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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.
“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.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Zac.

    Just wanted to say that I have been enjoying your writing very much. Thank you for "listening intensely" and offering these anecdotes of faith in Life.

    Marcus Rempel (