Artwork: Woman of Kenya by Beverley Peden
For many of you who are writers, you may or may not feel pressured when it comes to deadlines. I feel this pressure very much. It acts to gag my words and trap my mind in a paralysing cycle of frozen inertia.
My "assignment" is to write something about some of the African women I knew. What can I say? How can I tell people of my 15 years of living in a place where the life is so different? How can I possibly convey to them the richness of spirit which belongs to many of my friends and former neighbours? How can I share with unknown readers the intimacy of shared experiences, like pain and joy, sadness and celebration, or birth and death? It is such a deep bond between real people that I have trouble putting it into a "third person" narrative.
How can I tell of the greed and exploitation which exists whereever you have such a gulf between the rich and powerful and the poor?
How can I share the generosity of spirit and of hospitality amongst the village people of Kabale? You never need to make an appointment to visit someone there, and there is always a cup of tea (often without milk or sugar, but tea just the same), a smile, and time to visit and make you feel welcome no matter how poor or how busy the host is. I wish I could share that with people here. The walls of suburban Canadian politeness can intimidate the drop-in visitor, and lonliness can decend like a plague. When I do socialize, the discussion topics so often seem to centre around symptoms of lonliness and feelings of isolation. Maybe it is just the company I keep...the suburban housewife. It reminds me of the book "The Women's Room". I wonder what we all will do about it?
I want to tell about the smells of fresh and rotting vegetables, and sounds of the many, competing voices of the Ugandan markets, but they defy description. The colours of kangas and kikois wrapped around the varied shapes of bodies, and the shining teeth that flash in my direction as they try to draw my attention to their stall and their wares...the sing-song market patter which is meant to lure me in...they are in my minds eye, now. They are part of the memories I cling too. I don't know the words that can carry the same energy of a chicken running for it's very life. I don't really have a colour on my palette which can convey the succulence of a heap of ripe mangos, sweet and fragrant, glowing in their warmth under the hot, tropical sun. How can I write my story without dissolving in tears from sheer lonliness for a land and a people I can never belong to because I am white?
What I can do is to let myself not get stuck in expectations, and I will allow myself to be "unperfect". I will allow myself to dream a bit...and I will allow myself to be vulnerable and share the intimacy of my thoughts with you.
In the past few days the thought of journeying has been very much in my mind! In my life, now, I am busy with the "busyness" of renovations...setting up a new home...shopping...school schedules for children. The stuff of everyday North American life. I walk out my door into a suburban setting, and everything appears "taken care of". The lawns are immaculate, the gardens trim and neat. No weeds dare show themselves, and the most outrageous thing appears to be the leaves which insist on blowing down in the autumn winds and dancing their merry dance across lawns and roads. I long to dance with them, but I'm embarrassed at the sight conjoured up in my mind of a middle aged woman, slightly overweight and dressed in grungy jeans and jersey dancing like a dervish through and with the leaves. What would the neighbours say from behind their windows? Why do I care? Why am I intimidated by them? Even the leaves are restricted in their dance...garbage collectors carry away boxes of their corpses which homeowners have hurriedly raked and stuffed into containment.
An excess of frivolity is frowned upon...not dignified. It would be much better to take up golf (for a price, of course) and be a social member at the Golf and Country Club down the street. However, I don't like golf, and country clubs don't appeal to me.
I find there are triggers which set up pangs of longing in my heart...the call of the Canada geese heading south for the winter sounds so much like a Crested Crown Crane that I forget for a moment where I am and glance out the window expecting to see a flock of them swing past my line of sight on their way from the valley floor in Kabale, Uganda, to the upper fields where they will eat sorghum and roost for the night. Instead I see grey skies and brick houses, and my neighbours pink curtains stretched starched and pretty through the panes of her house.
It isn't fair to compare, but I can't help but think that after six weeks, all I know of my neighbour is that they have pink curtains stretching across their window panes. It seems such a contrast to the warmth and genuine courtesy, helpfulness and welcome of the simple village women in Kabale who were my neighbours and quickly became my friends.
My family seems happy; they are making friends and enjoying their professional links as student and consultant. Perhaps it is just me. I need to paint, to draw and to find a way back into my own work. But I seem to have lost a sense of where to begin with that, too. I feel antiquated and redundant in what I am doing, and helpless and lost when I look at new mediums and concerns under the heading "art". Perhaps that is why I am still feeling somewhat alienated. It is depressing to think that I will never adjust back to Canadian life, or may not be competent enough to master skills on computers and graphics packages which seem to dominate here. I spend most of my creative time just setting up the studio...varnishing work tops, painting rooms, buying materials, and yet when I sit down to draw, the pencils are still in the freight which has not yet arrived from Africa...still in Antwerp the agent says! Do I buy more? Do I wait for the abundant supply I know I have?
Fifteen years of living in Africa is a long time, and I can accept that I am not the same person I was when I left Canada; a fact I am grateful for. I think they call this feeling of alienation culture shock, or "re-entry". It gives me some comfort to know that these feelings will pass.
I'm not even sure what my painting is about anymore. The nomadic feelings I had while in Africa get lost here. I used to allow my soul to savour every step taken on the red African soil of time, revelling in the thought that so many footsteps had left their imprint in the very soil I walked on...fellow travellers from a different time, but the same place. How many lives had crossed mine in the same invisible threads of memory locked in the grains of earth? How many chicken feet? How many goat or cow hooves? How much manure had been dropped in that very same place my foot rested, and how many blades of grass consumed? How many times had the earth and grass replenished itself? Had a young couple ever felt the passion of love on this spot? Had someone ever rested there for a time, renewing their energy? Had someone through the millions of years ever stood in this very spot and contemptated their life, or future? Had they ever wondered the same thoughts I had? Had they ever wondered about me? How many rains had washed their memories into the earth? I felt very connected to past and future lives: All very myserious and romantic! It set into play a spiritual resonance which spoke directly to my heart and found a form in my painting. It was a centering of soul and time and space.
Here I ride over tarmack and landfill in our family van...my connection comes from what others have thrown away and discarded...the archeology of city life. Someday someone in the future will dig a "tell" through some of our landfills and put together a picture of life in 1996. Now there is a thought! I wonder if all the plastic wrap from seemingly pre-digested food and time-saving pseudo nutrition will tell a story of what we valued in our lives. When I dug in my garden the other day to plant some bulbs for spring, I unearthed pieces of scrap wood not yet beginning their journey to decomposition, and a scrunched up coke can...there for how long?
I haven't yet developed any daily "rituals" to start to shape an identity and a place to belong. So often we express ourselves through our rituals, and we tend to make many rituals in our lives. The way we eat, dress, dance, marry, bury; our lives are fraught with rituals. Our belief systems find expression through our rituals. Rituals are the metaphors we inherit, choose or create to give form to our beliefs. And perhaps this is where I find I am most disoriented in this new journey I am engaged in.
In Kabale, spiritual practice was so close to all the daily practices I had...everything from a consciousness of service while boiling the milk for my family to the joy of facilitating the village women on projects to better their lives and help them find ways they could affect changes in their well-being and future hope. We had women from different churches and religious beliefs, so this was not about adherance or ownership of "belonging" to a particular church or mosque, or the practice of a pastoral calling. This was about caring about each other, sharing our experiences and knowledge, my own private meditation and prayer, and answering needs with an open and informed heart. An arrangement with a traditional priest has as much faith and meaning behind it as belief in the sacraments of the eucharist, an offering in a temple, the circumambulation of a holy shrine, or the simple lighting of a candle. For us, it found it's form or expression in daily activities and attitudes, and in each of us women having time for each other and in assisting each other. It was expressed in dancing together with laughter and joy, and singing without thoughts of how it would sound to others. Songs were sung for joy, for entertainment, and for a great uplifting of spirits. This was very strongly in focus in Kabale. No one was shy.
That kind of spontaneous joy seems quite obscure here, and I can only guess that my "fine tuning" isn't tuned yet. I don't recognize the patterns of emotions as they are expressed here, nor do I recognize a way in which I can respond with meaningful interactions. Although many of our physical needs seem to be met, our spiritual lives are still hidden away behind walls of privacy. Thoughts of activities together between people of differing faiths appear to often have hidden agendas of conquests and conversions...only more subtle than the "crusades" carried out in Africa.
Painting is my form of prayer and meditation. It is my service. It is my home; my place of being. When I can interact with the world of humanity and nature, this "world of Names", from the arms of my art, I can feel the unity between all things no matter how much in conflict or contrast they may appear. The dichotomy of opposites sets up it's own dynamic energy. It is my Sinai. From this Sinai I can circumambulate the Dayspring of Revelation. I find great joy in this. It doesn't appear to be something which is understood or valued amongst many of the people I have met so far, nor have I been able to describe it to them. It is as if we are speaking different languages. I have not yet been settled enough in my own rituals to give myself over to the process of recording what I witness on canvas.
Perhaps this is where my present journey must pick up the threads of my Ugandan community. I need to regain the spiritual state of being the "silent witness". Without speaking in a divisive language of comparison, I need to allow the animating spirit of supplication to override the forms in which we choose to put our expression of faith. In Uganda, the result was a rich tapestry with forms co-existing, inclusive rather than exclusive. Beauty was a result. Rhythms flowed.
What spiritual tapestry lies hidden here? Is it subtle in its texture? Strong in its warp and weft? Is the strength and richness lying hidden in the subtle shades and muted tones? Does it's faded passages retain the history of past lives and future generations? Does it have the treasures of a past, or the vibrant brashness of something new, creating itself as it unrolls?
Through my paintings I hope to honour our desire to reach for the divine in ourselves and in the universal sense. Can I find that spiritual centre here? Can I develop an honest response? The challenge is to me. I hope to learn to use modern tools, and be open to ways of thinking which I am not familiar with.
The tapestry of my own life continues to unfold...new threads being added, and old ones being pulled. The open spaces of those pulled threads will become the lacey punctuations, using their absence to create patterns. The fabric of Uganda is strongly in my heart now...it awaits additional stories to weave even more strength into their rhythms. What compositions will my heart paint?
Artwork: Woman of Kenya by Beverley Peden
Other work in this issue by Beverley Peden:
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