July 12th, 2006

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Good Morning!!

The fog is dancing in and out today, waltzing, perhaps.  I read how scandalous the waltz was when it first came out, that closed position, held.  Oh, my!   So, perhaps it is not a waltz, as it seems rather open and free.  It is a modern dance, deconstructed, as soon it will be gone.   The birds are inviting it to leave, and I see it back slowly away, partnered no more.

Jane and I work today on my poem about my last day of chemo, March 7th.  I was thrilled, obviously, and reading the poem today, I feel jubilance.  I am so grateful I had time to honor the turtle in me, so now, I can hop like a Kangaroo, or Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.

Jane wrote today about that place in the middle, wondering what drives one on to finish the race, or the challenge.

We spoke then of why I do not identify myself as a cancer survivor.  I have decided not to do the fashion show.  It is not me.  I am happy to give money to support the cause, but I do not see myself parading along a runway.  I do not need a free leather jacket.   I have, in many ways, returned to who I was,  with a new confidence, zest, gratitude, and awareness that there are a multitude of cells in me, and they each have their own pace, but my overall unity is not on the stage.   My support is within, the ground, and not balanced on a board, floating in the air.  

Perhaps, another reason I don't feel a need to claim or display  this accomplishment  is that I felt I was pulled along, like a car on a track in a car wash.  I did not do this alone.  You were there, as well as a multitude of others.  I realize now that the fashion show is for those multitude of others, so they can see the rewards of their work, a human being, who might be dead, now walking, because of their devoted work,  confidently upon a stage in fashionable clothes.  Hmmm!   Another way to see.  I could re-consider though I believe now it is full.  Many people want to model the lives they have won, and good and great for them.  

So, to return to my original thought, when I was dumped out at the end of my personal car wash,  I needed some time to get out of neutral and drive again, and yet, I remember beginning radiation on a day a woman was ending.  I congratulated her, and she said, ungraciously, I thought, "For what.  All I did was show up."  I said showing up was a very big thing, since I certainly had made an effort to get myself there that morning, and not just stay in bed, or fly to Mexico.  I felt her achievement as she did not, and, perhaps, now, I am backing away from my achievement.  How do we balance honoring what we have done, and moving on, evolving?   Is that perhaps the eternal question, at least in the finite world?

I do not want to be seen as a survivor.  I back away from that.  I don't see myself continuing with programs for "cancer survivors," so, what is that about for me.  We moved often when I was a child.  I was happy to move on.  I was not raised to hold onto the past, to cling to what was, and I see that as a positive, and yet, where, also, is the place to honor what we've done, or is the honoring simply in who we are now?   I think so.

When Jane went through the "Untraining," a big piece of it was discussing those who come here bringing their traditions, and those who are happy to discard them, and let them go.  In this trying to better understand people from Asia, I now understand some cling to an Asian ideal, and others dismiss it completely.  Obviously, there are many inbetween.

I am trying to find a balance for myself in this, to be with all I have gained, and I have, and not cling, to what gave me these new tools.  I want to honor what I have been through, and it is not my identity.   As I say this, I think perhaps I am not so into identity.  I don't like to send a bio with my poems.  I want my poems to stand on their own.  They come to me.  I give them to you.  There is no ego involved for me in that.  It just is.  I am.  I am here, a collection of cells on a beautiful morning, given the gift of contemplating that I am a group of cells on a beautiful morning.  I give thanks for that.  

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More thoughts -

I realize that for me, there is the medical world, and there is the natural world, and I know that all here is natural in a way, but, the medical world is also very human, and sometimes, I need to be in nature, away from all that humanness.  I think of Alexander Pope's statement, "To Err is Human, to Forgive Divine."  Perhaps, I need to be held in the divine right now,  the trees, the teachers, the forgiveness, feeding me, and, in that, knowing how deeply we all are connected as seeds, you and me.  

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Ellen sends this to me, and she doesn't know the source, nor do I, but the words fit here for me.

Too often when I speak to people, it seems the questions revolve, around the surrender, sacrifice and pain involved in the spiritual growth process. What is overlooked is what comes at the end of the tunnel.  Jesus says, "You will not be forsaken."  This is a most sacred promise.  For every time I was pulled through a dark night of the soul, I experienced a subsequent emergence into more light and love.  The vessel has to be tempered to hold the full light of an expanded consciousness.  Your vibration has to be lightened.  What we experience as pain through clearing and surrender is actually the negativity and denser energies clearing out of our consciousness to make way for the incoming light.  You must be emptied before you can be filled.

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Hand Writing!!

I received many hand-written letters and notes throughout this process, and they are still here with me.  I appreciate them even more as I read these very true words of Dan Neil.   Enjoy!

Scribbling Rivalry

Dan Neil
July 9, 2006

I am writing this at a café table on the city square in Strasbourg, France, literally in the shadow of the city's infamously tall Gothic cathedral. Somewhere in the course of this trip my laptop has gone hors de combat, and so I've brought pen and notepad to the table, pulled up a café au lait and started writing out a story in longhand, which I haven't done in about 20 years. This bit of process would be unremarkable except for the fact that-I just noticed-there is a large and rather unflattering bronze of Johann Gutenberg directly ahead. Strasbourg claims the inventor of movable type as its own, though the residents of Mainz, Germany, have something to say about that.

I suppose I could lay it at the pigeon-soiled feet of Gutenberg, or Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, or Bill Gates, the man who killed the typewriter, but somewhere along the way my handwriting has gone from merely awful to just plain pathetic, a half-seized scribble and jot that appears to have been written in the back of a speeding buckboard. This is the handwriting of the criminally insane.
No master of the Palmer method was I, but in college I could write legibly for hours on end. I remember that my writing hand, my left, was more thoroughly muscled and I had a nice, thick callus on my middle finger. Today, thanks to key-stroking, I am so estranged from the manual process of writing that it takes several trial runs and many minutes of tongue-biting concentration to complete a postcard.

How odd it is to sit here and watch my hand twitching and itching across the paper, leaving a broken wake of demi-words behind. The only weak consolation is that my handwriting, like Da Vinci's, could thwart those who would try to learn my secrets. A room full of Robert Langdons and the NSA wouldn't stand a chance.

The decline of handwriting associated with electronic text-word processing, e-mail, instant messaging-is well documented, as are its costs. Back in the '90s there was a spate of patient deaths associated with doctors' scrawl, prompting the American Medical Assn. to make changes in the way prescriptions and medical charts are recorded. Handwriting is apparently destiny. According to graphologists, it's nearly impossible for educators and employers to separate bad handwriting from larger, grosser forms of incompetence-that's not good news for high school students facing the new essay portion of the SAT's.

Mahatma Gandhi himself said that bad handwriting should be regarded "as a sign of an imperfect education." And he didn't even have to take the SAT's.

The sociology of clumsy cursive doesn't bother me half so much as my own decline. I'm feeling a real loss here, as if I've forgotten how to play the violin. As an experiment, I write out the old practice sentence: "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party." I study the paper. It says: "Naw, is thistime for all good mento come tis aid f thur party." It looks like I've been eating flaking paint.

I don't want to get carried away here. I mean, I can get along without longhand. Good penmanship can also be read as a sign of a repressive perfectionism. No kid ever says, "When I grow up I want to be a penman!"

But something is definitely missing. Back when I could write in longhand, I read an essay by the poet Louis Simpson, who said that poetry should never be written on a word processor because its environment of endless and effortless revisability dulls the keenness of poetic thought. It's like rhetorical T-ball, where you have endless swings of the bat until you connect. Simpson argued there was a concentration, and consecration, of verse that happened while the poet considered the commitment of pen to paper.

The same must be true of personal communication. Why is a word-processed love letter problematic? Beyond lacking the warmth and intimacy of script, it is inevitably calculated, the product of careful revision and perfecting polish. As we struggle to get it right, we dissemble, trading sincerity for legibility.

I'm sorry to say that the last love letter I wrote was channeled through Microsoft Word.

Oddly, just as handwriting is heading for the door, it has become an immensely powerful means of communication. College football recruiters now make it a point to send handwritten letters to the most desirable prospects. Think of the thunderclap of excitement, the sense of occasion, when you last received a handwritten letter or even a thank-you note.

Which brings me to the collection of postcards on the table. I'll have to write very slowly, and may even resort to block printing, architect-style. I may waste a few cards and I probably won't get the words exactly right, and yet every one will say: "Wish you were here."
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more thoughts on the medical profession and connection!

Elaine writes to me of her medical appointment with her neurosurgeon.   What is our relationship with these people with whom we are so intimately connected, these humans who save our life, and the machines and care they use?  What is it to devote your life to one small part of the medical profession and interact daily with people whose lives you are saving?   How is that for them and for us?   Where do we place this intimacy in our lives, all intimacy, and is every meeting intimate?   If we intend it so, yes!

Sometimes when I am blessed by someone on the street for handing them a dollar, I tingle so much inside, I don't know what to think.  It is like God really is in there, re-arranging my bones. 

I don't have answers.  I know today I need to sit under a tree, close, right next to the trunk, and on the roots. 

I think now of the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  "Once there was a tree that loved a little boy."

And perhaps that is all that needs to be said.   Perhaps my epitaph should say, "Once there was a bag of cells who gathered in love, for love, and to love."  May that be the not-me that is me.  
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More on Germany and redemption -


From Humorless to Carefree in 30 Days

By David Crossland in Berlin

England fans supporting the German team? Berlin policemen stroking puppies? Smiling shop assistants? Germany's image has changed over the last four weeks of the World Cup, which will be remembered more for the summer carnival atmosphere and great organization than the football -- apart from David Beckham's vomiting and Zinedine Zidane's headbutt.

You know something seismic has happened when England fans who came to Germany with inflatable Spitfires singing " 10 German Bombers" suddenly start supporting the German national team.

German fans ecstatic as their team, "World Champions of our hearts" comes third.
German fans ecstatic as their team, "World Champions of our hearts" comes third.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair pointed out this unprecedented phenomenon in an opinion piece for Sunday's Bild am Sonntag newspaper, and declared: "The old clichés have been replaced by a new, positive and more fair image of Germany."

The 2006 World Cup host appears to have pulled off a coup no one had thought possible before the tournament began: a fundamental rebranding of Germany, a shift in the world's view of the nation from dour and humorless to fun- loving and friendly.

The perfect summer weather had a lot to do with it, as did the surprisingly strong performance by Jürgen Klinsmann's team. Those two factors acted like a strong dose of Prozac for a nation diagnosed in 2004 by its own president as entering "collective depression."

Suddenly the unthinkable started happening: policemen started stroking puppies and ignoring minor traffic violations, and sales assistants started smiling and being helpful.

Feelings of patriotism stifled for decades by the Holocaust came to the fore as Germans started attaching not just one but two and sometimes four national flags to their cars, painted neat little flags onto their faces and cleavages and donned wigs and bras in the national colors of black, red and gold.

They started singing the national anthem with passion in the stadiums and in the " Fan Fests" or public viewing areas, a successful World Cup innovation which gave the millions of people who couldn't get match tickets a collective experience of watching football.


It turned into a gigantic three-colored fancy dress party, a summer version of the Rhineland's spring carnival which gained momentum with each of the team's victories.

German media called it "partyotism" and indeed there was nothing threatening or exclusive about it. Men and women of all ages caught the bug, and there was none of the raucous, tribal passion of England's fervent fans.

The atmosphere engulfed the over 1 million visitors from abroad. In Cologne, on the steps leading up to the cathedral, Brazilian fans hopped and danced with Mexicans. Next to them were England supporters trying to chat up Swedish blondes, or engaging in mostly good-humored chanting competitions with Germans.

A hip patriot covered in body paint.
A hip patriot covered in body paint.
"Thirty one days of the World Cup have changed Germany and the Germans more than politicians have managed in years with their laws and decrees," wrote Germany's best-selling Bild newspaper on Monday.

"And the whole world suddenly has a thoroughly positive picture of us. Because the signals we sent can no longer be misunderstood. Germany is a happy country. Germany is a peaceful country. Germany is modern, innovative and creative."

It was a view echoed abroad. "Never mind the final, Germans are the real World Cup winners," wrote Britain's Times newspaper.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, in Berlin for Sunday's final, told German television: "I have to say that from everything I saw and heard, it was one of the best World Cups ever. The friendly spirit really caught on here."

Some cliches still apply

But let's face it, did anybody seriously expect this World Cup not to be a success? How could it fail given Germany's capacity for organization, its punctual trains, dense autobahn network, modern stadiums, great beer and spotless hotels? If the party atmosphere wiped away some of the negative cliches, the tournament did reinforce some of the positive ones, too.

Everything was planned down to the smallest detail. Last Saturday night on the Kurfürstendamm, western Berlin's main boulevard, as thousands of fans celebrated Germany's victory over Portugal, rubbish disposal men stood around patiently waiting to polish the streets once everyone had gone home.

When one exuberant fan lit a flare in the street, firemen who had been lurking in the shadows jogged onto the scene, put it out, tut-tutted mildly and walked away. Police had trained for months how to handle disorderly fans. They adopted a non-intrusive, tolerant approach and their cooperation with foreign police worked.

When the crowds on Berlin's Fan Fest behind the Brandenburg Gate started getting too big, authorities rapidly arranged for the public viewing area to be increased and more giant screens were deployed within days.

It seems the only people who had any concerns ahead of the World Cup were the hosts themselves. In fact, capital-A "Angst" dominated the run-up to the tournament. Not just the normal jitters any organizer would have, but deep, ponderous Angst, the German kind.

It started in January, when a consumer watchdog declared that several of the 12 World Cup stadiums, newly built or painstakingly refurbished, were unsafe for fans due to an absence of proper escape routes.

Then reports of attacks on foreigners mounted in March, April and May, not because more were being perpetrated but because the media were picking up on them, stoking a debate about " No Go Areas" for visitors in parts of Berlin and eastern Germany. Meanwhile newspaper coverage of violence by immigrant schoolchildren in schools added to concern that Germany was unable to properly integrate its many immigrants of Turkish descent.

What happened? The Turks, whose own team hadn't qualified for the tournament, adopted the German side, and startled many here by waving German flags. After each victory, many of the honking, flag-draped cars racing round Berlin were driven by cheering Turks.

There was concern in Germany and abroad about a surge in forced prostitution as new brothels opened to cope with the influx of fans. In the end, demand fell far short of expectations, with fans apparently too busy partying and meeting Fräuleins at the Fan Fests to think about paying for sex.

Then police and politicians were worried that neo- Nazis might stage demonstrations to get some of the global attention focused on Germany. Or that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fervent Holocaust denier, might present Germany with a major diplomatic headache by coming to watch Iran play.

Neither happened. The Nazis appeared to be too busy watching football or worried about counter-demonstrations. And the Iranian team didn't do well enough to warrant a presidential visit.

"World Champions of our Hearts"

Finally, the team. Many hadn't expected it to get beyond the first round. But fans across the country declared it "World Champions of our Hearts" after it got as far as the semi-final with a lively, attacking brand of football.

They even dispatched Argentina on the way in a penalty shootout -- there's another cliche that survived the tournament.

Nothing went wrong, except for the football itself. Few of the matches were memorable, the goal average was below par, and the teams were too cautious.

No fresh young talent burst onto the stage, there were no David vs. Goliath upsets and the only fairy tale of the tournament -- French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane's return to sparkling form to lead his team to the final -- came to a disastrous ending when he was sent off in the final for headbutting an Italian player.

That, along with England star David Beckham vomiting on the pitch, is likely to be the most striking image of a World Cup that from a sporting point of view fell short of previous tournaments. Still, Germany can't be blamed for the quality of play.

Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, not known for charisma or outbursts of emotion, was swept up in the football frenzy, cheering, punching the air during matches and hugging coach Klinsmann and the World Cup's chief organiser, Franz Beckenbauer.

"Germany's image abroad has definitely changed incredibly. I liked this inner, happy self-confidence a lot," she told RTL television.

Merkel said she hoped the last four weeks had given the country the confidence and drive to tackle its problems -- mass unemployment and runaway welfare costs.

"...We're a great country, we can do it, and we're admired by others," she said.

July 10, 2006

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more thoughts -

I am thrilled for Germany, and for the wholeness celebrated there.   I think seeing what has gone on in this country in these last few years, has allowed me to better feel what it is to be a citizen of a country doing things you cannot support, and, yet, at times,  what can you do.  Al Gore is giving us tools for change with An Inconvenient Truth.  We speak gently and lovingly.  We celebrate together the beauty that is, and reach from there for change.   Bush has had to back down on torture and violating the Geneva Convention.  A victory is won.

On the subject of survivorship, I think I now understand why my father never spoke of being a prisoner of war.  It was not who he was.   His father's family was from Germany, and, yet, he was shot down fighting for the U.S. against it.  Labels are not helpful.  Celebration of our unity is. 
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William Rivers Pitt -

 Minimum Standards
    By William Rivers Pitt

    Wednesday 12 July 2006

    BBC News reported it this way: "All US military detainees, including those at Guantanamo Bay, are to be treated in line with the minimum standards of the Geneva Conventions. The White House announced the shift in policy on Tuesday, almost two weeks after the US Supreme Court ruled that the conventions applied to detainees."

    A small thing, one would think. We have been told time and again, after all, that we are engaged in a "War on Terror," and the rules of war should therefore apply. The fact that we are also fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan further simplifies the issue.

    With the Bush administration, however, nothing is so straightforward. The administration argument, on the surface, has been that because "terrorists" are affiliated with no official government, they do not fall under the umbrella of Geneva protections.

    The real reason for the denial of protections, though, was the Cheney-born insistence that the powers of the executive are plenary and not to be restricted in any way. Holding people indefinitely without trial while subjecting them to torture, therefore, was a marvelous way to establish the precedent of limitless power.

    We caught a glimpse of the mind-set behind this whole process on Tuesday afternoon. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Hamden v. Rumsfeld Supreme Court ruling, the one that has ostensibly turned the Bush administration's war doctrine on its ear and has motivated them to grant minimum Geneva protections to prisoners.

    Senator Patrick Leahy was grilling Steven Bradbury, acting head of Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, on the legal and ethical basis for Guantanamo in general and the treatment of prisoners specifically. Pressed into a corner by Leahy's questioning as to whether Bush was right or wrong in his decisions on the matter, Bradbury finally stated, "The president is always right."

    Mr. Bradbury, it appears, did not get the memo.

    Tuesday's Washington Post laid out the myriad ways in which, all of a sudden, the president is being forced to admit that he has been, almost comprehensively, always wrong. "Accustomed to having its way on matters related to the nation's security," reported the Post, "the administration is being forced to respond to criticism that it once brushed aside. The high court ruling rejected the White House's assertion that the president has nearly unlimited executive powers during a time of war, and now executive branch lawyers are reviewing whether other rules adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will have to be revised, especially those concerning the Geneva Conventions."

    Much of this is, in the end, short-term analysis and observation. After picking through the detritus left behind in arguments over executive power, the inside baseball of political positioning, and the strange absolutism of Justice Department attorneys, we come around again to looking at long-term ramifications.

    Granting minimum protection standards under Geneva to prisoners cannot and must not have anything to do with the exact circumstances of the detention of a prisoner, or the modern elastic definitions of war, or the desires of an administration to establish unlimited power. While the need to gather necessary intelligence and information on the disposition of terrorist elements is undeniable, the need for adherence to the rule of law on this issue goes far beyond constitutional platitudes.

    The book Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, gives us all the reasons we need for stating, without equivocation, that adherence to Geneva protections is essential beyond any niceties of legal argument. Keeping to Geneva, simply, is a matter of national security and an absolute necessity whenever we have our own soldiers deployed in combat situations far from home.

    "Ghost Soldiers" describes the horrifying ordeal endured by the American soldiers captured after the Japanese takeover of the Philippines in 1942. Tens of thousands of soldiers were trapped on the Bataan peninsula after the surrender of American forces, and the survivors were corralled into wretched prison camps after enduring the infamous "Bataan Death March."

    During that march, and for years afterwards, these American prisoners were subjected to unspeakable acts of torture. They were starved, denied medicines for basic illnesses, beaten, shot, and eviscerated with bayonets. Many were killed because they were deemed to be less than human by their captors; the Bushido warrior code of Japan considered the surrender of any soldier to be beneath contempt, and any soldier who did so was unworthy of anything resembling humane treatment.

    The Japanese Imperial Army, in the end, was playing a very dangerous game. By allowing its soldiers to consider captives less than human, by allowing the torture and murder of prisoners to take place on a large scale, Japan opened itself up to potentially terrifying reprisals. Any captured Japanese soldier faced the immediate threat of being the receptacle for outraged revenge at the hands of an American who knew what happened at Bataan.

    So it is today. America has soldiers in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those soldiers run the risk of capture, and further run the risk of capture by individuals who know all about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Thus, we enter into a tit-for-tat game where the stakes are paid out in blood and screams. You torture us, so we torture you.

    The Bush administration, under duress, has finally decided that the minimum standards of the Geneva Conventions are worth paying attention to. They did not do this because it is right, because it is moral, or because they know that doing so affords a small margin of security to troops in the field. They did so because their hand was forced, and there is no guarantee that their words on the matter will be followed up by actual deeds.

    We have all, it seems, come to accept minimum standards these days. There is no need for the rule of law, no need to adhere to the constitution or to Geneva, no need to think about the safety of our soldiers should they be captured, no need to consider the bloody wheel of history where torture and mistreatment have been involved. The president, after all, is always right.

    William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.
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Article from the Atlantic Monthly - first part -

Atlantic Unbound | July 11, 2006

Out of the Darkness

Ada Udechukwu, author of the short story "Night Bus," discusses art, writing, and the politics of her troubled homeland


A t first glance, the artworks of Nigerian artist Ada Udechukwu look like abstract symbols—spare black-ink brushstrokes surrounded by empty space. But gaze at them longer and human features emerge: a pair of eyes, the curve of a breast, a tangled mass of hair. “I am conscious of the pulse of silence,” she wrote in an artist’s statement for a 2004 exhibition, “that which lingers after the words, after the images.”


Self-Portrait by Ada Udechukwu, 1991. Brush and ink on paper.

For those who are familiar with Udechukwu’s art, “Night Bus,” her short story in the Atlantic’s 2006 Fiction issue, may come as a jolt. There are no gentle arcs or reverberating silences in this tale; from the opening lines, the atmosphere is harsh and oppressive, at times even claustrophobic. The narrative follows a young Nigerian woman named Uloma on the road from Southeastern Nigeria to Lagos. Throughout her journey, she is surrounded by men who want to taunt her, rob her, and violate her—beginning with the security officer who pulls her aside as she boards the bus:

[The officer] stood before her, his fly only partially zipped, revealing aquamarine nylon underpants…. She handed him a folded bill. He checked its denomination and slipped it into his pocket. Uloma reached for the duffel. The officer’s hand brushed over her breast. He flashed a smile at her, and the dull red of his tongue filled the gap between his front teeth, pulsing like a live animal. She flushed, fighting an urge to strike him.

Uloma suffers all of this for the sake of her boyfriend, Monye, who has persuaded her to join him on a business trip. At his request, she is carrying a duffel bag filled with American dollars. Monye has promised to meet her onboard the bus, and she spends the first half of the story waiting anxiously for his arrival. He has assured Uloma that the money in the bag will allow him to buy and sell a Mercedes, and that the profits will pay for their long-awaited wedding. But as she sits alone on the sweltering bus, Uloma allows herself to doubt him. When Monye finally arrives, the events that follow give Uloma—and the reader—all the more reason to doubt not only Monye but the fundamental decency of humanity.

Although “Night Bus” does not deal explicitly with Nigeria’s political turmoil, it takes place in an atmosphere of anarchy and fear, reflecting something of the author’s own childhood experience. Udechuckwu was born and reared in Nigeria by her American mother and her Nigerian father. In the late 1960s, when her native region of Eastern Nigeria broke off, amid much bloodshed, to form the Republic of Biafra, she and her siblings took refuge in Michigan with her mother while her father stayed behind. They remained in America until Biafra’s collapse in 1971.

After returning to her homeland, Udechukwu developed a deep interest in the culture and aesthetics of her father’s Igbo tribe. At eighteen, she enrolled at the University of Nigeria/Nsukku, where a number of prominent artists—including her future husband, Obiora Udechukwa—were rediscovering a traditional Igbo art form called uli. Ada began painting uli patterns and swirls onto fabrics and canvases, and her work has since been featured in international exhibitions. Her husband Obiora’s career also continued to flourish, and in 1997, at the height of Nigeria’s military dictatorship, he accepted a teaching position at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. Together with their daughter, Ijeanuli, and son, Nwora, the couple left Nigeria for America, where they have been living ever since.

Udechukwu has often written poetry to accompany her paintings, but she is a latecomer to prose. She began writing fiction only three years ago, enrolling in an MFA program at Bennington where faculty members include such ultramodern American authors as Amy Hempel and Rick Moody. Unlike her artwork, which incorporates pieces of ancient Nigerian heritage, Udechukwu’s stories have a thoroughly contemporary feel. She portrays the struggles of present-day Nigerians, exploring themes of alienation and betrayal. If her artworks dwell on spaces and silences, her fiction explores the deafening roar that drowns out human relationships and shakes entire nations apart.

I spoke to Udechukwu by telephone on June 15.

—Jennie Rothenberg

“Night Bus” is a very dark story. The main character is in a state of anxiety from beginning to end, and everyone around her is either apathetic or menacing. It would be easy for an American to guess that your story is a commentary on the state of modern Nigeria. Is that the case?

In a way, yes. For the past several years—in fact, from the point at which we began to be governed by military rulers—there has been a progressive worsening of this whole climate of uncertainty for the average Nigerian and what you have to encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Your mother wasn’t originally from Nigeria. What was her background, and how did she meet your father?

My mother was a white American—her family had been immigrants from Germany and England, but they’d been living in America for many generations. She met my father here when they were students in the 1950s. It was more common for Nigerian men to go to Britain, but at that point, a few were coming to the United States, and my father was one of them.

The two sides of my family have each remained quite independent of the other. My mother’s family never visited her in Nigeria. And no one from my Nigerian family—apart from my brothers, sisters, and father—has visited us here or knows our American family. So they really are like two separate entities. There isn’t much of a connection between them.

Your father’s family belonged to the Igbo tribe, a group that was targeted in mass killings during the 1960s. Do you have firsthand memories of the violence?

Not that I’m aware of consciously. I was a child, so I guess the violence didn’t affect me the way it would an adult. But I do remember people speaking about the pogroms and the trains of refugees and everything that had taken place. I remember it as a vague thing and, of course, I read about it afterwards, but I don’t remember witnessing it or having any family members caught up in it.

Do you remember the period that followed, when your native region broke off and formed the Republic of Biafra?

We left very soon after Biafra was declared, so I never experienced the war or any kind of hardship firsthand. But I clearly remember leaving the country when America began evacuating its citizens. I was seven years old, and I remember the journey by boat across the River Niger, because at that time the bridge had been taken by the federal side, so there wasn’t any traffic across it.

So for the most part, I experienced the war from America. We lived first in East Lansing, Michigan, because the University of Nigeria, where my mother was working, had a link with Michigan State University, and later in Pittsburgh. There was a small Biafran community in America, and I remember how my mother used to send us out to fundraise for Biafra. We didn’t return to the country until after 1971—after Biafra had collapsed.

Did you experience any culture shock in moving from West Africa to East Lansing?

I wouldn’t call it culture shock. But there was a general dislocation, especially in being separated from my father. He didn’t leave the country. He was there for the duration of the war, which was a very common scenario. In most families like ours, where the wife was an expatriate, the women and children left and the men stayed behind. It was a difficult time for me. My mother tells me that I became very withdrawn.

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Part 2 of the Atlantic Article -

Out of the Darkness

(page 2 of 2)

Your husband, Obiora, is a bit older than you, and he actually was involved in the war. What has he told you about that time?

He was there in Biafra throughout the war and witnessed atrocities and other things that went on. He didn’t fight, but he was involved in the propaganda units, and it actually ended up being a very crucial time for his work as an artist. He helped to form a group of artists who wrote plays collectively and did their own work—their painting or their writing --  in the name of the Biafran cause. The group is still very friendly today, although they haven’t collaborated lately.

How did the two of you meet?

I was a student at the University of Nigeria while he was a lecturer. We didn’t really meet until I was getting ready to graduate. I knew of his work as an artist, and I’d been to his exhibitions—he was already quite well known. But in terms of meeting him, it was through a roommate of mine who was related to him.

Is it difficult or inspiring being married to a fellow artist, especially one who is so well known?

It’s inspiring, and it’s also difficult! But I would say the inspiring part overwhelms the difficulty because we have a very good relationship.

Are your children also interested in art? 

I have a daughter and a son, and both of them are, in different ways. My daughter, Ijeanuli, is 23, and she’s thinking of a graduate degree in film. My son, Nwora, is 19. He’s just going to start college, and he’s planning to major in art. 

You and Obiora are both known for exploring a style of traditional Igbo art called uli. What attracted you to this form?

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Nigeria, I felt a lot of affinity for this spare, lyrical art form. Traditionally, uli was a method of wall painting and body painting. When I first started, I was a textile designer, and I incorporated uli symbols into my designs. And when I started doing more work on paper, I began looking to uli for its basic aesthetic of space and line.

In the past, uli was generally practiced by women. But these days, it seems that the most famous uli artists are men. Has that male influence changed the medium at all?

Uli as it’s traditionally practiced continues to be a female art form. In villages around Nigeria, uli is a dying art form. But there’s a collective that was set up where they had women come together to paint on walls and also do work on paper, and then these works were exhibited, mostly in Germany. So in that case it was taken to a new level. But that’s the only case I know of where uli was exhibited internationally. 

In terms of contemporary Nigerian art, when they talk about the “Uli School,” that’s a bit different. At the time my husband was studying at the University of Nigeria, there was a conscious effort to have students go back and research uli. My husband and his teacher, Uche Okeke, are some of the major figures in terms of bringing uli to international attention. So people like myself who use uli in our work, you can say our work is influenced by it, but you wouldn’t call us uli artists in the same way you’d call the women who practice it traditionally.

You’ve said that your exploration of uli has influenced your use of language. Can you explain how?

About three years ago, I started an MFA program through the Bennington Writing Seminars. I decided to go in for fiction. Prior to that, I hadn’t written any fiction as such, and I struggled with it a lot in the beginning. I’d written poetry, but my poems were very brief and spare, and I found I couldn’t really translate that into fiction. I had to find a way to create narrative.

Halfway through the program I came to the poetry of Jane Kenyon. She drew on a lot of visual imagery in her work, and when I saw that, something just clicked for me. I began drawing on my own work as a visual artist to help me to navigate my way through fiction.

It’s interesting that you say that, because uli seems to be very abstract—based on shapes and symbols rather than the kinds of recognizable figures that would show up in a story.

That’s why it was so helpful to me. I was looking for a way to speak to emotions and situations without trying to verbalize everything—by relying on the image.

Can you give an example of this from “Night Bus”?

I’m interested very much in relationships between men and women and in the dynamics of those different relationships. My art is all about relationships. With “Night Bus,” I think I started with a relationship, a situation, and the story developed out of that. The influence of uli art might perhaps come through most strongly in the way I chose to end the story. I created an image without necessarily spelling out what was happening or what was going to happen.

How do you decide to translate a particular impulse into a work of fiction rather than into a painting or a poem?

There are times when one medium lends itself to what I want to say. It’s not necessarily that I make a choice. It’s just that I can say it better or I have the room to express myself in, say, a story rather than a painting. I would say, though, that looking at relationships between men and women, and among human beings in general, is a thread that runs through both my visual work and my literary work.

Unlike your art, which draws so heavily on Igbo tradition, your fiction has a very modern feel to it. You don’t, for instance, incorporate African folktales into your narrative the way authors like Chinua Achebe have done.

This is perhaps directly related to having this kind of multifaceted heritage. I’m very open to all cultures, and I embrace all people. I always have. I read very widely. There’s no doubt that being a person who straddles two cultures is very central to my creativity.

In some ways, though, I wonder whether living outside your homeland—building a reputation as an “African artist” in America—has made you more conscious than ever of your Igbo background.

I think so. You become really conscious of your cultural identity when you’re living abroad. In my own case, for as long as I can remember, I’ve really grappled with what I feel is my dual heritage. At various points in my life, when I was a teenager, for instance, it was a very problematic relationship. But growing and maturing as a person has helped me come to terms with it. So there’s a little less conflict. I’ve learned to appreciate the heritage, the wealth of what I’ve been given.

Just before you left Nigeria, the government executed one of the country’s best-known novelists and environmentalists, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Nigeria was expelled from the Commonwealth of Nations for that incident. How did it affect the psychology of artists and writers living inside the country?

I think it epitomized the uncertainty that comes along with living under military dictatorship in Nigeria. No one really is immune, and that incident made it very graphic just how far the reach is for anybody. But I don’t think it kept artists and writers from expressing themselves. Even at the height of the military dictatorship, the artists were still creating freely.

Are most of your stories set in Nigeria?

A lot of them are. Also, some of my stories look at the Nigerian experience here, the immigrant experience. What especially interests me is something that one doesn’t always hear about as much as the other aspects and casualties of war: What does war do to families? And what does war actually do to the common person, to the human being?

Do you find it easier to paint and write when you’re living in the United States or in Nigeria?

It is our eventual desire to return to Nigeria. But living here, I feel that my art is evolving in a way it might not have if I’d remained in Nigeria. I often wonder whether I would have had the opportunity to do my MFA or even have thought of doing it if I hadn’t come to America. Living here has changed me as a person, and that’s certainly been reflected in the content of my work. Every experience plays into what one creates.

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Poem by Norma Cole -

Elaine sends me this poem by her friend Norma Cole.  Norma has five published books.   Enjoy!!

Eat the Beans
"Now eating the beans is much like eating the parents' heads."
                                        Plutarch, Moralia
The rolling thing is:
the poem is expected to return home
to return to the tonic, as a child
And as a musician I say to you:
a series of substitutions, "it's
my turn to talk now"
I offer this object in:
disguise as food a color
in disguise as a lover
SaintA is forever holding:
out his flaming head
I take your words into my mouth
I am an arrival and a city in which order is not yet established:
in which order has not yet been erased I eat the seat of order
A musician's:
liver is a man's heart
on a certain street
          Suddenly this tale meets:the naked violinist,back
                        to the window as she practices
The impulse to disrupt:
the reading continuously
by some short version
A vision of expansion:
so they'll post the card
keep it - I am sent
2January 2001
Norma Cole
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This time of year -

It is hard not to feel this time of year that the mist is alive.  It is so palpable as it flows in and out, nibbling, chewing, chomping the sky.  Jeff came by and we sat outside and he saw a hawk lift a snake into the trees.   In the moment, all is calm, and the moon will be bright in the sky, later on.  I have felt today great stirrings, as though the fog is working like a magician in me, hiding the places where the changes occur, and then, revealing them, like magic to me.  I don't know what it all means, but I feel deeply stroked.  It is like the connections, connectors, neurons are coming back to life.  Jeff said I was more clear today.  I think my mind is beginning to return, my synapses to re-hook after a rest, a needed rest, and now, what comes to me, what unfolds is mine to climb.

The world is origami.  I am the swan.