Posts Tagged ‘Cameroon’

Lemon Delight

June 1, 2014

Fixing myself a salad supper using Belgian endive and lemon flavored olive oil, I flashed back to the first time I was offered this salad by the housekeeper employed by my parents, in Paris. Francine had worked in a large hotel most of her life, and had quite a number of stories to tell about life under the German occupation. Some were funny, others distressing, like the one about her desperately hungry coworker who was whipped for eating two bites from the discarded remains of an apple she found on a supper tray set out into the hall.

Francine is also the person who first began to teach me patience, how to mask my reaction to a situation and to bide my time until I could find a safe and effective way to retaliate. In different terms, she taught me to convert reaction into response.

My friend from Cameroon describes the French, who ruled his land for decades – as part of French West Africa – as duplicitous people who mask what they really mean behind polite phrases. He has gently scolded me for being “like the French” when I ask what he would prefer in a situation, rather than state what I think and then ask his opinion of my proposal. At first I was puzzled by this interpretation, since in my own mind I was genuinely neutral, and willing to do whatever he wished. Now, I’ve adapted my communication, to state that I have no preference among several options and would like him to choose for us both.

I’m still learning, in other situations, to feel comfortable openly asking him for what I would like. A lifetime ago, a mentally ill mother who took pleasure in denying me anything I wanted, set me on a path of masking my desires. Francine refined my skills of indirection. Time, experience, life as it happens all combined to instruct me to accept and be happy with what I could get, rather than to demand the fullness of what I wanted.

There is value in patience, in being tactful, in making lemonade from lemons.

Scent of Lemons   by Janet Triplett

Scent of Lemons
by Janet Triplett

But there is also a time for a serving of lemon meringue pie!

I’m savoring my slice just now – a demanding but satisfying job as the (gluten-free) crusty base, a delightfully sweet/tart lemony balance of romance and a social life for the filling, and a meringue topping of frothy happiness and spiritual delight.

There. I’ve said it. That I have what I want.

In the saying, I am confirming my right to this happiness, rather than daring fate to snatch it away from me in the way that, so long ago, my small pleasures were demeaned or destroyed.

How very long it sometimes takes to undo negative conditioning! Especially when that training wears the face of positive qualities like acceptance, patience, diplomacy, tact.

My spiritual teacher, from MasterPath, speaks of iron shackles and golden chains being equally binding. The shackles are clearly negative and therefore easier to identify and shed. The golden chains are so subtle and seemingly so benign. But oh, how constraining they can also be.

I feel blessed, to become able to perceive and free myself from them. I thank Thee, Master, for showing me the way.

Being Present

February 23, 2014

As I woke this morning, three little puffs of cloud – the only ones in the sky – were framed in the window at the foot of my bed. I lay watching them through the leaves of a night-blooming cereus plant, waiting for the sun to come up above the eastern hill and finish lighting the sky. The clouds seemed immovable, virtually unchanging in what is obviously a windless day. Then, just as the sun began to shine directly into the east window, the puffs merged into one larger pillow, rising up and out of my sight. When I got up to look for what remained of them, the white fluff had thinned and was disappearing against the lighted blue background of a clear morning sky.

I’ve reflected on snow, and last week on the howling wind. This morning of remarkable stillness seems to be a special invitation to stop and consider the hectic pace of my recent weeks, not only of work but in my private and inner life as well. Never one to rush into new situations, new relationships, I have been meeting three to five people (clients) a week, and getting to know them and their family members quite intimately. Drawn into helping them access services which will resolve serious problems they are facing, I am exposed to the challenges and rewards of life in a very personal way that reveals how nothing stands still, even when we feel as though nothing is changing.

First gifts

First gifts

Several small birds have appeared in my long picture widow, flitting around one juniper tree, and two neighbor dogs have just trotted into the pasture, sure to initiate a barking greeting from my ever-vigilant min-pin Doodles and his woolly poodle companion, Warrior. The sun now slants directly into the window at my side, forcing me to lower the shade in order not to be blinded. Small changes – an inch of rise of the sun, a flutter of birds – and the day has shifted. A contrast to the experience of focusing on a single issue – such as finding a job, or getting a driving license – when it can seem as though nothing changes day after day because the single object of focus and desire is not obtained.

One of the greatest gifts from my MasterPath instruction has been an increasing ability to notice the small differences and changes occurring during periods of waiting for some larger event. My Teacher speaks of the need for certain karmas (external situations) to exhaust themselves in our lives, stressing that spiritual growth need not be delayed until after XXX (I get sober, I am able to retire, I find a job). How one views one’s days and the way one approaches the occurrences of each day are both the means and the opportunity for growth. In that light, the AA injunction of “one day at a time” is an important reminder that life is lived, and changes evolve, not in some distant future, but here and now, day by day.

Wisdom of my Teacher

Wisdom of my Teacher

It seems as though my recent spiritual lessons have emphasized not just one day at a time, but one hour, sometimes one minute – bringing out how malleable time, or one’s perception of time – can be. I began with a comment about the hectic pace of my recent weeks, yet that pace only seems hectic when I look at how few days I’ve spent entirely at home, compared to pre-job weeks of days when I didn’t leave the house. If I count how many trips I’ve taken to different communities, how many new clients I’ve met, how much driving around the countryside has filled my recent weeks, I can feel as though there has been no time for me, no time to reflect, to write, to evolve. On the other hand, I remember that I noticed snow geese amongst the Canadians by the pond near town; watched a hawk catch a rabbit on the prairie outside Roy; learned more about Cameroon from stories shared during some of the longer drives; observed the relaxation of a tense body as a harried son who gave up his job last fall, to care full-time for his disabled mother, learned from me that he could have income within a month, being paid to provide that care. I remember these small moments, and time stretches.

Hectic, for me, is when I feel as though events have been rushing at me with no time to consider them, to notice details, to organize and structure experiences or – related to my new work – to prioritize what must be done. From that perspective, my commitment to myself to continue to post weekly is a commitment to limit the hectic pace the job could demand. At least once a week I must stop and reflect, and in this moment’s case, realize that I also stop and reflect frequently throughout each busy day. Noticing the geese, the hawk, the easing of tension are moments of reflection, of being present rather than reaching forward to an as yet non-existent future.

Only Canadians, no Snows

Only Canadians, no Snows

My mind has challenged the idea of being present with the moment when that moment is perceived as difficult, painful, scary or otherwise negative.

Why would one want to be fully present in a recent day of flu-induced aching and nausea? The lesson mind needed to learn was that during that day, other things were also occurring worth noticing, worth being present with. During that day, my one large dog, a retriever-cross named Blackjack, stayed on the porch and insistently close to me rather than spending his time as he usually does, out in the pastures. During that day, cotton tails appeared three separate times in the pasture. During that day one Christmas cactus put forth a single white flower, though the plant had never bloomed before.

On a recent day when I was physically exhausted but nonetheless had to drive 80 miles of winding roads on an urgent visit to a client, I was gifted to have a companion for the drive, and to receive the encouragement of expressed appreciation for my effort, from both the companion and from the client. I also saw multiple frozen waterfalls glued to rocks in the canyon through which I drove, and remembered and shared the story of a triple rainbow that had filled one field when I traveled that road in the past.

Little things to be present with. Little things which, accumulated, become large, become the frame and the tone and the import of each day. Again, my Teacher instructs that we are always free to choose what we give our attention to. Attention is food – what is fed grows. I choose to feed appreciation, present moments, what is. In such small steps, with present moments of attention, what can be is also fed, given form, and enabled to appear.

Baraka bashad.
May the Blessings Be.


January 25, 2014

For all the twenty plus years that I’ve been a “getaway” parent to students at the United World College of the American West – a two year international school drawing 16-19 year old students from nearly 80 countries to live and learn together – I’ve admired the courage of these young people. As much as many teens want to escape from parental supervision, it is still a major step to travel half way around the world, to live and study in a very different cultural environment.

I’m reminded of my own small venture into a similar unknown. I was sixteen, and had succeeded in finding and being accepted into an international summer work camp organized by the Mennonites. At the time I was living in Paris. The work camp was located in Vienna. My parents decided to make a vacation of driving me to the reunion point. They did not calculate travel time very well – or rather, they did not allow for my father’s insistence on frequent photography stops, as we made our way across France and into Switzerland.

When it became clear there was no way we could arrive in Vienna on time, my mother reluctantly agreed that I should take a train the rest of the way. My father coached me most thoroughly on how to say “I do not speak German, but I understand a little. Speak slowly please.” Trouble is, he taught me so well that my flawless pronunciation contradicted my statement, and the people I encountered generally responded with a flood of information, of which I was only able to glean that they thought I expressed myself very well indeed.

Despite the communication challenges, I made it from the railway station across Vienna to the church our group was to restore. In the end, we were moved out to the country to work on a farm/guest retreat – eighteen of us living over a chicken coup, cutting hay with hand scythes, bringing in firewood, installing a septic system, working very hard but also having a great time. We were from eight different countries, as disparate as Sweden and Turkey. I was the only American. Over the course of the summer we created evenings with a meal – improvised from our very limited diet of potatoes and tinned meat – and entertainment typical of our homes. I made sloppy joes from the tinned meat, and taught square dancing. Oh, and I appalled the Germans and the French by serving a desert of apple pie a la mode. Pie, yes OK. Ice cream, yes OK. But together? AAARRRRGGGGHHH.

For twenty years I’ve observed how variously the United World College (UWC) students do or do not adapt to the adventure they have undertaken. Most do surprisingly well. The most common pattern has been two students per year from a nation, so that there are four “country mates” at a time. Occasionally there will be a single student and not one every year. One of my early getaways was from Korea, the first to come here from that nation, and the only one for several years. She found it hard to adjust until she met a local family who had adopted a Korean baby. Spending time with them helped her feel more comfortable.

An Ethiopian getaway I had several years ago admitted that she was very nervous coming to the USA. She had heard enough stories about prejudice against blacks to fear for her safety off campus. It is my habit to research the food of the countries from which my getaways come. I’ve learned to cook Burmese, Senegalese, Korean, and Malay in addition to the more common Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Indian and Thai with which I’ve long been familiar. I was able to find teff flour in Albuquerque at an international food market, and the first time Bereket came to the house I tried my hand at making a traditional bread for her. It was less than a smashing success, but she later shared with the general college population that my effort stood out in her mind as a sign of welcome and an indication that her fears were unfounded.

Lately the number of Chinese students has risen substantially – there is a contingent from the mainland as well as from Hong Kong. They are even offering classes in Chinese to the local community this spring. The dynamics on campus are changing, as the size of different cultural groups shifts – but that is a topic for a different essay.

The students at UWC do have a framework of support, not just from country mates, but from the fact of being in a school program. How much more courage it takes to come to the US to escape intolerable living conditions in one’s home country. How much courage it takes to put oneself into a position of dependence on the kindness and support of strangers. How much courage it takes to not only travel half way around the world for one’s one survival, but to bring along the aspirations and dependency of one’s entire family. To live each day with the knowledge that the future of the next generation in one’s family depends on one’s effective exercise of wit and charm, to create a life in a land far from home.

My father was an immigrant to the US 85 years ago, as was my mother’s father twenty years before that. From the stories I heard as a child, I know it was not easy for either of them, but it seems that the environment into which they came was more hospitable than the one new arrivals and asylum seekers face now. At the turn of the 20th century, the US was truly a nation of immigrants, of refugees from famine, from pogroms, from oppressive regimes. I may be wrong, but I think our immigration laws were less punitive then – and the communities of immigrants created more of a home away from home for subsequent arrivals. My grandfather talked about families who knew of and expected his arrival. My father had a harder time – he developed spinal meningitis on the trip over, and was taken off the boat into hospital, not expected to live. He did survive, eventually found his way to upstate New York to work on a dairy farm, became an agricultural expert, and finally an employee of the government, and an economic officer in the diplomatic corps.

Now the process of making one’s way through the complexities of immigration status seems dependent on a good attorney – and the money to pay for one. Without papers one cannot easily work and earn money. Without money one cannot easily obtain papers. To knowingly put oneself in this Catch-22 situation, with the hope that a way can be found through the maze, takes an awesome amount of determination and courage. I am privileged to know several people who are finding their way through the thickets – a young woman from Burma, my former getaways from Senegal and Nigeria, my new friend from Cameroon. Their lives and their challenges remind me to be grateful for what my grandfather and my father achieved – and I am encouraged, as well, to do my part to “pay it forward” as a way of expressing my admiration for their courage. They believe their lives will be better as they become able to live and work here legally. I know this country will be better for their presence and participation among us.

Energized for the Best

January 18, 2014

I’ve never engaged in the forced gaiety others seem to think necessary for New Years – have instead always enjoyed a few simple, symbolic activities like having pickled herring and some sort of sweet pastry to give zest and pleasure to the upcoming year. Whether alone at midnight, or with company on New Year’s Day, I’ve kept that tradition – inherited from my maternal grandfather – going for a very long time. Sometimes I’ve lit sparklers at midnight – but not this year, since I was tired and went to sleep early.

What seems to be already markedly different for me in this new year is its energy level – both demanded and being met. I seem to be coming out of a longish period of – not retirement, but a withdrawing from interpersonal engagement, a period of living in a somewhat more distant and reflective way. Friends say that I have been so busy and active that no one would perceive me as withdrawing, but to me it has felt that way. Especially as I contrast the past eighteen months with both my new job, which is pushing me into a great deal of one-to-one interaction, and with being drawn into a more active socializing via two Cameroonians, newly made friends.

I’m fixing a west African dish for supper for them/us tonight. It’s one I learned years ago when two freshly graduated students from the United World College, one Senegalese, the other Nigerian, lived with me for a summer. There are of course regional and tribal differences across the very large continent of Africa, but overall, my experience of Africans is of a warmly engaged, very active presence – two days without a phone call is rare. It can feel intrusive when one is accustomed to a more formal and distanced way of being, but it is also energizing. Radically opposite to the reserve of most Asian cultural norms, with which I am more familiar.

The UWC girls were challenged, adjusting to living in my rural home. I feel as though I have close neighbors – I can see houses in several directions out my windows. They felt as though they were in the middle of nowhere, because for them a neighbor is someone living so close by that you hear their voices throughout the day – almost as though they are part of your immediate family. To compensate for the quiet I so enjoy, they played music – loudly – until they saw my car coming up the drive. I would hear the music suddenly turned off and smile to myself. Different strokes for different folks, indeed.


It’s several days since I began this essay. The dinner on New Year’s Day was full of lively talk, appreciation for a meal “from home” with every bit of the food scarfed down. The energy level in my small house rose dramatically, seeming to be almost too charged to be contained. Such a change from its usual status as a quiet retreat.

And that has been my experience each time, since, that one of the men has been out for a visit. I’m learning (in French) about a lifestyle very different from my own, about the way old cultural customs (reading the color of the kidneys of a freshly killed rooster to determine the chances for success of a marriage) are blended with modern life. Before you question the role of the rooster in planning a relationship, consider what outside omens you look to, for guidance in decisions. Astrology? The I Ching? What page your Bible happens to fall open to?

We all seek reassurance that actions we are taking are “for the best.” We enjoy reminders of the familiar when we are surrounded by what is strange and new. As I am adventuring into new territory with my job, I see myself mentally tying aspects back to prior experiences. Coming away from my first home interview with a cliet I was happy, relaxed, feeling I had made a difference – yes, this is what I used to value when I worked as a case manager in the past, this is the reward for dealing with the excruciating, dictatorial, last minute and excessively thoughtless mandates of the State. Working with people, connecting with people, helping people is the thanks for coping with a computer data system designed by urban techies with no regard to efficiency, the limits of Internet connectivity in rural “frontier” areas, or the limits of patience of “normal” human beings.

So far, it is for the best that I continue to work long and demanding days, and late into the night hours. It is for the best, I trust, that I am simultaneously using French daily and regaining my ability to speak it without thinking, and to catch myself thinking in French as I drive through miles of open grasslands, seeing an occasional herd of antelope, and many hawks, but nary a truck or car.

Out on the Plains of new Mexico

Out on the Plains of new Mexico

And it is apparently also for the best that I am being swept up into the energetic and warmly embracing family of Cameroonians I’ve so recently met.

Accustomed to considering why things happen the way they do, questioning what I should learn from various events, I am instead, in this new year, being rushed along on a tide of activity with only the ability to hang on for the ride. I will see what it is all for, when I find out where it is that I am destined to fetch up. A new year, a new job, a renewed language, all combine to present me with a new way of experiencing my life.

It just occurred to me that there is a belief – Asian I think or perhaps New Age – in the relevance of seven year cycles in our lives. No wonder mine has taken such a different and interesting turn, at ten times seven!

In Another Language

January 12, 2014

Do you speak more than one language fluently?

How are you different to yourself or to others, according to the language you are using? How does the difference in world view embodied in a language reveal a difference in its speakers? What depth of knowledge, of concept and perception of the world is lost when a language dies for want of speakers?

Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I was fully bilingual, speaking, thinking, dreaming in French as readily as I do in English. After forty years of living in the Southwest, with rare occasion to use French, and then only for a few hours at a time, I felt that I was losing more than the ability to speak French. I was losing aspects of my identity, personality, self.

Some traits are obvious – I use my hands much more when I speak French. These past thirty years have steadily diminished both my gestures and the mobility of my face (as evidenced by videos), with my communication limited to English. What else about myself is disappearing? Am I less flirtatious? More reserved? Living more through my mind and less through my emotions?

Or are those changes the result of growing older, of my life experiences, of my spiritual practice – and would exist irrespective of the language I speak?

In the way of events in my life now, once I’d framed up an inquiry, the means to explore the answer presented itself. I’ve been introduced to a Cameroonian who has been pursuing graduate studies at a nearby university. He is fluently bilingual, and offers me the opportunity to resurrect my French. I’ve been pleased to discover that my language skill still exists, relatively intact, beneath the surface of my daily life and that, as I use it regularly, my fluency is returning. My pronunciation, however, definitely needs practice.

What else is or needs changing as a result of using a second language? Can I separate shifts in attitude or emotion that originate within me based on language, from those resulting from the topics of discussion?  What is the effect of conversing with an African, rather than a Frenchman, or a bilingual American?

A good friend with whom I discussed the effects of language on perception, told me of how his relationship with an acquaintance changed as a result of a change in use of language. The interaction of the two men had been conducted in a mixture of fractured Thai and equally limited English. Despite the limitations, they had begun to build a friendship. Then the American was observed by the Thai, chatting easily with a group of other English speakers – and “the friendship was not the same afterwards. He saw me differently, and seemed not to be able to be comfortable with me in the same way as before.”

Do I see myself differently, when I speak French? I’ve been remembering events from my earlier life that I’ve not thought of in a long time. An evening at a club on the Left Bank in Paris, during my junior year of high school (American School of Paris) to which I was invited by the son of a friend of my mother’s. Hugh had just returned from a semester in the US, and ostensibly was introduced to me by our mothers, so that he could practice his English. He already had plans for the evening, and agreed to include me. On the way to the Sorbonne, by metro, he suddenly asked what part of the US I was from. When I said Washington DC his next question was, “Is that considered the South?”

He was subtly trying to determine if I’d have a problem spending the evening with his friends – African students at the Sorbonne. I did not. We collected his two French-speaking friends from Dahomey (now Benin), and went on to visit a Nigerian who has in hospital. There we acquired a fifth member of the group, a visitor who spoke virtually no French. As the only person fluent in both languages, I became the interpreter for the evening, which meant that I danced with one or the other of the men from Dahomey who argued for each African nation developing itself economically, then with the Nigerian visitor whose view was that a Pan African approach to growth was essential to the emergence of the continent as a presence in the world. About every third or fourth dance, Hugh would escort me and – in English – check to see if I was enjoying myself, and if I minded talking so much politics.

I mostly remember the oddity of being – with Hugh – virtually the only white face in the club, which was a hangout for all the Africans living in Paris. I remember enjoying the dancing, and the adventure associated with being out with “older” guys (they were in their mid-twenties) and experiencing an evening so distinctly different from the norm of my life.

My first “true love” happened in French. I dated Patrick throughout my senior year, left him behind when I graduated and returned to the US to attend college, but never really left him behind. He visited me in Boston seven years later – and fifteen years after that came with his family to the US, and a visit at my home near Santa Fe. We still exchange greetings although we haven’t written letters or talked in a long time, partially because I “lost” my French, partially because I’ve found it challenging to translate some of my US, and particularly my rural Southwest, experiences into a language I know primarily as a fast-paced, urban expression.

In college, for about a year, I dated an African Olympic soccer star, coincidentally also from Dahomey. We spoke French when alone, but English in company. He led the college team to the championships, and would usually make one goal that was spectacularly “pour toi” – a solo, elaborate-footwork trip down the field showing off his skills. The rest of the game he was the consummate team player. He was also sadly troubled and displaced, enough to not return from a summer visit home between our sophomore and junior years. In this instance also, French was associated with experiences out of the norm of my life – even though I was minoring in the subject. Studying French literature and practicing translation of texts felt like part of my general academic life. Dancing the High Life, cheering at a soccer match off campus, trying to help my friend overcome the culture shock that was dampening his spirit – those were new and different challenges.

So am I finding that I’m more adventurous in French? Perhaps…

I certainly seem to be more frank. Because I do not have the fluency to mask my thoughts and feelings? Perhaps…

I notice, in the recounting, that the significant experiences being brought to mind by my use of French are all about interactions with the opposite sex! Hmmmm…..

To be continued.

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