It’s About What You Believe

kind2I learned to love Kurt Vonnegut decades ago, based on reading only six of his earliest and most famous works. Much later, I tried to read Breakfast of Champions and couldn’t get through it. I never even tried his later novels. He’d changed. I’d changed. Or maybe, I’d just gotten from him the one message that I most needed to hear.

For all that I loved his cynicism and his humor, this one quote was it. The words have stuck with me through decades of living.

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

That’s right. All that wit and imagination of his, and this was my main take-away. I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that was disrespectful, although I think Mr. Vonnegut wouldn’t have minded a bit.

I’m attempting to summarize what I do believe in and it’s been an interesting exercise. Am I dying soon? Planing to run for public office? No, neither. I just really liked the movie “Wonder Woman” and it got me thinking.

What do I believe in so strongly that I want it to shape my behavior?

At this point, you might be concerned that too much of my personal philosophy comes from science fiction, but I’ll argue back. Stories of a speculative nature throw out a lot of societal constraints found in other frameworks, making it a fine realm in which to develop one’s code of ethics. It is absolutely where I have developed mine.

And I have the fictional Eliot Rosewater to thank for my most central belief. If I can’t be anything else, I want to be kind.

 

Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door

I knew when I began my first book that my main character would develop a telepathic link with a woman who lived far away. It didn’t realize that my love for places that are difficult for me to get to would continue on into the remaining five books in the collection, with each book each containing events occurring in a remote part of a different continent. But that is how they turned out.

Two things about far away places appeal to me. One is how different they are. The other is how similar they are. I think I like the second fact even better.

The modern and independent young Nigerian woman I write about in x0 has a run in with her village’s older practitioners of traditional medicine, known as dibias. In order to make her conflict as realistic as I could, I researched the history of traditional medicine in her Igbo culture, and enjoyed what I learned. It did not surprise me that mixed in with the sorts of superstitions that plague humans everywhere, was both wisdom and centuries old knowledge of ways to heal the human body.

I tried to include the point of view of the dibias, and to accord them respect, even while my character was in conflict with them. And yes, I loved learning about the ways of others that were so different than my own.

But I never forgot how half of my story ended up taking place in Nigeria in the first place.

It’s a country I have yet to visit, which makes it an odd setting for a beginning novelist. But I began the book right after taking a new job in the Houston office of a Nigerian company. They were cramped on office space, and several of us were crowded into a large workroom. Most of my co-workers were young Nigerian scientists and engineers and over the ensuing months I became seeped in their conversions, their food, and their memories of home.

Did I hear about things that were exotic to my ears? Occasionally, and some of those are in the book. But far more often what I heard were things like this as they made their phone calls home.

“Yes, mom, I am eating well. I know. Vegetables.”

“Of course I miss you, dear. It’s just that last night you caught me still at work, trying to get something done. I had a big presentation today.”

“You’ve got to pass chemistry. Email me the your review sheet your professor gave you. We’ll go over it together. Tell mom not to worry. I’ll help you.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the sound of humanity, from my home town and from every one else’s home town in every far away place in the world.

You see, we have our differences, and I think that they are fascinating. But then we have our common ways of showing care and concern for those we love. And I think that commonality is even more amazing. That is why I watch with dismay as the United States turns more towards nationalist politics and embraces a fear of the rest of the world.

I no longer live in Houston. Today, I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I was interested to find the John Denver Song “Take me Home Country Roads,” being performed by Playing for Change. I’m a big fan of this multimedia music project that “seeks to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music.”

I can’t help but notice that much of the nationalist movement that concerns me so is being driven by people who live on country roads, just as I do. But a lot of the world lives on country roads, and drives home on them each day to those we care about. We all have that, and so much more, in common.

Enjoy this video of musicians from Japan to Brazil  as they sing “take me home country roads.”

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place, Caring About Far Away Places, As Far Away Places Edge Closer  and The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places.)

Happy International Day of Peace, Lahcen and Najet

The Airbnb site says my hosts at the Riad speak English, French and Spanish along with the local Arabic, but it only takes a few minutes for me to realize that the claim regarding English has been exaggerated. Lahcen, the helpful house manager who greets me, probably does know several hundred words of English, compared to my several dozen words of French and two of Arabic, but his ability to answer my questions is limited. Najet, the cook and custodian who assists him, speaks some French and no English at all. Soon the three of us are communicating with gestures, key phrases and facial expressions, and it’s not going as poorly as you might think.

img_3275Still jet lagged, I get a slow start the next morning and Najet is anxious to begin cleaning my room. I am sitting in the public area getting organized for my day when she gestures to her cleaning equipment and my quarters and gives me a questioning look. I nod my consent. She pauses.

“No douche?” she asks clearly and politely. I’m sure that my eyes widen before I remember that douche is the French word for shower. “No douche aujourd’hui,” I declare, thinking that sometimes even a few words in a common language can make all the difference in the world.

When I return that evening, there are lots of things that I want to ask Lahcen. Is Najet his wife? A relative? Is he from Marrakesh? Is this his full-time job? What does he think of tourists, of Americans? But every time I start talking he nods and smiles and looks confused, which is exactly what I do when I can’t understand someone.

img_3290The next day he volunteers some information. “I love Hollywood,” he tells me. “I love your movies, but I watch them in French.” He shrugs, a little embarrassed. “In English I can’t tell what they say.” And I get that I’m like one of those movies to him. He thinks that he ought to understand me but I talk fast and use idioms and shortcuts and make no sense to him at all.

“I wish my French was half as good as your English,” I reply and I mean it.  I think he understands me for once because he gives me a genuine smile back.

“I think that all of your country should learn Arabic. In school,” he adds. I’m sure my eyes widen at the idea. “And we should all learn English here. In school.” He looks at me hard for signs of comprehension. “If we could understand each other, then we would get along.”

img_3284I get where he is going with this and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I appears that my gracious host is a kindred spirit of mine, someone hoping to bridge the gap between cultures, filling it with empathy and a compassion born of recognizing our common humanity. I lack the vocabulary and the inclination to argue with him about the practicality of his plan, so I just say “I hope it happens.”

When I settle my bill, ready to move on to my next destination, I leave him and Najet a generous tip. He takes my luggage to the cab and speaks to the man in rapid Arabic. I realize that he is using part of my tip to pay my cab fare, which I also notice is a only small fraction of what the cab drivers have been charging me. I appreciate his gesture.

I remember my last encounter with people with whom I could not speak. A few months ago a couple in Portugal named Alberto and Maria helped my husband and I rescue our rental car when it became stuck on a dirt road. A few days later, when I discovered it was “International Day of Peace,” I wrote a post about them, and about how the wordless experience was so intense that Maria and I hugged each other afterwards with tears in our eyes.

img_3304I have enough cultural sensitivity to realize that a hug would be inappropriate with Lahcen, especially in such a public place. But I am equally grateful to him and Najet and I wish them both joy and peace, even if I do not know how to tell him so. I can only nod my thanks to him as we part, two souls seeking the same harmony in a fragmented world.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  That’s Why you Make the Trip, I see ghosts , It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)