In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Year in the Life

Okay, my last blogpost gave me the perfect excuse for being so trifiling about writing posts. Having a Blackberry Curve phone is like having a new baby in the house. Or at least for me, it's the closest thing to that experience I'll ever have.

It's been really cool, and wildly convenient. But when you get right down to it, I've probably only mastered about 1/3rd of the phone's technological functions. And yes, I know the day will come when I want to smash the thing against the wall, but I don't want to think about that now.

In fact, the harsh reality is, I've just been wildly lazy lately. That's another reason I haven't been posting; I just haven't felt like it, even though a day rarely passes when I don't have something I want to say about some such thing or another.

All that's about to change, though. It's been a year since I started writing this blog. Looking back at the first post, it almost reads like somebody else wrote it. Somebody much, MUCH younger and vastly more naive. I was totally giddy last May, filled with excitement about my first experience as an American Expat.

Yesterday, my best friend Faith wondered if I ever could have imagined all that has happened since last May. I probably could have anticipated most of the challenges of Gulu, Uganda if I'd really thought hard about it. I probably could have foreseen NOT going back to work at NPR, because I suspected that living and working in Africa would be so exhilarating and fulfilling, I wouldn't want to go back to sitting at a desk in a newsroom. And I pretty much knew I'd still be single, because I kinda figured Mr. Rght would have more sense than I do and would somehow manage to avoid a trip to Gulu. But there's no way I would have begun to imagine a life without my big sister Julie.

But here I am. As I told Faith, Julie was my compass, and now my compass is gone. That means I have to find or make a new one. And guess what? I've done just that. Keep reading, and all shall be revealed.......

And I think I'l do it on the 1 year anniversary of the day I flew out of Dulles last year. That would be June 5. Don't worry, I'll be writing posts in between now and then. I just want to save the good stuff for that momentous day.

Ciao for now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Blacker the Berry, the Tighter the Noose....

I've been in New York City the past few days, and I am absolutely diggin' the vibe. I'm staying with my mondo-intellectual friend Ilaina on the Upper West Side, and we're having a hoot eating, gabbing, and getting caught up on each other's lives. There is nothing like NYC anywhere on earth. The energy here is totally outrageous.

Perfect example.... on Wednesday night, I took the subway from 103rd and Broadway to the Christopher Street stop in Greenwich Village, trying to get to my friend Katherine's apartment. I've written about Katherine before....she's one of my "heart friends," the kind you have a total aortic connection with, no matter how much time has passed or where you are on the globe, or whatever has gone down in your life. She's freelancing now, just got back from Paris on assignment, is heading to Costa Rica tomorrow for another assignment.....such a life, OY!

Anyway, we hadn't seen each other in ages, so I was deeply geeked when she offered to cook dinner for me that night. I felt so cosmopolitan and chic heading down to the Village on the 1 train.....until I remembered that Katherine had sent me directions to her place by e-mail, and I had forgotten to check my Yahoo account on Ilaina's laptop before heading out. I knew I could call Katherine to get the details, but I was slightly irritated with myself.

Outside the subway station, I thought maybe I could find a Kinko's or some Internet cafe
so I could print out the directions. That way I wouldn't have to admit to Katherine that perimenopause has reduced the memory portion of my brain to a bowl of soupy tapioca.
But then it hit me.....check your freakin' Blackberry phone, dummy!

Yes, I have finally joined the dark side. For YEARS I have avoided owning a Blackberry, because I simply refused to be that available to ANYBODY. The idea that people could reach you by phone and e-mail 24-7 just did not gibe with my myriad commitment issues. Besides, it has really pissed me off whenever I've tried to hold a conversation with someone who's completely absorbed in sending or responding to e-mail.

Ironically, the first time I ever tried to use a Blackberry was in Gulu. Just as I was leaving Uganda, the local phone company that had made our lives a living hell by providing poor and non-existent phone and Internet service decided to make amends by offering us Blackberries.

Of course they didn't work, either. I was so pissed, I took it with me when I left, hoping maybe I could figure out how to use it when I got back to the States. Needless to say, I quickly learned that a Blackberry tailored for use in Uganda is totally useless in the U.S. Eventually, I wound paying a pound of flesh to send the damned thing BACK to Gulu, but it was my own dumb fault for taking it in the first place.

Anyhoo, just this past Monday, I was walking by an electronics store and saw that my phone provider was offering this outrageous promotion on the Blackberry Curve. After $200 worth of instant rebates, I could walk out with a Blackberry for $52. Sure, I'd wind up using the inheritance intended for any future children I might adopt to pay the monthly bill on the damned contraption, but at least I'd be able to join the rest of the 21st Century by sporting my own personal blood red "Crackberry."

However, I digress. Let's get back to the Greenwich Village rendezvous. Once I realized I was carrying Internet access in my handbag, I simply checked my Blackberry and got directions to Katherine's place. It's actually quite amazing....having all the information you need in the palm of your hand.

But I'm already starting to see why they call it the "Crackberry." I find myself checking it about 10 times a minute. I have 4 e-mail accounts routed to the one phone, so it's a juggling act trying to keep up with all of them every time you look at the damned thing. I can see now that I'll wind up being chained to my Blackberry in all the ways I've been afraid of all these years.

Still, I gotta confess....I looked so damned hip cruising down Bleecker Street checking my Blackberry. Heck, some guy even stopped me to ask for directions.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Messages in Bronze and Stone

Nobody ever really expects to find herself in a cemetery, sitting on a grave, pounding the earth with clenched fists and keening like an Irish grandmother at the wake of her firstborn son. But when it happens, you might as well make good use of the time.

I can’t remember exactly at what point my eyes started focusing long enough for me to see much of anything at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Villa Ridge, Illinois last Wednesday morning. That is, other than the bronze recessed plaque bearing the words “Julie A. Newell, 1950-2007.” Walking towards her gravesite, I whimpered gently as I picked my way around other folks graves. It’s weird; I was almost afraid I wouldn’t remember where she was laid to rest, because I’d been in such intense emotional pain that day last October. But I zeroed in on it instinctively, I guess.

My knees gave out on me when I got there, and I wound up on my butt, bent over and trying to stifle incoherent squeals of grief. I don’t know why I was trying to stifle them, because I was the only person in the cemetery. It was so peaceful and quiet, I instantly understood why some people visit their loved ones weekly…even daily, when the weather’s good.

That morning, I scared myself by how completely out of control I was, for about 10 or 15 minutes. I mean, I was hugging my knees, and moaning “Winky, Winky, Winky, I miss you so much,” over and over. I guess I burbled out some other stuff, but that’s all I remember. It just felt so surreal, trying to communicate with her while sitting on her grave.

Once my guts unclenched and I was able to stop wailing, I rested my forehead on my knees a while and tried to be "in the moment," as meditation buffs say. I realized I’d spent so much time prior to that morning dreading how it would affect me, I’d probably made things worse than they might have been. I knew it would be an overwhelmingly emotional experience, but I think I may have worked myself into a bit of a frenzy. Somehow, I had to calm myself down and think about why I was there, and what I really wanted to communicate.

Then I just talked a while. I told Julie how happy I was that she wasn’t hurting anymore. I told her I hoped she was having a good time with Mom and Dad. I remembered how much she struggled to make Dad’s last days comfortable; in particular, I remember her standing at the end of his hospital bed a few days before he died, rubbing his feet and telling him how much she loved him. She kept telling him to fight.

Besides, I knew I had to pull myself together because her plaque also contains one more phrase: “I Hope You Dance.” It’s from singer Lee Ann Womack’s song about going for your dreams, about making the choice of whether to “sit it out or dance.” Julie danced.

When I finished talking to Julie's spirit, I took a deep breath and decided to do a thorough inspection of the immediate area. You see, Julie and Ron have adjoining plots, and Ron has already had his plaque inscribed. He’s been teaching in Cairo schools for the past 39 years, at least half of which have been as the head of the Cairo Association of Teachers. Ron has been an absolute champion for teacher’s rights and students’ well-being, and people always wonder how he gets everything done. They ask each other, “When does he sleep?”

So, that’s what Ron had put on HIS end of the plaque: “When does he sleep? Now.” I mean, you gotta know Ron to appreciate the humor. It might seem macabre or disrespectful to some, but Ron has always kept us in stitches with his “black” (no pun intended, although he HAS been influenced by 35 years worth of African American in-laws) humor. You just have to smile when you see it.

Ron’s been tending the area lovingly since October. He’s installed two shepherd’s hooks and entertwined lovely silk flowers around them. He also decorated them with little angel statues and pottery owls--Julie collected owls. I added one of my beaded bracelets from Nairobi. Oh, and their joint plot isn’t the only one he’s been minding.

Julie is buried next to her daughter, Christie Ann Newell. Reading her plaque is achingly sad: “Born and died February 25, 1975.” Christie would have been 33 years old this year. And she would have been beautiful, and smart, and loving, and talented. And long-since thoroughly spoiled by her Auntie Mame….er, Rachel.

Next to Christie is the plot for half of my brother David’s ashes (the other half were poured into San Francisco Bay, one of his favorite spots in the world). His plaque reads, “David Stewart-Jones, January 7, 1947-March 5, 2003.” On the sheperd’s hook near his plot, Ron hung a stained glass oval with a picture of a lighthouse on it. That’s where they found David, when he decided he didn’t want to wake up anymore.

Amazingly, the longer I stayed at Greenlawn, the calmer I felt. I mean, you could really flip your wig faced with a scenario like that. But once again, Ron had thought of everything. With Julie inspiring him, he had placed three stone tiles in front of each plaque, for people who don’t want to fall out on their asses when visiting the graves like I did. He put them there for people who might want to kneel while paying their respects.

In front of Julie’s plaque, the tile read, “Take the road less traveled.” My God, Julie certainly did that. We were talking about it the night before I left Cairo….anybody else faced with all the physical challenges she dealt with might have pulled the covers over her head and begged for the sweet release of death DECADES earlier. But Julie barreled down every road she came across. She grabbed every opportunity she was offered during those last 5 years, and she pursued each one with a vigor women half her age couldn't muster.

And of course, since I can always find a way to inject myself into just about anything, I took it as a message from her to me. Even though Julie was scared silly about me going to Uganda, I’ll never forget how supportive she was before I left. Sometimes I drive myself crazy by thinking she may have suspected her life was ending when I left, which could have made her want me to stick around. IF that was the case, Julie never said anything. Other than telling me to take plenty of hair care products with me when I left, and to stay out of the woods, Julie was nothing but supportive.

So here she was again, telling me to take the road less travelled.

I haven’t asked Ron why he chose the tile in front of Christie’s grave, but I have my own interpretation. It reads, “Count your blessings.” My poor little niece never got to live, but the way the world is today, her hair would probably be grayer than mine if she had. I know how much Ron and Julie suffered losing their only child, but at least now Julie is with her.

The plaque in front of David’s grave reads, simply, “Peace.” We all draw some comfort in knowing that whatever demons led him to make the tragic choice to end his life are gone now. He’s at peace.

By the time I left Greenlawn Memorial Gardens, I felt strong enough to make a detour at the National Veteran’s Cemetery in Mounds, Illinois. That’s where my mother and father are buried. If you’ve ever visited Arlington National Cemetery, you know how solemn and somber that experience is. I guess it's the same way at any veteran's cemetery. There’s something mesmerizing about the hundreds of rows of white headstones against the carefully manicured lawns. There’s something gut-wrenching about the rows upon rows of headstones, with too many of them engraved, simply, “Unknown Soldier.” And yet, just like at Greenlawn, it was so incredibly peaceful just sitting there a while.

They don’t really allow big floral displays or anything at the Veteran’s cemetery, but there were two little yellow wildflowers growing among the blades of grass near my parents’ graves. So I plucked them and placed them on both of their headstones. I thanked Lewis and Eloise Jones for making Julie, AND me, and I guess all of my brothers and sisters, survivors. Rough as a cob, as Julie used to say. Fighters. Tough as a bunch of junkyard dogs, the lot of us.

I mean, after all, hadn’t I just visited five graves in one morning?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"Speak the Speech, I Pray You....."

So, I'll be headed back to DC in a few hours. This has been the second most-emotionally challenging journey of my life, and I'm proud to say it's also been the most rewarding. Not only did I get to spend some time focusing on what Julie's passing has meant, but I was also greatly comforted by her spirit. I'm feeling so secure and happy that my brother-in-law Ron is hangin' in there, and I'm feeling really optimistic about being able to move forward in my own life.

And I'm also really pysched that I was finally able to "tell it like it T-I IS" about my hometown, during the speech I gave at the High School on Thursday. Cairo, Illinois is famous around the world for many reasons......sadly, just as many bad ones as good ones. I won't get into specifics because it would take too long. Let's just say that between Lewis and Clark and Huck Finn and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Cairo should be tourist mecca for Americana folk lore. Instead, most people know it because, as Martin Luther King proclaimed, it was considered "the Birmingham (Alabama) of the north."

Racism and greed and hatred...and downright stupidity...have strangled my hometown, and I guess I got tired of coming back to Cairo, mouthing a few platitudes, and then leaving again for another year. Deep down, I knew that the day would come when I would just stop bothering to come back period, if things didn't change, and I didn't want that to happen.

So I wrote the speech I'm going to include in this posting, and let the Devil take the hindmost. I've been amazed at how well it was received. I've also been enlisted to come back to Cairo to put up or shut up about turning things around. So...I guess if I can go spend 8 months in Uganda helping people, I should be able to find some time for the place I was born.

Anyway, here's the speech I gave at Cairo High School on May 8, 2008. (I'm still processing some of the more emotionally difficult stuff that happened this past week, but when I'm ready, I'll tell you all about it....)

CAIRO: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE KEYNOTE SPEECH

I’d like to extend a sincere thank you to the staff of the Simon Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. If you knew how honored I am to be a part of anything involving Paul Simon’s legacy, you probably would have made me pay you for the opportunity to speak today. When I was growing up here in Cairo, Paul Simon was one of the beacons of truth, integrity and fairness for me and my family. I’ll never forget my mother Eloise talking about a community meeting she had attended where she actually got to speak to Paul Simon. I remember her describing how nice he was to her, and how he really listened to some of her ideas about what Cairo needed. When I finally got to meet him in the fall of 1994, I felt that same sense of sincerity and warmth.

Speaking of my family, I could not attempt to start this speech without acknowledging the fact that the last time I spoke to a crowd from this stage was last October, when I was giving a eulogy for my sister, Julie Newell. Here’s something ELSE the good people at the Simon Institute don’t know…..if I’d given myself time to think before I pounced on the invitation, I might not have accepted. Any of you who know me know what a tremendous loss my family and I have endured since last October. Because this morning is all about the history and the institutions of Cairo, I don’t think anyone in this audience would argue that Julie Newell was a phenomenal woman. She was so much a part of this town’s legacy that I don’t even have to go into details. If nothing else, her fried chicken spoke for itself.

In fact, I would not be standing here today without the love, support and belief that Julie Newell, and ANOTHER one of Cairo’s proud legacies, Ron Newell, instilled in me. Don’t get me wrong, Lewis and Eloise Jones gave me life, and for that I am eternally grateful. But Julie and Ron gave me dreams, and the courage to achieve them. They are BOTH the wind beneath my wings, and the fact that they gave and continue to give so much to Cairo School District Number One gives me the strength to stand here before you today.

Oh, and one other thing is giving me strength this morning, too. That would be Dee Dee O’Shea’s chocolate sheet cake. Now, come on, Dee Dee, don’t act like you didn’t know I was going to mention it during this speech. During Julie’s passing, the only things that helped stop the pain were big hunks of Dee Dee’s made-from-scratch cake. That and a glass of milk made me believe I couldn’t give up on life if somewhere out there, fudge icing like this exists. Anyway, Ron had e-mailed Dee Dee to let her know I was coming home, and she promised to make me a cake while I’m here.

As it turns out, I bumped into Dee Dee Tuesday evening, at the Value Mart. Or as I call it, “The Grocery Store Formerly Known as Wonder Market.” Let it be known from this day forward that in my scattered, pre-menopausal brain, it will ALWAYS be called Wonder Market. Anyway, when I realized who the woman standing in front of me at the checkout line was, I had to give her a big hug. I suspected Dee Dee was there to buy some of the ingredients to make my cake, and the thought made me happier than I’ve been in a very long time.

We stood there laughing and talking while Dee Dee shared her well worn copy of the cake recipe with the woman who was helping bag groceries. That clerk was totally jealous that Dee Dee was making the ENTIRE cake for me. So out of the goodness of my heart I told her she could come by and get a piece of it. You can do things like that in Cairo…tell somebody who’d not necessarily a friend or a relative to stop by and pick up some cake, and you don’t have to worry that they’ll slit your throat when they leave.

While we were gabbing, the young man behind the register just laughed and shook his head at these crazy ladies carrying on about a cake recipe. Another young cashier joined in the fun, and I just felt like it was old home week. When I got home, I just had to share the experience with Ron. I told him that no matter how far I travel and how many people I meet in my life, I will ALWAYS feel like a girl from Cairo, Illinois, and I will always feel like this is home. I will always feel like “one of the Joneses,” even though with 10 of us, nobody could ever remember which one. And I will always be nurtured by the sense of belonging, of recognition and small town tranquility that I feel whenever I’m here.

But here is something that I find very strange. When I say I have these warm, sentimental feelings about Cairo, I also have to confess that at the same time, coming home almost tears my heart out. I don’t see how anyone who knew Cairo 50 years, or 40 years, or even 30 years ago could argue that the current condition of this town is absolutely devastating. Driving down 8th Street is like driving through an abandoned movie set from the 1950’s. A trip down Commercial Avenue is like waking up after a nuclear bomb and having to pick your way through the rubble. Now, you can say I’m exaggerating, but I’m here to tell you that the condition of my hometown makes me so sad I could cry.

Even though I haven’t lived here for 20 or so years, I am as much responsible for how things have turned out as anybody else. You see, when my parents and Julie and Ron were urging me to get my education so I could leave Cairo and make a better life for myself, I don’t think they were necessarily suggesting I should abandon it completely. Sometimes it feels like I have. I mean, if I can go spend 8 months helping African journalists in a Northern Ugandan war zone, why can’t I come back and spend 8 months in Cairo? I’m assuming one of the reasons I was asked to give this speech is because I’m considered a “role model” of sorts, a “home girl made good.” And yet what have I done to be a role model to the children and teenagers of Cairo?

But here’s the thing. I refuse to be too hard on myself about this, and I’m going to tell you why. You see, I saw an opportunity to make my life better, to travel to distant countries, to try and make a difference in the world, and I took it. Most of my 8 older brothers and sisters HAD gone on to college, so I had proof that it was possible, if I studied hard and made good grades, and made a plan for my future. I knew I had to take advantage of every opportunity that came along, and that I didn’t have a minute to waste.

But what is so very tragic to me, every time I come back to Cairo, is the abundance of squandered opportunities I see everywhere I look. My heart tells me Cairo could have been so much more than what it has become.

Now, I know the good people of the Paul Simon Policy Institute asked me to come and give this speech as an inspiration to the students of Cairo, to help them realize that it IS possible to go out into the world and achieve your dreams, to travel to world like I have. I hope that by the end of the speech, at least one of you will hear something in these words that makes you vow to follow my example…and to BE an example for some other kid from Cairo.

But it would be dishonest and misleading for me to come back to a hometown that breaks my heart and stand on this stage to be a cheerleader for a half hour or so, and then head back to Washington, DC on Sunday and go on with my life. The young people of Cairo are NOT stupid; they can see the troubled legacy we have left for them, and they will not be influenced by a few upbeat words from some stranger they may never see again, just because she was born here 46 years ago.

What WOULD inspire the young people of Cairo would be jobs, and businesses, and seeing city leaders work together to provide a stable supportive future for them and their families. Some proof that the people of Cairo are proud of their history, some acknowledgement that we went through some really bad times, but we learned from them and want to leave something more behind than empty buildings…..THAT would inspire the young people of Cairo more than I EVER could. So I’ll do what I’m expected to do here today. I’ll use this opportunity to challenge the young people of Cairo to reach their dreams, but as the young folks themselves often say, I will also “keep it real up in here."

In fact, I think it’s an interesting time in to be discussing the concept of “opportunity,” because America is in the middle of an historic election campaign. No matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, there is an ENORMOUS opportunity for change in America this November. Realistically, that change could make things somewhat better than they are now, which would be a relief for all of us every time we pull into a gas station. Or as history has taught us, it could make our lives much worse. But I have to tell you, I never expected to be alive when a black man and a woman of ANY color would be competing to be President of the United States. The fact that either one of them actually has a chance to win the job, no matter how small that chance might be, is absolutely remarkable. I hope the students in this audience understand just how much the world is changing, and what they need to do to be a part of that change.

I think many Americans see the possibilities involved in this campaign, the opportunity for us to become better than what we were by voting for something different than the same old same old. One of the most wonderful results of this election is that more and more young people like the ones sitting in this audience today are starting to get more involved in the political process. I have read stories where young black men in cities across the country are being greatly inspired by Barack Obama, and are voting for the first time in their lives. I have read stories where young white people feel like they can use their vote to show the world that legacy of racism is dying out.

I think many Americans in general are seeing their vote as an opportunity to acknowledge what we did wrong in our history, when it comes to things like race and gender, and to vow to start doing things right. When I mentioned earlier that I would always feel like a girl from Cairo, Illinois, I only gave you the GOOD reasons for that feeling. Now here’s some of the flip side; Cairo, Illinois has left a permanent scar on my heart. Growing up under American Apartheid changed me. Being called racist names when I was just a little girl changed me. Being afraid that the White Hats would ride through the neighborhood and set our house on fire changed me. Being chased from stores down on Commercial Avenue changed me.

I have eaten in some of the most famous restaurants in the world, and yet the fact that I was never able to set foot in Harper’s or Mack’s when I was growing up had an effect on me, people. I know many Americans are tired of dealing with discussions about race, and wish black people would just shut up and move on, but I can’t get rid of that scar on my heart, no matter how much success I might achieve. I don’t walk around blaming every white American for it. I also don’t use it as an excuse to NOT achieve my goals, but I have to live with it every day of my life.

Cairo did THAT to me, too. So when I got the opportunity to leave back in 1979, I grabbed it with both hands. And I turned the pain and rejection of Cairo’s racial legacy into fuel to keep myself achieving. Maybe you can say I have been constantly trying to prove that the cashiers at Elias Department Store who used to drop the change into my little hand like they were afraid to touch me were wrong, and that I was just as much a human being as they were.

But let’s get back to this word opportunity for a minute. I think that’s most of what’s so heartbreaking about Cairo’s past. I believe that during all the racial turmoil, there was a profound opportunity to just stop the madness and say, “Look, I may not like the color of your skin, and I may not want you living next to me, but that doesn’t mean I will allow the heart and soul of my town to die a slow, strangled death.” I have always believed there was an opportunity to share resources in Cairo. But the Powers That Be decided they’d rather see the last light go out here before they let that happen.

In fact, for a very long time, I’ve considered Cairo to be a case study for what could happen in America if we keep refusing to learn our lessons about race matters. So when I was asked to attend this forum, I wanted to come and see if maybe Cairo was ready to truly process all that had happened, to own it and examine it, turn it over and upside down, declare it, and then say, “Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and turn this town around, before the last light DOES go out. Let’s set an example for the young people of Cairo, to let them know that we DO care about their future and want to leave something positive behind for them.”

After all, without declaring my endorsement of any candidate, I wholeheartedly agree with Barack Obama when he insists that the racism that poisoned American life for so long HAS lessened. In spite of many challenges that still exist, Black Americans simply can’t deny that things have changed in this country. We cannot say that the same kind of hatred and oppression that occurred 40 years ago exists today. It’s just not true. I can say that, because I am a black woman who grew up in the racial turmoil of Cairo, and my sister was married to a white man for 34 years and their house never got firebombed.

I can say that because on Tuesday evening, I was standing in line at the Wonder Market hugging my brother-in-law’s next door neighbor, who is white, because she was getting ready to make a cake to welcome me home. I was standing there while a young black man worked behind the cash register….a young black man with braids in his hair. 40 years ago, black people were barely allowed to come into the store to buy food….there’s no way one of us would be working there up front.

CAIRO HAS CHANGED. But here’s another way Cairo keeps changing: every time I come back here, there’s another empty lot, one less business, fewer jobs, less people living here. Why can’t we make change in a way that restores life and meaning and pride to Cairo? What will it take?

It will take providing opportunities for our young people to flourish, go to college and make meaningful lives. It will take good reasons for some of those young people to come BACK to Cairo and help keep things going. And yes, it will take MY energy and commitment, and the energy and commitment of every parent and teacher and police officer and librarian and city clerk.

And to the young people of Cairo, It will take YOUR effort. It will require you to take yourselves and your lives seriously. It will require you to stop acting a fool and hit the books. You should know that I hear all the stories about what goes on in school up in here. I hear about y’all doing stuff that would have not only gotten ME permanently expelled from Cairo High School, my mother would have killed me on the spot when she found out about it. Eloise Jones knew that education was not a game you could take or leave. She demanded the very best from her children. I’m demanding the very best from you today.

That will require you to stay away from drugs, and keep your legs closed, and make good grades, and to start having a vision for your future AFTER high school. It will require you to start seeing yourself as more than a rapper or a video ‘ho, or a 16 year old mother. (I TOLD y’all I was gon’ keep it real, okay?) And it will require you to believe that even though you may be from Cairo, you are a citizen of the world, and you have an obligation to go out into the world and leave your mark.

As I said earlier, I tried to do that last year in Uganda. Uganda is a country in East Africa, right next to Kenya. If any of you follow the news closely, you know there was a lot of rioting and violence in Kenya earlier this year, because people thought the government leaders had cheated during the election. It was very scary for me to be watching the news about what was going on in the country right next door to Uganda. But I believe I had something to offer the journalists of Uganda. I believed I could use my experience here as a reporter in America to help them become better reporters.

Now, I’d like to ask each of you to try to picture your lives when you’re 30 years old. I don’t care if you see yourself as a teacher, or soldier, or a business owner, or a politician, or an athlete. I don’t care if you think being 30 years old sounds like you’ll be ready for the nursing home. If you’ve never thought of who you will be at age 30, I want you to take the time to try and think of that right now.

As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said, if you see yourself as a street sweeper, you should see yourself as the best street sweeper who ever lived. You should do your job with dignity and pride, and you should take it seriously. You should feel like you are making a contribution to your neighborhood, community, state, country, whatever. You should even feel that because you are living a productive life, and taking care of yourself, and your family, you are making a contribution to a better world.

If some of you are sitting there right now, and you are finding it impossible to imagine yourself at age 30, then I believe the leaders of Cairo, and the parents of Cairo, and anybody who ever cared a lick about Cairo, have some serious work to do. Somehow, while we let the buildings collapse, we forgot to build up the dreams of our children. I grew up poor as a church mouse, but I don’t think there was ever a minute when I didn’t believe I could do exactly what I’m doing now. It takes more than money to build a better future. It takes the ability to dream of a better future.

I’m constantly thinking about my future, and today I realize that in some way, part of it must involve making a difference in Cairo. You see, I’ve only been here two full days so far, and yet I have felt more peace and comfort here than I have in a long time. That is mostly because I feel comforted by my sister Julie’s spirit. And I’m also very grateful to see that my brother-in-law Ron is doing so well. But I also realize I need to do more for Cairo because once again, I’ve been able to use the talent God gave me and the common sense and my ability to set goals for myself to lead me to another corner of the world.

So, one way or the other, you’ll see me back here soon. And I hope I’ll be working with some of you students sitting in this audience today. But only if you’re as serious about making a difference in the world, and about helping save our hometown, as I am.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.....

I just had a big piece of the best-chocolate cake in the world for breakfast today. People, this cake is not just plain old good. I'm talking "slap your granny" good. And it was personally delivered to me by my brother-in-law Ron's next door neighbor, Dee Dee.

I bumped into Dee Dee yesterday afternoon, at "The Grocery Store Formerly Known as Wonder Market." FYI, it's the only grocery store left in Cairo, and it's gone through so many name changes that I gave up trying to remember and just think of it as the Wonder Market. Anyway, I was there picking up one of their amazingly good fresh-baked pizzas for dinner when I recognized Dee Dee standing in front of me. And the funny thing is, I knew exactly why she was there.

You see, Ron had sent Dee Dee an e-mail telling her that I was coming back to Cairo, and that I had put in an order for one of her insanely delicious chocolate sheet cakes. I had eaten about half of one in the days after Julie's funeral, along with her criminally delicious strawberry cake, and her literal trough of savory barbecued baked beans with ground beef. As usually happens in small towns, we survived on food from friends during that time.

Now, I got to Cairo on Monday night, and on Tuesday afternoon, when Dee Dee left work as a kindergarten teacher at Emerson Elementary, she headed straight to Wonder Market to buy the fixins' for my chocolate cake. She was showing the recipe to one of the store clerks when I ran up behind her and gave her a big thank you hug for the 5 pounds I plan to gain this week. And when the clerk said the cake sounded delicious, I graciously permitted Dee Dee to let her have a big piece, But Dee Dee said, "No, this whole cake is going right next door, and Rachel can do whatever she wants with it." She said that cake was meant to put some meat on my scrawny bones. "It'll help you get your ass back," she explained later that evening, when she dropped it off.

Well, after I've finished trying to shove pieces of that cake into every available orifice, I'll be happy to share what's left. In fact, to all of my Cairo friends who might read this posting, feel free to stop by and get a piece. You see, after all these years of traveling and living in "The Big City," I'm finding it so incredibly comforting being back home right now, and I'm happy to do the neighborly thing and sit and talk a while with friends while we gobble that cake.

Now if that don't tear the rag off'n the bush, to borrow a phrase from Jed Clampett, I don't know what would.

A week ago, I was literally gripped with dread about coming home. I couldn't stand the thought of walking up the steps at the lovely little house on 29th Street and not finding Julie there waiting for me. I couldn't imagine walking through that house, standing in her beautiful, light filled, "House and Garden" kitchen, or peering around the corner into the cozy bedroom where I'd spent literal days lounging or keeping vigil in "my" recliner, watching Turner Classic Movies on the oak entertainment center adorned by all the angel figurines she'd been given through the years.

I couldn't stand the thought of looking at the right side of that bed and not seeing Julie lying there. I wouldn't have cared if she was hooked to a million machines or sitting there eating a 3 piece from Popeye's and laughing her ass off, or just enjoying some pain-free peaceful sleep. I just knew I wouldn't be able to handle seeing the empty space.

And the pictures. Good God, I've had a hard time imagining how Ron could handle the intense memories, the inconceivable loss, and the constant glimpses of her beautiful face in one of the 2 homes they shared for 34 years of married life. There are so many breathtakingly lovely pictures of her everywhere, so many knick-knacks from all their travels and mine, so many cozy flourishes she insisted on. So much love and comfort. Just no her.

But over numerous medicinal Bud Lights, and lots of laughter and memories with Ron, I'm doing okay. I'm actually finding it really nurturing to be here, steeped in Julie's presence. And I'm so very, very proud of Ron. I used to think a hero had to save the world, or push a toddler from the path of a speeding car or something. But now I know you're a hero if you keep going after losing the dearest thing in the entire world, your best friend, lover and life partner, because you know that's the only way to honor the memory of a life filled with love and giving and caring.

So, now that I've been fortified by enough butter and sugar and caffeine to fuel the International Space Station for a week, I'm getting ready to head to Greenlawn Cemetery, to sit a while with my memories. Like I said the other day, I'm not going there to see Julie, cause I've spent the past few days marinating in her love and presence and spirit. I just want to let her know I'm trying to be as strong as she was, and to actually achieve something I never thought would be possible.

And, truth be told, I just want some privacy so I can cry my guts out for a while. Hey, I'm a realist...I know it'll happen. But they'll be healing tears, I'm positive.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Going Home

I'm leaving for National Airport soon, headed back to my hometown of Cairo, Illinois. Until recently, I'd spent a lot of time building up for an emotional collapse during this trip. I just knew going back to my sister's house, paying my respects at her grave, seeing what's left of our hometown, would overwhelm me.

But my friend Simone came to the rescue last Friday night. We got together for a girlfriend's night out, and as usual, poured our hearts out over great wine and food. It's amazing...whenever I'm with Simone, and any of my other sister-heart friends, it's like a faucet gets turned on, and I can spill whatever's in my soul, and feel totally safe and respected doing it.

To know Simone is to be instantly enveloped by the good graces of New Orleans charm, hospitality and downright bodacious good fun. Her accent could woo the bees from the flowers. She totally resembles Bette Davis in the movie, "Jezebel," with her waspish waist, strawberry blonde hair and fierce intelligence and strength of will. ( The resemblance ends there....she is NOT a selfish, conniving, manipulative bitch like Miss Ju-LEE of the movie.)

Anyway, Simone knows the kind of pain I'm feeling. When we met for lunch nearly 10 years ago, I must confess that initially, I thought this high-fashion New York PR maven was going to be about as deep as a pane of glass and snobby to boot. She had just moved to DC to handle PR for a restaurant group, and I was writing about that group's flagship restaurant for the airline magazine I was freelancing for. We started off with polite banter, but I found myself quite eager to get that lunch over with.

4 hours later, Simone and I had bonded like Crazy Glue. At the time, Julie was going through one of her more serious health challenges, and I was worried sick. That's when Simone and I got to talking about life, and death, and what it all means. Then she shared that she had lost her sister and mother within 6 months of each other, both in tragic car accidents. I was absolutely stunned by her stories; at the time, noone in my immediate family had died, and I couldn't conceive how someone could talk about death in the family with such serene poise.

And though it's been more than 10 years, four more restaurants and a husband and two kids later for Simone, she says still feels the same sort of urgent loss. Whenever she looks at her two apple-cheeked cherub sons, her heart can't help but long for her mother to see them. She loves her brother, but she can't help wishing her sister was here, too.

During our first marathon lunch, I was convinced that I would go completely insane if I had to live in a world without Julie. In fact, I just knew my heart would stop, and they'd just have to push me on top of her coffin and cover the both of us up. I couldn't understand how Simone kept going, how she was able to function so beautifully.

But there she was last Friday night, convincing me that I would be able to handle going home. She even made me believe that I could visit Julie's grave without collapsing. That's because she said, simply, "Julie is not in that grave. Julie is everywhere there's something beautiful. Julie is in you. You can go to the cemetery because you want to pay your respects, but you're not going there to see her. You'll take her with you when you leave."

The moment I heard those words, I knew I'd be okay. Simone had already proved to me ten years ago that you can survive inconceivable tragedy. Why shouldn't I believe that I could successfully navigate the flood of emotion and pain that's been swirling around my ankles the past few months, while I braced myself for this particular journey?

So, I'm going home to see my dear brother-in-law Ron, and my brothers Fred and John, and Julie's friends, and the people of Cairo. But as Simone told me, I'm not going home to see Julie. I can see her every time I look in the mirror. I can feel her every time I smile when I think of some memory we shared. I can BE her every time I do something kind and loving for someone else.

So that's the game plan. I'll let you know how things turn out.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

"Be Strong And Of Good Courage"

Here’s why there hasn’t been a posting since March 31st:

Writing about getting scary health news on April Fool’s Day would have been so clich├ęd, I’d have made myself puke. So I decided to wait until my nerves settled and I had plenty of time to ponder what the experience meant. Now, I’m ready to resume blog mode with a post about the scary health news I got on April Fool’s Day.

You see, I was standing in the checkout line at the local Giant Supermarket minding my own business, trying to buy some raisin bread and ginger ale, when my Bluetooth earpiece started buzzing. It was a cheery-voiced woman named Vicki, from my OB/GYN office. She just wanted to let me know that the Pap smear I’d had back in late February, before heading to Nigeria, had come back positive for the presence of HPV. And because a positive HPV test can indicate cervical cancer, Vicki chirped, they wanted me to come in for something called a colposcopy, so they could collect some cervical cell samples to biopsy.

Now, I’ve survived Northern Uganda, which toughened my hide considerably. I’ve survived losing my beloved sister-mother Julie--and 3 other immediate family members--all in fairly rapid succession. And I’ve survived lizards crawling up and down my freakin’ walls every day and every night. In other words, I have earned the title of “Warrior Woman Supreme.” There’s not a whole lot that scares me these days.

But I gotta admit, I have never in my entire life felt as scared and alone as I did when that call ended. Never. I’m not talking just worried, or anxious. I wasn’t just feeling stressed or perplexed. I was as frightened as a 5 year old waking up alone on an empty school bus. I started shaking. My knees wobbled, which probably made me look like I was drunk as I headed to the Giant parking lot. While I sat there clutching my steering wheel, the only sound I heard was like the roar of the ocean, and it kept building, and building. Bright spots flashed in my eyes, and I almost passed out.

So much for the Warrior Woman motif, huh? Even though I’ve written a few times that death would be a no-lose proposition for me, because I’d get to see Julie again, all of a sudden , I found myself praying to Julie to just wait a few more years--say 30 or 40. We will have a blast when I do see you again, girlfriend, but just be patient. I guess being with Julie when she passed had the dual effect of toughening me up and scaring the bejeezus out of me at the same time. I know what cancer looks like now, and I ain’t trying to go out like that, at least no time soon. There’s still too much I want to do. Like go on at least one more date.

Anyway, I was able to schedule the colposcopy quickly, within 2 days of that phone call. The nurse practicioner who wielded the medieval, uterus-scraping torture instruments during the humiliating, legs-to-the ceiling procedure assured me my test indicated only a mild level of HPV, much closer to normal than abnormal. She said they were only doing the colposcopy to confirm that I was okay. That calmed me down considerably, but I’d still have to wait a week and a half for the biopsy results to know for sure.

To make a long, emotionally harrowing story short, the test came back okay. Nothing to worry about, I was told. Just come back next year for your regularly scheduled Pap.

Piece o’ cake. Except for the part where I had to acknowledge that instead of being completely indomitable, as I’ve been billing myself of late, in the clinches I’m actually quite able to behave like a sniveling weasel. I know, I’m probably being too hard on myself. It’s just that I felt really embarrassed about how scared I was. Especially since for at least the past 5 years, I have made the following Bible verse my official mantra:

“Be strong and of good courage. Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed. For the Lord thy God is with thee, withersoever thou goest.” Joshua 1:9

I tell you, I’ve found myself in so many scary situations over the past 5 years, I’d have gone stark raving mad if I didn’t believe that a force greater than me is active in my life. I’ve stepped out on faith so many times that if some power called God, The Universe, Higher Power, or the Archangel Julie hadn’t been guiding me, I’d have been roadkill on the Highway of Life a long time ago. There’s a reason I’m still here, and a reason I keep doing what I do…..jetting off to Africa, gnawing on goat meat, cringing in shithole lodgings, courting malaria constantly.

Actually, there are several reasons. One is that doing journalism training in Africa gives my life meaning. It makes me feel like I’m making a difference in the world. Another reason is that I’m convinced a force greater than me is with me always, protecting me from my own naivete and hapless good intentions while I’m out there trying to make a difference in the world. It’s really the only thing that makes sense to me.

It also helps me keep my sniveling weasel episodes to a minimum. I’m definitely gonna need every drop of strength and good courage I possess next week. You see, I’m headed back to my hometown of Cairo, Illinois to give a speech. But that’s not what I’ll need courage for. I’ll also be visiting my sister Julie’s grave for the first time.

I think I’m up for it.