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Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Wolf

Dusk blends skeletal trees with the sky. The roar of Interstate 285 rushes through the empty spaces. Light pours from the porch light over the front lawn. This little brick house is not mine, but it feels so familiar. It is not strange that I am here, yet I do not know where I am. I step over the curb and walk into the yard. There are two cars in the driveway and a woman standing on the porch who must have just arrived home after a long day of work. She calls to me and I am unsurprised, but cannot make out her words.
The dogs, all puppies really, scamper about the yard playing with one another like little kittens. There is a brown dachshund, a beige cocker spaniel, and a gray one with icy blue eyes that glimmer in the porch light. The little dog with blue eyes looks directly at me. His gaze lingers sending a sudden shudder of fear through my body. “I think that one…” I start. Then he lets out a piercing high-pitched howl. He looks away and then his eyes meet mine again. I am captivated by the clarity. His pure blue eyes like translucent pools, his bark crisp and clean like a hymn, yet with a hint of what he might become if nothing gets to him first, which surely nothing will while he is being swaddled like a newborn by these people, in this house.
“My God,” I mutter under my breath. I try to speak again and say, “Not that one! I think that one is a wolf!” The woman is unfazed and opens the screen door, holding it open with her large backside, accentuated by her puffy black winter coat. I want to look her in the eyes and talk some sense into her before it is too late, but I cannot even see her face. It is as though she refuses to look at me. Her pudgy cream-colored hand turns the doorknob and the dachshund and the cocker spaniel race into the dark house. The little wolf turns again to look at me from the cement porch and lets out another yelp, slowly crossing the threshold as the woman coaxes him.
My eyelids slowly open to the darkness of my bedroom. Dawn diffuses through the purple and red batik curtains. I roll over and pull the blanket over my head, drifting carelessly back into oblivion.

Something came over me as I left Comer after the Thanksgiving holiday: a deep gratitude and a sharp sadness, yet a sadness one can take delight in, a sadness within the realm of joy. What an awesome relief to move away from the coldness of heart, the numbness of depression which has hung over me these past couple years. The whole ride back to the city, in the quiet of my car, I wondered at the warmness, the feeling of inseparable connection: the assurance that without any vows or monthly payments that I will always share a special love with this energetic family of six, soon to be seven, perhaps even eight. It may be a queer love, but I know it to be real.
Jesus teaches with clear and offensive words because he is not restrained by fear. Fear is what moves us into relativism and indecision. Surely, easy answers do not meet the complexity of suffering, but neither does language that mystifies its causes. For too long I have allowed myself to become lukewarm like the water around me. We live in a world governed by fear itself. Life is found in the visions that freeze and boil, which embrace the dynamism of ecstatic love.
On Sunday night I knew with a clarity I have not known in a long time, that I must go to Comer next year to continue this journey and that I must now finally out of love for my Karen brothers and sisters seek employment at the poultry plant. I tremble with fear at the thought of taking this step alone, but know this thought to be a fear-driven lie, which denies the reality of the spiritual friends I already have who are putting down roots in this bizarre little town where I find my search for God taking me. I will leave behind some of my best gaw lah wah friends in Clarkston by making this move, but I am subject to a spirit of exodus larger than myself, and know proximity can be motivated by fear just as much as love.

St. Francis of Assisi once stayed in the town of Gubbio where everyone feared a wolf that was terrorizing the town, killing animals and even people. Francis went out into the forest to meet the wolf one day. When the wolf saw Francis, he charged at him, but Francis calmly made the sign of the cross and he ceased. He spoke to the wolf, saying, “Come to me, Brother Wolf. I wish you no harm.” The wolf laid his head at the feet of St. Francis like a lamb. Francis negotiated peace between the people and the wolf and the wolf placed his paw in Francis’ hand in agreement. Then they walked through the town together while the people looked on shocked. From that day forward the people fed the wolf as he came to their doors. He lived the remaining two years of his life peacefully among the people of the town, loved by all.

While staying with Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw’s family in their new house over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, one afternoon in the bedroom with the door closed. The door opened rather suddenly, and unsurprisingly, there stood Blay Blay Htoo with a slightly mischievous smile on his face.
“What you doing?” he asked, coming into the room.
“Reading. Do you want to read with me?”
He sat down on the floor next to me and leaned in to look at the page. I started reading out loud to him, “Body and soul constitute human nature. The body is not less good than the soul. In…” I stopped for a moment to cough and clear my throat.
Without pause, he helped me to the next word, “MOTORCYCLE!”
I glared at him as he offered me his usual flamboyant smile. The text continued, “mortifying the natural we must not injure the body or the soul,” but I decided to heed his suggestion and continue reading: “In MOTORCYCLE the natural we must not injure the body or soul. We are not to destroy but to transform it, as iron is transformed in the fire. Most of our life is unimportant, filled with trivial things from morning till night. But when it is transformed by love it is of interest even to the angels.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The Holiness of No

“I cannot bring myself to say congratulations when I see one of my friends get married, because they haven’t done anything yet!” Chico preaches flamboyantly under a big tulip poplar at Jubilee Partners on a brisk November day. My friends Corey and Lauren sit at the front of those gathered, listening to this challenging wedding sermon. “Marriage is a call to suffering! It does not save us from ourselves as our culture supposes, but rather is a school for conversion in which to learn the way of love in a world so filled with violence.”
The monastic impulse can take on a variety of expressions, but it is something we all possess. Feelings of anxiety are often described as feeling “unsettled,” and what truth this speaks to our physical life and our need for stability and limits. The monastic impulse is a response to the unsettled feeling we all hold inside when things do not quite line up in our lives, when we functionally believe that we are without limits. This creed is so much a part of the culture in which I was raised. Parker Palmer captures it well when he writes, “Like many middle-class Americans, especially those who are white and male, I was raised in a subculture that insisted I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to make the effort. The message was that both the universe and I were without limits, given enough energy and commitment on my part. God made things that way, and all I had to do was to get with the program.”
How often my thinking has fallen in that track and misplaced my agency as a human being. The monastery is the place where we settle. “Our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you,” St. Augustine writes in his Confessions. By placing the limits of place, people, and practice upon one’s life the voice of God, our vocation, becomes gradually clearer. The monastery is the place where we learn that our freedom comes from the confines of orthopraxy, the holy drone that becomes the foundation of the creative project of God speaking into our lives. The psalter sings to us: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Later in the afternoon I take Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw to look at a house in Comer, the small town where Jubilee is located. They have been eagerly anticipating moving here for months. A man from the local Baptist church is the landlord and comes over in his pickup to opens up a little white house behind the Kangaroo, the largest gas station convenience store in town. It is small but nicely finished inside with new carpet, freshly painted beige walls, and not a cockroach in sight. They look around for barely two minutes before nodding at me.
Na hso ga mo dee leh—What do you think?”
Ya hso ga mo bah—I think it is right.”
They sign a yearlong lease the next day and we plan the move for the next weekend. A deep joy unfurls inside of me knowing that my brothers and sisters will be in this quieter, safer place where they will be seen as people. Just the previous day I thought there would be no housing options here for them to look at as I had promised we would this weekend, but here they are to my surprise committing their lives here for the next year. Just a few blocks away in Comer, my friend Eh Kaw and his family recently purchased a home where they will soon move.
We often deny ourselves the things we need most. It is my Karen friends who are signing leases and putting down roots, while I wrestle with an eternal spiral of questions regarding vocation and relationships. Yet I desire to discern these things in community with my Karen friends working in poultry plants, most of who are married with several children, and offer a much different perspective. I want to crucify this white savior complex I possess and vanish into obscurity, embracing the holiness of “no.” At what point are we ready to say enough already, leave the world of the mind, lay down on the earth, and let the Kingdom rise out of our hearts and come into consciousness like a cloud shape?
I am staying with Lesley, a gracious friend who opened up her house in Clarkston to me while we are figuring out the next step.  Bernard and Amber, my friends from Jubilee who recently moved back to Georgia are staying there also. There are quite a few of us former Jubilee volunteers, now in the vicinity wondering what we are doing with our lives, most of us jobless, yet knowing there is life in our connection with the Karen people whom we know, knowing that there is something true growing in the places we inhabit.
I made the decision not to move to Comer with Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw at this time because of my own limits—my need for fellowship with my cultural peers, as unsettled and frustrating of a bunch as we might be. I am not the same person as when I moved in with Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw five months ago. I have learned courage and hope in the face of uncertainty from the love of their family. Baw Baw speaks much more English and I much more Karen now from countless hours of joking and conversing.
The first week living with gaw lah wah again, I purchase my first ever package of monosodium glutamate. Bernard and I go into Kroger together dressed in our Karen longyis. I will never be Karen, but my life speaks the desire to commit to this obscure ethnic group, to bring meaning to such jargon as “Christian” and “American” through a life together. 

Simple Living

“This month Georgia Power is too much!” Baw Baw says showing me the paper statement that just came in the mail. I look at the bill and am surprised to see double what they usually pay for one month. “Weh… too much!” I agree, “We did not turn on the heat or air.” There appears to be a remaining balance from the previous month.
“Did you pay last month?”
“It says you didn’t pay last month.”
Baw Baw rummages through the file box I gave her and produces a money order receipt for the exact amount. I brace myself for another phone adventure of talking to robots, holding to fuzzy elevator music, and arguing with inept employees.

“Press two for billing…bawp…Press 1 for your current account balance, Press 2 to make a payment…Press 9 to speak with a representative…bawp. Doo boo dee bop shoo boo doo dee bop bop. Dee doo wop shop mop wee woo wop…”
“Hello, can I have your name please?”
“Yes, Zachary Cooke, but I am calling on behalf of your customer Hei Nay Htoo.”
“Can I speak with him?”
“He is not here, but his wife, Baw Baw, is here. She cannot speak very much English though.”
“I am sorry, but her name and your name are not on the account so I cannot discuss anything with you. You will have to call back later when he is available.”
“Really, his wife can’t speak with you?”
“No, he is the only name on the account.”
“He can’t speak English. Do you use language line?”
“Ok. Thank you.” Click.

“GRAAAAAH! They can only talk with Wonderful Pa.”

(Two days later)

“Press two for billing…bawp…Press 1 for your current account balance, Press 2 to make a payment…Press 9 to speak with a representative…bawp. Doo boo dee bop shoo boo doo dee bop bop. Dee doo wop shop mop wee woo wop…”
“Hello, how can I help you?”
“I am calling regarding my friend Hei Nay Htoo’s account, but I believe you have his name as HEL Nay Htoo.”
“Is he present, sir?”
“Yes, but he does not speak much English.”
“Ok. What language does he speak?”
“Karen. K-A-R-E-N. Not Korean.”
“Hold on just a minute while I get an interpreter on the line. Doo boo dee bop shoo boo doo dee bop bop. Dee doo wop shop mop wee woo wop… Ok, sir. I have the translator.”
I pass the phone to Hei Nay Htoo and he says hello. The faint murmur of the interpreter’s voice travels across the room. A perplexed look slowly encroaches upon Hei Nay Htoo’s face. The wrinkles intensify across his forehead as he shakes his head and passes me the phone.
Na may pwa ga nyawahh—Are you Karen?”
“Sorry sir, this is Korean,” the woman’s voice says, “I’ll get a Karen interpreter on the line. Please hold.”
The interpreter evidently encountered this situation often enough that she could understand this Karen phrase. A Karen interpreter finally gets on the line and the Georgia Power agent confirms Hei Nay Htoo’s identity and gets permission for me to speak regarding the account. I explain that they paid last month, but were charged again this month.
“The payment was never received. It must have been lost in the mail. They have to send their payment before November 17th or their power will be cut off.”

I turn to Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw who are looking at me intently.
“They never got it,” I say sullenly, “The mail man must have lost it. You have to pay again before November 17, or no more electricity.”
Mayahh—really?” they say in unison. They discuss this in Karen for a while before Baw Baw to ask, “In Comer the same Georgia Power as here?”
“Yes. I think it is the same.” They discuss again.
Hei Nay Htoo slows his speech to ask, “Du pa leh luh Comer, pa duh a thaw a meh oo ta oh bah thayahh—When we go to Comer, can we not have electricity in our new house?”
A smile creeps across my face as I imagine them living in a carpeted and enclosed Western home as though it were a bamboo hut—the primitive occupation of our overly complicated society, an integral demonstration of simple living, Occupy Wall Street as second nature. Baw Baw says she can cook over a fire outside; they did like that in Thailand “No problem. We don’t need,” she says, looking somewhat defeated.
“I guess you could not have power out there. You really don’t want electricity anymore? Na meh oo may ta oh bah na tha ku nay meh oo ohahh—Are you happier without electricity than with it?”
They seem perplexed by this question, which was perhaps expressed with strange syntax. Hei Nay Htoo is looking very serious and says, “I don’t know.”
“Do you still want a car?”
Ya da tha law gah luh bah. Ya ga pghay ga boh yoo—I don’t want a car anymore, I will buy a plane!”
Na ga leh peh leh—Where will you go?”
Ya ga gay luh ya gaw—I will go back to my country.”
Ya gay tha goh na thayahh—Can I go with you?”
Uhh. Na ga noh gab oh yoo—Yes, you will drive the plane!”
Pa ga thee—We will die!”

A couple days later I see Pa Saw Paw, a good friend of myself and Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw.

“Wonderful Pa told me he hasn’t slept in two days because you told him they can’t have electricity anymore after November 17th.”
I break into laughter, unable to believe what I am hearing.
“I told them if they don’t pay the bill again before then, it will be cut off. I thought they didn’t want electricity in Comer?!”
“Haha. I told them that it is no problem; they can still have power. But Wonderful Pa was very worried.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


A young man holds up a colorful zippered case. “Maybe they thought there was money inside,” he says, opening it to reveal the crisp white pages of a Karen Bible. His sister was carrying this, walking home from a worship music practice at a neighboring apartment with another young Karen woman, when three men attacked them. Thorns snagged their flesh as they fled from their aggressors into the woods. They went to the hospital later that day for their injuries.

Thara, aw may—Teacher, eat rice,” the brother tells me.
Ya aw may wee lee—I’ve already eaten.”

The mother, father, and younger brother sit at the table eating rice with some kind of fried meat and bamboo shoots. I recognize the younger brother from the guitar class I sometimes assist with at the Community Center.

“You went to the guitar class on Friday, right?”
“Yes. I saw you there,” he says smiling.
“Do you go every week?”
“Yes. Every week.”

I gradually realize that I know the older brother as well. He taught me a Karen praise song just last week while I was visiting another friend’s apartment, but at the time I had thought he was a relative of that family. He talks quickly and calmly in Karen with Tha Htaw, my friend who brought me to their house, I listen attentively as though I can understand. Waiting for a pause in their conversation, I interject,

“I am sorry about what happened to your sister. Let me know if you need anything. Especially a ride to the hospital.”
“Yes, yes. Ok. Thank you.”

I follow Tha Htaw out of the apartment and thank him for leading me there. We walk together towards his apartment several buildings over and I say goodbye to him at the base of the stairs before commencing the ten-minute walk back to the apartment complex where I live. The sun is lazing behind the trees creating a soft white glow in the sky. The temperature is dropping and the cool evening air nips at my exposed arms. I pass by the unoccupied wood and red plastic playground adjacent to Tha Htaw’s apartment, and stroll down the hill towards the gate.
By the mail pavilion at the bottom of the hill there is a large gathering of children. In the center of the circle, a Karen boy stands across from an African-American boy roughly the same age. They are no older than ten or eleven. A slightly taller African-American girl stands between them, asking the Karen boy in slow and simplified speech, “Do you want to fight him?” I slow my pace and watch them conspicuously from the sidewalk, stopping at the corner feeling a sudden sense of responsibility to prevent this from escalating. I fiddle with my phone there for a couple minutes and then decide to take another lap around the building in order to pass the gathering again. As I approach a second time, a bold woman arriving home at her apartment shouts to them, “Go home all of you! You are too smart for all of this! You think you’re too young to go to juvie?”
The children slowly disperse. “Go on! You’re too smart for all of this!” She looks my way for a moment and shakes her head. I watch the Karen boys walk away towards the gate of the complex and the African-Americans in the opposite direction. I walk slowly behind the Karen along the drive leading to the exit. I feel this burning in my heart to dissolve distinctions, yet feel utterly apart from all of this as a silent observer, an outsider.
The white experience is characterized by a particular uncertainty. It is a search for ethnicity. In a town like Clarkston, for me it is an experience of otherness. In the past two generations, my family gradually migrated further and further outside of Baltimore city. As distinctive European ethnicities dissolved into a racial label, white became a unifying color, the absence of color. Thus my people fled the ethnic infusion of the city to seek refuge in a more homogeneous environment.
This is a natural tendency, which becomes perverted when we think in terms of race. The word, “discriminate,” literally means, “to make distinctions.” Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens states, “It especially annoys me when racists are accused of 'discrimination.' The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one 'race' to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.” Our brains automatically create distinctions between people because of superficial differences. It is part of our instinct for self-preservation. We are meant to know and love our own distinctive ethnicity, and in so doing recognize that this is a universal human experience.
I recognize in myself the need to recover this healthy psychology, to know myself as an ethnic person, a German Catholic American. It is only from this distinctive place that I am able to enter into the human arena, to carry on a corporate desire for preservation. I enter with a desire to do something positive in this place of interethnic tension and to engage in the recovery of my own ethnicity as I am immersed in Karen culture. I seek the knowledge that I am not blind.
A boy on a bicycle calls out behind me, “Here they are!” Several other children on bicycles follow them. I turn to him with a stern face and say, “Leave them alone.” I hear the woman call out from the distance, “HEY! GO HOME!” The children gradually turn back down the drive, and gravity carries them down the hill and they glide away into dispersion among the trees and brick buildings.
My cell phone goes off in my pocket and I look at the screen to see the name of the brother of the girl who was beaten. I am surprised he is calling me already, but assume they need a ride to the hospital or something. I flip open the phone and say, “Hello?”
“Hello. You left your bag at my house. If you have free time, you can come and visit. Next week we will have thanksgiving, worship God at my house, if you can come.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The rush of traffic on North Indian Creek mirrors the pulsing anxiety in my chest as I scan the pavement and grass for my keys. I retrace the steps of my morning walk in the opposite direction. As I turn the corner onto quiet Rowland Street, the fallen auburn leaves in the gutter crunch beneath my feat and I imagine the millions of places my keys might be hiding. The beaten dirt path alongside Jolly Avenue not surprisingly reveals nothing. If my keys fell out of my coat pocket along the cracked asphalt of Debelle Street, I doubt they would still be there. My searching is in vain.
I return to the apartment and open the unlocked door, pacing around the kitchen one more time, lifting up bags on the floor and dirty dishes on the counter. Fuming with frustration, I storm into my bedroom and feel around in my coat pockets for the tenth or eleventh time. My bed stands before me with a plethora of hiding places in the bags and shoes stored underneath. I seethe for a moment before flipping up the mattress and hauling it to the other side of the room followed by the bed frame. Rummaging through the bags reveals nothing. I need to take a Karen woman and her daughter to collect forms from DFCS and the Labor Department to apply for financial assistance for a $1500 medical bill at Grady Hospital, yet after an hour of looking, I cannot find my keys. I retrieve my spare car key and call Lay Moo and Aye Be Wah to see if they can watch the apartment while I am gone, since everyone else left already to apply for their green cards.

Ya thaw ta oh bah, bah hsa ya ga bah leh ta. Thoo gwa pa duh thayahh?—I don’t have my key, but I need to go somewhere. Can you watch our house?”
“…thay thay—We can.”

I cannot understand about 90% of what he says but hope that these two syllables mean that the apartment will not be burglarized while I am gone. I rush out of the door and hop in my car, annoyed that I cannot remotely unlock it.

Many Karen people upon their arrival in this country are surprised to find that they feel less free than they did in the camps in Thailand. While they have access to employment, wealth, and services that were unavailable in the refugee camps, the bureaucracy of everything, the stifling urban landscape, and plethora of anal regulations offer little of the freedom to live the simple life many desire. While Baw Baw and others have told me that they are very grateful to be in this country and never think about turning back, many people easily slide into depression and wish they could return to life in Thailand.
The stories I hear about Karen State before the arrival of the Burmese army paint it as paradise. People lived in friendly villages in the mountains where they were free to build and cultivate the land to their desire. Everyone would help each other with farm and construction work regardless of differences in religion or background. There was abundant tropical fruit to forage in the forest. And the fish paste in Gaw Thoo Leh was very pungent, but so delicious that even someone who did not normally like fish paste would find it very beh.
If all goes according to plan, Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw’s family will soon relocate to rural Comer, Georgia—the same town where Jubilee Partners is located. It is about one hour closer to Hei Nay Htoo’s workplace, the cost of living is a bit lower, and the quality of life much higher, with quiet and safe outdoor spaces for the kids to play and the opportunity to grow food. More and more Karen people are moving to this rural area because the landscape reminds them of their homeland. There is a Karen children’s song that goes; “Hsaw pah oh oh gaw geh ray goh, gaw geh ray goh—The rooster crows cock-a-doodle-doo, cock-a-doodle-doo.” In Clarkston, Lay Moo and Hei Nay Htoo often sing a parody of this: “9-1-1 oh oh gaw geh ray goh, gaw geh ray goh,” lamenting the replacement of roosters with sirens.
The Georgia Department of Labor is full of people. We are lucky to find three seats after checking in with the receptionist. The older Karen woman I am accompanying looks wearily at me as she leads her disabled daughter to the chairs, “Pwa ga nyaw oh ah ah—There are many people here.” We brace ourselves for a long wait, ears attuned for a mispronounced name. As we wait, they call for anyone filing for unemployment insurance. At least half of the people in the sterile waiting room rise to their feet and walk to the back. They call us to the desk and we quickly receive the paperwork and then depart for the Department of Family and Child Services. The DFCS customer service office is filled with three unmoving lines of people standing and waiting to be served. We stand there helpless knowing that once we acquire the necessary documents we are only going to have to wait in another waiting room another day. We squat on the floor and I pull out my Karen-English flash cards to pass the time. “Gaw la wah ah baw may luh hsay naw oh koh ah ah a hko—Americans are fat because they sit and wait a lot,” I tell them.
It is strange helping people to navigate this system, which offers support they might not otherwise receive, yet feels like it drains the essence out of life. What is the generative result of all of this paperwork, all of these people waiting? What hope is instilled, what will to live? I have the bureaucratic fluency to walk through all of these obstacles, yet I cannot help but wonder whom is being served by these tasks which no one seems to find life giving. I am assisting people to live in a world I myself do not want to live in. What is the legitimate reason to defer our dreams of Gaw Thoo Leh, of Eden?
I return to the apartment exhausted after four hours of waiting in offices and lounge on the floor. Wonderful reclines his head on my outstretched arm. Baw Baw, also weary from filing the family’s applications for green cards, hands me my keys.
“I find under Paw Ga Pu Blay’s diaper box in the room. I think she take,” she says. We both laugh as I remember the absurd frustration of my morning. I walk out to the balcony where two-year-old Paw Ga Pu Blay is squatting, drinking from a juice box. Her big eyes glance up casually at me, towering above her.
Ga puuhh, ya tha htaw daw na!—Ga Pu, I am angry with you!” I say. Her brothers and sister laugh and she breaks out into a smile as I bend down and plant a kiss on her forehead.

Becoming Karen

“When something like this happen, Karen people boil this one…” Baw Baw holds up a dried brown pod from her dresser drawer.
“Bean” I say, handing her the word.
“Yes, bean,” she repeats, “together with yellow, not powder… root. Then washing your hair.”
“Turmeric? You wash your hair with boiled beans and turmeric root?” I look at her in disbelief.
Uh. Will you do together us?” Baw Baw inquires.

Sometimes I forget that we come from completely different worlds. The reality of my house washes over me suddenly like an indigenous cleansing ritual. Language is a small barrier to communication and cohabitation. There are always creative alternatives: acting, facial expressions, and shared meals are perhaps even more effective in evoking a common understanding than a dialogical conversation. But here we stand at the gulf, where the empire of reason encounters a world animated by spirits.
 “Umm,” I say barely holding back uncomfortable laughter, “Ya ga gwa hso ga mo luh a ghay—I will think about it.” The features of her familiar freckled face suddenly seem harsh and primitive. I imagine a concoction boiling over a fire on muddy earth next to a bamboo house, a woman in a colorful sarong with horizontal stripes squatting next to it, stirring. The steam rises like a dancing ghost.

There are currently three fifty-pound bags of Eagle Brand jasmine rice stored in my closet, as it is now the primary component of my diet. Most days I keep to oatmeal, grits, or something else bland and Western for breakfast, but the rest of my meals are thoroughly Karen. Occasionally I will prepare pizza, pasta, or some kind of soup for dinner, but usually I am the only one who will touch it and so my motivation to cook is rapidly waning. The typical Karen meal consists of some form of deep fried or stewed meat possibly including organs and bone shards, broth, leafy greens, pounded chilies or spicy fish paste water, and sometimes fried eggs or vegetables, all of which are served over rice like condiments by American standards.
The Karen diet appeals to me because of its stability. I know what to expect when I sit down at a meal. Food in American culture is so sporadic it leaves your stomach confused just thinking about it: rice one night, pasta the next, bread the next. We are eating ourselves into cultural oblivion. My friend Angela tells me that we are supposed to eat the foods that are traditional to our region; our bodies are wired to thrive on these foods. If we are immigrants, which most of us in this country are, we should be eating a combination of the foods native to our homeland and to our locale. However, I have not yet migrated to a diet of sauerkraut and boiled peanuts.
To eat is to remember, as in the Seder meal and the Eucharist. We remember our journey, our sufferings, our joy, and ingest our identity. Yet who is able to partake? Where are the boundaries? They are certainly porous, permeated by proximity, yet must be drawn for the sake of subsistence. To forget is to spiritually starve, to slip into cultural depression. I need to eat cheese, not only to pay tribute to the rich European traditions of cheese making but also to remember who I am, to move forward in the world.
To partake of fish paste for breakfast is to enter the idyllic mountains of Karen State, to remember a painful and terrifying journey through the jungle, and to live in the hope of life in America. As I eat rice with my hands, I partake of foreign food. I am brought to face with a concrete suffering I cannot understand. Like a defiant protestant at Catholic Mass, I go forward anyway. I pray with my right hand resting on the steaming rice piled on the plate, and in the recognition of difference, renew my membership in the cult of humanity.

I arrive at Lay Moo’s house one evening to use the open wireless network in his building. Erin emerges from her room after I sit down.
“I need to tell you what happened last night,” she says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and there was this darkness. I don’t generally think much of that sort of thing, but I had this strong feeling of something bad in the house. I went to the door of the room and Aye Be Wah was standing right there, also looking scared. I later found out that she had been on the phone with someone and wasn’t sure who it was, and it left her feeling scared. Then several hours later I got up to go to the bathroom and felt the same darkness and then as I was in the hall walking back to the bedroom I heard a loud voice shout, ‘DIE!!!’ I quickly ran into my room and shut the door and heard Wah Lay Soe start crying.”
I stare at her in disbelief. “Was it a man’s voice?” I ask.
“Yes, definitely,” she replies.
“And it wasn’t Lay Moo?” I ask, barely able to imagine this as a possibility.
“He was at work.”
“Oh. Of course,” I say remembering his night shift. “I am pretty skeptical of this kind of thing also,” I tell her, trying to excuse my facial expression.

As a child, I remember cooking mud soup in the backyard. I would forage for nuts, sticks, leaves, and other precious ingredients in the woods, collecting them in a red bucket, mixing them with city water from the garden hose, and then stirring with a branch. At some point I learned that this was useless play.

With a sudden wave of certainty, and a faint laugh at the thought I say, “I know exactly what we need to do. We need to boil beans and turmeric root and wash our hair with it.”

Monday, October 10, 2011


The quiet desperation in his eyes paralyzes my tongue. Lay Moo just spoke the clearest English I have ever heard from him, yet I offer him a perplexed look, as though I am unable to comprehend. He sits cross-legged with sudden vigilance, perched at the foot of the green cotton covered mattress, his long black hair clinging to his forehead. The heart monitor, with its green lines jumping above us, beeps with increasing rapidity. My cell phone sits idly on the bed next to him.

“Call 911,” he tells me.
My face falls and I offer him an anguished look, “No, we can’t.”
Ya tha law gay su duh keh ee—I want to go home now.”
Na oh hsoo taw gay leeahh?—Are you feeling better already?”
The piercing phone call seemed to rehabilitate him from his previous state of lethargy to alarm, his symptoms apparently deriving from uncertainty.
Pa ga bah oh koh luh ga thee tha ra—We have to wait for the doctor.”

Theologians and philosophers have debated for centuries whether something is good because it is loved by God or is loved by God because it is good. In my journeys through doubt, the imagined absence of a loving God emptied my life of goodness and left me falling through to despair. Questioning the existence of God was questioning the value of myself.
Questions are the lifeblood of religious thought, and yet left unchecked lead to paralysis, the inability to love or be loved. I found myself on this intellectual religious obsession with truth and certainty: something I could articulate and know I was in the right. Yet on this mission, brain was devouring body. G. K. Chesterton writes: “Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth… For the old humility made a man doubtful of his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”
It is good to struggle with faith, because God loves us in the disarray of our lives, yet the struggle itself is not the truth. Without knowing love we lose touch with our inherent goodness, our divine agency remains unawakened. Even in the depths of despair, where everything good no longer brings delight, there is a quiet certainty, inexpressible in words, which emerges of its own volition. Chesterton writes: “It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle.”

I call Baw Baw, in an attempt to understand what is happening at the apartment complex. She affirms my understanding of the situation and the few alarming words I was able to pick out from the initial phone call.

“Are you see Lay Moo? You need to see him,” she tells me before hanging up the phone, each of us returning to our respective confusion.

Wonderful Mo te ma nu leh?—What did Baw Baw say?” he asks with haste.
I repeat her words first in English then piecing together any Karen fragments of meaning I can muster. He gazes back at me in defense.

Ta blaw ta kaw, ya hso ga mo dee nay. Ywa ta eh pwa bah, ywa ta oh bah, bah hsa ta may bah. Ywa oh, eh pwa—Sometimes I think like that: there is no God, he doesn’t love us, but that is not true, God is and loves us,”

I am flushed with memories of depression, the immanent realization that I cannot trust my own mind, that I cannot trust myself, but must defer to such an impossible God. Yet how these words would bring red to my face if I were speaking them in my native tongue.  I profess a faith I cannot articulate.

I drape my long gaw la wah arms around his small frame. My limbs could form a double layer canopy around him. He remains unmoving beneath my embrace. I return to my stool beside his bed, and flip through my Karen dictionary to the word for pray: bah tu ga pah.

Na tha law bah tu ga paahh—Do you want to pray?
Bah tu ga pah thay—We can.”

In a sudden burst of naiveté, prayer pours from my mouth and I remain bowed until the end of his silence. We sit in the Emergency Room waiting for something to happen, someone to connect his IV, escort him for another X-Ray, release us back into the world, something to break the stillness. The green line slows its dance to a moderate tempo.
A vague smile comes across his face and he tells me how he will live in his crumpling world. Only three months in this new country and already he is called upon to re-imagine his existence. He speaks himself into confidence, plotting his new strategy, inviting me to journey with him.

Later in the evening, I listen as Lay Moo plays the guitar and Hei Nay Htoo sings harmony, swaying with familiarity. A six-pack of Guinness sits mostly exhausted on the dirty beige carpet. Hei Nay Htoo and I will sleep here at Lay Moo’s apartment tonight.
I lounge on the floor with a sofa cushion behind my neck, waiting for sleep to clear the chaos of the day. Time passes slowly and rest comes with the feeling of never losing consciousness. I wake up around midnight to find the living room empty and open the front door of the apartment to see four figures squatting in conversation by the stairs. Baw Baw calls something to me from the huddle and all of them laugh. I rub my eyes, and mutter something about waking up and not seeing anyone, close the door, and return to my pallet on the floor.
I am jolted awake by the entrance of all four and the surprising invitation from Baw Baw, “Let’s go home.” I prepare to leave the apartment as they continue to talk in Karen.
“Lay Moo is scary somebody come in the house, kill him,” Baw Baw says with a laugh. I roll my eyes at the absurdity of his fear, completely disconnected from the reality of the day.
Bah hsa pwa tha uh may he nu, ya hkay ta oh bah, te ga htah—But if a bad person comes in, I don’t have my machete, only a guitar,” I reply, picking up the guitar and making a smashing motion with it. I lie down on the floor again and prepare for a restless night of fighting off demons.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Point of Religion

I scream inside of my car as the traffic wells up around me along Boulevard heading south towards the Martin Luther King Historic District. The street signs show that I am in Midtown, far off course from my intended destination, Woodruff Park, where many are gathering on this Friday evening for a march in protest of the scheduled execution of Troy Davis. My plan was to meet Emma at the Open Door Community and ride together to the park, but I was distracted by helping my roommate enroll for benefits on the phone, and left Clarkston late.
There is a certain loneliness created by the cloister of a car stuck in the madness of city traffic. The indifference of the world to my destination, my schedule, my life, manifests itself in honks, sirens, screeching brakes, and flashing lights: a pandemonium of noise. Everyone is on their own journey, sealed off from other people and the urban grime. Thoughts of aimlessness swirl inside my skull.
I finally park at the historic site thirty minutes after the beginning of the march, and run along Auburn Avenue to catch up with the crowd, eventually spotting friends from Jubilee and the Open Door. I am greeted warmly and absorbed into the crowd. Holly hands me her sign and I hold it as my newly assumed purpose.

When I return to the apartment after the rally, everyone is sitting in the darkness of the living room with the blue glare of the TV dancing across the walls. They are watching a Thai movie with animated creatures occasionally emerging onto the screen. Hei Nay Htoo listens and laughs, occasionally repeating the Thai phrases with exaggerated diction. Blay Blay happily welcomes me on the couch beside him and I sit for a moment, resting in the nostalgia of watching movies with my family as a child: the feeling of security while suspended in the the film. The memories of familiarity are slowly erased by the foreign tongue.

Three days later I return to downtown Atlanta, this time making it in time to ride with the Open Door to Woodruff Park. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles made the decision on Monday to continue with the execution as planned. I ride in the van with Emma to park the fifteen-passenger van after letting everyone out at the park.

“So I have questions for you. Civil disobedience? And I forgot, what is the point of religion if not social justice?” asks Emma. I smile, remembering our countless unresolved philosophical debates started in this way.
“What about civil disobedience?”
“Like does it do anything? Or by now is it just part of the system?”
“It is definitely part of the system, but I think it serves to keep powers in check. Perhaps it does not really do anything, but it at least serves to bring things to the surface which opens up the possibility of change.”
“But like how invested do you need to be in order to actually get arrested, like everybody at the Open Door was almost crying at lunch today over Troy and I was just sitting there.”
“Hmm…” I pause, knowing well this feeling of apathy, yet nonetheless a desire to engage. “I suppose if you have no connection to an issue, that might be a problem, but I think demonstrations like this are meant to make you feel something for a cause, like liturgy, to train you out of apathy and isolation and into connection with something larger.”
“I’m not satisfied.”

The march commences from the park. One of the men from the Open Door calls me over with a wave of his hand to help carry their long banner. We move at a quick pace compacting and expanding the banner between lampposts. The chanting quickly begins: “BRICK BY BRICK, WALL BY WALL, FREE TROY DAVIS, FREE THEM ALL! BRICK BY BRICK, WALL BY WALL, FREE TROY DAVIS, FREE THEM ALL! BRICK BY BRICK…” I shout this mantra at the top of my lungs and the rhythm gradually obstructs all thought, as in silent repetition of the daily psalm response on my morning walks.
We cross the street, blocking all traffic, and suddenly all the cars consume us with horns blaring in support, raising thumbs and fists out of windows. The asphalt and black gum-stained concrete resound with a pandemonium of honks and cheers. The sound drowns our chants and I feel shivers run up my spine as though coaxed by altar chimes. We raise the banner and the loneliness wells up from my abdomen to my eyes. We press on, chanting louder, intoxicated by the numinous weight of the words, “FREE TROY DAVIS! FREE TROY DAVIS!”
The crowd eventually reaches a critical mass and the police move in on motorcycles ahead of us to block the road from traffic. We pour into the street as we approach the state capitol. We turn the corner and the capitol building towers tall beige above us like a giant sand castle. A statue of a white man with his hand raised keeps watch over the amassing crowd from the steps. The police have already closed the street in front of the capitol. We stop before joining the vigil to pose with our banner for a press picture.
After two hours of marching and listening to speakers from organizations and family members of the accused, hunger and tiredness move me towards the first van returning to the Open Door. I return home and fix myself a bowl of rice topped with fish curry and pounded chilies leftover in the refrigerator, eagerly eating over the sounds of cockroaches rustling into crevasses, fleeing exposure by the kitchen light. Everyone is already asleep in preparation for work and school on Wednesday morning.

Troy Anthony Davis was executed by the state of Georgia on Wednesday September 21, 2011 at 11:08 PM at the age of 42 after a four-hour delay by the Supreme Court. He spent two decades of his life in prison, prepared for his execution three times before it was finally carried out, maintaining his claim to innocence until the moment of his death. A majority of the witnesses who testified against him for the killing of Officer MacPhail, recanted their testimony, leaving little credible evidence against him. Some members of the MacPhail family were present in Jackson to witness the lethal injection and found some satisfaction in the experience. Troy wrote in an open letter shortly before his death: "I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis'."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Louse Attack!

We peel the couch away from the wall to reveal roaches navigating an obstacle course of crayon shards, papers, and Flamin’ Hot Cheeto bags. I make a towering pile of all of the cushions while Baw Baw picks up the various articles formerly stowed under the couch. The brush head slides easily onto the end of the hose to the new yellow vacuum provided by the caseworker, and I begin sucking whatever might be living in the slightly damp couch cushions to its demise in a gray storm of dust in the belly of the vacuum.
We turn over the plush green lounge chair and my breath ceases, the muscles in my stomach and neck clench, as cockroaches erupt from the fabric flaps at the base. My face contorts and I return to the kitchen for a gulp of wine before channeling my rage and disgust into the delightful task of sucking roaches out of every crevasse in the chair with the vacuum hose.
Wonderful and the children arrive home from school and look at the apartment in shock. The balcony is piled high with black plastic trash bags, containing everything soft thing in the house: clothes, towels, cushions, hats, any place a louse might think to hide for its twenty four hour life span without the blood of a human scalp to quench its thirst.

“Do you want to help?” I call to them.
“Yes!” they say with excitement, not knowing the purpose of this sudden rearrangement of their home.

Wonderful vacuums the cushions and Baw Baw puts them inside of the trash bags. I recruit Blay Blay and Hae Tha Blay to begin disassembling the trash mountain on the front porch. The Chin woman who lives downstairs is out in her garden and seeing all of the trash bags, calls up to Baw Baw in Burmese to ask if they are moving. The air in the apartment is thick with the insurmountable task before us, my unspoken frustrations with the unsanitary living habits in the apartment for the last three months to a head, and releasing the ugly puss of uncomfortable silence. The vacuum whines coming with its unrelenting drone, occasionally interrupted as someone trips over the cord, dislodging the plug from the wall.
I help Blay Blay and Hae Tha Blay deposit their bags in the dumpster. Before returning for another trip, we walk over in front of Lay Moo’s house, where a chair is set up in the parking lot and Holly is lathering Sher Bly Nay Soe’s hair with delousing shampoo then picking through it for nits with a fine-toothed metal comb. “Send Hae Tha Blay next,” she says.

It all started with a question. “I saw Baw Baw picking through Hae Tha Blay’s hair, do you know if she has lice?” asked Erin two days earlier.
I shrugged my shoulders, “I don’t know,” I told her. The thought had never crossed my mind.
“Because she was lying in my bed the other day and if she has lice they spread quickly. There is a way to get rid of them, but we have to do a lot of cleaning. I had them before and it took forever to get rid of them because my hair is so thick. I cannot get them again! So if you could please ask Baw Baw…”
“Yes, I will.”

This louse commotion is quite humiliating for Baw Baw and Aye Be Wah. Baw Baw, with her long flowing hair stretching down to her ankles, tells me how she had terrible lice in 2001 when she was fleeing from the Burmese army, sleeping in the grass along the Thai-Burma border. And now ten years later, some Americans will not come over for dinner at her home because her daughter has lice. Aye Be Wah and Baw Baw are quite offended by all of this, and perhaps largely because of my poor translation. The phrase “scared to be in your house” is not quite what Holly and Erin, who moved in with Lay Moo and Aye Be Wah only a couple of weeks ago, want to convey. The day before the big cleaning, Baw Baw and Aye Be Wah cried even after everything was clearly translated to them on the phone by a friend. They seemed to feel as though they are the lepers, unclean for their white housemates. While I understood the importance of this thorough cleaning to eliminate the problem, it somehow felt as though we are obliterating something more than lice. My cynicism towards the project quickly waned when Baw Baw discovered a single louse in my hair the morning of the cleaning.

As the sun begins to sink behind the trees, the shampoo project moves inside of Lay Moo’s apartment where Baw Baw and I, exhausted from cleaning all day, are the final two to be treated and picked through for nits. Holly is on hour ten of picking through hair. I return to my apartment to find Lay Moo sitting on the bottom step, squinty eyed and smoking a cigarette. He did not sleep all day and now is waiting for a van to take him to his night shift at the chicken plant. I walk up the stairs and find the kids excitedly playing in the mound of plastic bags in the living room, leaping onto them like piles of autumn leaves. They recline their wiry little bodies between the soft black blobs as Thai music videos blare on the TV screen.

Several days later Baw Baw comes into my room while I am typing a cover letter.

“The family visit us, the older daughter has many thoo!” she tells me in a hushed voice, “I want them to go. I tell Wonderful, Hae Tha Blay, Blay Blay to play in the bedroom. Stay away.” When they are barely down the stairs she pulls out one of the black trash bags again, and tells me, “This chair—we need to put in the bag.”

I proceed to bag the cushions to the chair where the poor louse infested girl was sitting, while Baw Baw retrieves the vacuum from the closet and cleans the chair and the carpet around it, eagerly sliding the vacuum under legs and shooing the children out of the way with renewed confidence.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Decatur Book Festival with Wonderful

“Wait!” cries Wonderful.
I turn around and look up the escalator to see him standing at the top, face tinged with worry. His eyes are in line with the railings pouring down the metal sides like a black rubber waterfall.

“It’s OK!” I assure him, “Get on!”
He takes a step in spite of his fear of falling. I go back several steps in the wrong direction to meet him.
“Is this your first time?” I ask.
“Yes,” he replies firmly.

We step off the moving stairs onto the platform of the Avondale MARTA station and wait for the train.

“That is called an escalator,” I tell him, “you know?”
“Escalator,” he repeats. “I go like this before at the airport,” he finally admits, “only up.”
“Down is a little scary,” I offer sympathetically.
“Yes. I think I gonna fall!” he says, now smiling.

It has been just over one year since he first boarded an escalator in the chaos of the Atlanta airport into a mess of Delta symbols, suitcases, and multicolored people walking and talking very fast in strange tongues. This after leaving a bamboo house in Mae La Oo refugee camp for Suvarnabhumi, Narita, LAX, Hartsfield-Jackson: a global air odyssey through shiny shopping malls.
I pull out the newsprint guide to the Decatur Book Festival and look at the list of Saturday events. I try to imagine Wonderful in the midst of downtown Decatur, and wonder if I should have just come by myself. I assuage my worries by settling on the schedule for the children’s stage.
I was glad when Baw Baw asked me to take her eldest son with me, though I had to decline Blay Blay and Hae Tha Blay when they rushed to the door to put on their shoes after him. Three children would have been a bit overwhelming for traipsing through the crowds. The train rushes into the station on the track behind our bench with a squeal and the lingering hum of electricity from the third rail. Wonderful quietly follows me onto the train and we sit. I once again open the guide.

When I returned from a semester abroad in The Gambia several years ago, my entire worldview completely twisted and caught in the depression of reverse culture shock, people often told me “how grateful I must be for everything I have here,” as though witnessing poverty in West Africa somehow made me love American opulence. At the time, I was feeling the opposite of gratitude: resentment for what I perceived to be the superficiality of everything in America, surrounding me on all sides like strip malls on a suburban highway. But gratitude can be neither the arrogance of pride in abundance, nor the rejection of abundance in guilt. It must emerge slowly in small things. Gratitude is the process of learning delight in simpler pleasures.

Decatur is the next stop. We exit the train as the doors slide open, coming to yet another escalator. I glance down at Wonderful as he halts momentarily at the base of the moving stairs, finally stepping out as I tell him to “Go!” aware of the crowd accumulating behind us. Once we are riding up, he looks up at me with a confident smile, as if to say, “Up, no problem.”
We emerge into a city of white tents and people bustling about.
“Have you ever been here before?” I ask.
“No,” he says with a look of awe and bewilderment.
We climb the stairs and walk past the children’s stage towards tables full of books and vendors selling popsicles and popcorn. I hope that he will take interest in something, but soon realize I must take the initiative. We finally stop under a tree where people are hula hooping. I pick up one of the hoops off of the ground and hand it to him, grabbing another for myself.
“Do you know this?” I ask him.
“No, I think I cannot do,” he says with a laugh.
I spin the hoop around my waist and feel it wrap around my torso several times before falling to the ground.
“Mine is too big,” Wonderful says, so I find a slightly smaller one.
“Try it!” I encourage him.
He holds it and twists it once around himself before it falls. The second time he spins the hoop and gets a few rotations out of it. We both turn our hoops and dance them around our bodies as though celebrating something.

Entitlement is difficult to unravel. Living with Wonderful’s family, I am constantly calling into question my expectation of my own time, my own space, an abundant social life, and meaningful work. None of these are given, yet this feeling of dejection often creeps up when confronting the absence of these qualities of life. Being raised under an abundant middle-class Christmas tree has created for me countless opportunities, and yet the assumption that gifts will always be given. What then when they are withheld? Is this the absence of divine love? Unemployment, loneliness, busyness, noise are invitations to doubt the interruption of God in daily experience. Yet if I allow the assumption that I am entitled to nothing, what profound gifts I receive everyday in an interview, an email, a chapter in a book, five minutes of silence. I am impelled to gratitude.

After exploring the tables, Wonderful emerges with a cardstock harmonica, several pieces of candy, free books, and a stick-on-mustache. We walk one block down Ponce before we have to cross.

“You have to push this,” Wonderful tells me proudly, pointing to the silver button on the side of the post. We wait for the little white man to give us permission to cross over Church Street.

On the other side of the road we walk to Java Monkey where local poets are reading from their work. We sit down on the patio and listen as an older woman remembers a charismatic adolescent conversion experience: not lamb, but ram of God,” delighting in the erotic undertones she now discovers in her youthful fundamentalist experience. I listen and laugh, while Wonderful sits contentedly on the bench next to me. He sits through a couple more readings with me before I can tell he is tired. We share a bowl of frozen yogurt before taking the train back to Avondale.

As we walk to the car, Wonderful says, “I like this.”
“You had fun?” I ask, remembering the poetry and essay readings he sat through.
“Yes. Very fun!” he replies.