Mud in Black and White


“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.” E.E. Cummings

Mud is two very different elements coming together. Earth and water. Rained on dirt. Water soaked soil.

No longer liquid, but not quite solid. Until baked by the sun into sinewy continents.


Then it can become bricks.

Molded and poured, shaped and baked, turbid then opaque. Mud can make,

a house. An adobe abode.

Mud can be worked.
But mud can be tricky and maleable.
Mud lays in wait for something or someone to change it.

When you least expect it,

the rain can reign down and carve out crevices,
wash away walls,
and muddy your whole bloody life.

Just when you thought it was solid.

But you are not made of mud, although you melt in a puddle for a mired while.
Then your hero pulls you to your feet and tells you to breathe, but it’s hard.
Lots of doubt and mud-slinging. Can you feel it stick?

So you walk the hard path together because it circles back to home.


And you make better bricks from the fallen mass. Repurposed, relived, repaired.

Memories awash and days float by
as you play in the mud with abandon.

Mucky joy over all the possibilities . . .

the alchemy of life can bring.

originally posted at

The Extra Layer

photo credit:

photo credit:

A mother I know lost her son this week, her oldest child. He was sixteen. First he was missing. Then he was found by a search team alongside the road where he had apparently been hit by a car in the early morning darkness. The details are still unclear. But do they really matter? He is gone. Somehow I imagine that knowing must be better than missing because missing means uncertainty. And in the face of uncertainty, we imagine the worst. And hope for the best. But in knowing, we reach the truth, the depth of death and loss that we all experience differently. And although we may sink into that pain like fresh mud, at least we are not floating away. And when we are ready, there is the pulling grace of goodbye, the loveliness of memories. The detail of the lips moving, the voice like honey, thick and soothing, buzzing still.

My husband’s cousin, a painter, did a series of works in which he illustrates that we each carry with us all the disappointments, cruelties and losses of our lives as bricks. The proverbial baggage. Some of these bricks fall away as we get older–the self-doubts, the useless criticisms, the rejections that no longer serve us. But I believe certain losses never leave us. We don’t “get over” them, we simply learn to lift ourselves up with them, walk with them, adapt to their weight and presence, perhaps occasionally forget they are there. Shift them about. Maybe even soar with them in a moment of laughter. But never, never put them down. I have always hated the saying “time heals all wounds,” which implies that we are responsible to open our eyes on some undetermined bright morning and find the wound scarred over, run our fingers over a place that was once raw and bottomless to find a bumpy ridge of dullness. The forgetting. I have not lost a child. But I have lost my father and a dear friend and I prefer to think of them as always with me, not as a burden of grief, but an extra layer.

This woman who lost her son is a friend of a friend. Someone you love by extension, because your friend does. I met and spent three days with her several years ago. We walked 49.5 miles together with several other friends to raise money for breast cancer. We crossed Chicago together. I guess when you walk that many miles with someone, the “getting to know you” process is accelerated. Sweat and blisters cut through the veil of appearances and you have no choice but to be yourself. I have a vivid image of Deborah, long legs and girlish braids, a glamorous Pippy Longstocking who I had trouble keeping up with. And although I haven’t kept in touch with her regularly or ever met her family, I know about them. Which is enough. It’s enough to know.

During our walk, we women shared the details of our lives, some mundane–what sports our kids played and how our husbands made us crazy, which recipes we’d tried lately, the music we liked, what we were like in college. And some more poignant–a birth story, relationship worries, a battle with cancer. The miles and the time passed until we reached the next rest point where we could stop and eat, drink water, stretch, rest. Getting up again was always the hardest part, exhaustion anchoring us to the ground, the grass, the dirt, the ants. Deborah was always the first to say, “Ok, time’s up, let’s get going.” And up she got, the rest of us struggling to our feet to catch up. Keep going.

The following year, another good friend who walked with us died unexpectedly of coronary thrombosis. I flew from Africa to her funeral in Michigan with the numbness of grief and no warm clothes. It was early January, deep drifts of snow covered the ground. Deborah sent me a sweater in the suitcase of our mutual friend — a long, soft, gray blanket of a sweater. A new sweater, an expensive sweater, which she pulled off the shelf of her clothing store–because she thought of me–which is an extraordinary gesture for many reasons and one I’ll never forget. I wore that sweater during the funeral, I slept in that sweater, wrapped it around my shoulders, my waist. It became both a shield and an embrace. I slipped it over my head on the airplane going back to Africa, not because I was cold, but because I needed to feel the familiar drape. It had become a different sort of extra layer, threads of comfort woven into the fibers. The comfort that comes from being with good friends who loved the person you miss, the talk, the smells, the touches and tears. Even the laugh that escapes unexpectedly and uncontrollably–that first inevitable laugh that feels like a betrayal, but is really the soul of your friend, or father, or son, or mother telling you it’s ok to live on.

When I woke up this morning, it was cool, maybe not worthy of a sweater, but I put it on anyway. The sleeves are now stretched past my fingertips and the hem is dotted with pilled knobs of worn wool. I sat on my bed and pulled the sweater over my knees and tried to send my thoughts across the ocean to someone who once showed me kindness. But the tragedy felt too large and far away, like I could travel and travel and never reach an understanding. A child gone. I thought that maybe I should send the sweater to Deborah, that somehow it would help. But what if it didn’t feel the same to her, if it didn’t fit, couldn’t comfort? In all the certain gestures of family, friends, neighbors and even strangers, I hope she’ll find her own extra layer. And when she does, it will make a small difference. It will.

Pluck: A Poultry Tale + Recipe

“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ”

— Julia Child

There was a time not so long ago when, if I didn’t feel like cooking, I would drive a good distance from our house in Savannah to The Fresh Market to pick up dinner. On those evenings, I would grab a basket, walk straight past the wooden tables displaying woven wicker crates bursting with gigantic blush pink apples, baby spinach and arugula. I would shoot past the acrylic, lift-top candy bins and the international chocolate shelf, the artisinal cheese display, the barrels of aromatic coffee beans and the nut grinding station, then weave my way through the biscotti and imported “biscuits” aisle, which brought me to the gourmet deli section. And that’s when I would smell it. What I had come for. The rotisserie chicken.

Oh, how I miss that rotisserie chicken: White Wine Herb, Lemon Rosemary, Butter Garlic, Honey and Thyme or Natural (which, they should call “elegantly simple”, for that is indeed what it is.) I loved to watch them turning ever- so-slowly on their sabers, the top one dripping it’s flavorful cooking juices onto the one below, creating a cascade of savory essence, basting, coating, dripping until each golden droplet suspended and finally splattered and sizzled into the pan below. Watching this process, I theorized that the chicken on the very bottom must be the most flavorful and tender, as it had received all of the drippings from the rungs above. On those occasions when I timed it right and could pick my own chicken right off the rotisserie, that’s the one I chose. My piping hot, herb-encrusted chicken nestled inside the foil-insulated bag in my basket, I would wind my way back through the vegetables and fruits (ok, and maybe the international chocolates) to complete my dinner. Those were the days.

In Senegal, I usually dig a chicken out of the freezer chest at our local grocery and dump it into an insulated bag (to keep it cold this time) as quickly as possible. Those suckers are really, really cold. And heavy. Then I met a Senegalese man who raises and sells organic chickens. I ordered one to be delivered the day I was having a dinner party. I would be making Zuni Cafe’s famous Roasted Chicken and Bread Salad for one of Richard’s new clients and his wife.

On the morning of the party, I was on a roll–I had decided that this time, I was not going to let myself get stressed out. Instead I would be organized, ready, cool and calm. I would have dinner prepared, the table set, my kids bathed, the animals fed and the kitchen cleaned, leaving myself enough time to actually shower and have a much-deserved glass of wine well in advance of our guests arrival at 7:30.

All was going well. I had the bread salad ready at 2:00, or as ready as possible, as the final step is to pour the hot pan drippings over the cubed and grilled bread chunks and then toss with arugula. I had the table set, dessert made, the wine chilling, the green beans trimmed and the orange gremolata ready to pour over the beans once they were cooked. All I needed was the chicken. At 4:00, just as I was putting Sunny and Jamie in the bath, I heard the clip-clop of a horse cart pull up outside. Yes, the chicken. I ran and opened up the gate and there indeed was my organic chicken man, right on time.

He pulled an old rice bag from the back of his cart and reached inside, pulling out a fully-feathered, just killed bird.

“No, no, no”, I said, shaking my head. “There must be some mistake. The chicken I ordered is plucked, cleaned and has no head or feet,” and, I thought to myself, doesn’t look like Ginger the Hen in “Chicken Run” which I had unfortunately watched with my kids the day before.

He laughed and tried to hand me the chicken, but I backed away. “Madame,” he said, “you ordered a chicken and that is what I have brought you. You’re lucky I killed it for you.” With that, he carefully placed the chicken at my feet, got back in his cart and clopped away. I ran after him, hauling the chicken along by the feet, shouting, “but how do I get the feathers off?!! Wait!! Don’t go!!”

In situations like this one, (i.e. an entire three pound chicken that needed to be de-headed, de-clawed, plucked, “voided”, washed, prepared and roasted in two and a half hours), I have been known to succumb to something akin to Tourette’s Syndrome. Sunny and Jamie ran outside with towels on to see why Mommy was standing in the courtyard shouting obscenities, holding a dead chicken by the neck.

“Get your father on the phone, now! . . . Please.”

As I tried not to hyperventilate, I heard Sunny, who loves nothing more than to push the #1 button on my cellphone to call her Papa, leaving Richard a message:

“Papa, it’s me, Sunny. You better get home soon. Mama’s cursing at a chicken. She used the really bad word.”

I frantically Googled “how to pluck a chicken”. A surprising number of results popped up. I decided to skip the Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church video on YouTube entitled “Ms. Dudley Shows How to Pluck the Chicken” because it was seven minutes long and I didn’t have seven minutes. I did however bookmark it for later viewing. Scrolling down, I learned fairly quickly that one only need place the chicken in a pot of boiling water and let it sit until the feathers loosened and could be easily removed.

While the chicken sat in it’s pre-pluming bath, I thought it would be a good idea to sample the wine. Two glasses later, I reached into the pot, pulled out the chicken and realized it would be easier if I got the neck/head and feet off first. I somehow managed to do this rather smoothly, finding the joints easily. That accomplished, I took a deep breath, reached into the pot (which had now cooled slightly) and began ripping feathers out. The downy ones came out quite easily, but the wing feathers were more stubborn, so I asked Jamie to please find my eyebrow tweezers. By now, our three cats had become very interested in what I was doing and had climbed onto the counter and were pacing like circus tigers. Tweezers in hand, I began to tug at the more difficult quills. As my hands were wet, I was covered in chicken feathers which were plastering themselves all the way up my arm. Sunny had pulled up a stool next to me and was cheering me on. “You’re doing a great job Mom.” She kept asking me if I didn’t want another glass of wine.

At 6:00, the chicken was naked as a . . . well, you know, and I braced myself for removing the innards. I got a scrap bowl out, cut the skin around the cavity and reached in. I don’t know that I could identify what I pulled out, but I placed it all in the bowl to cook later for the cats. I scrubbed my hands, arms and the chicken clean, inside and out, and placed it in a roasting dish. It looked just like it was supposed to! I felt triumphant, giddy, plucky even!

Just as I was popping my beautifully dressed and tressed chicken into the oven, one of the cats snatched the entrails out the bowl and trailed them across the counter, down the hallway and up onto Sunny’s bed where she proceeded to gnaw on them ferociously and howl at me viciously if I tried to get near her. The resulting mess topped my ‘grossest thing ever’ list, Sunny’s bed had to be changed and Sunny herself needed lots of comforting. She feared that her favorite Hello Kitty sheet (ironic, don’t you think?) would never be the same. And, I found, I needed another sip of wine.

Twenty minutes later, I had just enough time to wash my face, brush my teeth and throw on a dress and some lipstick. My cheeks already had that healthy ‘just plucked a chicken in record time while downing a bottle of wine’ adrenaline glow, so I skipped the blush. The chicken was starting to smell pretty good and, although the recipe doesn’t call for it, I basted it with the remainder of the wine bottle I had so thoroughly sampled. When Richard arrived with our guests, who I was meeting for the first time, I wanted to drag him into a corner and tell him everything that happened, but I would have to save it for later.

Somehow, I got dinner on the table. I nervously waited as our guests took their first bites. No one said anything, so I quickly scooped up a forkfull of chicken and bread salad and was relieved that it had turned out well, really well. The woman turned to me and said, “this chicken is absolutely delicious. Did you use white wine?”

You could say that.

Actually, it was excellent, which is why I’m sharing the recipe. If you want to impress someone or simply cook the best roasted chicken dish you’ve ever tasted, you should give it a go. I didn’t read the recipe carefully in advance–the chicken is supposed to be brined two days in advance–oh well. This is a link to my absolute favorite cooking blog and the recipe. Enjoy. Oh, and Bon Appetit!

Stories of Serendipity Part II: The Mechanic

When we first moved to Senegal, many fellow expats warned us not to trust the Senegalese, to keep our distance. A give and take relationship was impossible, they assured us, because the Senegalese, gentle as they may seem, were not culturally capable of a reciprocal friendship. I remember thinking, whenever I would hear such admonissions, and they were frequent, that surely these expats were missing something. They weren’t looking deep enough, not able to invest in the time and patience it must take to build a relationship. It seemed like a gross generalization, a dehumanizing one, for all of us. And so, I chose to ignore it.

This story proves them all wrong. It happened to my husband Richard, on a recent ordinary day, which is of course when serendipity is most likely to strike. On this particular occasion, serendipity (such a feminine word) was ushered onto the scene by her ever-watchful companion, karma.

The Mechanic:

A 25-year old Toyota Landcruiser possesses lots of charms, particularly when you live in Africa. Talk about rugged. Talk about sturdy. Talk about able to get us home on a mud path laden with crater sized, rain-drenched pot holes. For all of these reasons and more, we love our car. And everyone knows that an old car, one without computer controls or online manuals, needs a veteran mechanic. A trustworthy mechanic who knows his engines and isn’t afraid to take them apart. It took us a long time to find Babou, but we knew he was the one when he listened to our car the first time and said, “she’s sick. I can fix her.” No technical mumbo jumbo, just a straightforward prognosis with a fair price. He is a professional and an expert–someone we trust.

And so, over the last few months, we’ve recommended him to friends, acquaintences, business owners–anyone in need of a good mechanic. Word of mouth is how most good news travels here and it’s always feels good to know that you are helping all involved.

One day this week, Richard travelled to a remote village to work with an elderly Haitian architect who has built an artist colony. He needed help completing the design and execution of a natural pool, one that uses aquatic plants instead of chlorine, to filter impurities. It wasn’t a big job, but one that Richard was happy to work on out of great respect for this gentleman.

As Richard was leaving in the afternoon, he got as far as the next village and realized he didn’t have much gas. He pulled over to see how much money he had in his wallet- he would need the equivilent of $20 to get him home. To his great horror, he had forgotten his wallet at home. As he stood outside in the morning heat leaning against the car, wondering how he was going to get home, he pulled out his telephone to call me. No credit. (Cellphones in Senegal work on phone cards which you replenish as you go). He didn’t even have the gas required to travel back to his client.

Just then, he heard someone call his name. As he turned around, he saw Babou trotting across the street.

“Babou, what are you doing way out here in the middle of the week?”, Richard asked.

He pointed across the street to a car on the side of the road. “I have a client who lives in this village. His car broke down this morning and he called me to come fix it.”

They were both a long way from home, on the same day, in the same village, on the same street, at the same time.

Richard felt great relief at seeing not only a familiar face, but a friend. He could wait until Babou had fixed the other car and catch a ride back home. He’d somehow have to get back there to pick up our car, but he’d worry about that later. He was about to explain his predicament when Babou patted him on the shoulder and said,

“I’m so glad to see you. I was going to stop by your house later this afternoon.”

“You’re welcome any time Babou, but why did you want to see me?”

“I wanted to thank you. You’ve recommended so many clients to me lately and it has helped my business greatly. I’m no longer struggling. I can sleep at night. You have helped me more than you know.”

“Please” he said, “take this as my way of thanks. I know it’s not much, but maybe you can buy some gas with it.”

With that, Babou handed Richard $20.00.

Stories of Serendipity: The Yellow House

I’ve been thinking alot about serendipity lately. And I’m not the only one. I hear stories all the time about people crossing each other’s paths, resulting in a significant exchange, leaving both people with the distinct impression that they were meant to meet, for reasons big or small. Hearing about these stories is serendipitous in itself. It’s hard to deny that some intangible force, be it God, Allah, Buddha, the Universe, or wherever we place our faith, helps us work things out together. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that these events tend to occur in direct proportion to our current personal and global fragility. Times are tough and scary. Tragedies touch us either personally or distantly, but we hear of or read about them often. The good news is, if we listen, we will also hear about (or hopefully experience) chance meetings, small miracles if you like, that lend a bit of grace and purpose to our day.

Here is one such story:

The Yellow House:
There is a young Senegalese man who often sings at the top of his lungs in what I presume to be a mixture of Wolof and Arabic. Sometimes he wanders out in the bush behind our house, slowly weaving among the giant Baobob trees. But most often he can be seen outside a nearby uninhabited house, wedged into the corner where two outside walls meet. He sings every day, but always at different times. Most days, I’m ashamed to admit, I want to wring his neck, or ducktape his mouth. There is nothing beautiful or particularly comforting about his singing. In fact, it’s rather annoying. But nonetheless plaintive.

This morning I went in search of eggs. As I was walking along the dirt path towards the village, the singer began to wail. I could tell by the direction of his voice that he was in his usual spot, a spot I couldn’t avoid. As uncomfortable as I was, I would have to pass him on my way to the boutique. I’ve always avoided direct contact with this young man, preferring to glimpse him off in the distance. Afterall, anyone who sings that loudly in the middle of nowhere has to be a little off their rocker, right?

As I approached, he suddenly stopped singing, which for some reason made me feel guilty. I had always envisioned a crazed, desperate individual with frantic eyes. Instead, here stood a calm, if not a little embarrassed, young guy wearing surfer shorts and a Bob Marley t-shirt. I said hello and told him not to stop singing on my account. He shuffled his feet a little and looked down at the ground.

“What exactly are you singing about?” I asked.

“My problems,” he replied. “I sing to Allah, but only when there is wind. The wind carries my voice and the echo carries Allah’s message back to me.”

“That’s lovely,” I said. “Does it really work?”


As I couldn’t think of much more to say, I asked his name.

“Moustapha Diouf.”

“Nice to meet you, Moustapha Diouf. My name is Ellen.”

He nodded his head but didn’t make a move, which I took to mean that we had gotten close enough for one day. As I turned to continue along the path, he said,

“Allah has a message for you too.”

I stopped.

“Oh, really?”

Okay, I thought, so the loose screw diagnosis was accurate afterall. Maybe Elvis has got something to say while you’re at it, buddy. But I had stopped, hadn’t I? The jaded Catholic who was hard-pressed to define my “beliefs”, had been stopped in my tracks by the possibility that I had a pending message . . . from Allah. Somehow, if felt oddly comforting.

“What’s the message?” I ventured.

“I don’t know, but you’ll find it at the yellow house.” And with that, he took up his singing again.

The yellow house is an old, wooden, barn-like structure–a small miracle in itself in that it stands at all. I don’t know how old it is, but I often marvel at the fact that termites haven’t devoured it. I pass it every day. It’s beautiful in an inexplicable way. But, I thought as I walked along, if Moustapha is right, today it will have new meaning.

I walk past the house slowly, peering towards the windows, listening. But I don’t really believe, not really. I stop, continue on, circle back. Nothing. No one. This is ridiculous, I tell myself. I linger in front for a few minutes and then decide to try the back. There is no door. The house, afterall, is abandoned. No one inside, only fallen boards with exposed rusted nails, shreds of faded fabric. A couple of pigeons in the rafters. Suddenly I’m crying. It’s like someone has just told me there is no Santa Claus. No Santa, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, no God, no Allah. No Magical Yellow House with even the smallest tibit of Wisdom.

I continue on to the boutique where I go every day to stock up on sundries. Abdou tells me he doesn’t have any eggs yet and to try the boutique a little father along in the village. I trudge my way through a sandy street I’m not familiar with and spot the boutique up on the left. As I’m about to enter, a little boy runs up to me and sticks out his hand. “Bonjour toubab,” hello, white lady. He is about four and offers me a sturdy handshake and huge smile. This cheers me up, so I buy him a piece of candy inside the boutique, but no eggs. They haven’t been delivered yet.

When I step outside, the little boy is across the street, leaning against the wall. He has a deflated bicycle wheel in his hand and is studying it carefully, trying to find the hole. He sees me and there is that big smile again. When I hand him the candy he throws his arms around my legs. I ask him where he lives. He points to the gate and says, “fi, kai fi”, here–come with me,” and drags me through the gate.

Inside, there’s a large courtyard filled with chickens and a few goats, and several plastic buckets filled with laundry in different stages of soaking. In the corner is woman, who I assume is his mother, busy packaging the fresh eggs she has collected this morning. She stands to greet me and says, literally translated, “you are welcome here.”

I ask if her eggs are for sale and she says yes, gingerly placing twelve into a piece of cloth. As I hand her the money, I finally take in the house behind her, which is small . . . and crumbling in places . . . but clean and bright. . . . and a lovely shade of yellow.

On my way back home, my eggs tucked into my knapsack, I look for Moustapha. I want to tell him about the yellow house.  I listen for his voice, but he is nowhere to be found. The wind has died down.

Walk With Me, Leah

IMG_3171I woke at dawn to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to the mosque, as I do every morning. There is a rotation of three male voices and I never know which one will call me back to consciousness. To my relief, today it is the one I call “The Gregorian” because his chanting has a delicate, clear cadence, the kind that can ellicite calm and touch you in that small hollow under the breastplate, that odd place that beckons a quick breath. Certain Gospel voices can do this to me as well. There are lots of people who can sing, but not all of them get the message across. Like the other two muezzins, who are doing their job, but lack conviction and passion. On the mornings when they shout “Allah akbar” from the turret, it sounds like a call to obligation, but this morning, as I hear The Gregorian, I imagine the men in their robes, walking from all directions toward that voice and I am almost tempted to dress and walk to the mosque myself, just to see, to be led. But then I remember, women are not welcome in the main part. So instead I pick up the small notebook that sits beside my bed where I write down those “urgent” things that need to be recorded in the middle of the night and head to the kitchen for coffee.

Yesterday I was starting to feel the impending sadness that January 9th brings, because it is the day my close friend, Leah, died two years ago. Richard noticed and said, “Ellen, if you want to be happy, you have to start to forget.” I got angry and demanded how he could possibly ask me to forget her. He said, “What I mean is that you have to try to forget the sorrow. As long as you sit with the pain, she isn’t with you. But if you can figure out a way to honor her, she’ll be next to you.” Richard is not always so philosophical, but from time to time, he offers up just the right wisdom. Like small baubles which float to the surface, they have escaped the buried wreckage. Like all of us, he has had his own share of life’s collisions . So at some point in the middle of the night, I decided to write down the pain I felt over her loss. I wanted to let it out, get it down, so that I could think about how I would honor her instead. The small light on my phone wasn’t working, but I wrote anyway in the dark, scralling over the page, letting the tears come, knowing I would be able to decipher my own handwriting in the morning, as least get the meaning. But as I sat at the kitchen counter this morning, and opened the notebook, I saw that the page was blank. Only impressions were left. The ink in my pen had gotten caught on a philament of dust and all I had managed to record were scratches and traces. The page was scarred. I stared at it for a long time and then I began to write this piece.

I will honor Leah today by taking a long walk. One of my fondest and last memories of her was our Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago the year before she died. It had been some time since we’d seen each other and we had a lot of catching up to do. She had emailed me frequently during the training period. “Congrats on getting up to 6 miles . . .10 miles . . 15 miles . . . Don’t forget to buy dry-wick socks . . .I saw that you reached your fundraising goal, congrats . . . see you next week.” Leah was a life coach long before she put a professional label on it. She was all about setting goals, getting through the hard parts, laying stepping stones, celebrating victories. She was also someone who didn’t let you get away with much. I remember a Sunday at her apartment while we were at Duke. I was insecure, immature and ravenous for acceptance and approval. I started talking about one or another girl who I seemed to run into at all the parties, who was always perfectly quaffed, wore a different outfit every time and seemed to always say the right thing . . . but she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Leah stayed silent while she listened and then at one point looked off to the right and up to the ceiling as though she were waiting to devine the right response. Finally she looked right at me and said softly, “why are you spending so much time talking about this girl, when clearly she isn’t worth it? You’ve got plenty of friends who love you, you’re smart, you’re beautiful. It sounds to me like maybe you’re jealous, which you shouldn’t be. That’s all I’m saying.” And she didn’t mean,’ don’t read into it any further’, she meant ‘that’s all I’m saying’ as in, ‘end of conversation, ’cause I ain’t wasting any more time on this and neither are you.’ I called it the “Leah mirror.” She had a way of holding the truth up in front of you without making you feel judged or defensive and in a way, Richard did the same thing for me.

Leah wanted to come to Senegal. I will honor her by taking a long walk. I will show her. Maybe I will turn right and walk along the red dirt road that leads to the sacred Baobob trees, where the path is covered with fronds from the Flamboyants which have started to shed. It will be chilly at first and I will be sure to breathe in the scent of drying grasses and the small ground vines that hold purple wildflowers. I will smell the morning fires from the small Peul huts off to my left, wave to the women hunkered down over their steaming pots. I will listen to the “tchik, tchik” of the shepard leading his cattle to pasture. I will continue on until I reach the fields of bissap crops, ready to be harvested, those crimson petals that when boiled down to their essence, can heal. Or maybe I will turn left and walk through the brushland towards town. A fire last week burned all of the brush and the earth is scorched underfoot. It releases small clouds of black dust and shows my footprints perfectly. I have been here and I will go there. It will start to get hot, so I will take off my sweater and let the sun warm my shoulders and face. I will pass small groups of Senegalese children on their way to Koran school. Dressed in bright colors and carrying their Korans tightly to their chests, they will stop talking when they see me and smile. Some will say hello, others won’t. I will hear one of them say, “toubab denge Wolof”, the white woman speaks Wolof. I will smell their bread filled with spiced lentils, wrapped in brown paper, which they will eat outside on the stoop before entering the building. Next I will begin to see the houses that have been started and left unfinished until more money comes. They are signs of hope that the future will be built upon. Then, as I move further into the village, I will stop and talk to Samba, who owns the small bodega where I buy flour and potatoes, garlic, spices. He will be sitting just outside playing checkers with his friends at a rickety wooden table. He always wins and never cheats. I owe him 50 cents from a week ago, but he never has change, so I will buy something I don’t need and hand him $1.

I might even walk all the way to the sea, wind my way down the rubbled lane between the brown house with the orange roof and the green house with the brown roof. Then I will have to jump off the sea wall because the waves have eroded the stairs. I will stop for just a minute to take in the vast expanse of the ocean and sift through the shells that have been deposited by the tide. Pocketing my favorites, the welks, I will feel them against my leg as I walk. The vendors will be out by then and I’ll pass ancient women with skin like blue night carrying bundles of clothes, baskets of beaded necklaces and shell earings, African dolls, Pareos. I will stop and greet them. The wind will circle up under their long patterned skirts as we talk and I will catch a glimpe of foot, flat and smooth from decades of sand. I will buy something, a trinket, because they will walk much longer and further than me today. I will add it to the shells in my pocket as a reminder of today. Soon, as the tide rises, I’ll take off my shoes and walk in the water, which will be calm at that hour and starting to warm up. The salt will sting my skin as the water pulls away but each time it comes back, it will soothe.

As I head home, I’ll hear a song, that voice, the muezzin calling for mid-morning prayer, my breath catching again. Leah will hear it too because it is calling her. I’ll want her to come home with me, stay a little longer. But I’ll let her go, knowing there are many others who need to walk with her today, and always.

Right Under Our Noses: the Virtues of Dry Toilets


untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

I remember hearing a rumor many years ago that the rather eccentric Yoko Ono shared the litter box with her cat. I don’t know if it’s true, but apparently she claimed it was a better way to deal with human waste than flushing gallons of wasted water into a septic system and that the resulting melange could eventually be used as compost to grow vegetables. She claimed that if we weren’t careful, water would become precious and perhaps even scarce. She was concerned about the environment way before it was a hot topic, which of course, at the time, placed her in the category of alarmist, tree-hugger, hippie and in the minds of many, just plain crazy. I myself didn’t give the rumor much credence. I did however succumb to a vivid mental image of this petite, almond-eyed woman squatting over a litter pan while humming “she came in through the bathroom window”, much to the dismay of the feline patiently waiting it’s turn.

We have two cats here in Africa and no litter box, because, well, they go outside in the dirt. However, we do have what is known as a dry toilet system. This would be the moment, if you are feeling uncomfortable, to hit the back button on your computer and see what your other Facebook friends are up to. I won’t be offended, I swear. However, if you are even slightly intrigued, you might learn something. American culture, in particular, has placed a big taboo on any reference to the fact that all living things eliminate what they eat and drink. While browsing the children’s literature section in Barnes and Noble while pregnant with Jamie, I remember being shocked at seeing a book called, “Everybody Poops,” not because of it’s contents, but because someone finally had the courage to write about it. The need being served by this book– to help children understand that the process is nothing to be ashamed of– is indication enough that somewhere along the line, we dumped (no pun intended) our bodily functions into the “we don’t talk about that . . . EVER” column and it has stayed there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not espousing bringing it up as a topic at cocktail parties or rotary club, I just want to share what I’ve learned about the entire cycle as it relates to energy.

Those of you who are familiar with our project in Senegal know that we live bill-free in a house constructed with earth, get our water from a well, our electricity from a wind-turbine and solar panels, and grow our own organic vegetables. We’ve recently added a chicken named Ratatouille and a turkey named Gusteau to the picture, but not for consumption purposes. The chicken gives us eggs and the turkey acts as a natural anti-pesticide, spending his days picking at termites and other predetors to our produce. He occasionally steals a lettuce leaf or two, but we forgive him this. Although they don’t have much personality, I’m not ready to raise poultry that will end up on our table. I still prefer to purchase it from our local chicken farm. Much to my surprise, when I didn’t know what to make for dinner the other day, Sunny very plainly said, “why don’t we eat the chicken.” She’s five and understands perfectly where her food comes from, which could easily lead me down another path or up onto my soap box with another topic, but let’s get back to dry toilets.

Joseph Jenkins wrote a book, first published in 1995, called “Humanure” in which he details the virtues of dry toilets (see link below). The title itself may be off-putting, but the concept is simple. You place a receptacle, ok, a bucket, under a standard toilet seat (he gives you the plan for building it) and when you’ve done you’re business, you cover it with a layer of saw dust, straw or any other natural material. When the bucket is full, you place the contents in a compost retainer (also detailed in the book) and layer it with food waste, i.e. fruit and vegetable peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, plant trimmings, anything biodegradable. The only stipulation is that you don’t use dyed toilet paper. After about a year, enough time to allow any toxins or harmful bacterium to dissipate, you have one of the richest composts imaginable with which to grow organic produce. I skimmed the book cursorily when Richard first suggested that we adopt this system (since we don’t have running water, we didn’t have much choice) and promptly threw it at him while launching a tirade about the numerous ways in which he has ruined my life as I knew it. When we moved into the house, I was told I had two options: I could walk outside in the brushland and hide behind a bush, if I could find one, or I could try the dry toilet system. To his credit, he built a handsome throne of concrete, spent a fortune on a lacquered wooden seat and promised to be the “emptier.” To the unsuspecting eye, it looked like every other toilet, minus the handle and water tank. We used a mix of peanut shells and millet shucks as our choice of coverage. To my begrudging surprise, there was only one pungent odor eminating from our bathroom–it smelled like fresh ground peanuts. We’ve been using this system for almost a year and, like most routines in my life, it now seems natural. Richard laughs when he hears me touting the virtues of dry toilets. Once addicted to creature comforts, I am now, you might say, a convert. In general, our project has opened my eyes to an array of “green” choices, some I was already familiar with, others completely new to me. Read on.

We recently called in a specialist on renewable energy, Pierre-Jacques, a frenchman who has lived and worked in Senegal for the past 26 years. We needed help finding a way to power our cold production, having considered both solar and gas-powered refridgerators, and wanted a professional opinion on which was the most energy efficient and cost-effective. After he asked us a myriad of pertinent questions and toured our house, he said, “you’ve had the solution all along, right under your noses. You just haven’t been harvesting it properly.” He went on to explain that by placing our dry toilet waste in an air-tight cistern along with a small percentage of cow, pig or horse manure, we could produce enough methane to power a full-sized refridgerator/freezer and our gas oven! He said this so matter of factly and non-chalantly that I asked him to repeat himself. “Sure,” he said. ” It’s called Biogas. I have all the plans because it’s what we do at our house and I can tell you it works.” By running gas tubing from the cistern to the two appliances, we can produce cold and heat by recycling our waste. He went on to explain that by “harvesting” the methane, we were also preventing it from dissipating into the environment, which is what happens when it’s placed in an open-air composting unit. I immediately thought of all those problematic cows out there in the world shamelessly releasing their gas into the universe and wondered aloud if there wasn’t a way to harvest it. Imagine the energy problems we could solve! Pierre-Jacques laughed, but explained that, in fact, China, India and Brazil are already doing it, on a large scale basis as well as individual (see attached link). The best part about his suggestion is that our composting efforts won’t be lost because what remains in the tank after the methane is distilled can be emptied periodically into our compost, making use of all the elements of the system.

I was curious about the person to output ratio. In other words, would the four of us be able to produce enough methane to keep the appliances running constantly? Pierre-Jacques, who spouts out statistics and technical information with the finesse of a poet, told us that output is usually proportional to the needs of the family. However, because I like to cook and entertain for others, we’ll add a small percentage of animal manure to augment our methane production. We’ll be installing our new system in a week or two and I, for one, don’t care how the fridge gets cold, I’m just looking forward to popping open an ice cold beer!

I’ll admit that our project is an extreme one. Not everyone is willing or able to implement what we’ve done, particularly a dry toilet system. But here in Senegal, we may be able to at least raise awareness and at best provide solutions to real energy problems, not to mention financial instability for a population that suffers from extreme electric bills, frequest power outages and the high cost of gas. And of course we hope that those who can afford the “tradtional” methods will want to go natural because of the environmental benefits. Who knows. For now, it’s actually fun being a part of this crazy project of ours. After all, it really is a working lavoratory . . . I mean laboratory.

Measuring a Year




during construction

during construction

It’s been a year since we came back to Senegal to live. A date on the calendar, August 12th, tells me practically that this time has passed, but I perceive it more in the details of our ordinary life: the length of Sunny’s hair, the height of the banana trees in our yard, the changing light of a season returning with it’s own frank announcements– the rain, humidity thick on the skin, green, everywhere, green soothing over the fissures of a typically parched land. The scent of mangoes, hanging heavily from trees along the roads, tells me the rainy season has circled back around. Mangoes the size of a child’s forearm, with the fluid aftertaste of coconut and pineapple. They are plentiful and cheap and find their way into almost all of our meals.

I sense the passage of time in the ease with which I walk through the village where we live, if not quite looked on as “one of us,” I am by now a familiar face, “one among us”, not African, but no longer a stranger. Seynabou, Maty, M’Baye. There you are. We know each other. “Nengadef, How are you?”

Mbour fish market (Gulpoppy, Nov 2007)

Mbour fish market (Gulpoppy, Nov 2007)

I frequent the fish market, which once terrified me, with its long, crowded, narrow allies, navigating through rain puddles, blood-soaked ice crates, discarded heads and scales, tangled fishing line with shards of lures. I am no longer shocked by the potent, briny smell, the din of loud bargaining over waves crashing into the port just beyond, shouting over tables, fish passed over heads, flapping sea water. Who has carp? “Madame Americaine,” someone is tugging at my sleeve, “come, come, urchin, monkfish, carp, pas cher.” Women crouched on low, rickety wooden stools, expertly gut and fillet my fish before I can count out the now familiar papery bills. I pick out the coins, recognizing them by color and weight. I thank the vendor in Wolof and move out from under the rusted tin roof into the hot sun, pushing past on comers and barefoot children selling plastic bags. It is my last stop before the bakery to get bread and my canvas bag is now heavy. This has become a familiar, natural routine. I don’t think much about our surroundings, our daily lives, and this also tells me that a good deal of time has passed, that our lives have settled upon us. Then there are the subtle negatives of absorbing time. The talibes, the young boys who beg for alms and food to pay for their religious education–when did they stop tugging at my heart and become a common detail in my day? At what point did I begin to regard the many sellers who approach me with their wares as a nuisance? It takes a year.

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Can We Please Go Back?



A few days ago, Richard asked me how I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year. I snapped back that I didn’t want to have it at all, that I just wanted the day to pass by like any other day. My response was both indulgent and self-pitying, but he didn’t press the issue. He understood that I hadn’t said this out of any egotistical denial of aging, but rather an avoidance of the losses that this time of year represents. We buried my father after his long battle with cancer on this day over twelve years ago. In the days immediately following his death, I had been brought along on the strangely swift current of people coming and going, of the preparations that took place, the heating up of casseroles, of the details of his funeral, of the need to assure others that I was OK. And then there was the nature of our relationship to try to make sense of–it had been complicated, difficult at times. I had talked endlessly on the phone with my closest friends, hashing out once again the details of his illness and final few days. It wasn’t sudden, I reminded them. I was OK.

Until I no longer was. It wasn’t until the limousine pulled away from the grave site, until it was all “over”, until I looked back to see the coffin being mechanically lowered into the ground, that the loss of my father finally hit me. It occurred to me in that instant that he wouldn’t be able to breathe underground. There was no air. It would be dark. The weight of the earth. The depth. How would he breathe? We couldn’t just leave him there! Stop! He had no way to breathe. I don’t know if I said any of this aloud or not. I also don’t remember who (apart from Janet and my mother) or how many people were in the limousine with me. What I do remember is the feeling of suffocating and then being strangely ashamed that I had cried out, as though I had lost control of some intimate bodily function. We needed to go back. Can we please go back?

Because my father in the end was on heavy doses of morphine, he alternated between belligerence and extreme vulnerability (both uncharacteristic). He had been moved to the Gunnum Suites at the University of Richmond hospital, luxury quarters for terminally ill patients, which he mistook for a hotel (befittingly, given his career in the hotel industry) and had difficulty understanding why we were allowed to leave “the grounds” while he was confined to his hotel room. He complained often of the quality of the room service (with good reason) and balked at all visitors outside of the family, proclaiming the concierge highly incompetent. His management skills appeared intact, overriding all other derangements, real or imagined. On a visit to the hospital the week before he died, New Year’s Eve, he asked my mother and I if we would stay the night. He was afraid to be alone, he said, perhaps intuiting the approach of the end. Despite the circumstances, there had been champagne and hors d’oeuvres that we brought from home, candles and Glenn Miller. We rang in the New Year, the three of us, and it began to get late. My mother, who avoided driving at night, needed to be taken home. The nurse said they couldn’t accommodate both of us, but I could stay on the sofa if I liked. In the end, I went home with my mother. I often wonder what we would have done, my father and I, had I stayed. Would we have watched TV, talked about previously taboo subjects, like his impending death or our relationship? Would I have helped him into his pajamas, plumped his pillow, rubbed his feet, watched him sleep? I will never know. Can we please go back?

Today also marks the one year anniversary of the death of one of my closest friends, Leah. I learned of her passing on my birthday last year, two days after her death. My friend Hester had tried in vain to contact me several times in Senegal over those two days, having bravely taken on the task of informing many of Leah’s friends. I’ll never forget her words: “El, I’m sorry, but I’m not calling to wish you a happy birthday. Leah died.” In that moment, I lost all sense of the way the world was supposed to function, of the natural order of things. Friends didn’t die. Friends went along the parallel time line with you, sometimes moving ahead, sometimes lingering behind, but ultimately arriving at the same points in time when we could look back together and take stock of both our shared experiences and our separate worlds. This had always been my assumption and I had counted on it fiercely, had envisioned it clearly, had lived it several times: a New Year’s Eve in New York (I don’t remember the year), a Duke reunion, several weddings including my own, a girls’ weekend in Savannah, a walk for Breast Cancer (a shared success and one of the best and sadly last memories I have of Leah.) Leah, if she had the time and the financial means, was always up for taking a plane to wherever she needed to be for these gatherings. I realized after she died that I had made few such efforts in her direction. Although I think she would say I was a good friend to her, I had been very much on the receiving end of our friendship. For this reason and for the more selfish one of needing to see her one last time, I flew from Senegal to Michigan for her funeral. I thought of how my mother used to insist, in my adolescent days when friends came by the dozen, that I would be lucky to count my closest friends on one hand when I reached adulthood. She was right and I had just lost one of my rare and treasured five. Can we please go back?

My memories of Leah sometimes get jumbled up. I have no sense of direction and a continuum sense of time, which makes it impossible to give exact dates, only general periods to my memories. The details are crystal clear, but the time is vague. When I think of her, it reminds me of the six-week tour of Europe I took with my friend Janet before college–a new city or countryside, art museum or monument every few days. All those privileges–I remember them all, I just can’t tell you where they took place. I am saturated with years of memories of Leah, which leaves me with a strong sense of her, an essence really, that I carry with me. This essence of Leah can be distilled even further into a constant but gentle reminder to be more like her, to be kinder and more patient, to push myself, to push obstacles out of my way, to move forward, at my own pace, but certainly to move forward. Take our house here in Senegal, for instance. “Keur Leah”, as it was named long before it was begun, though it was nearly ruined, is going back up, one brick, one mud frame, one day at a time. It has reinvented itself. How closely it resembles Leah’s persistence, how apt it’s name. Still, when I first saw the devastation upon our return, it felt so final, like we had failed. What if we had stayed through the rainy season? What if we had taken more precautions, protected it’s walls, anticipated more accurately? Can we please go back?

My illogical thinking, in wanting to avoid my birthday, was this: if my birthday wasn’t approaching, then I wouldn’t have to think of my father. If I didn’t celebrate my birthday, then Leah didn’t die a year ago, Hester didn’t call to tell me, I didn’t fall to pieces and board a plane to say goodbye. I could just let the anniversary pass and the day after, well, it would be the day after. Can we please skip forward? Because today I can’t breathe. The answer is no. Neither can we go back. I feel this acutely as I think of Leah today. I feel her absence, mourn her loss, as I will every year, and not just on this day. But there is that essence of her again, calming me, getting me past and through the pain. Were she here with me, she would say something along the lines of, “remember but don’t dwell.” She would also say, about milestones and even ordinary days, “celebrate me, celebrate you.”

The Beauty of the Underbelly


This morning, as I was walking to the bakery along the dirt road with Sunny, something caught my eye to the right, a shiny something that refracted the sunlight overhead. I looked. And in that fraction of a second that drew my attention, a large machete sliced open the throat of a living steer. The two Senegalese, one holding the cow as it lay on its side, the other wielding his knife so expertly, both looked up at me, momentarily distracted. Their look was neither startled nor apologetic. It simply acknowledged my unexpected presence. I must have made a sound, some small leak of soul escaping through my fingers, although my hand instinctively flew to my mouth to silence it for Sunny’s sake. The animal, by contrast, lay very still and quiet, the blood leaving it’s body at an astonishing rate. I could tell this beast was still alive, it’s eyes placid and resigned, but still very much in the world. I willed it to Cry out! Protest! Accuse! because I couldn’t, not on it’s behalf. This was food, afterall, for many people. I wondered if it’s vocal chords had been severed on purpose to lessen the degree of assault on human ears or if an animal of this nature merely accepts it’s death with dignity, knowing that struggling against it wouldn’t alter the final outcome. Either way, in the end, I was thankful that my ears (and Sunny’s) had been spared the unimaginable sound of this massive animal’s parting.

A very different glint by our shared sun had thankfully attracted Sunny in that same moment to the opposite side of the path. While I had witnessed this animal’s death, she had seized upon a scattering of sequins fallen from the loosened thread of a colorful prayer shawl. She hopped forward picking up the trail of teal, gold, fuscia and saffron and held them in her cupped hand like found treasure, oblivious to the scene unfolding to her right. For just a brief moment, I felt a selfish and urgent need to show her the cow so that someone, anyone, could share in the horror of it with me. But I herded her forward instead, shielding her from that particular reality. Had my eyes not caught the glean of the machete, just as it was raised, at that perfect angle where the sun could wink off the steel blade, I believe I would have passed unaware. The entire scene, the empty dirt lot, the fawn-colored steer, his earthy textured horns, the shells, straw, sticks and rocks, all melded together in a bland spectrum of brown common to a field of nothing in particular. Even the men would have remained in my peripheral vision, which would assume they were going about their business, whatever that was, as I went about mine.

But I had seen it, the slaughter of a cow, and I still needed to hold my daughter’s hand, admire her new-found sequins, walk to the bakery and buy bread, greeting villagers along the way. It’s not that witnessing an animal’s death hadn’t made an impression on me. It had. But not as much as I would have thought. In this context, given the surroundings, I knew it was a necessary action. I led us on a different route home, wondering what they would do with the cow next, how it would get “processed”, where it’s remains would be disposed. (Later that day, curiosity having gotten the better of me, I passed by the site. There was no trace of animal or man, only a small raised mound of dirt, the contents of which I could only imagine.) Our time here has slowly allowed us an understanding of basic needs being met, of a culture where everything from praying, to corruption, to basic survival, to putting food on the table is there for the seeing if we choose, or haplessly witness. There are also luxury hotels and an entire village rife with convenience, where the underbelly is hidden out of sight for those who choose not to see. I understand perfectly. It’s sometimes hard to swallow.

The upside of the total exposure we’ve chosen is that my children now know that the chickens they chase down the road are the very same we roast in the oven. Jamie has assisted in the process of scaling and filleting a fish that he puts directly in the pan for me to saute. They know that the seeds we brought over in our suitcases will one day become the vegetables and fruits they will eat. I remember visiting a farm as a child, watching the milking of the cows and understanding for the first time that the cartons in the refrigerator at home actually came from an animal. We, as a nation, are so far removed from our food sources that we can easily ignore anything that took place before they reached the grocery store and eventually our table. Seeing a cow being slaughtered is not something I recommend, however, most people are unaware of the misery our steaks and mcnuggets went through before they got neatly packaged for us– being raised shoulder to shoulder, fed antibiotic-laced grain, devoid of sunlight and an instinctive, genetically sound diet. I know I’m generalizing and that the trend towards food education, organic choices and fair treatment of animals is a growing part of the American conscious, however, unless you are a farmer or tend a flock of cattle, you will be spared the nitty gritty.

My children sit next to women with babies at their naked breasts and watch intently as they take this most basic form of nourishment. They don’t blink an eye, having so far been spared too many cultural taboos, while my eyes remain averted out of respectful and ingrained habit. They ask me questions that I might never have answered if they had only glanced a baby’s head ducked under a baggy T-shirt. Our whole family has become immune to most of what seemed shocking when we first arrived: people sitting cross-legged on the ground, eating from large bowls with their fingers; women herding flocks of filthy goats from their small yards; those same goats eating tin, plastic, filament grain bags, even glass; men walking arm in arm, or hand and hand, signifying nothing but deep friendship; women carrying large basins balanced on their heads filled with laundry, grains or fruits, babies bound tightly to their backs with brightly colored cloth; the devout lying prone in prayer on a woven mat in a corner of the grocery store because it’s time to pray. These are all things that are so foreign to us, to our ways of behaving and thinking, that they are hard to look at in the beginning, let alone understand and accept. After a time though, they become an important part of the whole beautiful tapestry of the Senegalese culture and it’s people. The way I was raised, the things I was exposed to are not better or worse than what we see here, just different. There is no shame in either. All I can do is try to work the two together so they make sense for my children and most importantly, not impose my own beliefs on the Senegalese. I’m trying hard.

I’ve even come to accept the groups of children who walk along the beach with sticks or rocks in their hands, ready to defend themselves against the packs of stray dogs that invariably approach them. When the two bands meet, the dogs bare their teeth, growl and lower themselves to the ground, menacing these children, who in turn will beat them with the sticks or throw the rocks at them until they part ways, sometimes calling a truce, sometimes leaving a wounded dog, other times a bitten child. Interestingly, I’ve noticed these dogs don’t approach or threaten us and have even been known to roll over submissively, leaving me to wonder which came first: the aggressive dog or the aggressive child? It doesn’t matter, this is their long-standing relationship and I don’t foresee it changing anytime soon. I tried once, and only once, to intervene, to gently tell the children not to hit the dogs, to just keep walking, arrogantly assuming that my adult (and superior) wisdom would break the spell. They listened to me in my broken Wolof, dropped their rocks and sticks and walked on slowly, glancing back at me for assurances. They were unarmed, but the scent of their fear still drifted over to the dogs who charged them from behind. In the end, it was me who threw the rocks. I have tended to the wounds of both a child and a dog on different occasions, wiping away the blood, disinfecting the marks, bandaging the aggressions. As an outsider, I simply cannot take sides.