I See You

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I had a number of meaningful conversations during the Jewish New Year festivities, but my favorite was at a break-the-fast gathering, where I met a lovely woman who had spent the last year working with traumatized female veterans. Trauma- one of my favorite subjects to learn about! Of course I cornered her and asked her all about what she knew. One story in particular stuck with me. She told me about a woman everyone else had given up on, with whom she just sat in silence.

I thought about how, when Tariku is having a total freak-out and hides under the bed with his hands over his ears, I will sometimes just go and lie down on the floor next to him and not say anything. I remember when he was little and having one of his alarming tantrums, at first I would instinctively try to hug him or comfort him and he would panic and lash out. So I started sitting outside the door and waiting with him until it passed. And then little by little I began sitting in the doorway. Then I made it into the room. Sometimes he still needs to go be by himself for a while and work it out, but I’ve learned to see if there’s a little window open through which I can hold out an olive branch. If there is, I will go and sit silently with him.

My talk with the woman at the party caused me to reflect on how important it is to feel witnessed. Not just to be able to call a good friend on the phone and unload, although that’s great too! But to have your trauma and pain recognized and supported on a larger cultural level. We need simply to know: I am seen and there is a place for me here on this planet. All of me. All of my suffering and flaws and hope and humanity.

Because I am fortunate enough to have brilliant friends from different faith traditions, the week before the Jewish New Year, I found myself at a Christian Women of Faith event to hear the awesome Jen Hatmaker speak.  I heard her saying hetmessentially the same thing, with a different set of operating metaphors. Forgive my reductive paraphrasing of such a compassionate, eloquent and funny speaker, but what I heard from her was: You are seen and you are loved. Not for your accomplishments or your good behavior or your willingness to tow the line or your terrific souffles. You are seen, in all your imperfect and frightened humanity, and you are worthy of love. Period. End story.

I think a big part of all holiday rituals is simply to say to each other: I see you and we’re here together. We are all sinners; we are all in pain; we are all hungry for love and connection; we are all going to pass back into the unknown from which we came too soon. In light of all that mishigas (yiddish for “craziness”), we sit here beside one another in the presence of the divine mystery.

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Happy 5775!

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Last week, I celebrated the Jewish New Year at an event on the banks of the LA River. An eclectic group of us wandered past the birch trees and down the concrete slope of the embankment, with hunks of bread in our hands. As is traditional, crumb-by-crumb we released the sins of the past year, each one hitting the water with a ripple of light reflected from the yellow streetlamps across the river.

I thought a lot about the people I had met and things I had seen in Ethiopia.

Two weeks ago, I returned from my Love Hope trip with Help One Now, where I was privileged to see the community development work they’re doing to support struggling families in the village of Gunchire. After long days traveling over unpaved roads in a rickety van, our dusty group of travelers unwound by listening to music and telling stories late into the night. They were a terrific group of people, who taught me a lot about what it means to truly make faith and social justice work a centerpiece of your life.

Back home on the riverbank, I thought about the ways I had lapsed, even over the course of a week, into vanity, selfishness, and convenient forgetting. As I stepped into 5775, I felt frustrated by the fact that in many ways I am no wiser, no more sure of my religious identity than I have ever been. I keep waiting for the ray of light through the clouds that will make me sure. I sighed and pitched my last hunk of bread into the water. What if in the end it is all just bread and just water- yucky LA River water at that- and I might as well have been home eating chocolate-covered almonds and watching Blacklist on the couch?

After the ceremony, we held hands and sang. I thought about standing in Gunchire, hugging Marta, who had only a year before been starving. With our arms around each other, it’s easy to see that we are all suffering. I realized that, riddled with doubt though I may be, I understand God and myself most fully when I am taking action to address this, both by looking outward and looking inward. I went home feeling filled-up, if not with answers than at least with community and prayer (and baklava!).

For me, walking into this New Year is not about some litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts. I’ve had quite enough of those lists in my life. Rather, it’s about noticing when I feel most myself, closest to God, most present with my family, stronger and lighter. It is about moving towards those things.

If you didn’t get the chance to follow our journey to Africa, you can either just scroll down or visit my page on the Help One Now website. While you’re at it, check out what Jen, Kristen and Korie had to say about it.

You can still sponsor a child! It’s truly life-saving work. By doing so, you’ll be making it possible for local leaders to leverage their resources, break the cycle of poverty and keep a vulnerable family together. If you haven’t done it yet, please check it out.

A very sweet New Year- new Hebrew calendar year, new school year, new harvest, new chill in the air, new chance to make a difference- to all of you.

(photos/video by Ty Clark and Scott Wade)

Hope Happens

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We’re back in Addis now, with its crazy slow-moving traffic, tons of construction, brightly colored corrugated tin shacks, miles of market stalls and crowds of people walking everywhere. I’m sitting under an overhang in an outdoor café, the rain blowing in sideways and soaking the bottom of my skirt as an Amy Winehouse album plays on repeat and I try to digest all that we’ve seen over the past week. The smell of frankincense wafts in from a neighboring shop.

I’ll see my little boy soon (okay, not that soon- after about 25 hours of travel). On every street corner I have little jolts of recognition as I catch glances of features that look like his- his wide forehead, his big bright smile.

I’m drinking a cup of rocket fuel coffee approximately the texture of wet sand, as the faces of the people I met in Gunchire hover in my mind.

I think about Marta, who has been sponsored by Help One Now for the past year. Her home was the humblest of the four we visited, a one-room construction of sticks and mud. You could see straight through parts of it to the green hills on the other side. She wrapped us in her thin arms and greeted us with four kisses each. Aschelew, the local leader of Help One Now, translated as she told us that she used to eat one time a day at best; her children were starving. Now they eat three times a day and have money for school supplies.

Marta wants the same thing for her kids I do, as all mamas do- that they be fed and healthy, that they have access to healthcare and education. The moms I’ve met over the last few days humble and inspire me with their strength and tenacity.

Help One Now supports the whole family in order to help break what seems like an impossible cycle. Marta is a widow with HIV, who finally has access to ARV drugs, without which she was too sick to work. The cool thing about Help One Now’s progressive model of international aid, is that it empowers women like Marta by leveraging her already-existing resources. Marta has land, so her Help One Now sponsorship is providing her not just with financial aid but also with seeds and training to help her farm.

This has been an awesome adventure in a beautiful country with a kick-ass, thoughtful group of people, but it has also been terrifically difficult emotionally. I live a sheltered life. I know theoretically that crushing poverty exists, but it is another thing to put a face to it- to hold the babies who have no families, to look Marta in the eye and kiss her cheek. I will take her home with me.

We reached our child sponsorship goals for the trip! You can still be a part of it. We have now shifted shift to vulnerable children in Uganda. Thanks to all for you who have supported our effort. We are coming alongside these struggling families and helping them to transform their lives. I love you all. You have blown my mind.

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(thanks to Ty CLark, Scott Wade and Jacob Combs for the beautiful photos)

The Road

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“From here on out, the road is KAPUT,” said Aschalew, the local Help One Now director and our emissary here.

Translation: the road is screwed. He wasn’t kidding.

We drove for two hours on a rocky unpaved road, through rolling green hills dotted with acacia trees and tukuls (traditional mud huts). We swerved around herds of oxen and goats. All along the roadside, people walked with bales of sticks on their heads and jugs of water on their backs.

We finally arrived, in need of serious chiropractic adjustments, at the Transitional Children’s Care Center in the village of Gunchire, which felt like it existed not just in rural southern Ethiopia, but also hundreds of years in the past.

When we got out of the van, a swarm of children rushed out of the house to greet us with flowers and hugs. One three-year-old boy ran right up to me laughing, his arms hopefully raised. His wide liquid chocolate eyes were so much like Tariku’s when we first met him- alive and sparkling but also confused and sad.

“His name is Tamrat. He’s new,” said Aschelew. “He just came to us a couple of weeks ago.”

I carried Tamrat on my hip all morning as we visited with the children, wandered around and learned about the work they’re doing at the care center. I tickled Tamrat’s soft belly, his smile wildly bright and sweet. Right about when we were getting ready to move on, he locked his arms around me, lay his head on my neck and sobbed. I put my palm on his warm little head and rocked him as he keened with sorrow.

Until that moment, I was filled with purpose, telling myself that I was strong enough for this, that I wouldn’t cry. Fat chance. I held his little body to mine, my cheeks wet, and remembered the time that Tariku used to wake weeping with grief five times a night.

The care center will attempt to reunify this little boy with his family and, if that isn’t possible, to arrange a (still rare here) domestic adoption. These goals may or may not be met. He may or may not find a family to love him. Like so many of the world’s orphans, he was orphaned not because his parents died but because they were so extremely impoverished that they could no longer keep him alive on their own.

The unique thing about Help One Now, is that they’re focused on orphan prevention, preserving families in the community. Help One Now is dedicated to keeping kids like Tamrat from winding up sobbing in some weird white lady’s arms in the first place.

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Later that day, I met a woman named Birknesh, but we call her Berkie. Looking up at us with a bowed head, her tone was shy, but underscored with fierceness. Berkie’s house was built of mud and straw and the inside was painted a deep summer sky blue. Berkie is a widow and not long ago her family was dying from extreme poverty. Take a minute with that and imagine yourself into it. Your children can’t eat. You feed them once a day, if that.

You have to give one up or the others won’t survive. Which one will it be?

We all rolled with laughter as her littlest, the mischievous one, the showboat (the Tariku of the family!) mugged for the camera and danced around.

Help One Now came alongside Berkie’s family and helped them to develop a sustainable plan. You should have seen her sparkling almond eyes when she showed us her coffee plants, her enset plants, her two milk-producing cows. I was leveled by it. There is so much I’ve learned in these last few days.

I’m going to get really real with you here. I don’t often talk about T’s origins, or the reasons he came to be with us. Tariku is a poverty orphan. Which is to say, that without the pressures of extreme poverty, he wouldn’t have suffered the trauma of separation, malnutrition, pneumonia- all the things that made his eyes so scared when we met him, his little legs hanging beneath him like skinny, limp noodles.

It’s so easy to fall prey to cynicism and apathy, to think that if you can make a good joke about something, that’s enough. It’s not enough.

Help One Now is so groovy and amazing and forward-thinking because they support community-based development. We partner with local leaders to bring aid to these vulnerable families, whose children will most likely be orphaned within the next year if they don’t receive support.

Straight up, it’s $42 a month to sponsor a child, which supports their entire family. You get lots of goodies, including entry in a drawing for a Weezer-signed guitar. You can give right here right now and I’m asking you…

…won’t you please?

Do it.

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Again, Always: Ethiopia

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The minute we walked off the plane in Addis Ababa this morning, the distinctive smell hit me- some mysterious mixture of frankincense, burning trash, eucalyptus, coffee, and bodies. It’s profoundly human and otherworldly at the same time and lets you know unmistakably that you are in Ethiopia- this glorious and complicated place.

I remembered the last time I walked into that airport. I was holding tight to Scott’s hand, shaking with anxiety and excitement. In only a week, we would finally, finally, be holding our child in our arms.

Tears brimmed in my eyes as the body memory overtook me. Then my mood swung in the opposite direction entirely and I giggled, recalling the hopeful idealists we were then, with all of our big ideas about parenting. Along with those big ideas about who we were, about the world around us, about everything. I look back on those people with a kind of wistful fondness. We were so sure of ourselves, and so totally clueless!

The morning before I left, I awoke as the dawn broke soft grey over the city. I curled myself around my warm, still-sleeping son in the bed and listened to the sound of his even breathing, felt the thumping of his little bird heart, breathed in the smell of him, like fresh bread and grass. I am now in the very place I first met him. It is the farthest I have been from him since that day.

I miss him in my very bones.

What a great gift to be invited to come back to this country that has given me my whole life, really. To once again be amongst its people, so that we might learn from each other and do the essential work of community development and family preservation.

I’m here with Help One Now and an amazing crew of creatives and activists, including Kristen Howerton, Jen Hatmaker and Korie Robertson. Tomorrow we’re going to the village of Gunchire and I will get to do all of my favorite stuff: listening, observing, hearing stories, writing. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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