Lessons On Conquest

January 16, 2014 § 5 Comments

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Tonight, my sister’s family is boarding a plane that will lead them back to Wewak, Papua New Guinea. They have been doing their work there for eighteen years, and on this furlough, they were home longer than they have ever been – a year and a half – due to a new policy of needing full financial support before returning.

They are Wycliffe Bible Translators – trained in linguistics to use the blueprint of the Roman alphabet to produce a written language for a small village known as Pouye. This is one language of the 1,000 languages in PNG, out of the 6,000 languages in the world.

At the start, my sister and brother in-law learned to speak Pouye, then determined which letters are used in the language. After this map, they comprised the written language, taking into account cultural differences. Then they began the process of teaching the people to read and write, and of course, instilling them with their faith.

I could tell numerous stories about their time there, but I’ll never know what it’s really like to live the way they do. Each time they are preparing to go back, I keep hoping that they won’t go. And each time they come home, I watch patiently as they go through culture shock. It literally takes them a full year to reacclimate and catch up to all that they have missed.

Because my nieces are often so isolated, I didn’t really think that my oldest niece, Cynthia, would become a full-on teenager. But it’s happened – she’s fifteen and begging for a new phone every year. In that phase where she’s not fully present, rapt over social media, selfies, and games on her phone. Half young woman, half slightly awkward – but next time I see her, she’ll be eighteen, and that last half will probably be gone.

I was so amused, this time around, that the girls are at the age where they’re developing their own opinions. Mom and Dad are no longer the ultimate end-all be-all. They had journals of secrets and a complex magic club. Cynthia told us, “There are more pros than cons to the witch doctors where we live.” Being a super herbalist healer myself – due to years of no medical insurance – I had to agree. Though you wouldn’t want to be the unfortunate tourist who purchased the wrong kind of wooden statue – the one with a hex on it to keep the tourists out. The only way to reverse the hex, she told us, is by burning the token.

I’m trying to hold it together as I think about all of the memories I have with my nieces. All the times they spent the night and we ate ice cream and pizza, made paintings with watercolor and gouache, went to the museum where Cynthia pointed out the blonde voodoo doll that looks just like Leah, shopped at my herbal store where we bought pestles and mortars, toured a historic boat that functions as a hotel, went to the zoo, or the park. There is so much more I wish we could have done.

Since Cynthia is in high school, when they get back she’ll be going to a boarding school at a mission base on the other side of PNG. It makes me feel a little uneasy that she’ll be so far away from her family. Being the youngest sister myself, I relate a great deal to Leah. She often feels like the underdog, though she is talented and witty with an incredible imagination. My older sister left home when I was twelve, and now Cynthia is leaving when Leah is almost twelve as well. I keep seeing history repeat itself.

Being apart, they will change a great deal. Leah will come into her own and feel less overshadowed, but she’ll also feel lonely without her sister. Cynthia will become more independent, focused on making her own decisions, forming her own thoughts through her love of writing and art.

If this is the last term for my sister and brother-in-law, I also wonder what the next phase of their lives will be. What will they do? Will they teach? My sister has shown that she can acclimate, and has been working as an assistant Spanish teacher. But my brother-in-law seems more uncertain of his place outside of missionary life. He is known there as a leader, but here, he hasn’t had the opportunity to establish himself in that way. It seems important that he find his footing here in the states, eventually.

All four of them have kept moving so constantly that gypsy life is ingrained in them. They all fear the idea of staying in one place for more than a year. In that constant movement, there is little chance for a complete life to take root. I only say this, because for a long time, I lived that way as well. It’s the “Hello, Goodbye” lifestyle. We’re never able to completely work out our issues because there is never enough time together.

I get nervous being one on one with my sister. I attempted to have lunch with her once – the second time we were alone together since she got married. Her silence makes me want to fill the air with words. I wonder if she expects me to ask her questions, but I don’t know what questions to ask, and I prefer that she fill in the blanks without my prodding. She told me that I talked too much. I am an open book, and she is a closed one – she knows me so much better than I will ever know her. I have no idea how to solve her mystery.

There are many things we never say. We never bring up the fact that I didn’t become the Super-Christian that she so wanted me to be (including the time that she tried to send me to a rehab camp in Texas for straying Christians). They’ve read some of my writing, but no one ever brings it up. And we never discuss that I have mixed feelings about what they do for a living.

In Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, the course of our evolutionary development is traced through the conquest and spread of civilization. His book offers a total education in how human society functions through the game of winners and losers. At one point he asks, “Why was proselytizing religion (Christianity and Islam) a driving force for colonization and conquest among Europeans and West Asians but not among Chinese (Diamond, 419)?”

As countries, empires, languages, and people groups have come and gone, China has remained Chinese, with an unchanging language and power structure for longer than almost anywhere. It is an insular large land mass, and though as a culture they have made leaps and bounds in technology and invention, an absolute leader has always stalled the process, causing a sort of catch-up game hundreds of years later.

In Europe, however, there are many small countries with open communication. If one leader is not buying a concept, another one will. If the concept is successful, the other leaders have to adopt it or risk getting swallowed up by the more successful country. This model pertains not only to countries but to corporations, organizations, governments, and religion.

Christianity is a conquest religion. First come the missionaries, then comes the government. The big businesses are drawn by untapped resources and cheap labor, which leads to total cultural take-over.

In the past eighteen years, a lot has changed in Papua New Guinea. Its resources have encouraged development – and if you want to rent a home there, $4,000 a month is on the low-end. I wouldn’t be surprised if land gets bought up right from under the feet of the natives. It’s the same old story.

In the 1970’s, the highlanders had been farming with stone tools for thousands of years while those in the swamp areas existed on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Before humans ever arrived, large mammals existed there, but since then, there has been so little protein, that cannibalism existed until modern Australians threatened the human-eaters with guns. Society there developed in utter isolation from the original Asian population that first founded it (certain people groups that looked much different back then than they do today).

“… difficulties of terrain, combined with the state of intermittent warfare that characterized relations between New Guinea bands or villages, account for traditional New Guinea’s linguistic, cultural, and political fragmentation (Diamond, 306).”

This fragmentation and geographic isolation kept New Guinea from developing as a civilization, though until three thousand years ago, it was actually more advanced than Australia, the islands of Bismarck, and the Solomon Archipelagoes.

To most Papua New Guineans, technology is “white man’s magic.” Western medicine and an encouragement to decrease warfare has improved the population. Is it patronizing to ask that a culture remain untouched so that we can enjoy the Stone Age from afar? Is it patronizing to take over? Rather than answers, there is the inevitable progression of globalization.

Quickly, the old traditions disappear, replaced with our customs, our food, our business, our religions. The first thing they are given to read is the Bible. Not their own stories, but the stories of a once tiny tribal religion that began in the Fertile Crescent – a place so raped of its natural resources that it is now only a dessert.

Within my family, there are eight different people with differing life experiences, belief systems, and lifestyles among three different generations. Maybe all of that difference keeps us balanced. When we come together, it can be a challenge. There is always an awkward moment, or the thing that someone says that makes me angry. In a sense, we understand more fully who we are when confronted with the opposite point of view. It seems to work for us – the small groups with mostly open communication that create innovation – kind of like Europe, or Microsoft, or Capitalism. In all of that difference, we find success.

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January 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Letting Go

January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I have strayed far away from my roots in poetry. Neglected the vague for the purely visceral. Yet there is nothing vague about the poems by Sharon Olds in Stag’s Leap, or any of her other previous works. I’m pleased that she won the Pulitzer Prize for this release. She truly deserves it.

Stag’s Leap confronts the shreds of her life as she moves through the process of a divorce. Olds never hides behind her words. Instead, she uses them to strip herself bare to us. Embraced by her raw vulnerability, we find ourselves. We find parts that we didn’t know existed. She is teaching us our human condition. This is how poetry achieves relevance in a world that seeks to distract us from our inner core.

I’ve heard that the most difficult aspect of divorce is losing two combined minds. My husband, Michael, is a natural people person. He’s taken over all the social aspects of our life that I tend to lack the energy for. At work, people naturally trust him, and he feels fulfilled by solving their problems and dealing with confrontation. As for me, this sort of work gives me a lot of anxiety. I run the internal workings – the daily chores at the building we run, the budget, the groceries, the smooth flow of our home, most of the cooking, and random work that provides extra income. While I work hard to write almost every morning, I spend the afternoons doing my share to contribute.

Our balance doesn’t always work perfectly. There is often a lot of pressure for me to bring in more money, but I’m doing the best I can for now and trying to figure out how I can do better. Michael’s lack of balance comes from neglect around our apartment. He doesn’t realize that all of the piles of things he leaves undone end up being finished by me. Instead of contributing to my efforts, he multiplies the amount of cleaning that I do. Those small issues, however, rate low next to the chaos we experience without the other bridging the gaps.

“… When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well. I’d gaze
up, at noon, and see Orion
shining… (Unspeakable, Olds, 4).”

In marriage, a cocoon is woven. For years, we fought against it, held it back, and kept going out every night as though we were still single. Little by little, we began to find that the rest of the world really annoyed us. Why should we waste our time on excess baggage when our favorite person was right at home?

Our social life went from quantity to quality. At first there was imbalance – spending a lot of time with people I didn’t choose, who didn’t choose me either – Michael’s friends. I appreciate our differences, but when I talk about the things I love, their eyes glaze over. It shifted when we began to cultivate friendships as a duo – finding people who enrich our interests and vice versa. Now I can appreciate all of the people in our lives because my needs are being met.

I still look at my husband and think, ‘Who is this person that I’ve chosen to spend my life with, and how did this happen?’ It’s still a mystery to me. We are completely opposite and yet exactly the same – a complete contradiction. In the beginning I thought we’d never run out of things to talk about. That’s still true, as long as we keep living our separate lives, coming home with fresh energy to share. To be happy as a duo, you first have to be happy as a solo.

Michael is certain that we will never get divorced. I say, that if we ever separate, there’s no point in getting a divorce, because I will never marry again. If that were ever to happen, I’d probably end up right back with him. His ridiculous quirks, daily dramas, sensitivity, and jokes – I’ve become so accustomed to all of him that I’ve forgotten what life looks like without his presence.

There is the other running scenario, further in the future. The one where, being sixteen years older than I am, he passes away, and I’m a widow with a lot of life left to live. He’s certain that I’ll move to Paris, start smoking cigarettes, and surround myself with young protégés. I don’t know what I’ll do, but maybe I would move away. Even though Seattle is my home, there would be too many memories to live with.

When someone dies, someone who feels like your right hand, you’ve got to find whatever method you can to not die right along with them. Some people think it’s romantic when a spouse dies a week after the loss of their partner. I personally, find that to be depressing and the sign of a life turned too far inward. The only way to move forward is to rebuild your life completely.

I used to fear coming to this point in our relationship, when one of us has to say goodbye. I’m no longer afraid. I trust in my abilities of reinvention. I’ve spent enough time alone to know what it’s like, and I don’t really mind solitude. The thing that helped me let go of the fear was a documentary that follows several older women in London. Some of them have been without their partner for over twenty years. They haven’t succumbed to stereotypes of age, they’re not afraid of starting over, and they live passionate, exciting lives. Their style is a way of life. In short, they show us that growing old can be very beautiful, opening us up to new facets of life.

Unfortunately, the full-length documentary has been removed, but here is a taster and a link to purchase the full-length film.

http://www.wellparkproductions.com/filmography/fashion.html

“So the men are gone,
and I’m back with Mom. I always feared this would happen,
I thought it would be pure horror
but it’s just home, Mom’s house… (Telling My Mother, Olds, 10).”

We are lucky to find our best friends and lovers. Their presence makes pesky details less abrasive. They distract us with pure joy at having someone who really understands. They often present the challenge of ‘how do we grow with each other?’ The comfort of their arms is like a sedative, the struggle to retain the self, sometimes immense. Yet they are the only true source for our personal growth. Through them, we expand beyond ourselves.

“… I am glad not to have lost him
entirely, but to see him moved
at the whim of the sky, like a man in the wind,
drawn as if on a barge resting on
updrafts, mild downdrops, he is like
an icon, he is like a fantasy… (Slowly He Starts, Olds, 74)”

In our culture, we are taught to avoid grief, to pop a pill and be done with it. But you can never get to the happy well-balanced place unless you work through your full range of emotions. Masking a feeling only prolongs the ache. Separations, death – these are not experiences to be afraid of. They are a time to search the self, and begin again. As long as you are alive, there is time for new beginnings. Even at the point when you feel lucky to have made it this far. In fact, I feel that way already.

As the years pass and Sharon Olds moves through the steps of letting go, we realize, her ex-husband remains mapped onto her body and through her mind. He no longer exists in the way he did before he left her. But his presence is permanent. Distant, but always a part of her – joined through their children and their thirty years together.

“… We fulfilled something in each other –
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me (What Left?, Olds, 89).”

Have you experienced the loss of a partner through separation or death? How did you cope, what did you learn in the process, and how did you come out on the other side? What was the positive that came out of the negative? Please share below.

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