A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Out, In, On, Under — the difference a preposition can make.
I am sitting in a blue plastic lawn chair on the cement porch of a mud-brick home in Nakuusi, Uganda. Bosco, the farmhand, is raking coffee beans on the packed dirt. He diligently shuffles and rearranges the beans with a home-made, board-like rake. In the course of one day, the ripe green of the beans dries to an ashen red-brown. The changed color disappears into the camouflage of packed earth. On a pile of bricks to my right, Bosco’s battery-powered radio scratches the air with surges of confused static. If there is any coherence to the announcer’s message, I don’t know it.
I am sitting, reading, working on thoughts and images out of The Book of Revelation, as it is found at the end of The New Testament. All around me are scenes from typical, rural life in this part of Africa. Women stroll by with circular crowns of palm fronds on their heads. The round shape helps balance the load of bananas or firewood placed above it. Barefoot and smiling, they stare at me. Tufts of cloth, like angelic wing buds, stick up from the shoulders of their brightly patterned dresses. Three children laugh and giggle as they precariously balance themselves on one rickety bicycle. Empty gas canisters hang like extensions from their thin brown arms. Once down the path, the children will wait in line at the bore hole. They giggle, wait, and play. When their turn comes they immediately position themselves in front of the pump in order to fill the yellow and red plastic canisters with water. A cassava root, carved to fit the spouts, will serve as a stopper to make sure that the water is held tight for the adventurous ride back home. Between spurts from Bosco’s transistor radio and the frequent shouts of children’s joy, a breeze wafts to my ears the shrill squeak of the bore hole’s rusty pump.
Scrapes, screeches, shouts — sounds from life in an African village. And here I am reading about the trumpets, the seals, and the beasts as they are described in The Book of Revelation.
I look up and think. There is no one around me at this moment who speaks my native language. And, not that there aren’t individuals with knowledge of the Bible in this area; there is probably no one who could even guess the topic of my attention. How can anyone know what another person is thinking, anyway?
All of a sudden I feel as if I am an island, surrounded, not by water, but by trees, animals, objects and people. My thoughts really have nothing directly to do with the scratch and static of Bosco’s transistor radio, nor his work raking the coffee beans, nor with the beans’ actual process of drying in the hot African sun.
A simple epiphany hits me: I am a unique I-land, Is-land, in an inner space of my own creation. I am able to awaken a world inside me. I can concentrate on thoughts and images which are not inspired by anything I am able to see, smell, hear, or feel in the world around me.
The possibilities of this inside place, this Is-land, become an object of my attention. I am aware of a space where I can be, where I can land. Here I supply the connecting glue which brings one word into relationship with another word, one thought into union or conversation with another thought. Here I experience the potentials of a free space, where I am the guide.
It astonishes me: in this African village, sitting in this blue lawn chair, on this cement porch, under the shade of this tin roof, I think this thought. And I realize it is not only the ability to think a thought and place words into relationships with one another, but the possibility that the thought itself can become an experience. Something inside is sensitized through a change within the thought itself.
This free space within, Is-land, I-land, thought as experience . . .
I continue to read, returning to Chapter 1:9. “I, John . . . was on the island of Patmos.”
Sunday, two days later. After church and the midday meal in their huts, village women begin to gather under the shade of a mango tree near the home I am staying in. This reunion is revolutionary. The fact that they leave their homes to exchange and socialize with other women is an unknown in this part of Africa. But thanks to the initiative of Sylvia Namukasa, founder and director of KYEMPAPU (Kirinda Youth Environmental Management and Poverty Alleviation Program Uganda), about twenty women begin to meet each Sunday afternoon. They all know something about weaving straw. Some know how to weave mats or the colorful borders which frame the end product. Then there are the small, finely coiled spirals that become decorative earrings, and the belts and bowls. The women gather to spread their own mats on the ground and open their satchels, drawing out bundles of straw, string, and cord. A baby interrupts, needing to be repositioned on the other breast. The women are happy and beautiful, dressed in their Sunday best, turbans and all.
I watch and begin to imagine that we are all sitting under Buddha’s Bodhi tree, not a mango tree, Buddha’s Bodhi tree.
Again the idea of inner and outer spaces and places becomes clear. We each carry an inner world, an inside space which is determined by the environment we have grown up in, the education and teaching that has been provided, and added to that, our own initiative, our own will, our activity to till the particular soul soils of this inner turf.
The potentials of this inside land, what this Is-land is made up of, refuel the epiphany. I recognize that language helps to situate us and provide order. Language is at our service; we use words to think, to express ourselves. And through bringing thoughts into words we can feel, clarify, and discover.
Language gives us a platform, a structure with which to understand. And these short words called prepositions — In, On, Out, At, Under — become big gifts and powerful compasses. They help us know where we are.
The women continue to chat and weave. I take up a red-colored straw and learn the art of weaving a snail-like coil: an earring.
Women in the Mango Tree
Afternoons I pull up a plastic lawn chair,
place it under the shade of a mango tree,
and read. The spot where village women
gather on Sundays to weave.
I imagine this mango to be
the Bodhi Tree, and each of us,
a Buddha, patiently fingering
colored straws and strands.
The day I spoke to the women I mentioned
the Bodhi Tree, but realized Buddha
means nothing to them. They know their hut/
it’s hot/and children love/to suck/long.
Months after that Sunday, I receive an email
from the group’s spokeswoman.
She sends greetings from
the women in the mango tree.
copyright 2015 by Gail Langstroth