Rwanda

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide, and there is a lot of good, thoughtful coverage in the media this week.

This series in the Guardian for example

Or this piece on CBC about the forever imprints on Canadian soldiers who were there.

About a third of the kids in the Nikibasika project are Rwandan, and two of them were born during the genocide. Rebecca’s father was killed as he tried to get to her mother as she was giving birth to her at a refugee camp at the Ugandan border. She just finished high school, and she is the most compassionate human being I know.

Rebecca

I went to Rwanda in 2010 with some of our kids, to visit their home village. I stayed for a few days afterwards by myself. I blogged a fair bit about how safe but muted the country feels, with a lot of thoughts about how that happened and what that means, how different it is from Uganda at first impression. But I thought today it would be good to repost what I wrote about my experience of one of the starkest genocide memorials.

Murambi
On my last full day in Rwanda, I hired a driver and went on a pilgrimage to Murambi, possibly the most horrifying memorial in history.

Murambi was a technical school in the south of Rwanda, where thousands of people sheltered during the genocide, and something like 50,000 were ultimately murdered. Chickens in a cage. It sits starkly on a hill, gaping holes still in the walls of the buildings where grenades landed, a tattered flag in the middle of a dozen deeply verdant hills.

The memorial is simple. A few months after the genocide ended, the mass graves were exhumed to give the corpses a decent burial. They decided to preserve about 1800 of them in lime, and laid them in the classrooms. That’s the memorial. More than two dozen classrooms, with bodies laid on simple wooden frames in each.

No one should see this. Everyone should see this.

What follows is upsetting.

Most of the corpses are, by now, faded negatives of themselves, bone coloured and close to bone, shriveled. But here and there, gut wrenching signifiers of individuality remain. Tufts of hair. Clothing made of fabrics that didn’t compost — sagging and set on the flattened frames.

A tiny figure in the arms of a larger one.

I’m trying to describe the indescribable. Door after door of this. The guide, alone and weary, in a suit and pumps completely out of context, has dark circles under her eyes. “And here are more bodies.” She’s very persistent on the topic of the volleyball court the French troops supposedly constructed over the mass graves after the massacre, when they were posted here to “protect the community” and supposedly protected the Interahamwe. I’ve heard about the volleyball courts before. It’s one of the only “exhibits” here, actually — signs that say “Here is where the French soldiers played volley.”

The official genocide memorial in Kigali lush and thoughtful, considered, a carefully tended headstone. Murambi is the worms and maggots under the overturned rock. Just… corpses, and a weary guide. The small exhibit is closed, with no explanation. There’s a visitors’ book to sign, and toilets that have no running water in the sinks. Tile floors that were laid for the feet of schoolchildren.

At first, my driver and I are the only ones here, then a pair of uncomfortable Swedes show up. They can barely bring themselves to glance into the rooms, and the male of the pair asks me “do you want to see more rooms?” when the guide takes us up the hill. His wife chastizes him in Swedish, and he’s silent.

My camera bangs against my waist, useless. My driver whispers that he will shield me if I want to take a photo. I flick my hand toward my camera automatically, but realize I can’t imagine who I would show such an image.

There is no fence around this horrifying space, the classrooms typical of Rwandan architecture, a long outdoor row, open to the air. There is a tiny farm about 20 metres from the end, where a child stands calling mzungu! mzungu! to me. She and her brother are digging. I hold out my hand and she comes forward to take it, and the guide yells at her to get away. As she admonishes the two boys making an incursion to do something vaguely like gardening on the other side of the building.

Her job: pointing out corpses, telling the volleyball story, chasing away children. Sitting alone in this enormous silent building on top of the hill, with 1800 corpses.

As we drive down the winding road away from Murambi, I pull out two nut bars from my bag. I offer one to Régis, my driver. He has been here before, but stayed with me through the whole thing, muttering. “Les bébés.” We speak in French, his fluid, mine primitive. “Après avoir voir qu’el que chose comme ca, on doit manger et reclaimer notre humanité.” “Oui.” We eat in silence.

“Eleven” (#4)

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is.

Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling around inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk.

Sandra Cineros’ Woman Hollering Creek and other stories was one of the books adjacent to “my” style. More “intimate orator,” mostly “I” voices on both sides of the Mexican border, on all sides of age ridges, time margins, fragments of sentences that pulse you down into a moment that is like a full breath. Most of the pieces are very short, but they weave together in a kaleidoscope of heat and hope and sadness and connection.

photo

 

 

If you are thinking about buying it, how about going here:

http://www.typebooks.ca/

Or any other independent bookstore.

Ingrid Catching Snowflakes on Her Tongue (#3)

More Lisa Moore, also from Degrees of Nakedness.

Reminded again how the best short stories are small, big meaning and emotion in tiny moments.  Moore’s writing is such… lush sparseness.

A whole entire plot in one paragraph:

For some reason she started seeing Marcel, Gabriel’s father, again when Gabe was five.  He stayed a month.  It ended when he took a swing at her. He’s a small guy and he was drunk.  She hit him back and he fell onto his bum, his legs straight in front of him, his toes pointing toward the ceiling, his palms flat on the floor — like a kid at the beach, she said, sitting at the edge of the sea.  She knocked his glasses off and he blinked, slightly sobered.

There’s a sense of movement in this story that’s like the breathing of a fish, water flowing in and out of gills in languid rhythm. The first person character separate, then of, then separate again, with the Ingrid she is writing about.  Living under the same roof with someone else shapes you both, the way liquid takes the shape of its container.

 

“Granular” (#2)

Lisa Moore was the best discovery of the short story course I did in the fall.  I had read and loved February but hadn’t really paid that much conscious attention to the writing.  Her short stories were a revelation, and the second person point of view in one of the ones we read was the model/inspiration for the story I ended up writing in the course.

The first scene of Granular is a page-long extremely graphic, sensual description of very connected sex, followed by an accusation.

I’m thinking about all the possibilities that spring up every time we act, then fall away to be replaced with another set of possibilities.  Sometimes the import of our actions catches up with us.  Import settles on one thing or another, the rim of a coffee cup, for instance, like a butterfly.

That moment alone is worth the story.  And her writing is a complicated weave of these kinds of possibilities. Moore fits into the category of “intimate orator,” I think, though she also fits “visceralist” — describing the indescribable with language.

Sometimes when we are having sex, a lost afternoon from months ago, or years, will creep over my skin.  It’s visceral, the way a flatfish draws shades and patterns from the sand it floats over.  Grainy blushes, they’re gone before I can speak them.

That image stopped me dead.  I now imagine this from a writer’s perspective — did she write the words “flatfish, blushes, shadows, over sand, flashes” in a little notebook?  Where did the words “grainy blushes” bloom as she wrote sentences?  What happened for her when that phrase appeared — where did she feel it and know its rightness in her body?

“Granular” is in the collection Degrees of Nakedness, and I can’t photograph it because it’s in the kindle app in my ipad (a clause that would have make no sense 7 years ago).

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We Are All about Wendy Now”

First story of my project, first story in Jessica Westhead’s “and also sharks.”  Sly, heart-catching first person story about a woman in an office whose cat is more real than the people around her… and who understands others better than the people-focused people around her.

The language and voice are impeccable — very of the moment and everyday and just right to almost obscure the searing truth at the centre.

The cafeteria smelled like fish because it was Fish Fingers Day.  Sherry told me when we walked in.  How people can eat that greasy cafeteria food all the time I’ll never be able to figure out, but I guess I got caught up in the excitement becaue the next thing I knew, I was lining up next to Sherry and pushing my orange tray along with hers, and there was tinsel and plastic holly everywhere because it was December, and Sherry even offered to buy my lunch, but then she ended up not having enough money in her purse and actually needed me to lend her a couple of dollars, which I was more than happy to do, and I told her not to even think of paying me back.

One of the “styles” we talked about in the story writing seminar I did in the fall was “deeper than you think” — this is the perfect exemplar of that.

photo-2

Bookends

The starts and ends to my days have always been a bit unhygienic.  Much as I wish I were the kind of person who started every day with a warm embrace of the dawn and a mindful commune with the sunrise and early cup of coffee — and I think I even have some alternative identity timeline in which this is true — I stay in bed too long, read random bits of news on the internet before I even make coffee, discover I don’t actually *have* coffee, can’t find the things I put out the night before to read, run around putting in bits of laundry and starting and never finishing tasks until I leave the house in a slightly late flurry.

My bedtimes are even worse, sucked into Reading the Internet or watching mindless downloads of TV even as I imagine myself to be the kind of person who drinks a peaceful cup of mint tea and reads a good book.  (Often I *make* the tea and it gets cold on my bedside table.  Pouring it out is one of the fragmented morning tasks). Sleep and I glare balefully at each other instead of spooning comfortably.

I’ve been trying to create more mindful practices in my life for a little while now, for lots of reasons — there’s a lot going on in my head right now, and to make the right sense of it, to find creative movement forward, to find space, I need to de-flurry my time, defuzz my head and body.  But man, the openings and closings of the day are hard practices to change.  Even while I *know* all of the reasons it’s a bad idea to bring electronics into the bed, or to fall asleep watching bad TV on a computer perched on my chest (seriously, civilization, what a crazy thing to evolve a possibility for!), I just… do it.  Those old shoes you won’t throw away because they’re in the doorway and pose no challenge to your feet.

Mornings, I’ve been working on a short meditation practice or 20 minutes of writing creatively.  So hard to carve out the time when my brain is supplying the 1000 reasons why I need to empty the dishwasher, send an email, fold the towels, put away my running stuff, take out the garbage, match socks.  I have to put it in my calendar. I get little alerts that say SIT.  WRITE.  Sometimes I listen.

Bedtime, it’s even harder.  I developed some terrible bedtime habits when my marriage ended, and because I haven’t lived with anyone full time for 9 years, my bed is littered with all the wrong things.  (The other day I found my iphone, my landline phone, my ipad and my computer, along with a book, a headlamp and a fair scattering of popcorn crumbs).

So I have a project for April.  Instead of just adding a bunch of “don’ts” to my routine, I need to feed the writing part of me.  I’ve been writing fiction for the past few months, for the first time in years, and have rediscovered short stories.  So for April, along with trying to permanently remove the electronics from the bedroom, I am going to read one short story every night.  And post about at least one sentence about it.  Trying to change some long-overdue habits while regrounding myself in the kind of voice that carries me to the best kind of new places.

Image

 

Uncles

My dad’s youngest brother died this weekend, the unexpected and awful kind of death that’s like a boulder dropping into a pond and stirring up all the silt on the bottom. Wider family emerging out from under the edges of the pond where we live within bare sight of each other, layers stripped off to elemental sadness, grief, loss, connection.

It’s also the anniversary of my dad’s death, 22 years this week, and my youngest sister got married this weekend, in the same place my dad died.

We sisters (minus one, who was off somewhere) and my youngest niece danced to Sweet Caroline, alone on the dance floor, singing the Neil Diamond my dad loved and finding him in the space between us. (Happily for the other guests, we didn’t attempt a karaoke version. This time.)

I turned 49 last month, and I’ve been fighting it. I’ve always felt a little trowel digging at my ease around the end of my 40s — my dad died at 50, and despite the longevity of the women in my family, past 50 has always felt a bit “there be dragons.” I’ve been delving into multi-coloured threads about all of the reasons — unfinished conversations of one kind or another, encounters with places where I left knots and tangles when I could have found moments of grace. Regrets, rhythms learned two beats too late. All important and true. And I finally realized I was also just *pissed off* at turning 49.

Two weekends ago, I was with a group of women who are very important to me. We gather in southern Arizona, where the sun flattens the ground and small mountains fringe us, where three of the six of us live. We talk and cook and walk, and I hike with Linda, and we find meaning between us. We talk hard and focus and we talk easy and fluid. They helped me remember what resources I do have, which I’d lost track of some. And talking with them — my age, a little older, a little younger — I realized how much part of my churn was about not really wanting to be 49, but wanting a some-time-earlier do-over. With, you know, all of the wisdom I supposedly have now.

Part of me is almost 50 and knows full well and fine what it means to be 50, and part of me is a stompy little girl who doesn’t want the sweep of life to be true. Grace has never been my strong suit. Knowledge always seems to come to me through some wrestling, wind-knocking-out jujutsu. A 7 year old kicking with no technique into the air, knocking myself onto my back.

All of my grandparents have been gone for years. Of my five biological uncles and my dad, four have died. My contemporaries are dealing with illness, spouses with physical diagnoses, fragile and life-ebbed parents, serious questions about money and retirement and the fear that comes from there. I’m 49. I’m fit and healthy and I can make 49 mean mean whatever I want it to mean, but I’m 49.

photo-44

The news about my uncle’s death threads its way to each of us mostly digitally, Facebook messaging and texts and email and IM, with a couple of carefully placed phone calls to pre-empt the unexpected. Digitally or not, though, we talk to each other instead of skimming by. Chatting with my only cousin who’s older than I am (50 the week I turned 49), he said something about the value of my knowledge and insight for the family. It made me tear up — I haven’t been feeling so knowledge-y, so insight-y, so strong. “Really,” I said. Yep. “You count as one of the adults that we’ve all forced ourselves to become when all the uncles died,” he said.

That’s it right there.