Tuesday, January 20, 2015

So, we should all learn from this.

Today is one of the most emotionally draining days of my life. It is 11:30 am. I am sitting on a bench at the Cambodian Killing Fields with a dear friend, each of us processing these human atrocities in our own way. As we listened to the stories of several survivors, I watched ants move millimeter by millimeter with their dinner humped on their backs.

Story 1: Loss of an Infant. A woman was too malnourished to nurse her child; she worked all day in the rice fields as her son slowly starved. Revolutionary Slogan to help ease her pain--Better an innocent lost than a future enemy spared.

The ants find the carcass of two bugs: one large, one small. They sent messengers back to the nest to get more help to move the bodies.

Story 2: Witness to a Killing. The Khmer Rouge soldiers, beat, starved, and tortured a man. He was shackled outside of the prison when a guard questioned a woman in the street about two bananas. The man watched as the woman pleaded, but the guard sliced her neck with a hatchet then decapitated her with a hoe. The woman died in silence. The man lived in screams.
The bamboo fence surrounding a mass grave.

The ants come together in groups. Three push their heads under the large bug to raise it up enough for the others to wedge their bodies between it and the ground. Their journey begins.

Story 3: Rape Leads to Shame. Twelve Khmer Rouge soldiers had beaten a woman unconscious, raped her, and left her to die. She woke up naked and filled with shame, guilt, and pain that assaulted her very core of being.

The ants meet a rock that is about an three centimeters tall and four centimeters wide. They run into it several times. Realising that it cannot be moved by force, the ants shifted tactics. A row of ants held the bug above their bodies. Four ants wedged themselves under the first row. Rows wedged under rows elevating the bug to the top of rock where there were four ants waiting to take the burden from their comrades. They worked together to solve a problem that seemed, to me, insurmountable.

Piece of clothing on the ground. The recent rain uncovered it.
Story 3: The Story of a Man. A boy woke up in his home in Phnom Penh. A knock on the door sounded through the halls. The Khmer Rouge soldiers told him he must leave this place and go home. He was confused; Phnom Penh was his home. He knew no other. He went to his grandmother's home hoping to escape the revolution. After some time, his mother and sister arrived. He found out that they had been turned away at the Vietnamese border; they would have left the country without him. One day his cousin came to the town and loudly disagreed with the revolution. The Khmer Rouge soldiers shot him without a second glance. Then, the boy was jailed for his intelligence and birth right, but the sacrifice of another prisoner released him. An old man pleaded with the guards to let the boy go. The guards took the man's life in exchange for the boy. "I don't even know his name," the boy said of the man to whom he owed his life. The boy escaped to Texas and studied with revenge in his heart. He returned to Cambodia with only one thought: to make his mother proud by forcing the Khmer Rouge to suffer as he suffered. His mother didn't want that. So, he has turned his work into shedding light onto this genocide about which so many of us are unaware. He works to prevent this from happening again. He searches for peace within his past, within himself.

The ants run across a leaf that catches in the wing of the large bug. It adds to the mass, but they ask for help and more ants come to raise the leaf to make it a part of their load. They maneuver around other pebbles and leaves. The extra leaf falls away and those helpers are incorporated back into the bug-lifting rotation. They reach their ant hill. Some ants widen the tunnels to accommodate the large bug. And, down they go, finally at home.

Barbed wire surrounding the compound.
These stories are some of immeasurable loss: loss of self, loss of others, loss of reason. Yet, the ants living in the place of destruction find a way to live, grow, and nurture themselves. They met challenges and worked as a unit to communicate, problem solve, and overcome them. The Cambodian people use this place of destruction as a way to educate people about the true horrors of war, about things that happened less than fifty years ago...

about what we need to do to prevent it from happening again.

*I listened to these stories with rice paddies behind me, a pond in front of me, and a friend beside me. We continued our audio tour through signs of clothing found on decomposed bodies, and mass graves of skeletons without skulls.

Number 15 Audio Guide Tour: The Killing Tree
As I started this part of the audio guide, Katniss' song from the Mockingjay movie circled through my head. I knew that this was the grave of women and children. The previous track warned us the next one would be tough. I steeled myself. I pushed play.

The Killing Tree with remembrance bracelets
The guide discussed the treatment of women first. They stripped them, had them kneel blindfolded and hands bound, then swung with a hoe or hammer or axel severing their spinal chords, then slit their throats with a palm tree knife or a sugar cane frond and pushed them into the grave. Revolutionary music blared from speakers to cover the sounds of their screams.

The Killing Tree, however, was not used for women. In fact, I don't think anyone but children died here. The Khmer soldiers, humans with a conscious, grabbed children--infants--by the feet, bashed their heads against the tree and flung them into the grave. They watered its roots with blood.

I wrapped my arms around myself, squeezing my eyes, willing this indescribable sense of loss escaping my eyes to go away. But, it didn't. So, instead I watered its roots with salt water.

My friend wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and we existed in a time that was neither now nor then, but instead a half-memory that should not belong to anyone.

We finished the tour walking slowly looking at the ground from which bones grow like palm trees. The birds sang a to each other reminding us that there is still good in this place, but from it we must learn.

*Written in my hostel at1630.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

So, Mama's a little broody

Little did I know that broody meant something other than David Boreanaz circa 1999.  I lived 25 years thinking that broody was an emotion linked to reservation, consternation, and misplaced sexual tension. Lord (and my mother) knows I was broody as a teenager, and boy could I tell you some stories. My inner 14-year-old is currently flipping her stylish yet bi-curious bob cut and saying, "God, Kathryn, why do you always bring me up like this? My life is so unfair; no one knows what I am going through. Just leave me alone."

Recently, (okay a year and a half ago) I learned that broody also means wanting to have a baby. And, maybe it is the anticipation of my niece's arrival. Or, maybe it is because so many of my social media acquaintances (and best friends) have babies. Or, maybe it is because I know that there are very few things I am naturally good at, but being a mother will be one of them. But, oh my gosh, it feels like everywhere I look a tot is holding his dad's pinky finger, a baby is asleep in her mama's arms, or a three year old is inexplicably covered in both peanut butter and pizza sauce. 

And, I want it. I want it all. I know that there is more to child-rearing than adorable instagram photos and facebook updates; I am not an idiot. I know that those midnight, three a.m., and six a.m. wake-ups are going to be difficult and annoying at the time. But, I also know that it will be worth it at some point down the line. 

Yesterday, my student Anna came up to be before class and said, "Teacher. I'm stuck. Help?" Her coat zipper did that thing where it unzipped from the bottom up leaving the toggle at the top and about a thousand jagged teeth below it. You know what I'm talking about. Sometimes it is just an easy zip down, but sometimes you feel like it is a shark's mouth with infinite rows of teeth. It was the latter. At what point do you give up and allow yourself to be swallowed? I mean Jonah hung out in a whale's belly for a spell; I am sure a shark's belly would be more accommodating. There might even be some sushi laying about. Okay, off track. Anyway, so together Anna and I worked through her zipper centimeter by centimeter. Finally, we were at the very end. At this point I had gone from bending, to squatting, to kneeling, to finally sitting . There was about five centimeters (about 2 inches) left. I took a deep breath and gently pulled the zipper through. As it came free, Anna threw her coat off and jumped into my arms. She said, "Wow! Thank you, Kathryn Teacher. That sure was tricky!"

And, as I type this now it doesn't seem so fantastic, but I cannot explain to you the lightness I felt after helping this child do something so simple. I held her--goofy smiling--when she does not even belong to me or anyone I love. It was just a brief moment, about which I am sure she's already forgotten, but it filled me with such happiness.

But, isn't that a part of parenting? You remember a thousand little moments as your children breeze through. They realise too late that even the mundane can be extraordinary. 

I think the thing that really got me broody was playing music with my students. I have learned exactly two songs on the ukulele thus far, one of which is "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I played the introduction and then taught the chorus to my students. The lyrics are:

Home. Let me come home.
Home is wherever I'm with you.

We talked about what the lyrics meant. They came up with the idea (with no help from me!) that we find home in the people and places we love. This made me so happy because it is exactly what I have been telling my family and friends for the past three years as I've ventured on this self-journey. I have people homes living in Vietnam, Canada, Korea, Florida, Texas, D.C., Boston (soon), Madison, Neenah, Antigo, Waukesha, and so many more. I have place homes in the rocky crags of Busan, white sand beaches and stone cliffs of Thailand, and gentle streams of Scuppernong Springs. 

During break time, the students wanted to play my ukulele. So, I sat on a desk and the students sat in front of me. They strummed as I made the chords. In the middle of the chorus, one girl looked at me and said, "Teacher, here is home." I replied, "Yes, school is a great home." She stopped me, "No, Kathryn. Here. Now. This. You." I had to take a very long and deep breath before I said anything. I was shocked and surprised and not quite sure how to proceed. But, she just nodded and continued strumming and I made the chords.

It is in these kind of not-so-special special moments that broodiness niggles my brain. These simple exchanges between two humans who feel safe with each other make me want to share them with someone that I created or helped create. There may never be a perfect time or a perfect partner with whom I can share a little person. But, neither of those really matter because whenever this child comes into my life, I am going to love him or her with...with...with something I can't describe. I can't define it because it will be a love so pure that I couldn't possibly know it yet.