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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Passing

“Oyyy!” Hei Nay Htoo yells from the passenger seat, charged with anxious energy. A large beige mound approaches on the right shoulder.
Ghay deeahh—Is it still good?” I ask.
Ghay deeehh—Yes!” he replies.
I quickly turn around on the next dirt driveway and pull over on the side of the road. We hop out of the car like a swat team and run behind the van. I open the back hatch. He shakes his head up and down virulently from beside the animal, calling me to come. Each grabbing a leg, we hoist the dead doe into the back of the van. “Na ga mah noh ga a tah mah gwa ba daw ta ha nya ee na ga aw da ho nya a beh—You are going to pass the driver’s test and tonight you will eat delicious venison!” I tell him as we get back in the car and zoom up 72 into Comer.
While Hei Nay Htoo goes inside and gets his I-94, I deposit the deer carcass on the ground by the front door and retrieve two bikes from the shed, setting them up on both ends of his minivan. Baw Baw looks at me like I am crazy. Hei Nay Htoo told me in the car that he had never practiced parallel parking, and so before we return to the DDS in Athens for his road test I instruct him and let him practice backing into the simulated parallel parking place between the two bicycles. Baw Baw stands on the side shouting, “Na ga taw seh beh nay—You are going to hit the bicycle!” He glares at her and proceeds to back in to the space almost perfectly two times. Baw Baw agrees to put away the bicycles and we race back to the DDS.
Six months ago, I allowed Hei Nay Htoo into the driver’s seat of my 2010 Corolla for the first time. I sat in the passenger seat trying to slowly breathe in the new car smell, intermittently barking directions at him in the simplest English I could muster as he jerked the car around the shopping center parking lot off of Memorial Drive. Since then, he purchased his own minivan and soon will have his license.
I watch from the top of the hill as Hei Nay Htoo drives methodically through the course, stopping at each stop line, backing up perfectly, mastering the three-point-turn, and gliding neatly into the parallel parking space between cones. Chills run through my squatting frame as though I am watching my own son try for his license. The van pulls out of the course and onto the highway, accelerating out of sight. I lean forward from my chest as if to follow, but remain in place, feeling abandoned. Ten minutes later, the van pulls back in to the parking lot. The two faces are both fallen and somber through the windshield.
The van slows as we ride up the ramp to merge onto the Athens loop. “Faster! Faster!” I call to him and eventually he speeds up. We continue on to Atlanta to move my bed and larger things out to Comer in the back of the van. Every once in a while, Hei Nay Htoo lets out a sigh of frustration and says something in Karen, which I do not understand. As we approach Clarkston I tell Hei Nay Htoo to stay on 78 until the exit for I-285. “This will probably be the hardest thing you have ever done. The exit comes in on the left and you have a half a mile to cross four lanes of traffic to get over to the exit for Ponce on the other side.” I am not sure if he understands, but cars are already zooming past us on our right side as the exit winds adjacent to the interstate.
Na bleeahh—Are you scared?
Ya ta blee bah­—I’m not scared.”
Nyaw nu pe gleh ta boh ee yeh ya blee ah do ma—Usually on this road I am very scared. Get over!”
I look back at the oncoming traffic. “Get over!” I call again. Before I know it we are passing into the exit and gliding up the hill to the stoplight on Ponce. I clap my hands boisterously, declaring: “YEAH! Na noh ga bahehh—You can drive!”
We fill up the back of the minivan with my bed, desk, boxes, and clothes from my room in that house on Casa Woods where I spent my past few months. Bernard and Amber moved out a few days earlier to live with Maung Soe and Kmoo Paw’s family in their apartment on North Indian Creek. By the end of the afternoon after visiting friends and seeking a seemingly unattainable closure, I am sprawled out on the floor of Lay Moo’s apartment, completely exhausted. I have the keys to the van, but Hei Nay Htoo holds out his hand. “Na mee luh ga boo thay—You can sleep in the car.”
We so easily conflate our sense of place and the order of life that we create for ourselves, with the fleeting nature of reality. Our plans, ideas, and concepts bring order to the formless void, allowing our brains to play at comprehension while the great cloud of change broods over us. We can only speculate from memory.
Solomon, when standing before the altar in the newly built temple declared, “Can it indeed be that God dwells among men on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!” God is a wanderer, telling tales of perpetuity. In transition, we realize that the corners in which we disguise eternity are small, and as the walls come crashing down we are forced to look that great judge death in the face and state our case.
I awaken as we roll in to a stoplight somewhere on 78. I look over at Hei Nay Htoo as a little child emerging from sleep. He meets my gaze, his brow furrowed with fatherly concern, overtaken by confusion at the strangeness of this situation. We look at each other curiously, brothers from opposite jungles, and then turn back to the road, passing endlessly into the twilight.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ora et Labora

The kitchen emits a bright glow and the faint drum of voices emanates into the living room. My eyes squint at this unwelcome interruption to sleep. My arm extends out across the plastic mat and I push the button on the side of my phone to see the time: 3:45 AM. I elevate my upper body on my elbows to scope out the situation.
Last night Bi Kan No told us to go to sleep early because we would wake up at four in the morning to slice cucumbers. I assumed this was a joke, because why wouldn’t one do this the night before, or at least at a more humane hour? But sure enough, there is Bi Kan No with his machete, launching cucumber discs into an aluminum pan. With somewhat of a struggle I perch on my feet. I hear Bernard begin to stir on the floor next to me, and mumble, “What is going on?”
“Cucumbers,” I mutter.
“Ummm…”
“Good morning!” Bi Kan No calls, looking up at us momentarily from his task as we meander to the threshold of the kitchen. This day marks one year since Bi Kan No’s family arrived in the United States, and there is much to be done in preparation for the party. I pick up another machete from the counter and squat next to the bowl that Naw Dee Poe places on the floor before me. The blade slides slowly through the cucumber in my left hand and sends one rather uneven disc slipping into the bowl. My pace increases gradually as I come to consciousness and the probability of sending a shard of finger into the bowl declines.

Pa mah tah a weh ee keh ee bah mah nu leh—Why are we doing this now?” I finally ask.
Pa nyaw nu gheh htuh peh lwee nah ree law—We usually get up at four o’clock,” Bi Kan No replies.

I realize that he leaves early every morning for his shift at the poultry plant and feel foolish for questioning his daily rhythm. He offers a carefree smile and seems still amused by me as I struggle to retain consciousness.
After the cucumbers, apples, and Asian pears are sliced, Bi Kan No returns the massive pots sitting on the carpet mat adjacent to the kitchen one by one to the charcoal stoves outside on the back porch of their apartment. I stop slicing and pick up one of the pots, removing the lid just slightly to see what kind of meat is in each. I pick up the pork curry pot and hobble to the back door and into the cold black morning and wait for him to direct me towards the appropriate stove. The largest of the pots remaining inside contains what Bernard and I refer to as “meh teh leh tah eh a htee—goat shit soup.” When Karen people butcher a goat, meat typically goes in one pot and organs in the other, including part of the small intestine containing partially digested material, a black ooze that we watched spurt out of the intestines as they were slit open in the pot the previous evening.

I dread work at the poultry plant and the haunting thoughts of a life confined to the toil of such dismal labor, yet my soul cries out for repetitive work that will drag me out of bed early, and call me into rhythms of gratitude for the luxuries I unconsciously misuse. It was after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden that they were assigned to the tedium of manual labor. And so work is an act of repentance, a prayer to teach us gratitude for the confines of circumstances. In her book, Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris writes:

The Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan believes that passivity and indifference that make us less able to engage in vital occupations and concerns are as problematic today as intentional evil. But they are also an ancient curse. The Judeo-Christian story places it in Eden, where the primal sin involves refusing to take responsibility. Put on the spot, Adam tries to excuse himself by blaming Eve, and Eve then blames the serpent. Neither cares where the buck stops, as long as it rests with someone else. God responds to this display of sloth by sending the first people, who had been intended for the holy leisure of paradise, into a land where they must labor for their sustenance.

My eyes open again and there is light coming in the window and a middle aged woman with bad teeth who I have never met before looking curiously at me lying there on the floor. It is a little bit after seven. I wait for her to walk into the kitchen before emerging from under the blanket in my long underwear and wrapping the longyi around my waist.
The living room fills with people sitting on the floor patiently awaiting the beginning of the worship service. The pastor and the young man who will be preaching both sit on the sofa at the head of the room. One of the elders starts off with a short speech and then the congregation sings a song from the hymnal cued by the pastor. Before long they are signaling to me to sing a song.
I was honored when Bi Kan No invited Bernard and I to come over the night before and help with preparations for his one year celebration, and even more so when he asked me to offer a song for the worship service. I strum a G chord on the guitar and begin to sing:

God will make a way
When there seems to be no way
He works in ways we cannot see
He will make a way for me

Norris describes Benedectine monk David Steindl-Rast’s definition of faith as “‘an intensive listening,’ whose opposite is the acedia that recognizes life’s absurdity but chooses to remain ‘deaf to its challenges and meaning.’” I probably would not care for this upbeat catchy God song aside from the story that it emerges from and invites me into. My friend James taught me this song almost four years ago at Jubilee. James was one of my first Karen friends, but he taught me this song in English. It remains in me along with my peculiar attraction to his obscure ethnic group. God makes a way for us by overturning our work with prayer. It is by this means that cucumber slicing in a kitchen before dawn and placing chicken on a conveyor in a damp factory become paths to paradise.