Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Botswana Snow Day

I'm sitting in our house on this snowy Thursday working on our book, checking emails, posting on Facebook, enjoying being home with the kids. Thursdays are my day home from the store. Even though I don't usually go into the store on weekends, I don't consider that a free day, just the weekend.

So, here we are, all together since this is the second snow day for the kids. I like it. It reminds me of Africa.

We were together a lot. The schools go all year with four months on, one month off. I thought it was great because Peter and I were both self-employed and it allowed our family time to travel as I wrote articles I was assigned and we all enjoyed some pretty awesome adventures!

As I said, I'm writing this book about our life in Botswana. To get back into Botswana, I thought I'd Google the game reserve we managed. Didn't find much, but as is my nature, I didn't stop digging until I found something interesting.

Peace Corps blogs are the first things I find of any worth. Sweet accounts of the slow pace, the cultural differences, the major milestones occurring back in the States making the homesickness that much more palpable even for voyeurs, anonymous and undetected.

I'm crying just thinking about our time there. My memories flood my senses. Things we had gone through are as vivid as if they occurred yesterday. Why is it so tangible for me? Why are the feelings so raw even after nearly four years away? Who am I that the country, the culture, the community never really left me? Why do some people finish their "stint" and move on while people like Peter (and, inadvertently, me) never ever leave?

Oh, don't get me wrong. There were many many days and nights in Botswana that left me wondering how I got there, wondering why I stayed. A black widow resting in my son's motorcycle helmet, scorpions falling from the ceiling onto my daughter's head, snake after poisonous snake curled up on our bed, in our yard, at our window, across the road - yes, a 15 foot python trying to get warm! And then there' s the runaway crocodile that roared like a lion, the charging elephant protecting her young, the hippo munching on grass right outside our tent, and just as bush legend would have it, the hyena that circled our campsite, which our children believe was the very one that swiped a teenage girl from the campfire as her parents helplessly watched.

But the woes of Botswana weren't really the animals, although it would come down to our animals, our dogs being shot by our neighbor that would finally prove to be the last straw. It was the lack of money, ways to make money for foreigners and residents a like that didn't make our life there viable. It would be the distance from one place to the other that would make accomplishing tasks nearly impossible. It would be the cultural differences that would prove puzzling and hindersome. What was the right thing to do? Our children imitate the young boy who came up to us as we stood in line for meat pies. "I'm hungry." he said, "Buy me a pie." So, we did, whereby, the entire line of Motswana customers and the pie-clerks turned on us. "If you buy him a pie, he will pester everyone on this line every day." What to do?

Today, I remember how much I loved living there. Why are we here? I ask myself. Why couldn't we make it work? Sure there are people - Peace Corps Volunteers that leave their host country never to return. But there are oh so many that cannot let it go. Peter, having been stationed in Botswana in the early '80's couldn't shake her from his being. For nearly 20 years, he looked for a way to return until he finally found the job on that fateful game reserve in 2002.

I sit in our comfortable home as my children warm up after playing in the snow and have to smile past the tears. Two different dogs surround me as I write, much the way Oz and Otse did in Botswana. Hell, this is the very same upholstered chair and ottoman that the three of us occupied in two different houses in Africa. Only, this time, we're in a heated house with sheet rock walls and hardwood floors.

This time, I am not writing about the newest bed and breakfast opening in the South African bush. I'm not compiling pictures from the San Bushman Dance Festival I had just covered, or writing about the latest developments at the HIV AIDS conference I just attended. This time, it's personal.

And because it is personal, I have that much more to say than "just the facts, ma'am". I want to bring you to Botswana with us. I want you to see what I saw the way that I saw it. I want you to want to be there too and understand full well why we left, why we remain involved, and why our experiences are significant in today's environment, economy, with today's lifestyle here in the USA.

Here I am writing in a snow storm in Poughkeepsie, NY, about as far away as you can get from our tin roofed, cement block two bedroom double garage door home in Ghanzi and I'm immersed in Botswana...and for today, I can take the day off from my store in the Poughkeepsie Plaza, from our life back in the States, and have a snow day, where I'm in Botswana, in 2003 once again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing a Chapter

I'm starting to write chapters for my book.
I have finally gotten around to reading "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver. Since Peter and I have discussed writing the book together - from his perspective and mine - I like the way this book is laid out. (Of course, it's fiction and ours is not).
I love the different voices giving a chronological view of their life in Africa. Only when the mother "speaks" do you get a sense of the future since she is telling the story looking back.
That's what I have to figure out. Whether or not to tell the story as it unfolds or knowing what I know now, how the story came together in the past.
For a book proposal, you need to have an outline. A list of chapters and a synapses of the chapters. How-to's explain that this is not concrete - the book can change, but it's good to show the progression of the story to the agent, to the publisher.
The story is not always so clear to me. I can't always remember the progression, but rather major happenings that changed my mind, my views, my life.
Writing it down loses something for me. It makes me define some things that I don't know if I feel comfortable making black and white. Putting words to a memory also gives meaning to something that once only had feeling. What if I don't always feel this way? Will the memory now be altered and forced to conform to my latest version on paper (or in this case, digital memory)?
My cousin had an interesting take on Julie and Julia, a memoir made into a movie. He didn't like Julie - thought she was self indulgent. Was not surprised to find that she is now divorced from her husband, the patient saint in the movie. She didn't deserve him, my cousin said. But a memoir, no matter how honest and candid, is only a snapshot of what's really going on. Like all forms of expression, it conveys a message. A book cannot be a rambling mass of words, images, and occurrences. It needs to focus on a one sentence catch phrase. It needs to sum up for the reader one clear concise selling point. Sure, a good book appeals to many different people, who all walk away with a different emotion/idea. But a well crafted book has one central, one main, one distinct voice that gives the reader one finely tuned note.
When you write about yourself, about a time in your life, about something that matters greatly to you, you are at your most exposed. Like a painter's self portrait, a memoir is that glimpse at the true you as you see you.
What if you tell the story, but your reader walks away with a different plot? What if you tell the story and your readers sum you up based on that snippet in your life? What if it's self indulgent, as my cousin summarized Julie of Julie and Julia. What if...
A memoir is just that. It's how you remember your life. In my case, I want to share it not because I am a special person, not because I had extraordinary experiences, not because I want recognition. In my case, I want to share it because it COULD be anyone's story. Anyone/everyone can fulfill their heart's desire. They can take that leap of faith, not falter when an opportunity comes upon them, and trust in their own instincts to follow their heart, fulfill their dreams.
I'm struggling now. I'm stalling actually writing this book. A little bit afraid of all of the usual stuff people are afraid of, plus some things that only I could concoct. . . But as I write things down - sometimes they are just lists of what I'm grateful for, sometimes they are monologues to my brother who has passed on telling him my greatest fear and biggest wish, and sometimes they are the messages great and small that come my way - I see that writing it down helps me to make things clearer.
Writing down chapters I hope will someday be included in this book or perhaps another, I gain a new perspective on myself. Self indulgent as that may sound, it is something everyone should do - record chapters to document moments great and small for themselves, maybe for their children to read one day and maybe, just maybe, for a greater audience of readers who will find a sliver of understanding, a kindred soul, a stroke of inspiration.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Global Women's Work

A young woman entered my shop. Monday was particularly busy after Sunday's newspaper article. I even kept track of people who came in for the first time due to the article, who had seen the article and bought something and those who had been in for the first time without seeing the article.

"I cannot believe I am standing in a store called Women's Work" she told me in her charming Bangledeshi accent. She had just decided to put more effort in her cousin's business. Her cousin 'lives in India where there are so many poor, poor women you cannot even imagine.' she told me. Her cousin teaches them how to do different things so that they can get a job. Because the women are many generations of homeless, they don't even know how to clean properly, use an iron, sew. Her cousin, with her own money and that her of husband, bought these things and takes in these women and teaches them to earn a living.' Smiling from ear to ear, 'and here I am in Women's Work.'

She will bring me some of the things the women have made. Over time, she had taken their things and sold them for her cousin. But now, her cousin asked her to put more effort into it. The women need some success to feel hopeful. They need to sell some things to encourage them to make more. This is a life, she told me, that can change for this woman and her daughter and daughters yet to come. Prostitution, rape, acts of violence are part of their world, their way of life. With income coming from another source, with some self respect, self sufficiency, self reliance, this can be stopped.

Many women came into the store yesterday thanking me...Once, I stammered, "oh no, no need to thank me," I started to say. 'Thank you for having a store like this in Poughkeepsie." she finished. "Oh, yes. Well, it only seemed right."

From the first sale we had in 2006 days after we landed back on New York soil after our life in Botswana, the Unitarian Church Fair Trade Bazaar welcomed us wholeheartedly. That was this very same community.

Today, I got a call with a long lag time. The number on my cell said unavailable which usually means it is from overseas. I don't get as many long distance calls as I make, but lately, people had been seeking me out. This call was from an American who had lived most of his adult life
in Mexico. He was inviting me to come and help the women in his village. I had to smile.

On Sunday, a woman called me while we were doing the show in Long Island. She didn't know if I could help her, but...that's how the requests, inquiries, phone/email/postcards/packages email on Saturday trailed off with, "I'm not sure how to articulate what I am asking now..."

People wanting to help, wanting a venue, a reason, a way. Sometimes, I can't help. Sometimes, all I can do is offer advice. Sometimes, it feels so right and then the project, the idea, the emotion/drive falls away. Sometimes, it all clicks and it all comes together - complete and satisfyingly easy.

I never know what's coming my way. I have gotten much better at dodging trouble - you know, the scenarios that seem too good to be true, and after a long and painful progression, you realize it all too late. The ideas that seem to fit your current state of mind, only to find out that it was a square peg you wanted so badly to fit into a round hole. Or the right premise, but the wrong promise.

I am open to the signs that come my way. I sometimes even write them down. "Today, out of the blue, three people mentioned New Paltz." that kind of thing. Later, you can take a look at those messages and see where you went "wrong" or go "aha!" I knew this would work even way back then!

One sign that keeps creeping up on me is India. I've never had an affinity to India, but time and again I am confronted by it - in Alanna's relationship with the children of the dumps in former Calcutta, in my buddy Jay's connection with the women who weave the trash bags, the popular treeless gift boxes from Sustainable Threads, most recently the young woman and her cousin helping women find work. I say this now because in a year, five years, ten years from now and I've got a store in India, we can all ohh and ah at my astuteness.

I wonder how people find me. Why they choose me even though my website is Botswana-centric, my story too, totally about the San in Botswana, about the ostrich eggshell jewelry. I am astounded that people approach me not just to buy their crafts but also for guidance, kindness, friendship and affirmation. I say I wonder how they find me, but really, I know.

There is a collective mindset that exists and connects all of us.

I chose the name and focus of Women's Work in 2005 because I believed that by targeting women, helping women, empowering women, I could affect the the elderly (our past) and the children (our future), all being taken care of by the caregivers, the women. CARE also adapted that notion in their latest campaign. And over the last two years, women have been the target for many organizations, telling me that my idea was the right one.

Retail/Wholesale in these economic times has been particularly difficult. Many good businesses have had to close. And while Women's Work isn't doing well enough to afford me a salary, I have done what I can to make sure it stays open - for the women artisans, those looking for ways to help, those looking for answers and those needing inspiration to set them on their way.