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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.