Re: Clenching
Hotel La Croix du Sud #550
Dakar, Senegal

I only left this room once yesterday but in many ways it may have been the most active day of the trip, and perhaps of my life in important ways.

Last night Alan and I had a difficult conversation about something that has been troubling him. Our original idea for this trip was that he and I would collaborate on a work involving his writing and my photography. The theme might be something about what it feels like being black Americans in Africa... or something like that.

But he told me in the night that he had been feeling resistant to that idea because he found me hard to deal with in a specific way: I seemed to always have answers for any issues that came up. We might be talking about philosophy, or politics or history, and I would always present fully developed concepts, which he agrees may be correct in certain ways, but which were being expressed in ways that he felt left no breathing room. So, faced with that he had chosen to stay silent. He said that he felt that I was close to achieving what he truly felt could be an amazing spiritual awareness but that, when I talked about things of the heart, I had an openness and sensitivity that I didn't bring to matters dealing with the outside world. There he felt I was full of judgments and firmly established ideas that were uncomfortable to him in certain ways.

I listened quietly at first but then asked him if he felt that my ideas were abusive to him or anyone else. No, he said but somehow that was not the point.

We never got to the point in that conversation but I went to sleep feeling that this was just a matter of him feeling overwhelmed by me and that I just needed to play a more careful role with him.

The point of all of that I'm doing here has to be spiritual growth, but for the first time, using those words sounds pretentious and shallow. Susannah said on the phone recently that she could hear happiness in my voice, and that she could tell that there was something happening in me that was deeper than the usual euphoria that comes over me when she and I talk. I've felt the presence in my heart of something like joy and a resolved sense of belonging to myself in new ways; but I wasn't touching something else that came to the surface through that conversation with Alan. But that took place after a significant day....

After many days of running and swimming every afternoon I could feel that I needed to rest. I also knew that the cash I had wired to me after the theft was running out so almost casually I placed a call to the United States to see if I could confirm that my new debit card was arriving Friday as they claimed, and if they could wired me more cash to tide us over.

Due to a lost invoice, Alan is almost totally out of money so it's become critical that my resources are strong. In the process of trying to resolve this I discovered something interesting; first, that Bank of America has, at least for now, outgrown its ability to communicate with its far flung parts. The number I called in California eventually connected me to Kansas and a nice young woman's voice that said that she could not access my bank records in Oakland. She sympathized with my situation so, after a long and almost comical series of phone calls, I finally found myself speaking to a man named Nick who gave me the bad news. Not only couldn't he tell me when the card might arrive, he added that, when it did arrive there was no way I could use it here because B of A debit cards need to be used at a branch of Bank of America before they become active.... no branch in Senegal.... dead-end.

"So, could you please arrange for money from MY account in YOUR bank to be wired to me in this emergency".

"Sorry, we only wire money to customers who have filled out a special form, If you could come here to do that we could help you".... a stunningly bizarre dead-end.

At this point I resorted to fury and told him that this was absurd! and that I would I change banks as soon as I could! Then, in desperation I thought of a tool that might work. "What's more, you should know that I'm the Chair of Jerry Brown's Art Commission and...."

"Oh I'm sorry sir, you have to understand that we have these procedures but what can I do to help you? Can we contact someone here who can withdrawn money for you and send it? Can I call you back to save you the phone charges? Can I place a call to your friend for you?....new game!

Suddenly I had Susannah's lovely voice on the phone arranging for her to call Nick (he never pronounced but rather spelled his name when I pleasantly asked him for it: M-O-U-M-T-Z-O-G-L-O-U) at the Montclair Branch to withdraw $1500.00 and wire it from the Rite Aid store right down the street to save our lives.

But although this fiasco filled the day, it didn't begin or define it.

The first drama was the result of trying to see if Alioune could come with us on our trip into the African bush.

He arrived at 9 as he usually does, but this time with a small paper bag that he held with pride against his body. It turned out that he, on his own, had a roll of film from his new camera processed and he had photographs to show us! I was so excited and proud of him that I barely noticed that there was one photograph he was holding back. When I finally asked to see it it turned out to be a portrait of a quiet-faced African woman, sitting in profile on the right of the frame against some curtains. It was his mother he told us! This was extraordinary but it raised an uncomfortable issue. Had his mother agreed to let him come, and if so when could we talk to her? There had always been something obscure about this. At first he would never say where he lived. Then when the possibility of the trip came up he said that he would ask her but never gave us a number where we could reach her. Then, when Alan asked him in French where she was, he told us that she had left town with his sister two days ago. We were faced with an impossible issue: We couldn't just leave town with this young boy without any confirmation of parental permission. It was clear to me that that was out of the question. He's only 16. We were not even sure we had a guide for ourselves, much less able to take responsibility for him on what might be a dangerous trip across Senegal.

But there was a deeper issue for me. It seemed that he might be hiding something personal, or misleading us for some reasons of his own. I remember well being 16 and needing to establish distance from my mother's control, but he needed to find a way to address our concerns honestly. That actually became more important an issue for me than anything else. The question was, could we communicate this to him in a way that made our real feelings of love and concern for him clear? Just then the phone rang and it was Marie-Claire, the waitress from the restaurant paying us a visit in our hotel room! Amazing really. With her here, speaking Wolof to him with motherly firmness I could see him becoming more and more sullen as he realized the weight that was falling on him. He desperately wanted to go but he needed to resolve our concerns with integrity. Later in the day, his mood lightened and I could tell that he had taken in the issue well. But the question still remained with us. Finally, late in the afternoon he told Alan that he would have his older brother contact us but even now, when he just walked in the door, we still don't know what this means. I would love for him to travel with us but this is a journey of a different kind for him; from one state of maturity to another. We'll see what happens.....

But here, finally, in a timely and poignant closure to last night's conversation, is what just this minute happened with Alan, when he came out of the bathroom from washing his clothes..... Alioune was sitting as a silent witness to what unfolded.

I just told Alan that I had a dream last night about Ray Charles driving me around in an SUV.....

As I washed my clothes in our bathroom basin I had a realization.... that the difficult things that he had to say last night, were not really about the fact that I knew a lot. That in itself is not a problem and discussing it in those terms gave me a convenient place to hide.

As I woke up this morning, and as I wrung each article of clothing dry, I was aware of something deep and wrong within me. Something old that I could feel as a clenching in the pit of my belly. And that if I was really honest with myself I could tell that it was something Biblical.... outside I could hear Muslim man praying in song.... it was something akin to pride... arrogance ... I hear a bird singing in the tree outside our balcony as I write this.... and that, beneath the pridefullness that felt like a stain, I could feel an old anger.... and that it was THESE THINGS that I needed to deal with before I could be free.

And that the only way I could feel to move forward was to breathe down into that place in my belly and release something... open something, and that this action produced something like a sigh or a moan that he may have been hearing from the bathroom as I washed my clothes.

Saying this as he kneeled near me, looking for a banana for breakfast, I looked openly into his eyes, and stayed there..... and then I reached out to hold his hand and he held mine.... and then tears filled my eyes and he glanced over to Alioune who was sitting on the bed between us and noticed that his eyes were filling at the same time.....and we hugged... and I sighed deeply.....

And I knew that this releasing, this moaning... had something to do with a surrender to something much larger than myself...... AFRICA.