I am listening to an audio book by the Wyoming writer Alexandra Fuller, called Scribbling the Cat. The second of four books she has published, it tells the story of her encounter and subsequent … friendship(?) … relationship(?) … I struggle to find the word here … with K, a former soldier of Africa’s Rhodesian war who, after passing a series of brutal tests, was given a Bazooka and told to go out and scribble (Rhodesian slang for
Fuller grew up in Africa in the midst of political turmoil, as small writhing African nations like Rhodesia and Zambia desperately tried to break away from European control. The upbringing she describes in her first book (Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight), and to some extent, her second, mirrors the personalities of the African countries that were so doggedly trying to carve out their own identities: scrappy, restless, relentlessly perseverant. Fuller comes across as sad and tough, determined and in despair.
This week, between errands to the post office and Target, to and from church music rehearsals, and on a trip down the mountain from an exhilarating camp trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I came to the part in Scribbling the Cat in which Fuller describes her return to the United States and Wyoming, after having spent a number of months in her home African country. It is after Christmas:
“In late December, I went home to my husband and children, and to the post-Christmas chaos of a resort town. But instead of feeling glad to be back, I was dislocated and depressed. It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Papani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally, it is impossible. The shock is too much, the contrast too raw. We should sail or swim or walk from Africa, letting bits of her drop out of us and gradually in this way assimilate the excesses and liberties of the States in tiny, incremental sips … before trying to stomach the Land of the Free and the Brave. Because now, the real, wonderful world around me, the place where we had decided to live with our children because it had seemed like an acceptable compromise between my Zambia and my husband’s America, felt suddenly pointless and trivial and insultingly frivolous. The shops were crappy with a Christmas hangover, too loud and brash. Everything was 50 percent off. There was nothing challenging about being here, at least, not on the surface. The New Year’s party I attended was bloated with people complaining about the weight they had put on over Christmas. I feigned malaria and went home to bed for a week.”
Her words are so depressing and honest, her outlook so miserable and raw. And this is where I wonder: What do we do as people who have been, not by our own choice, born into a country of such privilege and freedom and excess? How do we respond to those gifts? (I think they’re gifts. You might disagree.)
I remember the day in 2010 that the devastating earthquake struck Haiti. I remember talking to my mom over the phone, telling her how I felt so guilty and disgusting for continuing to go about my daily duties, completely unaffected physically by the natural disaster that had scarred and killed so many. “I don’t want to eat,” I told her. “I want to forget the grocery shopping this week and send a $100 check to Haiti instead. I feel like I should starve.”
Mom responded: “You can’t feel that way. It doesn’t do anybody any good.” In other words, my starving myself does nothing to help the person half a world away who is starving for reasons out of her control.
So then, how do we respond? Do we complain and make ourselves sick over the excess and greed that consumes our country? Do we shell out a hundred bucks to the next organization asking for a cash donation? Do we turn our backs and shrug? Eh, sucks for you. Glad I’m not in your shoes?
Here is the answer I have come to. I cannot feel guilty for the tremendous privilege I was born into. Doing so would dishonor my God who gave me those blessings in the first place. So I start with thanks, doing my best not to take anything for granted. Obviously I falter and fall short. But at least I can say “thank you” every morning. Then, I seek to serve those around me. My family, friends, acquaintances who are quickly becoming friends in this new home of ours called Orange County. Then, I turn my focus to a few causes I am passionate about. Involving myself in every legitimate organization or cause that needs help would do no good; I am not giving anything if I am not giving wholeheartedly. Broken down, it goes like this:
At 4 a.m., wide awake with the world on my mind, I stare at my coffee cup from the couch.
The word on the cup.
“It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
And finally, consider this. Joshua Tree National Park, a spectacular and intimidating expanse of desert and mountain not three hours from the place where I now live, springs forth both life and death. It is a land of waste or abundance, depending on how you look at it.