January 22, 2012 § Leave a comment
To borrow the words of our profound little Benson, “Uncle, you have not done writing in so long. You will start where?”
I will start with a list. The kids first kiss with the ocean; my mom and brothers carving tall grass in the Mara, sweeping kids into their arms, button-hooking the luminous hills of Rwanda like the glowing pages of a pop-up-book; a fifty year rain record; Father Christmas and ‘the deers;’ the rainforest; the new year; back to school; more jobs; Angie’s mom; the most awe-inspiring Kilimanjaro group, and the sun – thank heavens – the shining summer sun!
2011 was a mad course; a hailstorm of implausible trials; a relentless test of sacrifice and surrender. From it though came opportunities to better love, better provide, and more wholly find meaning in this wild journey. So with optimism saluted and love exalted, I welcome the clean vastness of the year now upon us.
Scene from Rwanda / Ode to my Mom and Brothers:
In the trunk of the LandCruiser, a seat is folded down. From it, I am watching hills upon hills of tea leaves and banana trees dance a slow whip along rivers looking born from a pottery-wheel. My mom – in her quiet strength – is taking in every child waving and every dress blushing in the wind. My brothers are laughing, making me feel like I could easily die from happiness overwhelm. And then the rainforest, when I suddenly knew nothing about anything and was honored to be so humbled by such fearsome beauty. Please, bury my heart in the rainforest.
To Mom and Blake and Brandon, I am so thankful and so in love it chokes me in fullness. For every pothole and mud stuck shoe, every airport race, fear-conquering and wandering conversation, I am grateful. Thank you for your patience, your sense of humor, and for expanding my bounds and the bounds of love for the kids. You can see me now, and that makes all the difference.
Chapter 3 : How Little We Know.
This weeks test of compassion is to embrace how little we know. By this and only by this can we more fully ‘inhabit our humanity’ and sail in the beauty of mystery, instead of ‘pluck out the heart of it’ for ourselves and for others.
Muumbi and Mwangi. Do you know these names? If you don’t, it’s best yourecoil to last post and come furling back to see some serious wings throw open. For those who do, it’s time we cut loose the hive of inspiration and stand the hairs on our arms like soldiers of the Royal Compassion Army. Wisdom is the horizon love, let’s run for it.
Muumbi is in an IDP camp; her worldly possessions scorched, her family scattered, and her future is in every way cryptic and dark. She is one refugee in a forest of desperate thousands. Mwangi is sitting on a mattress with his pregnant wife, his orphaned nephew, and food has run out. He doesn’t have one coin to build on, not one second to rest, but every reason to fold and sleep. He is one hungry man in a sea of billions upon billions hungry.
Not everyone makes a comeback you know. It’s a lottery, who will be chosen. And why them? Why them and not me? We spend so much energy swimming in search of answers for these huge aching questions. But what if the creators of the lottery and thus the creators of those questions of inequality? We are. And if we created it, can we not repair it? We can! And what if the answer to all our hungry, panging questions was wildly simple? It is. The answer:
Compassion is an inexhaustible resource; boundless, timeless, and infinite. It’s our GIVING of it – our making sacrifice for another’s betterment – our inaction – that divides a world of scarcity from the world of which we dream.
Think of it like this. For your two hands, there are two hands reaching.
Chapter 4: Hands Together
It’s not easy to shine in an IDP camp, but blessings come from strange places. In her efforts to project hope and find potential goodness, Muumbi found light where there seemed little.
“I met my greatest friends in camp. Still now, they are the greatest. One of them was working for the Red Cross at the time, helping care for us others, and she told me there a was ‘a good Samaritan’ I should meet and she arranged a meeting.”
He was a total stranger. He said, “I have a house you and your family can live in for the next five years. No cost. I ask only that you return a favor to someone else someday.”
I asked Muumbi what she feels now thinking about his act, and she said this:
“In losing everything, I learned you can be rich and be poor in the same day. To be rich takes a long time and a lot of hard work; but to be poor can take only one day. And I’ve also learned that goodness comes from the smallest things and the smallest acts. That man, that ‘good Samaritan,’ saved my family’s life sharing just what he had. We didn’t have a single piece of furniture, not even a chair to sit on, but just by coming together – my husband and I and our remaining children – we had a chance to come back and live. Not the life we used to live, but a life that could still have peace. We came together and achieved this. Every hand was needed and when people gave just what they could, that was enough.”
Chapter 5: Pairing and Pairing
For Mwangi, one person could spare only a 100 shilling note torn in two pieces ($1.20). He said he couldn’t’ find anyone who would take it and wished our warrior luck.
“I knew I could go without eating, but my wife could not. I can hardly think about that pressure even now. I took the bill, hoping so much it could be the start of a change, and went to the bank. The woman at the counter said the only way she could change it was if I had an account, but I didn’t have any money to open one. So she said ‘I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do’ an called the next customer. I started to choke up, as if to cry, and I turned to walk away. She said ‘sir, wait’ and reached through the window for the bill. I remember how that felt to me; the hope that I felt just from that turn.”
Mwangi bought food with the bill and later met a man who he told the ‘torn-bill story’ to. The man decided to loan him 5000 shillings ($65), with which Mwangi bought kitchen utensils from the city and went from village to village, door to door selling, until he had enough to pay the loan and start over. “Ask anyone who I am and they will tell you they know me, just because of how far I went with those spoons!”
“I knew I couldn’t support my nephew, even with what I had going and my son was born at this point, so I took my nephew to a place called Flying Kites. I appealed for help, but they were full. Many people come to them seeking help. But I was lucky to meet the manager and overhear him talking about how they were struggling to get birth certificates made for some of the children because of some government issues, so I volunteered to help them. I felt that if I could show him my ability, they might consider me for employment. I stopped selling my wares and put myself completely into this small project. And I impressed them. They really stood for me after that.”
“So, first came Flying Kites.”
“Then came Mike and Jane.”
“And then came Njabini Apparel.”
“In the strangest way, I am doing everything I have ever dreamed of being able to do now.”
Chapter 6: Njabini Apparel
What if one pair of hands could grab many? What if hands once reaching, were now hands grasping others? What if scarcity became abundance?!!!
This is the story of Njabini Apparel:
A woman named Jane introduced a you man named Mike, a Flying Kites volunteer, to a woman named Muumbi. Muumbi made the first line of test products. Mike founded the fundamentals and developed a market, and he needed a manager to scale the whole business up. In consulting Flying Kites, he found Mwangi. And what was once was a single scarf is now near 170 per month, and what once was just Muumbi – one woman and one family forever altered – is now fifteen and growing.
“I think about my son and I could cry,” says Mwangi. “I think about how beautiful his life will be, how different it will be from mine, and I wake feeling so proud. Because of Njabini Apparel I am now in business school, as I always dreamed, and I get to manage a business that helps women provide for their families. Flying Kites found my nephew a sponsor so he is in a great school with many opportunities, and now I get to be a leader in my community, bettering my community. So when you ask me about our products, I will tell you we make them as perfect as we can… because our whole life is in them.”
“I think about the day I was sitting on that bed, and I can only thank my wife. If she wasn’t serious about loving me, she could have left me on that day. She is a good friend.”
Muumbi now provides for three of her children, her husband, and two of her grandchildren left without parents from the violence. “Can you imagine that I used to be unable to afford a single pencil? And now because someone buys a pair of slippers my son and daughters and grandchildren can go to good schools? We eat and grow because of Njabini Apparel. I used to just want for my children to be fed, and now one is working to become a doctor and one a nurse. So when I make a scarf, I use the pride of a mother. I used to be so ashamed that I couldn’t provide for them, but now I am able, and I am so grateful for this.”
Mike Behan is student at Northwestern University and because he is an incredible friend, I know he will kill me if I praise him with too much gusto. But he deserves every ounce of love. Njabini Apparel is building something for the community, owned by the community. If you ask Mike or Mwangi whose company this is, they will both say ‘this is the women’s company.’ ‘They are the pioneers of this.’ The truth is, it’s equal parts of all. And we, as Flying Kites, are the beneficiaries of their work. So every purchase goes to supporting women, supporting childcare, and supporting the local economy. Support Muumbi, Mwangi, Mike by visiting Njabini Apparel and ordering their product. Just as hands reach, feet can reach too. Give them slippers.
In end, it’s as simple as a whole world of people looking for the same thing: Abundance. Deeper meaning. Deeper connection. A good Samaritan, a Red Cross worker, a torn bill, a bank teller, a grocery store entrepreneur, a young man with a great idea; an orphanage in the mountains.
What hands will you grab today? Embrace the mystery of what could come.
***All photos by Brandon Jones
November 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
I read a story about a woman who collected rare books and original works of art and treasures from a life of world travels. Her house was a museum; her soul exhibition. Then a forest fire came, swept the gilded mountainside, and swallowed everything.
And of all the priceless artifacts, what remained?
Only the things she gave to others.
“This,” she said, “was her lesson in nonattachment and the virtue of open-handed generosity.”
For it’s simplicity and inherent wisdom, I love this story. In my life here, there are few constants. In fact, it feels often that there are only two. There are forest fires and there is the beauty of what remains. Or, in less poetic terms, there is endless change and challenge, and thus endless opportunities to unearth boundless meaning and enlightenment.
It’s not hard to find people here or anywhere in this world who have at one point lost everything. And I mean everything. Then of equal wonder, there is another course of emptying; there are those who willingly and lovingly give all they have away. They are immensely dissimilar courses, as different as something being taken is from something given away. But reader, if there is one thing I have learned from this place, it is that we are destined to be thrust open, ever-more deeply! By force or by choice, it is our destiny to learn to let go. And in doing so we learn to separate what one day wash away, from what will endlessly remain. Or, as Rumi said, “If you are in love with the infinite, why grieve over earth washing away in the rain?”
“Of all you see, only love is infinite.”
Wisdom is the horizon my friend; there is no time to waste! The tingle pouring from the crown of your scalp, the one galloping down your spine, that’s the vehicle which will carry us.
Since I last wrote, Kenya has engaged in war, my hair has grown longer, food prices have exploded like a stop-motion film, and between theft and surgery and biblical rains, this recent chapter has been something I imagine sea captains write their wives about. But like yogis and sea captains alike, every flow has it’s ebb. And I’m finally in a place to breathe and be thankful for the lessons left gleaming in the wake.
Angie is here, gardening gorgeous dreams and inspiring a whole new sense of family. And by her lead, a whole new cast of inspired sculptors are here lending their strong hearts, hands, and wings. Julianna is missed deeply and daily, though we smile knowing she is home building our bright future. And the children! The children are as fit as I’ve ever known them, academically, physically, emotionally. Imagine twenty-six feather-weight fighters on the road to glory! Pink gloves, sharpened pencils and pearly whites.
But here’s the kicker, we as Flying Kites need help. Everyone who reads this blog or browses our website sends the most gorgeous words of encouragement and invest great hope in the value of such equitable work, but less than two percent actually do something tangible to make it grow. So I’m appealing to you today, with all the energy I have. It will take more than a wish to make us live. It will take an act. So for me, or for whatever reason you chose, take thirty seconds to give five dollars, even ten. Make a wish a reality. Just click.
We have more lives to learn from and to change. So with a pure heart, let’s plunge into the present. I am looking into eyes that could jump a car.
Chapter 1: Mummbi (Moo-m-bee)
Mummbi’s fingers dive through one another like dolphins towing leashes of warm yellow yarn. She’s knitting a scarf, narrating a tale of tragedy and redemption and ceaseless substance. She speaks of it all like weather; like water sculpting rocks. She is a grandmother of similar composition; water and sculpted rocks.
“When they came, I grabbed only one thing.” Her hands locked in a pause and her eyes flicked up. “I grabbed a thermos full of hot tea. And then we ran.” She hung like a picture frame in that moment, like the event was projecting on the wall behind me, then she kick-started her fingers and resumed the dolphin dance. “I knew with this I’d have something for the baby. But that was it, three of my eight children, my grandchild, my husband, and a thermos of milk.”
They burned everything. But neither flames or screams consumed Mummbi the way worry for her five missing children did. I’d love to tell you that she found them. But she didn’t find them all. News of some came from friends; news of others came from the morgue.
It was a tribal war, so it didn’t matter what kind of person you were. It mattered only what kind of person you were. So they ran to their kind, to the Kikuyu Highlands, where a Red Cross IDP camp was filling like a teacup in a field of rain.
“The moment we arrived, we were separated.” There were halls for women; halls for men, for children, for the sick and halls for the elderly. For two weeks she was frozen here, without anyone or anything besides a bed to try and sleep in. She did not know whether her missing children were dead or alive. She didn’t know when she would reunite with her family in the camp; she didn’t know what they would do from here; where they would go; how anything could ever be anything again.
She said, “I begged them to let me stay with my daughter who has epilepsy, but they could only allow me to see her when she was having a seizure. So in a strange way I was hanging to the hope that I might get to see her. That felt like all I had.”
“This was the lowest place I’d ever known.”
Then something extraordinary happened. A single friendship. And from this a single act of profound generosity. And from here, eventually, the beginnings of redemption. But how and where? So much has been lost.
Wisdom is the horizon! Stay with me!
Chapter 2: Mwangi
His hands are clasped on his stacked knee, legs crossed, and his broad smile is tucked neatly beneath his bowing forehead, like a pocket-watch in a winter coat. What he could say is that he dug holes to put himself through school. That for two cents a hole, he worked hard from the moment the bell rang until the sun bruised itself purple. And when the final exam came (the equivalent of SAT’s), he could say ‘I didn’t have the 4,500 shillings ($45) to enter the room, so I had to spend the entire year to come just digging and washing and hustling, playing teacher and student in the evenings, until the opportunity came again.’ And what he could say is ‘that test finally came, and I earned every ounce of question and every right answer on it.’ But all that humble Mwangi says is, “I worked hard to put myself through school.”
His dream was to make it to college and someday hold a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management. So with his hard earned high-school diploma, he set off to find work, to save money, to once again put himself through school. He took a job with a company called Spring Box, making plastic bottle tops in a plastic bottle factory. “At first I was excited! True. I was making 200 shillings ($2) a day, and it took time before I realized I could never really live on such an amount. Then I met a girl on a bus, and we fell in love. And I didn’t even have enough money to take her out. So I started working much harder.”
He stopped eating lunch, started working fourteen hour nightshifts, and he jumped on so much overtime he typically worked all but two or three days a month. “I realized I was going nowhere in the company, but I was grateful to be able to work as hard as I wanted to. I knew I was learning important new skills, so I focused on those things. I was pursuing my dream.”
Mwangi saved enough money to pay the dowry for his bride and left Spring Box. And while there wasn’t enough for the management course or much to start a life alone on, the couple came up with a plan. They’d moved into Mwangi’s parent’s house, Mwangi would return to odd-jobs, they’d invest the money they had, and they’d began saving for the future; a future which was already growing in the belly of mom.
Now, reader, the fire sparks. Mwangi’s step-sister started taking drugs a long time before this and after five years of having neither seen or heard from her, they too got a call from the morgue. And only a few short days later, her young son stood cold at the family’s door. So they took him in and loved him as their own. At this very same time, Mwangi’s father’s condition worsened. He’d suffered from a spinal disorder all his life, but support from a loan group kept him ahead of his medical bills. Until, it didn’t. Until he defaulted on a hefty loan.
Mwangi looks down at his knuckles, his breath shortens, and his eyes are swelling. Like Muumbi, the film is reeling. “It was brutal,” he said softly, “There were no negotiations. They came and took our land by force. I had 1,600 shillings ($16) in my pocket and I was afraid for my life and for my family. Everything we’d started to build was taken.”
“It felt like all of the sudden, everything was gone. I was in a town called Njabini, in a one room apartment with my pregnant wife and my orphaned nephew. All we had was a single bed in the middle of the room, a bag of porridge flour, a bag of rice, and two cans of charcoal. Not a coin in my pocket, and I can cry thinking about that day even now. I will always remember that day.”
Reader, this is thankfully not the end of the story, but it’s also not the end of the trial. The food ran out. And the pains of being hungry are nothing compared to the pains of knowing your pregnant wife and your unborn baby are hungry. But once again, as we will soon find, a single friendship and a single act of generosity will snap like a key through a bolt, and a course of unimaginable redemption for both Muumbi and Mwangi will converge.
And an opportunity for us to join their story will come.
For now, my friend, this is where I must leave you. I hope light is crashing all around you and you blanketed in gratitude for all the freedoms you have; for how totally limitless you really are. Give love today with unguarded faith and receive it wholly and mindfully. Every drop makes for a bucket more full.
This week’s focus is the practice of mindfulness, the practice of “using our mental energies more kindly and productively.” It is a way, by non-judgment and self-reflection, to become more harmonious with the fullness of each living moment.
Let today be enough. Let today be full. Make an orphanage in Kenya grow.
Love is Infinite!