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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.

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