Thursday, March 29, 2007

How do you want to spend your time?


Here's a Naomi Shihab Nye Poem, courtesy of my pal Garrison. (Where would prayer and reflection be without a daily Writer's Almanac?)

She's asking a big old rocket science question that each and every one of us gets to wrestle with on this planet:

How do I want to spend my time?
What's it worth? What are my options? What are my choices? What are the essential outcomes I'd like to see from today, or my week, or this month- or shoot: my entire earthly existence?

I often get caught up on the little moments, like, "What do I want to do this next 5 minutest?"

Thus far today: I've cleaned Sarah, Aaron, Naomi and Elliot's house. Had a couple tacos. Talked to my sister. Now what?

These are not earth shattering decisions, but ones I think all sort of add up and then have the potential to overwhelm us. Or maybe just me.

I love Naomi's attitude though here. As I feel like I've similarly gotten kind of snappy and particular about my time.

"You'd like to take me to a movie? Or out for martinis and sushi?"
"That's quite delightful. But I'm wondering, 'Why?'"
"Happy hour this week?"
"Coffee on Thursday?"
"A walk by the River?"

Here's a really recent one:
"A job teaching Shakespeare to the private school privileged babes? Oh?! And it pays $500 for the day?"

In each case, I am confessing, I've posed this response loudly and clearly to the dear extending the invitation:

It's not out of a sense of anger, disgust, desire to be rude, any moral outrage or need to put a person off because I'm annoyed.
No. For me, it's just literally gotten very very clear what I want at this juncture in my life:
A boy, a baby and a book.
The three b's. (This particular naming just surfaced with my lovely friends Joy and Sharifa Tuesday night.) One month ago, the notion appeared in this kind of language:
"I'm putting all of my creative energy toward cultivating a partnership, working to have a child or two, and writing. Anything else, must take a back seat. The creation and sustaining of an organization devoted to art literacy and leadership? Fabulous. But: Backseat. The mentoring and facilitation of emerging teaching artists and collaborative work with teachers? Backseat. Unless it immediately contributes to one of these possibilities (boy, baby, writing a book) manifesting in a timely manner. It's a no go."

Sure, then there are those practical details showing up in practical questions, like,
"Umm, Meliss, how you going to pay the bills?"

Excellent question!
Answer: "God will show me."

Ack! The thing is: I really believe that. Let me tell you, when this "Three B" discernment first surfaced just a month ago, within 24 hours this job offer walked in the door to start cleaning houses. It pays $20 hour. I get to sort and tidy and scour and create clear and comfortable space for a family. Help them live in a way that makes life a bit easier. And then leave: and write. Or go out on a date.
Today, I actually get to do all three of those things. !*$@*$%#$@&!
And there's honor in that. Beauty, in fact.

I'm rambling. I'm sharing. I'm just doing my thing, revealing my daily thoughts and questions and a few details. Somewhere in all of this, I hope there is something you might find chewy or comedic or even inspiring. Read Ms. Nye's poem below.

She says all this really swell like and succinctly.

Peace, Love,
Happy discerning,

Poem: "The Art of Disappearing" by Naomi Shihab Nye from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. © The Eighth Mountain Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
NOTE: If you'd rather not receive these emails, let me know. I'll remove you from this list.
Queen Mab Contemplates :

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What do you Want?: A Writing Assignment

Here's a Writing Assignment for everyone:

Respond to the question, "What do you want?"

You get 22 short lines to answer. Include the cost and location of your desire(s).
Consider if there are ridiculous items or facets to your dream; note anything potentially standing in the way of achieving what you want.
Do not let the consideration of these things hinder your writing. Simply bear witness to the fact that they may exist.
(Naming stumbling blocks is powerful.)
You get bonus points if you are able to draw from a famous dead Russian writer's thoughts.

Below, you will find an example of such a response by David Ray.
This is a poem. Yours need not be considered a poem.

Submit these as they are composed. I shall publish those that most entertain me on my blog.

Melissa B

Poem: "Costal Farmlet" by David Ray, from Music of Time: Selected and New Poems. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission.

Costal Farmlet

"A man wants nothing so badly as a gooseberry farm."

I want a costal farmlet.
I desire it very much.
I saw it advertised
in the classifieds and I presume
that coastal means our land
comes right down
to the sea with the whitecaps
lashing romantically, and farmlet
means we can grow
gnarled trees on our headland
and let sheep roam. It is about cheap
enough for us if we borrow, beg
and steal, pawn a few poems, also write
a harlequin romance or two, and it's
only 9000 miles from the place
we call home. There's not much
of a hitch except the Immigration
would not let us stay in the country
to live in our farmlet. But still,
I want it and think we should go
look at it, right now, this moment,
while tangy sweet gooseberries glow.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Parker Palmer: on Listening to the Soul....

My dear friend Brian Mogren brought my attention to these words today from Writer, Activist, Educator, Parker Palmer. I find them wildly resonant, and a reminder of the call to LISTEN. I've been a fan of Parker Palmer for a few years now, being introduced to his work through my former student, Kristin O'Connell, who was taking a class from him at Carleton. The Divine Julie Landsman has also brought Palmer's work closer to home -- in our monthly conversations on Race, Class, Privilege, and Education.

So many blessings to receive these words, have them arrive through multiple sources. For me, it's simply more evidence to "PAY ATTENTION!"

I hope they resonate for you in some capacity this day.
Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.

(Is this perhaps why I've literally gotten ILL in my work? Why my body started reacting violently to certain relationships and circumstances not aligned with my soul's purpose? Hmmm.........)

Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what is truly about--quite apart from what I would like it to be about--or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.

How we are to listen to our lives is a question worth exploring. In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul. The soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.

The soul is like a wild animal--tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well merge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.


Excerpted from "Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation" by Parker J. Palmer. Copyright (c) 2000 by Jossey Bass, Inc., Publishers, a company of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Price of Doing this Work: Some Questions on What Transformation of Life, Community Costs...

The following is a Letter to my dear friend Julia Dinsmore:
Writer/ Community activist/ Spokesperson for People in Generational Poverty/ Artist and Angel/ Fundraiser for Spoken Word Poets.

(Under separate title, I also sent a copy of this to Daniel Pierce Bergin, Senior Producer at Twin Cities Public Television; Reporter Chris Williams at the Catholic Spirit; and Tom Borrup, Community and Cultural Development Genius, formerly of Intermedia Arts. )
Hey Love,

Do you know how much I adore and respect your energy?


Here are some questions brewing:
Who pays for you to live?
For your rent and your health care?
Your groceries, therapy, down time? (Assuming these are essential for quality of life and continued breathing. ;-))
Your gas and car insurance?
Your phone bill?
Are you on contract as a promoter and community organizer? Where are those deep pockets that are funding the social entrepreneurial initiatives that you are leading?

If you stepped out of this ring, where would it be?

It seems your work here is one of an essential lynch pin, holding all the loose ends together. You are at the center, the source, as I see it. Holding space in the concentric circles of power - radiating from the core of your lived experiences, (navigating poverty and knowing the power of spoken word as transformative arts/ life tool) - To the second ring of negotiating power and creating opportunity for others in your midst, young people especially who are so gifted - to perform, share, inspire; To the outer circle of Policy Makers and those so far removed from the immediate, daily encounter with poverty and art and literacy.

So again, I wrestle seeing what I see, and posing the questions from my own perspective.
What does transformation of a community, a world, no! A LIFE require?

What are the necessary resources , and who is making that public, visible?
Who is supporting YOU as you do all of this work?

Are you on God's payroll? ;-)

You've inquired as to my whereabouts in this realm of fundraising and spoken word: sittin this years fundraising out? Let me know!!! Gots ideas!!!

I appreciate wholeheartedly your curiosity, and take this as an appropriate time to make visible - or plainly known - once again why I'm not at the table.

I'm taking care of myself. As I look to all that you are up to, I feel a kind of mirror to my own life and experiences in this work and realm of arts, literacy, education, reform, and leadership.

I know more clearly than ever: that this work cannot come at the price of my own well-being, my own personal life passions and goals: to marry, create a family, and work in that tiny sphere or circle of radical love and transformation. I have had one tiny decade of an opportunity to work and follow my professional callings as public educator and arts literacy leader and reform person. The price has been nothing short of my own personal life and family. I cannot afford that any longer.

There may be speculation about my absence from this work, as that occurs naturally in all circles.

I hope all the dear people that I have been in relationship with over the course of the past two years know that I wish them well, and pray for your success and your ability to sustain yourselves!!!

Perhaps after my own children come along, and I'm in a solid space where my own needs are accounted for -- and I'm able to thrive, then I might find my way back to work alongside you all, and be present in a way that truly I can say is for the absolute greater good. That time, for me, is simply not now.

I make my way, clearly focusing all creative energy toward a life-time committed partnership, (rooted in a common faith, and radical love); making babies that will be well provided for and know God's abundance and grace, and a life as working writer and artist in my own right. I do look forward to the day that I'm able to introduce my husband and children to many of you! And I hope that my writing about this time in my life serves you well, honors your spirit and presence and impact as I've known it.

Again, Peace and blessings to you all!

Melissa B

Love is the religion. The universe is the book.
From Coleman Barks in "The Illuminated Rumi."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Henri Nouwen is my guy!

"Sometimes we want to know ourselves as if we were machines that could be taken apart and put back together."

You think?

Man, today, some of my parts, like my BRAIN - consisted of water balloons! Swear to God! Lift my head up, put it in a sling shot, and fire! Kaboom! Water balloon brains smashed everywhere. Those tiny bits of red and blue rubber explosion, next to droplets of water. That's one of the freaking images I had of my parts today. I wanted to explode and examine them, but dang, is that messy, messy, messy!
And so Nouwen shows up in my email inbox (Thank you Henri Nouwen Society for these daily meditations!) and reminds me that I don't have to know it all, or get it all, or even understand it all. "It all" being me and my life and my choices and my circumstances. Nah. I can just sit in silence, and let myself be loved. All of my ballooning and watery parts and what not.
Peace, Love

The Ways to Self Knowledge
"Know yourself" is good advice. But to know ourselves doesn't mean to analyse ourselves. Sometimes we want to know ourselves as if we were machines that could be taken apart and put back together at will. At certain critical times in our lives it might be helpful to explore in some detail the events that led us to our crises, but we make a mistake when we think that we can ever completely understand ourselves and explain the full meaning of our lives to others. Solitude, silence, and prayer are often the best ways to self-knowledge. Not because they offer solutions for the complexity of our lives but because they bring us in touch with our sacred center, where God dwells. That sacred center may not be analysed. It is the place of adoration, thanksgiving, and praise.
- Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Passing through phases - please!!

My friends Colette and Nicole have me all up in this physics and quantum physics world. Oh, yes, how to draw on science as a model and metaphor for the human experience....Love them!

Tonight's assignment: to look up "thermodynamic slopes."

I was scrounging around in Wikipedia looking for definitions of Chaos theory and thermodynamic principles at play, and ended up on this page of simple definitions of "Phases" or "Matter."

Being all sick and such this past couple days, this has me screaming with giggles:
When a system goes from one phase to another, there will generally be a stage where the free energy is non-analytic. This is a phase transition. Due to this non-analyticity, the free energies on either side of the transition are two different functions, so one or more thermodynamic properties will behave very differently after the transition. The property most commonly examined in this context is the heat capacity. During a transition, the heat capacity may become infinite, jump abruptly to a different value, or exhibit a "kink" or discontinuity in its derivative.
Well, doesn't that beautifully explain my fever this past weekend?! It was my heat capacity revving up! I mean, I'm in serious phase transition, right? Passing from one phase of life, career, job, calling to another, and my free energy has been woefully non-analytic (well, at the lowest levels of analysis for this cookie) being sick and exhausted and all....

Now: I am going to be on the lookout for any abrupt jumping and kinkiness.
Yes. That Kink-alert has me quite curious!



The Thing about Being Sick...(and Transitions)

There's no running. There's no running away when you are sick, taken ill and overcome by fever and flu. It's just you in your woeful body, cold, shaking, doing battle with your lungs to breathe clearly and continue in that search for the most perfectly comfortable spot of stillness.
I'm on day four or five with this flu. The second time in a season that I've had this. (Well, technically, it's another strain of the flu virus.) ...It's something to marvel, let me tell you.
This whole business of the BODY SHUTTING DOWN. Like all my parts are in revolt against my head and heart:
We are done!
Stop it!
Quit trying to go anywhere!
Or think anything!
No more creating!
Let us rest!
And so my throat seized up. Got red and raw and scratchy. Voice box quit working late on Friday. The achy all-over skin thing started. Everywhere, to touch me, there was pain.
The muscles in my face hurt, for example. Who pays attention to the muscles in their face? The simple resting of my forehead against my hand was what gave rise to this voice:
Ouchy! Yowza! Tender! Tender head! Be gentle! Massage here!
I know I wrote about fever, as a sound track was constructed inside my skull. I believe those were lucid moments. Yes, sometime on Saturday. I woke around 1pm, (after 18 hours of sleep!) to the shakes and shivers and hacking need for more expectorant/ suppressant.
Which so cracks me up, by the way:
expect/ suppress.
Expect/ Suppress.
Bring forward/ Shut down.

Bring forward/ Shut down.

There's a reason right there a body may revolt! Look at the freaking mixed messages!!!

My sinus passages were what filled up next. FILLED with fluids. Not sure how it all works, but my respiratory system was definitely doing some crazy infection dance. Like David Bowie moved in and was having a party inside my lungs and Queen Latifah was creating her own jam inside my nasal passages. Somewhere, in there, Peggy Lee was singing, too.
And I have to marvel, still coming out of this all:
What is the universe trying to say? To tell us?
Is this just that not-so-subtle reminder - that we aren't in control? Of ANYTHING?
Or is this an invitation to SLOW DOWN?
A request to take a hiatus from the realm of thought and action and be a child? Be child-like?
Curl up in the fetal position with a blanket.
Be needy? Be a receiver of the universe's graces?
Whether or not the larger Universe has anything to do with this or not: the Universe of my body has been through some things the past 4 days...
And it's simply my job to take these notes.
I know I'm in a major transition in my life. I've left the realm of classroom teaching as I've known it. And that's no small feat. A long time coming actually. And so, yes, technically, realistically-speaking, there is this pressure to move into the next phase of my life. Knowing what that is and stepping neatly into it.


And the thing is: I don't believe any body is really standing around expecting me to be all grace and charm and manners as I make my way into this next thing, but I have this sort of expectation of myself. Know what I'm saying?

Which is so funny. Because my body is laughing so hard at me. It's hardly charming to hack up a lung at lunch or while trying to fall asleep at night, oh so sweetly, after evening prayers.
My friend Coey was asking me the other day if I had been writing about my transition, and I was a bit stumped.
How does one document the everyday?
How do we truly and authentically capture what we are the midst of?
I think that is a burning question coming from my entire life of living and working to pay attention to what feels to be SIGNIFICANT PRESENT MOMENTS. Now. At North High. Growing up in Nebraska. Being on vacation. Traveling with strangers. Taking notes on my family. It's all so large and precious and screaming at me.

And in this case:
it's the sniffles that I'm supposed to write about? The sneezing and coughing and scratching, as a response to CHANGE?

I suppose so. Not sure.

But I continue to try and capture it. Sort it all out.

No solutions. Just in this mix and mess. Knowing for certain that calling forth this next phase is a daily process that requires love, patience, prayer, and lots of tissue and orange-flavored expectorant .

Peace and Love.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Crooked Wisdom - A Poem about an Extramarital Affair and the Dentist

Who's been to the dentist recently?
Watch out! Never know what the heck can be going on with those folks and their drills and picks and accompanying hygienists.

Compassion is called for here. In this wickedly funny and sad poem, showcasing Robert Fanning's clever juxtaposition of his experience with his dentist (teeth, gums, drilling, cleaning, x-rayed, exposure, etc.) and what he gleans is the back story of his doctor's life: a marriage gone awry.

According to the essay writing class I'm in presently, I would have to say this poem exemplifies a principle of showing vs. telling.

I'm not sure. But I do appreciate this poet's eye for the many levels of experience.

I wonder if this story is true?
Did Fanning's dentist really lose his wife in an affair?
Was his exam tempered or marred by this knowledge?
Did the poet invent this information, this back story, as a way to explain the seeming cruelty done to his own exposed gums?

"Crooked Wisdom" by Robert Fanning, from The Seed Thieves. © Marick Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Crooked Wisdom

Having learned last night of his wife's affair,
my dentist holds a giant silver spear
and leans over the canyon of my open jaw.
Diving in again, vulture-sure, he picks

at my gum's weak pink flesh. Between
cliffs, down in the bone and coral landscape
of my teeth, nerve tips burst and bloom
like crimson flowers on a hill. Soon

blood's smeared red signature runs
from a deep root and floods my tongue.
Half-under with gas and lovely numb,
I watch his left eye become a clouded moon,

then one black branch of an eyelash
catch a teardrop's sheer balloon. With quick
shame, like a lion tamer stricken with naked
fear, he leaves the work of the open mouth

and the raw wound to another. He lays
the mirror down beside the spear and exits
the room. Anesthesia doesn't dim his grief
a room away. I hear the hygienist say:

She's leaving you for him. You've seen this
coming for a year ...

A bit later he returns, composed in his white
smock, and clips the X-rays of my teeth
to the board. Then he lifts his pointer
to the slideshow of my bite: backlit, exposed,

the skull's little ornaments hang; bicuspids
and molars glow with hunger and decay. See here
he points — here's the abscess. Here's the cavity,
and here's that crooked wisdom pushing through.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

On Being Feverish

"You give me Fever! .... FEVER!"

That's the Peggy Lee soundtrack playing in my head right now. Only there's no slanky, slinky, smoky smooth voice and body accompanying it. No. Quite the contrary: Melissa all feverish and forlorn, curled up in her comforter, shaking shaking, shaking as she tries to type and entertain herself through this sudden onset of illness.

Where the heck did this fever come from?
Why the sinus headache?
What's up with the red-raw-scratchy throat, and the blasted cough?

Steph, my sister/ mom/doctor diagnosed me yesterday over the phone:
"You have a respiratory infection. It's actually the flu. You'll need a lot of fluids and rest. "
God bless her.

I was coming home from a conference for Gay and Lesbian Catholics and was overwhelmed by emotion from the rousing day's workshops lead by Rock-star Theologian, James Allison. "Overcoming Scandal" and "Imagining the Good" were the two retitled sessions for the day. Former Dominican Priest James Allison had me all weepy and inspired contemplating the human condition encountering first love, shame of identity, and the ensuing hell. His afternoon session centering on Home, Heart, Husband, and Ministry were really what resonated, sending me into fiercely flowing tears.
(Forgive me: this so needs editing!)
You know: James and I both really want the same things!?
While I'm all comfortable in this rainbow crowd of GLBT Catholics, I have to admit the irony of my own heterosexual woes. Being consoled by a Fransiscan brother (minus his frock) over the resonance of these themes was just a tad too much.

Perhaps that is when the cold/ flu really kicked in?

I departed shortly after the second plenary session, tissue in hand, reflecting on my desire to write more about love and shame and living through hell, overcoming scandal and imagining the good...

"Just get home, Mel, and you can write some of this down."
Well, home I got, with my bag of Walgreen goodies; Robitussin, Progresso chicken noodle soup, Emergen-C drink mix. Kleenex.

And now: here I am. Some serious sleep later, almost a bottle of Robitussin down, all shaky and sad still, alone in my bed.

I was supposed to go out last night. It was Sharifa's Birthday. I was meeting up with some lovely crew. And today: It's St. Patrick's Day! My neighbors Melinda and Cort are having a soire, and Harold, the writer/ biker from two doors down just stopped by to see if I was coming...

And here I am: in bed, contemplating James Allison, Love, Peggy Lee's music, and wondering what I can say, "Thank you, God" for. There has to be a thank you, God, right?

Thank you for the GLBT Catholic conference - that it even exists!
Thank you for James Allison's insights on love, shame, hell, and how he responds to the world and life's woes -- as a grown up.
Thank you for this cold and fever, and my own invented Peggy Lee soundtrack.
Thank you for keeping me in on St. Patrick's Day?
Thank you for having Harold the neighbor visit, even coming in to read over some of his recent work?
Thank you for chicken noodles soup.
Thank you for the ability to blog.

Thank you for all the people out there in the world who are also ill, and in need of love, comfort. May they know they are not alone.
More on Allison, maybe, soon. After I recover and am clear-headed.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Adding Heat

I'm working on an essay. Not exactly sure where it's going. But, I have found some interesting data/ definitions, to back up my experience of the universe today.

I went for a walk. Observed the melting snow. Listened to this water running from the lawns, sidewalks, into open crevices, draining into the spaces below the streets. (What is that space called? What is down there? Sewer? pipes? Where does it all go? Explain!)

I came home craving iced tea. When I went to make a batch, the boiling water I poured over the tea bags in the glass pitcher caused it to bust into about 65 smaller pieces. I cursed and cried. (This was brand new, a Christmas-present-piece-of-ART-PITCHER from my sister.)

Here is me looking up things now that have to do with Heat. ADDING HEAT. (Entropy is a term I'd like to be able to throw around.) I'd like to unpack these definitions and look at implications for other parts of my life.

Here is one for you all:
"Heat" is the motional energy of molecules being transferred: when motional energy is transferred from hotter surroundings to a cooler system, faster moving molecules in the surroundings collide with the walls of the system and some of their energy gets to the molecules of the system and makes them move faster.

And another:
"Motional molecular energy (‘heat energy’) from hotter surroundings, like faster moving molecules in a flame or violently vibrating iron atoms in a hot plate, will melt or boil a substance (the system) at the temperature of its melting or boiling point. The amount of motional energy from the surroundings that is required for melting or boiling is called the phase change energy, specifically the enthalpy of fusion or of vaporization, respectively. This phase change energy breaks bonds between the molecules in the system (not chemical bonds inside the molecules that hold the atoms together) rather than contributing to the motional energy and making the molecules move any faster – so it doesn’t raise the temperature, but instead enables the molecules to break free to move as a liquid or as a vapor.

Yes. I'd like for some aspects of my life to move faster. I like this notion of breaking free, too. Breaking free from my life and service to education reform. And taking time this year to carve space for a personal life. Yeah. I like my number one goal on the planet right now: dating and marriage and babies. Any of you know how to light the fire under my future husband's ass?
I'd appreciate that.

In the meantime, I'm taking my walks. Observing the universe. Breaking things apart. Appreciating my own heat and ability to burn.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

On South Africa: An Article from "The Economist"


This article from "The Economist" arrived yesterday from my friend Vuyisile Nkomo, South African cardiologist living and working here in Rochester. It paints a powerful picture of the economic and political landscape of present day South Africa. I encourage you to read it, and reflect on the many issues present in a country struggling in it's early democracy, after years of the oppressive apartheid rule. Clearly, there is much hope and promise that exists. Simultaneously: so much that plagues the nation.
In my contemplative work, as writer, Christian, teacher, global citizen, this article raises numerous questions:

What is our power?
As citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet?
As human beings called to a live a particular life and honor the universal charge to be aware...?
How does this tale relate to our own country's history? (As Americans or citizens from abroad?)
What can we learn stepping into an arena to pose our own questions and have the courageous conversations on race, class, privilege, governmental systems, justice?


I know a number of you saw the production "Amajuba" at the Walker last weekend, offering a powerful performance of the actors' personal narratives growing up in the apartheid era. With my own dear friend, Auntie Mo Dabula arriving next month from the Eastern Cape, this article provides a larger context for all of us receiving her.

I invite you to read and weigh the following as another way into the landscape, heart, circumstances, and situations of a people abroad, and a people right here.

Love, Peace,

Mar 1st 2007

Africa's richest country, not yet free of demons, is facing a year of

THE township of Soweto, Johannesburg's largest, was once a byword for violence and black deprivation. Look at it now. In the Diepkloof neighbourhood, shiny new cars are parked next to elegant houses protected by security systems. Shopping malls are planned, banks have
opened and tourists are coming. New bars and restaurants stay open all night, drawing in the rich blacks who now live, during the week, in quiet suburbs of Johannesburg that used to be all-white.

Even the poorest corners of South Africa now look better. Roads are being paved. People who were left in the dark and cold by the apartheid regime, which ended in 1994, now have lights, a roof over their heads and access to fresh water. Flush toilets are replacing buckets. Black
South Africans are pushing up property prices and propelling the economy in general; black economic empowerment, brought in to redress the injustices of apartheid, has spurred the creation of a small but wealthy black business elite.

The economy is now growing steadily, at almost 5% last year; inflation has been tamed; investment is looking up; trade has been liberalised; and public debt has been cut by half since 1999. In his budget last week Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, announced a surplus for the
first time in history. Another is expected in the coming year. A whopping 2 trillion rand ($285 billion) will be spent in the next three years, mainly on social services and infrastructure, and a social security system will be set up, all being well, by 2010.

South Africa now has an efficient constitutional court, a free press and active watchdogs--from a vocal (if small) political opposition to a crowd of think-tanks, campaigning groups and civic organisations. Flushed with virtue, the country that used to be an international
pariah has become a mediator of conflicts in such cockpits as Burundi and Congo. President Thabo Mbeki was a driving force behind the creation of the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development, which (if only it were brave enough to challenge Robert
Mugabe in Zimbabwe) is meant to foster an African renaissance.

The country's influence extends beyond politics. Large South African companies, once corralled by international sanctions, have turned into proper multinationals. South Africa, which has 6% of sub-Saharan Africa's people but accounts for more than a third of its GDP, has a diversified economy and first-world financial services. Nigeria's economy, the next-largest in sub-Saharan Africa, is three times smaller.

The reaction to Mr Mbeki's state-of-the-nation address last month, however, was not as upbeat as all that. This is a young, vulnerable democracy, and democratic ways still need to grow much deeper roots. The next general election is in 2009, but much of the country's future will be decided this year: the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will thrash out policies in June and almost certainly choose its next leader in December.

A good economic performance has failed to make much difference to the lives of millions of South Africans. Although half a million jobs are being created every year, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 25%--or, on a broader definition, close to 40%. Almost half the
population are poor; around a quarter get government handouts. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Communist Party, the ANC's allies, argue that the government's economic policy has been far too business-friendly.

The government has also come under fire both at home and abroad for its catastrophic handling of HIV/AIDS. The virus now infects 5.5m people, affects many millions more and kills close to 1,000 people every day. Failure to see disaster coming in the mid-1990s was later compounded by Mr Mbeki's blinkered views of the disease--and he still cannot bring himself to say that HIV causes AIDS. The health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang--a fan of beetroot, garlic and traditional medicine--was temporarily replaced this week as a strange lung infection confined her once again to hospital. She too has been attacked for giving muddled advice about anti-retroviral drugs.

Under much pressure, the government has now made anti-retrovirals
available to around 250,000 people. Although campaigners argue that this roll-out is far too slow, two people--the dynamic deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and the straight-talking deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, are breathing new life into the official response. Activists and the government talk to each other these days, though new AIDS infections show little sign of abating.

Crime also remains a serious worry. In Soweto recently Thato Radebe, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was raped, stabbed and stoned to death near her home. Her body was found in the veld with condoms, bottles and sticks around it; the whole community was shocked. Ever more government money is being thrown at crimefighting, to little effect. Though official
numbers, now almost a year old, show a slow improvement in most crime rates, violent crime remains among the worst in the world, with more than 50 people killed every day and a serious assault every two minutes. Armed robberies have spiked dramatically over the past year.

The government's generally respectable policies, backed by a plump budget, are often defeated by weaknesses in the civil service. It inherited a fragmented administration whose main purpose was to deliver superior public services to the white minority, while keeping other
South Africans under the apartheid boot. The democratic government tried to create a unified, efficient bureaucracy that would reflect the new political dispensation. In the process, many experienced white civil servants left or were pushed out.

This has changed the face of the administration, but severely hurt its ability to deliver at every level. Ministries, hospitals and schools are struggling to hire enough skilled people; many prefer the better salaries and working conditions of the private sector, or are going abroad. Municipalities, half of which are in serious trouble, are finding it harder to deliver basic services, let alone to expand provision of water, sanitation and electricity.

Angry demonstrations last year made it clear that the poor are frustrated. The left wants a change of economic direction and more government intervention, and to some extent this is occurring. A plan to accelerate economic growth and share wealth was announced last year.
The government and various state-owned enterprises have embarked on a programme to spruce up infrastructure, not least in time for the football World Cup in 2010 for which South Africa, to its delight, is host nation. The final will be played in Soccer City on the outskirts
of Soweto, where the country's biggest stadium is being rebuilt and roofed to take the crowds.

The real ticket out of poverty, however, is education. One of the worst legacies of apartheid has been inferior schooling for South Africa's black majority. Plenty of government money has been pumped in, but with slim results. Although enrolment is up, the schools fall far short of
what is needed. One international survey ranked South Africa last of 45 countries in science scores, behind Ghana and Botswana.

The government's frustration is evident in the way it handles
criticism. Critics are often denounced as racists or "coconuts"--black
on the outside but white on the inside. People who "whinge" about crime
are told that they should leave the country; those who do leave are
called traitors. Debate feels more stifled than a decade ago.

The increasing centralisation of power is also disturbing. The
president--who leads both the country and the ANC--now chooses not only
his own ministers, but also provincial premiers and mayors of large
cities where the ANC has won a majority of the votes. That used to be
the job of the local party. Parliament needs to put on some muscle to
become a better check on the executive. As it is, state institutions
risk becoming extensions of the ruling party. Political pressures on
the South African Broadcasting Corporation are undermining its

Fighting within the ANC may also be weakening institutions. The
National Intelligence Agency has been racked by a scandal involving
unauthorised surveillance and allegedly fake e-mails suggesting a
political conspiracy to prevent Jacob Zuma, the former deputy
president, from getting the top job. The agency's head has lost his job
but is fighting back; the whole mess smells of political dirty tricks.

Reports of conflicts of interest or outright corruption surface
regularly. This shows that the country's watchdogs are alive and
barking, but also that public office is too often seen as a way to get
rich. Some politicians and government officials move into business with
worrying speed. Black economic empowerment (BEE), which, among other
things, encourages companies to hive off a slice of equity to blacks,
has been accused of mainly helping a lucky, well-connected few, rather
than nurturing entrepreneurs and creating jobs. Revised rules, which
should spread the benefits more broadly through procurement, employment
and social programmes, are at least some improvement on how things have
been done in the past.

Mr Mbeki deplores what he sees as the relentless pursuit of personal
enrichment. The ANC is making new rules to clarify the fuzzy line
between party and government jobs on the one hand and business
interests on the other. The sacking in 2005 of Mr Zuma when his
financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of fraud and corruption
was generally applauded. Yet many South Africans feel that the fight
against wrongdoing is not even-handed.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has largely
failed to capitalise on these shortcomings. It has built its base by
appealing to the white and Coloured minorities. So far, only one-tenth
of its electorate is black. Until it reaches black voters, who make up
80% of South Africa's 47m people, the DA--which is to choose a new
leader this year--has no prospect of coming to power.

The main opposition comes from the left-wing ranks of the ruling
alliance itself. (No doubt the ANC's leaders think with horror of
Zimbabwe or Zambia, where the opposition to liberation movements
ultimately emerged from trade-union ranks.) The Communist Party has
been making noises about running its own election campaigns. The ANC's
trade-union allies have criticised the government's handling of
Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS and BEE. Both complain that they have been sidelined
by Mr Mbeki's centralising rule. But for all their posturing, and
despite lively rumours, neither group is likely to part company with
the ANC for some time yet.

Unless the lot of the poor improves faster, pressure from the left
will become ever harder to resist. Calls for a more pro-poor,
pro-labour stance strike a strong chord with the party's rank and file.
The battle should come to a head in June, when the ANC debates a policy
platform ahead of the party elections in December. Since the party
dominates South African politics--with 70% of the vote at the last
general election--its next boss is more or less guaranteed to become
president in 2009.

Disagreements over economic policy and leadership style have now
crystallised around the political succession--and Mr Zuma, who remains
the ANC's number two. He was cleared of rape last year, and charges of
financial shenanigans were kicked out of court in September. Mr Zuma's
most ardent supporters, mainly within the left-leaning ranks of the
ruling alliance, maintain that these trials were political devices to
prevent him from becoming South Africa's next president.

Mr Zuma's chances rest on three things: a court case, support within
the ANC, and the alternatives. The National Prosecuting Authority has
not ruled out reviving the corruption charges. This would kill his
chances only if he is found guilty; otherwise, perceptions of
victimisation would probably boost his popularity.

His standing within the party is hard to gauge. ANC leaders in KwaZulu
Natal, his home province, have said he is their presidential candidate.
So has the ANC Youth League. Elsewhere, it is a toss-up. Party
branches--and, after them, the party's regional and provincial
outfits--nominate candidates for the top ANC jobs, including the
president, and also choose delegates to the party conference that
elects them. As many of these branches are revived for the campaign,
trench warfare is likely to erupt over the succession.

The support of the party bigwigs is also vital. Traditionally only one
candidate is left by the time the presidential vote takes place at the
party conference. Potential candidates are not even supposed to say
they are up for the job. Recent allegations that Tokyo Sexwale, a
prominent businessman and a former provincial premier, has been
canvassing for support were slapped down by party leaders. Even Mr
Zuma, known for his loud singing, has been rather quiet lately.

He is charismatic, charming, and can stir up a crowd--especially a
Zulu crowd--like no one else. Yet many people, both inside and outside
the ANC, are aghast at the thought that he might be president. The
cloud of suspicion related to the fraud and corruption charges has not
yet faded, and he has shown serious lapses of judgment (including
believing that a quick shower could protect him from HIV infection). A
pragmatist to the core--or perhaps shameless populist would be closer
to it--Mr Zuma seems much cleverer at saying whatever people want to
hear than at formulating a policy and sticking to it. This makes him a
skilled negotiator and peacemaker, as he showed when he intervened in
the early 1990s in KwaZulu Natal, then on the brink of civil war. But
according to Raenette Taljaard of the Helen Suzman Foundation, a local
think-tank, he would be "a malleable, pliable president"--and one who
might be too inclined to endorse the interventionism the left is
pleading for.

Other names are also mentioned. The party's secretary-general, Kgalema
Motlanthe, is considered a potential compromise candidate, but his name
has been linked--rightly or wrongly--to the trouble at the National
Intelligence Agency. Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist turned
businessman and a key negotiator in the democratic transition, could
make a political comeback, but may not please the left. The deputy
president, Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka, is mentioned; but she owes her political
fortunes to Mr Mbeki, and probably does not have enough standing of her
own within the party.

Lastly, not impossibly, the shrewd and technocratic Mr Mbeki might
stay. The ANC leadership in the Eastern Cape has called for him to seek
a third term as party leader. Mr Mbeki, who has to step down as
president after two terms, may be tempted to remain in the party post,
which has no time limit.

Whoever he or she turns out to be, the next president will have to
rebuild bridges not only within the party, but also within the country.
The warm and generous feelings of Nelson Mandela's time have receded,
and Mr Mbeki has failed to paint a vision to inspire South Africans of
every creed and colour. Both the government and the opposition have
played the race card when it suits them. Pieter Mulder, the leader of
an opposition group called Freedom Front Plus, recently remarked: "We
do not know each other and do not debate with each other."

South Africa's democracy is young, and its institutions still need to
be nurtured, protected and shaped. The space for debate needs to be
broadened, and race relations handled with care. Racial fractures did
not disappear with apartheid, and the followers of political parties
can still largely be divided into black and white. Fewer Indians and
Coloureds have been showing up to vote, indicating that many have not
found a political home.

The astounding success of a recent song about Koos de la Rey, a famous
Boer general during the war against the British, is raising many
eyebrows. Some fear that the old-fashioned nationalism of the
Afrikaners (whites of European descent) is raising its head again. But
Tim du Plessis, the editor of an Afrikaans newspaper, argues that
Afrikaners are merely migrating to a new space, between dead-end
radicalism and ANC co-option. He points to a young, post-apartheid
generation of Afrikaners reclaiming and reinventing their identity,
unburdened by their parents' guilt.

In his candid speech last month, Mr Mbeki appealed to South Africans to
help eradicate "all that is ugly and repulsive in human society". He
regretted that South Africa's ability to unite in pursuit of a
"commonly defined national agenda" was still in question. But solving
the problems of crime, AIDS and unemployment requires just such unity,
as well as a fresh approach, and the government needs to get better at
bringing everyone on board. It is with this daunting task in mind that
the ANC must choose its next president.

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