strong Jewish influence in the story when he closes his review with the following statement,
" 'Bee Season' can't fully be understood apart from its particularly Jewish central concept of tikkun olam, the healing or repairing of the world. The notion that it is a universal responsibility to fix what has been shattered, to attempt to restore what has been damaged, drives this story in tandem with the need all of its characters have, each in his or her own way, to seek transcendence by searching for a personal vision of God."

I understand so little of Jewish culture, and want to know more, as it is so important to understanding the history of faith and Christ's life. My first response to tikkun olam was that in the new covenant, we don't have the weight or guilt I associate with the responsibilty fixing what has been shattered. However, I think Christians sometimes give up too much personal responsibility in our understanding (or lack thereof) of God's sovereignty.

It's difficult for me to find that balance, not to take on the weight of the world's problems on my very shaky shoulders, yet accept my own responsibility to live as Christ would.

Another good quote, from his essay "The Body and the Earth," Wendell Berry writes that "No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Desert Music

In the shade of the big trees, whose leaves tinkle musically, like gold foil, above our heads, we eat lunch and fill our bellies with the cool sweet water, and lie on our backs and sleep and dream. A few flies, the fluttering leaves, the trickle of water give a fine edge and scoring to the deep background of - silence? No - of stillness, peace.

I think of music, and of a musical analogy to what seems to me the unique spirit of desert places. Suppose for example that we can find a certain resemblance between the music of Bach and the sea; the music of Debussy and a forest glade; the music of Beethoven and (of course) great mountains; then who has written of the desert?

In the desert I am reminded of something quite different - the bleak, thin-textured work of men like Berg, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Webern and the American, Elliot Carter. Quite by accident, no doubt, although both Schoenberg and Krenek lived part of their lives in the Southwest, their music comes closer than any other I know to representing the apartness, the otherness, the strangeness of the desert. Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time - another paradox - both agonized and deeply still.

Like death? Perhaps. And perhaps that is why life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert.

-Edward Abbey Desert Solitaire

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Acts of God vs. Sins of Humanity

Si Johnston ( just posted his thoughts on the common Christian response to recent natural disasters. He asks great questions - check it out. It reminded me of this article - published in the New York Times shortly after Katrina.

So I do not anger the copyright gods - it is not reprinted in its entirety - if you want a copy let me know and I can email it to you.

Beliefs; The scarcely heard question is how God could have allowed the catastrophe to occur. By PETER STEINFELS (NYT) September 10, 2005

How could God have allowed this to happen? Four years ago, after 9/11, many people were asking that question. They were asking it again after the Indian Ocean tsunami last December. They are not asking it after Hurricane Katrina.
No, take that back. Many individuals, driven from homes, separated from family members and bereft of means of support, are surely anguishing over that question, as Job did on his dung heap. But as a question tormenting the public conscience rather than private individuals, it is scarcely heard. ...

That reflex did show itself, of course, in the cases of the Twin Towers attack and the tsunami. Could the attack have been foreseen, the terrorists stopped, the buildings made more heat resistant and the rescuers warned?
Could the shore dwellers imperiled by the tsunami from Indonesia to Sri Lanka have been alerted?
Such questions were thrashed through, some at great length and in great detail. But they never eclipsed the question of God's presence or absence in these events, as has occurred after Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.
As Adam B. Kushner, who hails from New Orleans, writes in the latest issue of The New Republic, his hometown ''met its demise by an act of man, not an act of God.'' The man-made dimensions of this catastrophe have wholly overshadowed the natural ones.
Those dimensions have been thoroughly catalogued, from the very building and expansion of a water-girdled city well below sea level to the longstanding complacency about the consequent potential for disaster; from the sluggish and clumsy response of government authorities to the immediate crisis to the stark economic disparities and want of material resources, so largely aligned with racial differences, that have deepened the suffering incumbent on widespread dislocations. ...

All the rescue and relief efforts have been immensely complicated by the breakdown of manmade networks -- of electricity, transportation, drinkable water, sewage disposal, food and medicine distribution, telephone service and gasoline supplies.
How can God be implicated when these elaborately contrived human systems prove fragile? ...

For believers, humanity, with all its faults and contrivances, is no less God's creation than hurricanes and ocean surges and the law that water seeks its own level.
So one might logically step back from asking how God could allow the brimming, turbulent Lake Pontchartrain to break the levees to asking how God could allow self-interested or shortsighted politicians to put off reinforcing the levees or allow enterprising engineers and developers to decrease the capacity of the environment to buffer storms.
How could God allow the negligence, racism, indifference or hard-heartedness that long gnawed at the social fabric of New Orleans -- or the blindness or incompetence of officials who should have understood the brewing human storm, as well the meteorological one?
That such questions about divine providence have been so little pressed in this way testifies to a tremendous modern -- and American -- belief in human freedom and responsibility. On the Gulf Coast, humans fell short, not God; humans and human institutions should be called to account, not God. ...

Outstanding American religious thinkers have seen a strong link between this chipper avoidance of the tragic and what they consider an overweening confidence in the power of American technology, energy and organization to solve every sort of problem. Would they find it a stretch to suggest a further link between what has worried them and the national impulse to skate quickly over all the wrenching questions that natural and human evils raise about God and the universe?
There may be no final, fully satisfactory answers to questions like how God could allow 9/11 or the tsunami to happen or, in Katrina's case, allow officialdom and decades of neglect to allow it to happen. Is asking these questions a waste of time, therefore, and diversion of intellect?
For Congressional committees, yes. But for others, delving into such mysteries might at least lead to a more profound understanding of the human condition and the untidiness of reality generally.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Halloween - The Freaks Come Out at Night

Amazing Grace

"When we sing the song in church," says Reverend Groover, "I look at the eyes of the women in my congregation. The first three verses are well known and they belong to everyone, even to the wealthy. But when we come to the fourth verse I have always said, 'This verse belongs to us,' because it speaks to our unique experience."

When I say that I don't know that verse, he reaches behind him for a song book and shows me the words.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

"When we come to those words, the deepest feelings stir. Then I see tears in the eyes of the youngest and the oldest, the eyes of the 16-year-old prostitute and of the 60-year-old great-grandmother." He cautions me, "Be careful of those prophecies of 'the last days' that you may hear. Remember where they come from. Some of the blood-and--thunder churches overdo this emphasis. Although I believe that there will be a 'last day,' the church should not be preaching this. We should not be speaking of apocalypse but of the words of Jesus: 'I came that you might have life and,' " he says with deepest emphasis, " 'that you might have it abundantly.' "

(from Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Peace of Wild Things -- by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Sun - by Mary Oliver

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone ------
and how it slides again

out of blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance ------
and have you ever felt anything

such wild love -----
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed -----
or have you too
turned from this world ----

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Clown or Cannibal? Perhaps an explanation as to my fear of clowns...