When I was a kid…ok, a pre-teen…alright, possibly a teenager as well, my friend Anne and I used to make enormous lists of things that made us happy. We called them, aptly, our Happy Lists.  Anything at all could be on a Happy List.  Happiness-producing-items could range anywhere from purple cotton candy to doing the Locomotion to flannel shirts. (Incidentally, I hold Kurt Cobain personally responsible for ruining the cutest years of my life with his vile introduction of flannel into popular culture.) The Happy List was usually rainbow colored due to my prolific use of neon gel pens, and it normally covered a sheet or two of printer paper, front and back. It was, in a sense, our own pubescent form of therapy. Whenever we felt sad or lonely or just plain bored, we would whip out the Happy List, give it a read, and miraculously, all would be well again.

My need for pubescent therapy has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use a reminder of what makes me happy now and then. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, due to the uncertain times in which we’ve recently found ourselves, we have all been steadily compiling a mental Not-Happy List.  So to counter the negative effects of that fiend, the Not-Happy List, and to honor the days of hypercolor, Funfetti cupcakes, and Saved by the Bell, I would like to present to you….Amanda’s Happy List, November 2008!!!

Things that make me happy today include:

Leafless trees–sunset over the Statue of Liberty–orange flavored cranberries–Pecan Pie–mittens–a hot cup of Lady Gray tea–The Weight of Glory by CS Lewis–my new Chuck Taylors–string cheese–rosemary–hiking–Jamie Oliver’s chicken recipes–practicing my Scottish accent under my breath–my new ninja-themed gmail–the word “panache”–hanging out with my new friend Stephanie–long walks in Central Park–the smell of books–the F train–live music in the Lower East Side–posies–the trees at Blenheim Palace, Warwickshire, England–Flight of the Conchords–Luke 12:32–ice skating in Bryant Park–the price of apartments in Manhattan–the name Ned–leeks–writing this blog for you nice folks–red hots–the Salisbury Crags–dried sage–my new favorite color, Purple–Red Velvet cupcakes–communion–avoiding work by chatting with my friends online–my bear, Bear–red peppers–The Dynamo of Volition–listening to David Gray on the Tube–the new Half-Blood Prince trailer–Edmund Pevensie–Edmund Bertram–people called Edmund, apparently–Bubbles the Nerdfighting Puppy–Dramatic Lemur–Drunk History, Volume 1–leg warmers–anything dark and whimsical–dark (but not whimsical) chocolate–fresh cherries–the smell of snow in the air–Nickel Creek–a sheep named Basil.

That’s my happy list. What’s on yours?

I’ve had a pretty good week, thanks for asking.  It hasn’t exactly been the transcendent kind of week I had last week, although eating a red velvet cupcake covered with buttercream icing and raspberry sauce in the West Village (with a fork, because we’re fancy like that) certainly pushed me right up to the edges of delirium.

Gastronomic bliss aside, my good week has been mostly due to the fact that I have found a new friend. My new friend is also a writer, and she and I have decided to combine forces and be writers together. That means we get to hang out and talk about writing and talk about what we’re writing and critique each other’s work. We challenge each other to be more disciplined with our writing, and then, oh then, we eat pie.

I love pie. I love apple pie and cherry pie and berry cobbler. I love pecan pie and key lime pie and chocolate pie. I like to make pie. I enjoy forming the dough and rolling it out with a rolling pin. I like the fact that I can get flour all over the kitchen and it’s ok because “I’m making pie.” Pie makes people happy and pie certainly makes me happy. But this post isn’t about pie…it’s about writing. And pie.

You see, my new friend and I made a wager. She set a weekly goal for her writing, and I set a weekly goal for mine. Whoever reaches her goal within the week alotted will be awarded a free piece of pie at the other’s expense. I don’t know if she has reached her goal yet, but I do know that this afternoon…FREE PIE FOR ME! WAHOO!!

I started out the week with free pie as my motivation, of course. The goal was to transcribe at least an hour of interviews from my trip to Uganda. On Saturday afternoon, I set about doing just that. And much to my delight, by the middle of Tuesday, I accomplished my goal–and then some! I had won my free pie.

But I unexpectedly won something else in the process. In my single-minded drive toward a hot slice of delicious pecan pie, I earned a renewed sense of purpose and passion. I remembered why I’m writing this book in the first place, and much to my surprise, it turns out I’m not writing for the pie.  As I  transcribed my interviews, I was transported back to Africa. I found myself sitting across a dining room table from Sharon, who, at 13 years old feels that her purpose in life is to share the hope of life with Jesus with victims of AIDS, having been given that hope as an AIDS victim herself. I found myself sitting with Harima as she silently wept over the mother who tortured her and all but left her to die. I found myself on a veranda with David and Laurie, listening once again to the story of David’s providential transformation from a violent drug abuser to a pastor and loving care-giver to over sixty orphaned and vulnerable children. Buried in these stories laced with tragedy, sorrow, triumph, and hope, I found myself less and less motivated by pie, and more and more motivated by life.

Each life I encountered in Uganda blew my ideas about suffering, rescue, and joy wide open. Pie, as much as I love it, has never done that. So next week, I’ll transcribe some more interviews, and I’ll enjoy some more pie…or perhaps another one of those cupcakes…but I won’t be motivated by the pie alone. I’ll be motivated by the fact Uganda is full of shiny, sparkling diamond-lives that I am responsible for putting on display. And with a little discipline, a little accountability, and a little graham cracker crust, I’m going to do just that.

Miriam Makeba died last night while we were sleeping. The sad thing is, we were sleeping while she lived too. It’s a shame that most of us don’t know this extraordinary woman, and that we were oblivious to her extraordinary life.

She was called Mama Africa, the Empress of African Song. Her career spanned sixty years and stretched from the jazz clubs of Sophiatown to the concert halls of Europe and America, to the political rallies of emerging post-colonial Africa. She was toasted by JFK, sought out by musical greats ranging from Harry Belafonte to Paul Simon, and was the first African woman to win a Grammy.

In the late ’50s, Miriam Makeba left her home in South Africa to star in an anti-apartheid documentary called “Come Back, Africa.”  When she tried to return in 1959 for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that her passport had been revoked by the South African Apartheid government, and she was plunged into exile for the next 30 years. It wasn’t until Nelson Mandela was freed from prison amidst the slow crumble of the Apartheid regime in early 1990 that she was invited to come back to South Africa. She was welcomed home as the musical matriarch of the freedom struggle.

She has never stopped singing. Whether in Africa or America or places in between, Mama Africa has been the voice of sorrow in struggle and the voice of rejoicing in liberation. Nelson Mandela said of her, “Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”

Last night, while we were sleeping, Mama Africa was singing. And when she finished singing her most beloved song, “Pata Pata,” she collapsed on stage and died soon after. I have a feeling it was how she would have wanted to die–singing…exactly the way she lived.

It’s been a good year for transcendence.

In my church group this week, we discussed beauty. We talked about art and literature, music and food, nature and poetry, and then our leader made what should have been a simple request: Name a time in your life when you have been deeply touched by beauty. It should have been simple.

I’m actually prone to being deeply touched by beauty. My life has been blessedly disorganized and uncommitted in such a way that I have often been at leisure to stop and watch the sunset, or to read a book on my favorite bench overlooking Muir Beach, or to enjoy an impromptu drum circle in Central Park. The request to share an experience of being overwhelmed by beauty wasn’t difficult because I had nothing to share; it was difficult because being deeply touched by beauty is a bi-weekly (or is it semi-weekly?) experience for me. I’m easily wrapped up in the shape of a winter tree or a well-crafted sentence. I tap my feet and do a little boogie unashamedly when my ipod offers me a favorite song. I never fear to raise my hands in worship and I “amen” the preacher under my breath with regularity. Enjoying the beautiful has never been a problem.

The interesting thing about beauty is that it isn’t exactly what you think it is. Those of you who aren’t followers of Christ may have an easier time than some Christians admitting that the opening guitar rift of Here Comes the Sun constitutes a thing of beauty or that there is, indeed, something beautiful about the movie American Beauty. You may find it easier to praise the grace of Michael Phelps’ butterfly or the brilliant triumph of Harry Potter. The church has, however, on the whole, distanced itself from these kinds of common beauty, or “lower case b” beauty and have limited ourselves, unnecessarily so, to appreciation and creation of art that explicitly represents “capital B” Beauty.

Ironically, the Beauty/beauty distinction is not really a distinction at all. Beauty with a capital B is the expression of God’s character–the overflow of His nature and source of all that we call beautiful. beauty with a lower case b is the manifestation of Beauty in the created world–in art and music and nature, in dance and a well-cooked meal and in poetry.

Before the Enlightenment, the church was actually the primary source and patron of art and music, dance, architecture, sculpture, and drama. None of it was lame, much of it was not tame, and some of it was downright irreverent. But it was beautiful because it bred in the people of the day the kind of transcendence that brings us closer to God. It showed His character in stories of treachery and betrayal just as clearly as it revealed His nature through the masterful representation of the human body in stone. It is unfortunate that, post-Enlightenment, we have denied ourselves the joy of being touched by “non-Christian” art because it isn’t an explicit statement about God’s person. We have distanced ourselves from it to protect against unsavory influences, but we take our self-preservation to the extreme and deny ourselves the joy of seeing Beauty in the image of God and creative nature of the people around us–and we do so to our detriment.

This year has been especially transcendent for me. I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty more than my fair share. Overwhelmed so much so, that I still can’t even talk about some of it. I was overwhelmed by Hamlet at The Courtyard theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon just last month. I was overwhelmed by the sunrise over Edinburgh and the sheer contentment of sitting high above that perfect city from my perch on Arthur’s Seat. I was overwhelmed by the soggy greens and deep browns of the rural hills of West Lothian. I was brought to tears at the grave of CS Lewis.

And then, last night, I saw Chris Thile live again. Those of you who have read my previous post mentioning Chris Thile know that seeing him live is, for me, like sitting on Arthur’s Seat overlooking Edinburgh, at sunrise with CS Lewis and then going home to my cottage in West Lothian and watching the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Hamlet in my back yard. It’s beyond good. The times I’ve seen him before have been in pretty intimate venues–you know, me and a thousand other people. Last night was like seeing him perform in my closet. It was tiny in there. There was no need for amplification, there was no need for a zoom lens, and there was certainly no desire whatsoever to be anywhere else–ever.

In the last couple of years, Chris has written a symphony of sorts for bluegrass instruments–mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass. It spans four movements over forty minutes and is one of the most compelling, gut-wrenching, stirring, sublime, and complex pieces of music I have ever heard. I float like a bird on that piece of music, diving and climbing, drifting and floating. I mourn lost love with Chris and I stand with him as he begs for mercy and I close my eyes and let the music carry me away. And last night, somewhere in the middle of those breathless forty minutes, I lost myself in worship.

(My Christian friends are praying for my idolatrous soul right now, so let me explain.)

I have a very soft spot for Chris Thile. He’s been with me in all kinds of weather in all kinds of circumstances. Chris sang me through grad school. I enjoyed the beaches of Northern California and the hills of San Francisco with his mandolin singing in the background. He sang me off to Turkey, and stayed with me on countless boat trips between Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus. He road tripped with me to New York and has walked me home more than once through the black streets of Brooklyn in the snow at midnight. Chris has reminded me of God’s faithfulness and of my own unfaithfulness. And I, in turn, have been with him. I have mourned with him as he pled fruitlessly for his ex-wife’s forgiveness. I have agonized with him as he worked out his agony by working it into song. He has made me laugh and cry. And he has made me worship.

It’s not Chris Thile that I worship. He may be tall and devlishly handsome; he may be brilliant and a virtuoso. But he is just a man. Most of the time, his music has nothing to do with God…and yet, I, a devoted follower of Christ found myself enrapt last night by the music flowing out of Chris Thile. I lost myself; I gave myself entirely over to the music, and in those blessed moments, I found my God.

But how is this possible? How can something like bluegrass music about the pain of divorce played by a man who isn’t even sure if he believes in Christ or not cause me to see Christ anyway? It is because Beauty inspires beauty, and every once in a while, in moments like these, Heaven bends down and kisses earth. We all feel it, followers of Christ or not, but only those of us who know the irresistible aroma of Heaven’s breath can know the true Beauty in that communion between Heaven and Earth. I can lose myself in worship at a Chris Thile show because I know that beautiful music is a reflection of God’s joy in Himself, and I know that the love of Christ can soothe the agony of a broken heart, and I know that the immense talent flowing from the mind and the voice and the fingers of this unparalleled musician came from a creator who loves excellence and who has chosen to bless Chris and his audiences with the kind of music that proves it. There is Beauty in the beauty of Chris’ music, but it is up to Chris and his audiences whether or not they see it. It is up to each of us, in those blessed, unexpected moments when Heaven bends its face toward Earth, whether or not we will turn our faces upward to receive the kiss.

I actually felt a little sad getting in the taxi for the airport. Africa was good to me. Yes, it was dusty and dirty. Yes, I was dusty and dirty. And yes, I know the exact ratios of sweat, bug spray, sunscreen, and river water necessary for making a human being feel as gross as is humanly possible.

I learned that Mirinda Fruity is possibly the best soft drink known to man. I learned that malaria medicine is excellent for the complexion. And I learned that the ant is arguably the most brilliant of all God’s creatures—or at least the most ambitious.

At the end of August 2008, Africa opened its arms and embraced me. I had become exhausted in every way by the madness that is New York City, but as the breeze of Lake Victoria blew across my care-worn face every day, the struggle and uncertainty of the last year slowly faded away. I fell into the joy of doing what I was made to do. I basked in the freedom of my calling. I was sloppy with creative juices. And when Africa saw me off at the end of September, I was myself again. I had been nurtured back to health and happiness by the Motherland. She gave me a new beginning.

Now I’m back in New York…and to a new beginning indeed. I’m homeless and jobless. I have no plans and no sense of certainty about anything at all—save one. I am certain that I’m about to write a book. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out, but I know that my task now is to pray, close my eyes, put my fingers to the keyboard, and write. No amount of uncertainty, hardship, or New York insanity can change the task so clearly before me.

When someone asks me what I do, from now on, I will not say, “I’m just a temp.” Nor will I say, “I’m a housekeeper,” “I’m an office monkey,” or “I’m a barista.” Even though I may be any of those things, my clear and decisive answer will be, “I’m a writer.” This is my new beginning.

Consider me an ant with an enormous crumb. Carrying that crumb to my ant lair is going to be difficult if I try to do it on my own. That’s why I need you to be with me. I can’t carry this thing by myself. You are not just my audience; you are my co-laborer. The accountability and encouragement you have already given me and will give me in the months to come have and will challenge me to do my best work and to do justice to the calling placed on my life.

Thank you for being with me thus far. Thank you for being with me in the future. The blog won’t stop because the trip is over. We’re in this for the long haul. I need you. I look forward to sharing my stories with you individually, so don’t hesitate to ask me a million questions next time you talk to me. It was tough to leave Africa, but because of you and because of the task ahead, it is really good to be home.

Remember the days when I was able to spend some time writing long, insightful posts for you nice folks? Those were good days.  They were the days of plenty of room on my computer and ipod, the days of clean shoes, the days of having enough time to shower every day.  I remember them well…and I’ve left them behind. I’m not complaining, mind you. I mean, I DID just spend three days on safari.  But I returned and found myself in the final sprint to the end, and boy am I running!! Today I’ll be crossing the Equator.  I hear they have a place there where a guy will do the water thing for you.  You know, make it drain one direction on the North side, and the other direction on the South side.  Lori and I are going down to a village made up almost entirely of the elderly, small children, and the mentally handicapped. I hope to conduct some interviews. Tomorrow I’m spending time with a girl named Jackie whose parents were killed by the LRA.  And Wednesday I’m packing up and making my way to the airport. I hope to be able to write at least once more before I leave Uganda, but if I can’t, I’ll catch you up from the sunny banks of the Avon River on my quest to see Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Until then, I’ve made a video of the last week or so.  This one is a bit longer than normal, so you may want to grab some provisions. Enjoy!

Well, I’m a total slacker, it seems. Either that, or I’ve been so involved in the work here that I just haven’t had time to blog like I want to. Let’s go with the second one.
On top of that, I’m leaving the internet behind for the next three days in search of the elusive lion’s roar. No, that’s not a metaphor. I’m going on safari.  In the two years I lived in Botswana, even though I spent a good deal of time in the bush and on safari, I never heard a lion growl.  Hopefully all that will change in the next three days.
Lori and I will be traveling up to Murchison Falls National Park with a local safari group for a much-looked-forward-to holiday in the wild. I’ll be back in internet range on Friday evening.
I’ve decided not to go to Gulu after all, so thank you all for your prayers regarding that. It just didn’t feel right to me. So after safari, I will be going back to Jinja for a little less than two days, then back here to Kampala for three, and then I will be flying out.  IT’S SO SOON!!!! I have alot to do between now and the 24th, but I will do my best to keep you all in the loop. I have several blog posts knocking around in my much too full noggin right now, so I just need to get them down in print.
Thanks again for everything you do for me. I would not be here, having the time of my life, without you.
A