Thursday, May 21, 2009

A small haven

A few summers ago while I was living in Minneapolis, I realized that although I am not a big city girl, it seemed that it would be very fun to live in a big city for a while, in a cute little apartment. I thought that as long as I were single or didn't have kids, this could be a fun short-term thing, although I definitely want a house with a yard when I do have a family. But a little apartment in the city, close to a lot of culture and people and excitement- that sounded like fun for a single girl.

Well, here I am. Salt Lake isn't a huge bustling metropolis, but it's as big as you get in Utah, and it definitely has that city feel to it, especially compared to Provo. And I have my little apartment, right where the suburbs meet the city. And it is fun. It's taken some getting used to, but I think I'm rather enjoying my city stint. The very best part is the place where I find myself now- on my balcony, at night, looking over the whole Salt Lake Valley at the symphony of lights, in the warm summer air, and surrounded by my garden.

I've never been exactly sure why plants have always drawn me in so much, but it's almost comical how my eyes get drawn to the garden section of stores as I walk past them. And there's something, in a way, even more delightful about a little balcony full of garden pots than there is about rolling fields of fruit and flowers. I think it lies in the fact that the flower pots are defying the odds by being there. THey are out of place and unexpected and that makes them more pleasant, by sheer contrast.

In any case, by sitting on my balcony in my little garden, I can feel a sense of peace and solitude, even as cars rush past on the busy road. My heart rejuvenates and I always step back inside a little more cheerful and energetic than I was. It's my little haven from the world, my place of meditation and reading and just enjoying life. And it makes my heart glad.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

All the waterfalls and all the butterflies and all the rainbows . . .

When I was a little girl, I often told my mother that all the waterfalls and all the butterflies and all the rainbows in the world belonged to me. And rainbows, in particular, seem to be my good-luck token in a way. Just as God placed the rainbow in the sky to promise Noah that there would never be a flood- to show that everything was going to be all right, in a way- when I see a rainbow, it's like a love note from heaven letting me know that things are okay, and that good things are coming. In fact, I have frequently had dreams where rainbows play a major role- often multiple rainbows. This year on the night of my birthday, I dreamed that I saw a quintuple rainbow, and seeing that many stripes of color in the sky made me feel so happy and hopeful that I still felt that joy when I woke up.

Tonight, I had dinner with Aunt Gladys out on her deck. She lives right in downtown Salt Lake. You can walk easily from her town house to the Cathedral of the Madeline, Temple Square, Abravenal Hall, and the state Capitol building. The view was amazing, combined with the light rainfall and the shining sun coming in from the cloudless west. Pretty soon, the sun and rain combined to create a stunning double rainbow against the pearly grey clouds in the east. After Gladys and I enjoyed it for a while, Gladys said, "I think it's a good luck token. I think it's a good luck token for Maria." She didn't know that I already thought of rainbows as my luck token. And all the rainbows do belong to me, after all. I think I picked a pretty good talisman.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

There is always hope

To accompany my previous post, I feel like sharing some stories of people I met in Kenya. I love these people so much.

First, there's James Njuguna. I didn't spend too much time with him since he works out of Nairobi and I was living in Gathiga, which is about a hour's ride out of Nairobi on a matatu (think really, really crowded full-sized van). James is a pretty young man, about 29, I think. He comes from a traditional Kenyan family, his father had two wives and his mother was the younger wife. They referred to her as "little mother." Between his two mothers, he has thirteen brothers and sisters.

He had a good job as a computer programmer and a pretty wife and life should have been good, but he felt very unfulfilled. So he quit his job, much to his mother's consternation, and started a nonprofit organization to help orphans and street kids. It's probably still a much more dubious living than the computer programming job, but he gets by just fine and he's seen amazing growth in his organization. His international volunteers (including me) mostly come to him through a partnership with a volunteer organization called International Volunteer Headquarters, stationed in New Zealand, who works with groups all over the world to place volunteers.

James placed me, along with crazy Kate and Cynthia, in Gathiga to work at the Gathiga Children's Hope Home and Rehabilitation Center. This is where I met my little friends who have already lived through so much. One of my friends, Lynette, was fifteen and had two little sisters at the orphanage, too, Ashley, who was probably about eleven, and Fiola, about six or so. All three of these girls were happy and gorgeous. Lynette was much shyer than her sisters, but she loved to spend time with the volunteers. She gave me a pedicure once- red nails with purple stripes. While the paint dried, I asked her about herself and learned that she'd only been at the orphanage for a couple of years. She had lived with her parents until she was about eleven and then her parents died within a year of each other. She and her sisters, including baby Fiola, went to live with an uncle who was always drunk. After a couple of years, some concerned neighbors heard about Lucy's orphanage and asked Lucy if there was any way she could take the sisters on.

Lynette's story is pretty unique- most of the kids have been either orphans or street kids for most of their lives. There are a fair number of them that do have families but there are bad situations at their houses, so they're using the orphanage as a rehabilitation center. One of my very favorite girls, Damarice, was in this situation. Oh, I love Damarice. She's always smiling and happy and she loved to come get hugs and have my arm around her. I could just feel the love and happiness coming off of her. I assumed she was an orphan until I didn't see her for a couple of days. Then she showed up again and I asked her where she'd been. "Home," she said quietly, and that's all she would say. I have no idea what home is like for Damarice, but it's clearly not as good as the orphanage.

Purity has a different story. Where Damarice was always eager to give me a hug and play hang-clapping games, Purity would run away if I paid attention to her. But as long as no one was looking at her directly, she craved just being around adults. While I told stories or fell over from all the kids trying to pile in my lap, she would sneak up and just sit next to me. She got bolder later on and would put her arm around me and even played some hand-clapping games with me. But she always felt very uncomfortable with direct attention. I found out why from talking to Cynthia. Purity was a street kid. She was eleven years old and she lived in cardboard boxed in Nairobi until Duncan, my host dad, found her and persuaded her to come to the orphanage. She got high off of glue to make the pain of hunger and the depravity of life go away. I have no idea if she'll be able to overcome the effects of that in her lifetime. But in a way she's lucky, Duncan told Cynthia and I stories about how for young girls living on the streets, the greatest concern was always rape, even someone as young as Purity.

Maina is an adorable little boy, no more than three, and he's Cynthia's favorite. His story is unique also. His mother lives on the street and has about eight children, all of them with different men. Since she can't afford to care for her children (she can barely afford to care for herself!), they live in different orphanages around the Nairobi area. She came to visit one day, and Maina barely seemed affected when she left. He's already so detached from his mother- already such a tough little kid.

None of these children would have any kind of goodness in their lives without Lucy, my host mom, who started the orphanage and runs it. I have met very few people who have the goodness, drive, and faith of Lucy. She never set out to start an orphanage. She was just distressed by the number of street kids living in Gathiga and started preaching to them so they could understand that they could rise above their circumstances and that God loves them regardless of where they live and anything else. After she did this a few times, some of the kids sat themselves down at her house and told her they weren't leaving, because they felt so good when they were with her. Eventually, as she took on more and more kids, she and her family moved out into a rented house on a smaller compound so their house could go entirely to sheltering the orphans. She firmly believes that if she goes about God's errand to serve His children, He will provide a way. And He does. Lucy is amazing. She's a little strict and overbearing, but she has a heart of gold and she is literally wearing herself out serving others, maybe a little too much.

Maybe someday I can be more like Lucy. I hope so. She is definitely one of my role models.

A world apart

Earlier this week, I had a very vivid dream that I was back in Kenya (I also had a dream that I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, living on the Dakota plains a century and a half ago, but that one isn't relevant at the moment). Like all my dreams, there were lots of elements that didn't make sense, like the fact that Matt, Tricia and Angi were there with me (you make it to Africa in my dream, Angi! Congrats!). But I remember seeing my kids from the orphanage and being so happy to be able to hold them and hug them and run around in the red dirt with them.

The next morning, i realized what the likely cause of the dream was. The night before, I was reading a newsletter from the organization that I worked with while I was there, Fadhili Helpers. The founder, James Njuguna, is starting a new orphanage in Nairobi and it sounds like things are going well with all his projects. I'm so glad.

This is my plug. My personal attitude towards charities is that I would love to give assistance but I'm naturally hesitant and leery of organizations that ask for money because I don't want it to be misused. This is why essentially all of my donations are given to my church, because I feel much more confident that they won't be misused that way. However, the LDS church can't cover everyone's needs, especially in Africa, where we still have a limited presence. And having met James Njuguna and his employees and having worked at one of his affiliate orphanages, I can confidently say that money donated to Fadhili will be used properly to care for orphans and street kids in Kenya. Money donated to my host mom, Lucy, and her Gathiga Children's Hope Home will also be used directly to clothe, feed and educate these kids.

So, for what it's worth, I think you should check out these sites. And next time you're considering donating money, take these two organizations into some serious contemplation. Having lived in Kenya (briefly), the oft-repeated concept that a small amount of American money can go a long way is very, very true.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The hardest job in the world

Not only was yesterday Mother's day, the Sunday before that was my mom's birthday. May is pretty much Mother's Month at my family's house.

Last night when I got home for dinner, we all indulged in some reminiscing. Of course, with both Tim and Mark present, before long the focus went from our memories of Mom to funny and silly things Tim and Mark did when they were younger, but it was fun to talk with my siblings and remember together some of the good time we had when we were kids.

Any woman who can bear and raise eight children is pretty remarkable, but what's more remarkable is the way my mother tried to stay as involved in our lives as possible. Sure, we did a fair amount of raising each other and I'm certain we all felt like we didn't get enough attention sometimes, but what child doesn't? My mom had earned her master's in elementary education and was teaching third grade in Salt Lake when she and my dad got married. She quit her job after the first year of their marriage because she was a few months away from giving birth to Rebecca, and she continued to make motherhood her full-time job from that point on. And did she ever make it a full-time job.

She must have been a great teacher, if the way she ran her household is any indication. When we were preschool age, she would start us on simple textbooks for learning reading and writing and math. We had set aside time for creative activities and passes to the rec center, where we all took swimming lessons and also enjoyed many hours of fun just splashing in the water. She started us out in the kitchen pretty young, too. When I was in second grade, seven years old, my favorite concoction to make were pans of giant snickerdoodle cookies that my mother patiently allowed me to create in her kitchen, along with a pretty decent sized mess. She started teaching us piano pretty young too, and we all have chosen to continue to develop our musical talents, some on the piano, some branching out. We took trips to museums and the library regularly. One of our favorite traditions was something we called "rock and talk," where we would periodically get one-on-one time with Mom. It was generally just before bedtime, and we would curl up on a big rocking recliner together and just talk about whatever we wanted. We could tell Mom about our lives or ask her questions or make suggestions for things we thought it would be fun to do. Mark, Tim, Laura, and I agreed last night that Rock and Talk was one of our favorites.

My mom is a talented woman, and she definitely used her talents to raise her family. She made us fun birthday cakes, like cookie monster cakes covered in blue coconut frosting, or train cakes with individual cars. More than that, she made us a home-cooked, from scratch breakfast and dinner almost every day of the week. In fact, when I was a kid, the only day of the week we were allowed to have cereal from breakfast was on Sunday. Every other morning, Mom was up making us pancakes or French toast or coffee cake or German pancakes or cream of wheat. We barely knew what frozen burritos and pizza were. She often made outfits for the younger kids, and always made Easter dresses for the girls. She patiently taught me how to sew and guided me through the tricks of making formal dresses for dances in high school.

I read an article recently about raising families where a family therapist made a comment to the effect that parents should gauge the job they do as parents by what their children think of them at age 25, not what they think of them while they're growing up. Just like any mom, mine got yelled at, disobeyed, and was probably severely underappreciated while she was working so hard to keep us healthy, happy, and educated. But I think as we get older, we're realizing more and more how fortunate we were to be raised in the home that we were. Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Random things I learned this weekend

-Going to bed at 1:30 AM and getting up at 7 AM to go to the temple might just cause you to have a hard time staying awake
-Rolling down hills in parks under the full moon with cute boys is a great way to spend Friday nigh
-There are no snakes in New Zealand
-Building fires makes men feel useful
-Small, fuzzy insects will treat you like part of the landscape if you sit in an open meadow for very long
-Mother's day is the same in America and New Zealand, but Father's day doesn't show up until August in NZ. I'm not sure what that means about how much they value fathers versus mothers over there
-Being presented with flowers that have been carried on a plane all the way from New York is a good way to make my heart melt
-I am dead tired and should be in bed
-But also pretty happy

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

adventures with furniture

You know, in some ways I feel more like a college student now than I did when I was a college student.

Well, mainly in one way: apartment furnishings. BYU student housing for single students is essentially all furnished, so I never had to worry about things like beds, desks, and couches during my tenure as a student. However, now that I'm a "young professional" (that doesn't sound like me. Is that my description now?) I'm having a lot more interesting furniturial experiences. To start with, Melanie had the place partially furnished when I moved in- mostly with couches that were on loan from her cousin. By the end of the week, we had found an awesome two-tone table from Craigslist and placed it in our dining area. We went all out and decorated it with a table runner, bamboo placemats, and candles that I got in Thailand. Strictly speaking, it's more ornamental than practical- Melanie still eats most of her meals at the little kitchen bar balanced precariously on one of her IKEA barstools, and my preferred position is curled up on the couch, the plate balanced on the arm, with a fork in one and and a book in the other. I'm not really sure what Amy does, since I generally see her every fifth day or so.

For my own personal furnishings, my parents kindly lent me a mattress to sleep on, and the arrangement works well for all involved since there are lots of extra beds at my parents' house now. And I pulled out a plastic shelving unit I bought for a kitchen once and called it a dresser. Four and a half months later, the exact same setup still exists. My mattress on the floor with my plastic dresser next to it. If that doesn't make you feel like a college student, I don't know what will.

However, there was a further development this week that is once more making me feel very studentesque. Melanie got a call from her cousin on Saturday giving us 30 days' warning that she wanted her couches back. Since Mel is technically the one renting the apartment, she decided to just go ahead and purchase new couches, which was fine with me. However, when I arrived home from work last night, I found Mel and two boys from her ward sitting around (we attend different singles' wards- long story). Mel explained that her cousin changed her mind and wanted the couches posthaste, so the boys came over to help move the couches. They were waiting for the cousin to arrive with a moving van and a temporary replacement couch. Since Cousin was late, we ended up playing a rousing game of Boggle while we waited. Playing Boggle is about the only time I have ever seen Mel, one of the most mild-mannered people I know, get riled up. We both love the game and play to win, and we get in some intense, but good-natured debates about the validity of different words. Mel always has her dictionary handy.

When the cousin still didn't show after a while, I headed to my room to do some work on my computer. I heard them start moving couches around after a while, but I figured I would just be in the way, so I stayed put. Until I leaned against the wall and the world came crashing down around me.

Strictly speaking, it was the curtains that came crashing down. My bed is near the window, which happens to have long curtains. I guess I caught them just the wrong way and soon had reason to be grateful that the curtain rod was a light aluminum one, because that way it didn't really hurt as it beaned me on the head, just startled me.

I got up to examine the damage. The screw had been stripped out of the wall, so I went to find a pan to hammer the screw back in with, since my tool collection does not include a hammer yet. However, once I got into the living room, a new scenario met my eyes. The temporary replacement couch was sticking halfway through the door and a lot of people were standing around it looking confused. It was about two inches too long to fit through the door and around all the angles. Poor Melanie was very distressed and kept apologizing to me. I thought it was hilarious. Our neighbor across the hall, Daniel, stuck his head out and assessed the situation. He and I decided that we should just leave the couch in the hallway outside the door and turn the area into a commons area. In the end, the couch went back down the stairs.

So here I sit on my living room floor. It feels much more spacious without couches, it's true, but I think I'll get tired of it fast. On the plus side, it gives me a lot of floor space for things like practicing back walkovers and spreading out sewing projects, both of which I intend to do this evening.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A little karma

In general, I'd consider myself a healthy skeptic. I question random statistics that people casually throw around and I frequently ask people for their sources when they tell me sketchy stories or facts. I'm a bit infamous for it at my house, actually.

So you can imagine that things like horoscopes and fortune cookies get a pretty good chuckle out of me, but I'm starting to wonder. I had a fortune cookie at the end of March that told me "look to the next month for some pleasant surprises." Since it was such an optimistic little thing, I kept it, feeling a little foolish.

In any case, although I'm not sure how much of it I can credit to the fortune, I have to say, there have been some very pleasant surprises in the course of the last month. Very pleasant. I think I may be living the plot of a Jane Austen book. And it's a good thing I have my passport in order, because my next opportunity to use it popped up out of nowhere and will be approaching in just over a month.

And to think that fortune cookie called it before I had any idea. So much for my skepticism.