Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Four Weeks and Counting

A Quest Down Memory Lane

Yesterday, I found myself on a quest. Somehow, we had lost my birth certificate, and with tomorrow being the day Renita and I head to Detroit for her US citizenship interview, and because my birth certificate is required for said interview, I had to drive to Lansing to request and retrieve a new one.

I love Lansing Michigan. It is my true home town, the town where I was born and the town where I lived for the first 21 years of my life. All my school memories are there, all my great and tragic childhood moments as well. I left Lansing 32 years ago to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and never went back to live. After five years in Chicago—another great American city—I ventured out to Los Angeles for more school, stayed there until 1985, then landed back in Michigan—this time in Grand Rapids for another 20 years. I did not visit Lansing while in Los Angeles, and by the time I got to Grand Rapids, my Mom and Step Dad had moved back up north to Lake City, near Cadillac. So I haven’t had much reason to drive to Lansing for many years.

But I was on a quest, so my first task was to get the birth certificate. The day was absolutely perfect: Sunny with puffy clouds overhead, warm and clear, with a cool invigorating breeze. I needed to do a bit of walking downtown, just because I parked my car away from the Ingham County Courthouse building. It was oddly lovely being in my old city again. I felt happy and sad at the same time. I was quiet, and I looked into people’s faces more than usual for some reason. I had a smile on my face the whole time I was there. Not a silly grin, or a happy “How ya doin! openness, but I felt good being in Lansing and I think it just showed. At the courthouse, it was nice chatting with the Ingham County Clerk ladies while I waited to get the certificate processed, and when I got the certificate, it took me a bit deeper into my beginnings.

My address when I was born was 3454 Bogart Street (A few years later it would be changed to its current 5143 Bogart) on the city's south side. My mother, formerly Lucille Helen Cain, was 25; My father, Floyd Allen Reed, was 29. (He would die within 3 years when our house was destoyed in a fire-- dad fell asleep while smoking.) The document itself was created from microfiche. The old uneven typewriter keystrokes told the story of a completely different age, even before electric typewriters. It was the first record of my existence, and seeing those two names above mine, so young, just starting out, made me nostalgic. I also realized now I’m old enough to be the parent of a 25 or 29 year old. I’m the age my grandparents were when I was born. It made me smile again, that happy sad smile.

I left the courthouse and decided I needed to take a drive back to Bogart Street. I drove slowly through the city, noticed how much had changed in the last thirty years, noted in particular the massive sea of empty acreage covered in concrete as I passed over what used to be Oldsmobile. Lansing used to be a boom town, home of Olds and Fisher Body, and the Cains and Reeds were a blue color GM-union family. While I was a kid, Lansing grew by 50%. Since 1980, it has shrunk by 13%. As I drove down still familiar streets, it felt smaller.

Turning onto Bogart street was another one on those defining moments. First, I almost drove passed it—it never seemed so close to the intersection of Logan and Jolly before. I turned right, and simply braked myself down the street. It was hard to believe how those once huge homes seemed so small, and what a short little street it is—and therefore always had been. Passing my old home, so important, so dear, where so much life had passed by, I was impressed that the owners had not cut down the trees. See, my father had planted about fifty pine trees around the south and east perimeter of our yard and now—fifty five years later, they are huge monsters towering over that little three bedroom, one bathroom home where my mom raised six kids. I liked it, but the foliage seemed to swallow the whole yard. It was more hidden. I liked that too. Keep it hidden, tucked away.

Anyway, I was ready to return to my current life, quest completed. I made an attempt to revisit my old school but the former entrance is now an exit and I didn’t know how to get in. I found the freeway ramp, and headed home.

Tomorrow, Renita ventures on her own quest. We’ll drive to Detroit and where she’ll say goodbye to her Canadian citizenship and the Red Maple Leaf and embrace the Stars and Stripes of the United States of America. Ironically, tomorrow is Canada Day. She’s been doing her own feeling and reflecting. But that’s her story to tell.

That same home 51 years ago, almost finished after the fire that took the life of my dad, leaving four kids and their mother to figure it all out without him. I have no memories of my father.

The first four Reed kids: Brenda on the left big brother Don looming over us, Sandy at the trike, and Yers Trooly looking cute and goofy. In front of the old house, just a few weeks before what we call "The Fire."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Five Weeks and Counting

Musing on Ghana


The US citizenship appointment Renita has for July 1 has dramatically changed our outlook on this extended stay in Michigan. With one letter, we've gone from an indefinite stay to a definite exit window. Each of the Reeds react differently to this change of perspective: Hannah, forever the trooper, is enjoying every minute of her fleeting weeks with many friends-- while at the same time bravely believing (against normal uncertainty) that the new school in Ghana will bring good things; Noah, the wry introvert, avoids thinking about all the changes and gets a bit surly when we bring any of them up; Renita is focused on all the work that can be done and is already driving me into the basement to decide what gets packed; and Yers Trooly is moving as slowly as possible, illogically convinced that moving slow is the best way to make time pass quickly. But fast or slow, we’re certain to get there.

I’ve been thinking about Ghana, our soon-to-be home, a lot—I guess it’s to be expected. Along with planning and preparing, I compare Ghana to the other West African home I’ve known: Liberia. There is so much the same about these two countries, yet they are worlds apart—or maybe I should say decades apart. I’ve said before that they are far more alike than they are different, but it’s the differences that jump out.

Ghana and Liberia are both English-speaking countries in a region that is predominately Francophone, both largely Christian in a region in which most countries are overwhelmingly Muslim (although both are heavily influenced by traditional spiritual beliefs). Culturally, they share the same welcoming, open-armed hospitality, and both share the same love of singing, dancing, and celebrating. In the larger villages and especially the cities, vendors selling anything/everything and open air markets ladies hawking hot peppers, fish, and palm nuts give the streets an added bustle, and certainly if you are not careful, an added hustle.

But one only has to look out the Land Cruiser window while traveling through Ghana and Liberia to see what fifteen years of civil war, trauma and economic collapse looks like next to the same period of peace, stability and steady growth. Ghana ranks 140th out of about 180 nations in terms of economic health, but along side of Liberia, which ranks 177th or so—she is the rich, healthy, big sister. And it shows. Ghana’s infrastructure is intact and in good condition. Her roads are relatively well-maintained. She enjoys fairly reliable electricity, running water, trash and sewage removal in her cities. Her architecture in many places is new and boasts an integrated, thematic quality. Her school system is the best in the region. Liberia, by sad contrast, is broken, dysfunctional and run-down. Except in a few sections of Monrovia, there is no running water, electricity, or effective sanitation system anywhere. Many buildings in the capitol are covered with mold from humidity, burned out, gutted, and shot up. The school system, destroyed by the war, has left an entire generation without an education, and a new generation without teachers to teach them. The roads of Liberia make short work of the most sturdy 4WD vehicles.

If you dast venture out of your air conditioned chariot, you’d be hit by the same wave of humidity in either country, especially along the coast, and as I mentioned, you be welcomed by your host with open arms and big smiles. In both countries, the kids would stare, especially in rural areas, but would laugh easily if you pretended to conk their heads or squeeze their hands. What you would not see readily is the difference 14 years of displacement, war trauma and extreme poverty have done to the insides of people. Compared to Ghana, Liberia is populated by the walking wounded. Ghana has never suffered the devastation of civil war. In Liberia, everybody over the age of 15 has a personal horror story to tell, and thousands of young men have been taught by war to survive by victimizing the innocent.

As for us, we anticipate grappling with these contrasts. The Reeds in Liberia lived in a cramped, open, five room cement block structure, sharing our quarters with bugs, spiders and lizards. We hauled our water, relied on three hours of generator power and batteries for electricity, cooked on a coal pot, sweltered night and day, and buried our non-burnable trash. Yet we lived like kings compared to our neighbors. The Reeds in Ghana will likely live in a home with most of the comforts of the West, including in-home internet access and air conditioning. And compared to our neighbors, rather than being kings, we will likely simply blend in.

Musing about Ghana, about leaving Liberia, I have disparate feelings— probably related somehow to—or maybe paralleling-- the disparity between these two West African sisters. I’m excited about living in this modestly growing (about 6% annually) nation that stands as a beacon of hope to its region. Ghana is a picture of Liberia’s future. While poor by US standards, it is nevertheless a peaceful, safe place for its citizens—and us—to live. Ghana is a better, wiser choice for Renita and I as we begin our regional work, and better for Hannah and Noah, especially for their schooling. But as I say, the feelings are mixed. I’ll miss the “right-next-door” immediacy of the poverty in Liberia. I did not have the choice to insulate in Liberia, and some part of me was happy about that. In Ghana, I will more easily be able to insolate myself from someone's daily struggle just to eat. Living farther away from the profound challenges faced by the poorest of the poor makes me uneasy— I feel I benefit from from their resilience, resourcefulness and desire. Sure, I think it’s possible that maybe we can help alleviate some of the pain. But to be honest, some of it’s about me. I just want to be with people who teach me so much about how to live. In Ghana, I'm afraid I’m going have to work a bit harder to do that.

In Ghana, shopping centers and malls.

With a nice clean look-- in places.

Nice shops and everywhere, our friendly street vendors. Rolex watch anyone?

Looking forward to cruisin' down this road.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Due to Technical Difficulties

I'm sorry to say that this week's blog ain't gonna happen. I probably should say that after struggling long with it for about twelve hours Monday, it did happen. I wrote it, hit the "post" button, and was casually informed that not only could I not post due to some error, but that the "auto save" function in Blogger had not auto saved since around noon. The time was 11:30pm, and all that had been written between those times was gone.

It was a stupid thing to do-- composing on the Blogger site. Normally, I write on Word, then cut and paste to Blogger.

The thing that annoys me is, I didn't know what I was going to write when I got up Monday, and it took me all morning to figure out a place to start. When I began to figure it out, the writing still came slow. It took hours, wrestling with words, to even find some direction. I'd write, leave, come back, think, write, leave, return. By about 8:00pm, the piece was taking coherent form and beginning to write itself. By 10:00pm It was almost done, but I needed to find a nice way to finish it. By 11:30, I finished it. "Not bad," I thought, "for not knowing what to write." Relieved, I hit the "post" button.

I still have the photos I was going to use, of course. They are safely on my hard drive, where the text should have been all along. But I just don't have it in me to rewrite it. I don't even remember half of what I wrote. I'm sorry, because I know a couple of you check in weekly to see what gets posted, and I hate not having anything for you.

Ah, but that's the way it goes isn't it. For those of us living within easy reach of all the goodies technology has to offer, who isn't familiar with losing a term paper or important email to the Ether Gremlins. It infuriates us and even steals our energy and motivation. But we get over it, and even quickly-- as I did-- when put in just a little context. I mean, really.

So thanks for surfing in. Things are cool with the Reeds in the Wind, and by next Monday, I may even have a post for ya.


Monday, June 8, 2009

6 Weeks and Counting Edition

ReedNews Update: June Edition

As you know, we've been in the US since late November waiting word from the US government on when Renita's applications for citizenship would be processed. This would allow us to leave for Ghana unfettered by certain regulations related to her soon-to-be former status as "permanent resident" of the US, which of course for the last four years, she wasn't. (Its ok to be confused.) The Reeds have enjoyed the extended stop-over in the Great Lake State, even though while here we've never quite escaped the feeling of being in limbo. But nothing matches the sights, smells and tastes of theses places we've known since childhood. And I doubt they'll have rhubarb-cherry pie in Ghana.

But now we can report a change in our status. Renita received her long awaited letter from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS-- used to be called INS for Immigration and Naturalization Services) She will interview for US citizenship on July 1, and assuming citizenship is granted, she'll apply for her passport, then all we'll apply for visas to Ghana, and as soon as possible, we'll be outa here. Departure date is still in the haze, but we are aiming for the last ten days of July.

Renita and I will head out first. This will allow us to find a house and car, and some of the rest of what we'll need to begin operations there. Hannah and Noah will leave Michigan and arrive in Ghana in mid August, and almost immediately begin school there. Hannah is working at a youth camp for the summer and finding some time to enjoy the many friends she made in the short time she's been around. Noah will do a fair amount of camping, hang out with friends, and enjoy this shortened summer as much as he can.

Heath update: I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to those of you who kept up with Noah and I as we each went through our medical appointments-- his with the scalpel and mine with the dreaded Plasmodium. Noah's throat is healed and his voice is much clearer. As for me, even though I was out of the hospital by May 16, it took until just recently for the anemic fatigue to go away. Now I feel great. As I keep saying, when you've been really sick, simply feeling normal feels fantastic.

Anyway, once again, we've got to get ready for a transatlantic move, so suddenly we feel pressed for time. Is six weeks enough to move the Reeds, bag and baggage, to Accra Ghana? And when we get there, what will we find?

As always, we are moved to tears when we remember that many of you go with us in spirit, and follow us on the blog, and send us email, and phone us, and a few even come out for a visit. You care about us, and the people of West Africa and we never take either for granted.

Stay Tuned. Its about to get very interesting.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Out of the Woods

Weekend before last, the four Reeds returned to the Hermitage (see March 30 post) for two and a half days of quiet. Our purpose was to introduce silence to our 14 and 16 year-olds. We thought it a good time to take Noah and Hannah away from the noise and to struggle a bit with the challenges that come to the soul when there is little to distract us. Actually, they did pretty well with the experience. I think Noah in particular was happy when it was over, but the very fact that silence was not easy for them was eye-opening.

As for Yers Trooly, I was once again struck by the enormously healing and grounding properties that come from simply being in a natural setting. Being silent in the Creation always seems to make it so clear how far off center I can get. While out there, I alternated from simply being to reflecting, so I was able to again grab a better perspective on life. A few thoughts emerged, and since this is a slow week, I thought I’d pass along some to you. I do not consider my ponderings particularly profound or climactic, but they are the kind of things that bubble up when I get quiet. From the notebook I took along:

After living for 54 years, and paying attention for 40, I find myself tired and occasionally angry, a victim of sorts to a ironic paradox. 40 years ago—or more precisely 39 years ago—I set out on a quest. Terrified by my own mortality, of the thought that this incredible thing called life would end , I sought the truth—wherever I found it. I was particularly interested in the unseen truths. I wondered: was there a god, an afterlife, consciousness after death? But really, any truth would help, I assumed, as I journeyed. I hungered and thirsted for it.

After 40 years here are a few observations that have proven themselves worthy of being called true.

-Non attachment is the wise course through life. Attachment leads to loss of awareness and disconnect from self.
- Quietness with patience is wise. Quietness with patience clarifies and allows truth to emerge.
-Distraction from being centered within ourselves is the great evil. Being centered fosters patience, distraction leads to loss of self.
- Truth is found in many places, but it is always found in beauty.
- Non attachment, patience, quietness and centeredness are great principles, spanning thousands of years across civilizations and religious traditions.
- There is a Truth that especially honors patience, quietness and non attachment.
- This Truth seems to be conscious and interactive. I call it God.
- The Christ event (Jesus of Nazareth’s life and resurrection from death) actually happened and is the central event in human history.

The irony or paradox is this: for years I’ve aligned myself with a religion that—in its American expression— often distracts me from my pursuit of truth. American culture is not patient, centered, unattached or quiet, and these characteristics have permeated and saturated American Christianity. My observation is that American Christians are quick to speak, reactive not reflective, noisy, slow to listen and seem thoroughly distracted by social and cultural activities. And I find myself frustrated because I feel like I’ve joined a club of lost yet busy people, fully attached to the trappings of the surrounding culture, casually convinced that all is well. And then I become judgmental, and at that point my own pursuit of quietness and non-attachment gets derailed.

What did Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplish? Was it not to simply restore us to fellowship with the Father? And once restored, how are we to live our lives? Is it not at least to allow us to remain connected to spiritual principles that have remained constant across cultures and millennia?

For 10,000 years-- 99.9% of our time here-- we lived close to the earth, close to the sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful reality of the created world around us. For 10,000 years, we lived as part of the creation and in small communities. Our tasks were basic, in front of us, and simple. Within just the last few hundred years, that “close to the earth” way of life changed profoundly, first for thousands, then millions, eventually for billions of us. And for billions of others, still living close to the earth, many seek to live in the distracting, options-laden world spawned by the great Industrial and technological revolutions.

Could it be that humans are not spiritually equipped for this high tech, options-laden life – separated from the earth, from the creation? Could it be that we do not function as well with the distractions and choices of wealth and access? Could it be that we are in over our heads? How will we be able to find truth in the cacophony, without access to simplicity and natural beauty?

And by the way, how do we fight for justice while remaining quiet and centered?

Anyway, those are my musings from the woods. I’d love to hear yours on this subject.