Bookstores I Have Known

Jim Shanor Kibera Grad DayJim Shanor Kibera Grad Day

It is always a good day when you come out of a bookstore with a new load, cargo for the mind. It’s a fix. Can’t say I’ve read any of the ones you chose from Barnes and Noble and mention in your letter,  but they all would have caught my eye, too. I have read an incredible number of titles of books in my life.  Not the books, but the titles. I have read thousands of English and Spanish and Swahili “titles” in a day, sometimes captured by a color scheme or a subconscious font on the spine, sometimes by the clever wordsmithing. Most of the titles I’ve read with my left ear pointing to the ground, the right ear to the sky. English System. That’s the way upscale bookstores organize them. But as you know, the Spanish Title requires the head to tilt the other way. One realizes this when his library contains books from both cultures. My chess book collection taught me this quirk. I sort my chess books by concept, not language. Hence, the rocking heads when people look at my library for the first time. The best bookstores in my memory for reading titles (and author names) are two: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Book Store on the corner of Columbus and Broadway in San Francisco and Peace of Mind Bookstore on 15th street, near Peoria Avenue, in Tulsa. They have similarities. Both shops and their proprietors are intending to expand the customers’ minds, not just in fortifying existing opinion or giving a nice campground to the “already convinced.” That would be a Contemporary Christian Bookstore.

I must have told you before of my first experience at City Lights. I was broke, 18 or 19, but interested in browsing both books and back streets, and walking out of Chinatown one night I popped into City Lights for the first time, just a block from the Chinese alleys. I went to one of those book rotisseries, located in the open area not far from the cash register, it spun around with books, not postcards. Many thin publications. I learned later that thin-ness was a clue the book would contain “poems.” I fixed on one called “Coney Island of the Mind.” I liked the title right off. I read it standing on my feet, shifting my weight in time to the phrasing, a Stanford freshmen or Sophomore, wasting time in San Fran, probably going to get back to campus late that night, sleep in the next day, and cut that Accounting One class. Anyway, I read the book, read some more stuff by Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac that night. I felt sheepish when I walked empty-handed toward the door to wander back into the fog of SF and I told the cashier I was “…a little short. Sorry, but I just got lost in the poem. Couldn’t afford to buy anything.” He said, “Thanks, Man, that’s alright. Glad you liked it. I wrote it.” That was Ferlinghetti? Hmmmm. Yep, the cashier and the owner and the author. I didn’t really know how big a name he was in “his world,” which was to become a part of “my world” much later. At least the Clashing Cultures, the pushing the edges, the lead-in to contemporary literature as we knew it. I just liked the poem, that’s all. Coney Island of the Mind.

Now, Peace of Mind, the other book store to note: Aromatherapy and massage for women in the basement. Organic herbs and oriental philosophy, exotic literature upstairs. Jainism. Judaism. Occult. Islam. Buddhist art trends. Talking with dead relatives. Sexual Encyclopedias. Yep, right there in Tulsa. The proprietor once told me proudly he thought it was the best book store between the coasts. It’s another place alright, Living on Tulsa Time, half way between New York to SF on the “pool hustler’s southern circuit.” It should be on everyone’s to-do list. The atmosphere and selection are exquisite, the carpeting soft on the eyes, the eucalyptus coming up from the basement… And the owner is open to anyone, come in and browse, have a look around. The world needs more people like that…

So, if you feel outraged by the election and the splits in our US culture and feel you can only function with those who wear the same uniforms we do, then go read Ferlinghetti. He was outraged and split out in the 50’s, more severely than we are. “Coney Island” is a rage, a statement from inside the confusion. But Ferlinghetti also had a kind heart and maybe he saw something in me that told him I might some day open up to his world view. Maybe he didn’t even care about my mindframe that much, or in finding converts or teammates, but he just liked people who came into his shop, no matter what they thought, no matter who their parents were or how they got there, no matter if they came from “corn country,” wore snappy expensive shirts from Renbergs Department Store, thought they were special because they could turn down scholarships at Harvard and Duke, but they just wanted to see another side of life, looking for a “teaching.” He just accepted me as I was, not a Beatnik yet, not radicalized yet, not anti-anything, just inquisitive. I loved his shop. You can find it on the web, virtually. Barnes and Nobles probably has enough meat and potatoes to last another few years in case you don’t pass Columbus and Broadway soon. I, too, enjoyed the Barnes and Nobles shop in Spartanburg. The main reason was the service I got from the bookish clerk, a long-hair, an egg-head, a reader who reminded me of me.

Ahhhhhhhh… Book stores… Steve’s Sundry is another great second hand book store and milkshake stop in Tulsa. And then there is the one in De Soto, Missouri, in a strip mall run by a guy who…

You get the idea.

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor

Notes on Scars

p10119571Margaret:  “I am a Malaya.”

Christina:  “I am just a Prostitute”

Just Two of the Angels


I woke this morning in a gorgeous venue, a house full of lovely children, lovely mothers. Half a dozen brown kids busy in the kitchen, busy on the patio, pitching in: What are you doing? We are playing. Karate kicking 5 year olds, pratfalling, somersaulting, dancing up and down steep stairs like mountain goats, light, beyond gravity. Make believing, asking questions, doing favors, feeling good. Healthy, healing.

Teenagers making coffee and toast and soft boiled eggs for me, pre-teens, the middle ones, looking after the younger ones, the mothers supervising activities and tending to the laundry, cleaning floors, drying wet clothes up on the line, youngsters doing homework at the picnic table: Everyone but me, very busy. Even the gardener is moving around the place, transporting stones by wheel barrow below, washing the car, tidying the hedges by the bean field, anticipating the chicken houses and day old chicks to come in January.

The mothers and I are recovering from Nairobi Night Club After-Burn, a common local disease, not just on weekends, the effect of furious expression, focused presentation dancing, shooting 8-ball, chatting up locals, measuring tourists, regulars, newcomers, kicking Friday night into Saturday morning, putting on the dog, giving it all away, surging sweat into the Nairobi night, in tune, on time to the music, one place live, one place studio blare, mechanical down-beat techno-disco, Kenya 2K tradition. Mindless reveling, born in stuffy Gigiri bureaucracies and foreign bush posts and remote humanitarian projects or displaced persons’ camps, exiles from The West in the Nairobi night, System Geeks getting what they think they need. The vamps and vampires wait on the barstools for the money to flow. The Angels sit there, too.

I see myself through the window, a bright bird diving into the greenery, coming out the other side, going into a luscious shrub flashing black and scarlet, sweet, coming out the other side of time, banana yellow on shiny coal. I know illusion. Where is that magician now? I want to see beyond that hedge. I plunge through the bush. I want to know the other side of the garden. I will climb there. I will look back down on the world from the aromas of the herbs and bean and potato patch.

Seven kids, three mothers, angels of mercy, angels of charity, jamming vamps, practiced international models, starlets in the Nairobi night, the best of the best, sages in see-through, virtue costumed in vice. Four fathers not around, maybe in Somalia, maybe in Sudan, maybe in UK, or USA, or Germany or Italy. International fathers, left the seed here, Nairobi mothers tending crop. Survivors in Hell, transforming battle scars to a Heaven of security, disciplined service to the in-group of sisters, natural community, common language, Kuja Hapa Mama, insist the kids have formal education, formulas cover the wall of the study room, areas of triangles, diagrams of flower parts, unconditional love and comfort, keep the young ones innocent, at least for another day. Angels of goodness, clean hearts pouring bizarre and tawdry stories into the cup like sweet white coffee, tales with heart, randy, crazy, insane, cinema verite, laughing at the Devil, tempting fate in the Nairobbery street, albeit the upscale side: believers in God, but not in men or law. I am also a father not around. In Kenya, one says, “I am paining.” And I am paining, too.

Somehow the mothers get what they need, each one differently, they give to each other out of love and faith, the sisterhood of mothers. The Head Angel has no fear. She built a fifteen room retreat far, but not too far, from the glitter, cheap make-up city-action, in the hills, half an hour from town, high, highrayyyy Bob Marley sings, music above, noise below. It is substantial, the work and planning. Even from the gate at the road connecting the estate, one senses quality, a sense of purpose, the money has been well spent, the project is not finished. Who knows and who cares how many sources she was to find, how many ups and downs she was to integrate, how many disappointments she was to mix into the present state of affairs? She looks ahead, ignores the madness behind. She dresses her scars with a burst of laughter, the optimistic remark. Her wings spread over a home, a project, no negativity allowed. That is her coping state.

I browsed her bookcase at noon. I found Michael Ondaatje, The Collected works of Billy the Kid and The Cinnamon Peeler. How did these treasures find a country home on the border of the Masai bush with Cityness in Kenya? Were they left by a former husband or boyfriend or visitor, a drunken Irish overlander, a friend of a friend? I asked, of course, where they came from. She found them herself by instinct in a second hand book section in town, by reading a bit, a sample, by examining the look and feel. How intuitive she is, how accurate the quality of her hunches. I re-read much of Billy, I read half of Cinnamon. I went to the patio and had my coffee, sugared and stirred by 2 year old Jonathan, I read some more from Ondaatje. He speaks of scars, I go slowly through it, I have been thinking of scars quite a lot lately.

We remember the time around scars,
They freeze irrelevant emotions
And divide us from present friends.
I remember this girl’s face,
The widening rise of surprise.

And later in the poem, I am tearing by now, stone quiet, I again flash to the impact that Ondaatje has on me, directly, indirectly, how Peggy wrote of him, how she, a wonderful poet in her own right, gave me Billy The Kid, how I have it stored neatly in my mother’s place in Cowpens, South Carolina, I could put my hand on it in the dark, how the scars do “freeze irrelevant emotions.” I am a father not around. In any event he concludes:

I would meet you now
And I would wish this scar
To have been given with
All the love
That never occurred between us.

So he triggers me into the world of scars and emotions once again. Maybe we are all Billy The Kid somehow, the Queens of Vamp in Nairobi, the soldiers of humanitarian despair in the boonies of Sudan and Somalia and Afghanistan and Bolivia and Zimbabwe and Atlanta ad nauseum. When Billy is described as “not all good and not all bad” by Sally Chisum, she is painting the human condition, not Billy. There is an Angel in every Devil. There is a redeeming feature in the air. And hope is in the kids, no? Please don’t mar them scar them, it isn’t necessary; they face their traumas eventually, we must give them a proper state of mind to do so.

I read for three hours on the flight yesterday to Nairobi the autobiography of Waris Darie, the nomad girl turned international fashion model. Her story is woven like a reed milk jug around her childhood trauma, FGM. My mind was on trauma even the days before, I had just distributed to a woman’s health group in Hargeisa some unpublished notes of Dr. Paul Michael Schlosser on Triggers and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the scars left by trauma, the states of mind that allow us to cope with the scars, but not necessarily in the healthiest ways, how to take the negative charge out of the trauma, how we must learn to help each other through these triggered states that are formed by the trauma.

Scars. PTSD. The States of Mind that Angels must return to when they look for money in Nairobi. They are scarred and triggered. The States of Mind the Somali and other women carry for life because of their childhood circumcisions. They are scarred and triggered. The States of Mind we go to when we are here and hear that teacher’s voice from the past, a false accusation, a hurtful lie, or the policeman’s siren coming louder, when we see the closed fist of a bully. The common laws of psychology we share.

So it is all convening in a flood on the patio. I sip my white coffee. The essential Somali scar, the Nairobi night-heat, the fathers not around. FGM links Waris to Schlosser to me. Now Ondatjee and Angels Annie and Christine and Maggie close a circle, put a roof on it, shelter us for now. The scars are there in all their beauty. No charge. The traumas are beneath the surface. No charge. The collective survival techniques and unconditional love tie us together. Panaceas, Universals we must remember.

I plunge again, I take Ondaatje to the most rear garden, up the hill behind the hedge, into the herbs, the beans and maize, above the house and flower garden. I feel he has been there, too. Two pre-teens follow me, then take the lead to the highest view of the valley. I look back down and know there is hope. Good luck and good intention. Couple of kids in the garden looking down, too, quiet and peaceful. My Twenty four hoursback in Nairobi are up.  Amen.

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor

Notes on a Sunday in Addis

Notes on a Sunday in Addis

Coffee tradition, she called it. That was yesterday in the afternoon, in the restaurant, gallery walls decorated with tight weave baskets, with high hat plate-covers, with professional photos of jeweled young women, highlanders they were, images surrounded by natural displays of local utensils, polished wooden bowls and spoons, on finished wooden walls, displays of draped gauze, loose linen sheets, caught still in looms, rivers of white cloth, imbedded with rich red jets set off by spurts of gold thread; scarves-to-be, shrouds-to-be, values and colors from the rural mountains; music comes in six eight time captured on locally made cassettes, the air is full of flutes and drums. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Waitresses dress in uniform cotton prints, flowers on white fields that might have been designed and crafted in the Carolinas or the Ukraine, matching two piece pant suits, very nice shapes, very subtle. Such beautiful faces, framed each one in styled hair, clean and tidy and black, pinned up or braided tight, slender necks and classic faces growing out from the printed cloth (are those sunflowers? African violets?). Straight white teeth contrast with cinnamon skin, such smooth cheeks and dark eyes, the mouths perfectly shaped for Amharic chatter. A band of musicians, full size in the corner, mocked up in show time dress, plaster men in handmade red and white do-rags, cotton gauze trousers, authentic guitars and flutes in their plaster hands, so still and quiet that I thought at first they were alive, just sitting calm and meditative, like a Macy’s window display on a Coptic Christmas, no manger, full sized, wisdom sculpted in the faces. My, my, the mannequins, the mirror behind them, the knowing looks.

Then a thumping heavy rain comes down on the corrugated roof above us, the busy-ness around the bar steps up, each print pant suit knows where to go, moves perishables and cardboard into shelter, squeals follow movement out to the kitchen courtyard, out of my sight, but surely directed toward adjustment, reorganization, a daily drill, moving items to dry refuge away from driving rain. Smiles and cotton prints return, relaxing. Satisfaction. The flutes, the drums continue.

I finish my lamb stew; some angera remains on the platter. The second portion of goat cheese takes the peppered heat from my mouth. She comes by again with warm water and soap, she pours from a spout over a small basin, catching the waste water from my hands. Would you like some coffee? It is our tradition. Yes, of course. The rain drums on the roof, the restaurant is filling, umbrellas rest on the front porch, the mannequin band still does not stir, their music made in rain, I am sure. The flute, the drum. The walls around me are rich, shape and color swallow me whole. She returns with coffee tradition, the parts separated into metal containers, each shiny and clean, one for the black and pressed oily essence of Ethiopian beans, maybe from Harar, one filled with steamed, frothing milk, and one with local sugar crystals, off-white chunks from the lowlands. There are several spoons, each with its own purpose, one to deliver sugar, one to stir. On the edge of the platter a small incense burner is smoking, delicate aroma, smoke rising nicely from a charcoal the shape of a thumbnail, frankincense and myrrh is stuck to the coal, melting now running. The room explodes in sweetness, she blows the smoke toward me and says, You are welcome.

copyright 2009 Jim Shanor

Berbera Waiter

jan27sheikh-0391How am I doing, How do you do?

You learn to say and respond to it in Somali, in Swahili, in Nairobi Shang, maybe in English with a local twist “I’m very OK.” Maybe you learn to say it in Mkiga or Kikuyu when you visit the villages. Jambo, Sho-sho. Ma fiantahay, walaal? Greetings Grandmother, Are you well, brother?

Now and then, even in a greeting, a moment in time stops you, or, rather, you stop the moment in time. The Greeks used a number of words relating to time; Chronos is time moving through life. Kyros is a moment in time full of meaning. Time is stopped. It relates to Seizing the Day, to the miracle of coincidence, to marvel, to vision and wonder. Time full of meaning. So the meaning of “I’m fine” ranges greatly, too. I say now I am very fine. I wait in Berbera for a meal of roasted whole fish just caught and delivered, of fruit from small farms nearby, of cold bottled water.

Is this Work or Play? I suppose Twain and Tom Sawyer were correct to illustrate that it is obligation that marks the difference between work and play. So I paint the fence for Tom and call it play. I am escorting a group of evaluators around Somaliland, to shops and schools and maternity clinics and plant sites, to remote parts of the slums, to ministry offices and to coastal towns like Berbera, long a known place on maps of Africa, but almost forgotten these days, to facilitate their evaluation of what I have done for the past twenty two months. They want to talk to the stakeholders. Maybe the ancient Greeks did not need a word for stakeholder then. It is Donor Talk, Agency Talk, part of a language of exclusion, of distance that requires the fashionable contemporary word, stakeholder. My guests talk that language. Me?

How am I doing, How do you do? Serious professional evaluation bureaucrats, plan in hand, questionnaires in mind, skeptical, distant, removed from the moment, at least from my moment. They, too, wait in Berbera. They do not notice nor understand the dark storm clouds over the Ga’an Libaax Mountains. We passed the mountain, The Lion’s Paw, this morning on the way to Berbera. And it is now the hard rain season. I noticed the cumulo-nimbus cover over The Lion’s Paw earlier. I see the rain forming now. It is surely coming later and it will be a very hard rain. I am sitting at the table with the evaluators, we wait for our meal. I can feel the water in the air and heat rising from the Gulf of Aden up to the mountains. I must move these people along, it’s my obligation, so now it becomes work. If the tugs are running in the afternoon, we will wait at the river bank. Wait and wait. There are no bridges over many of the dry river beds. When the hard rain comes, you change your plan. You wait on the river bank, caught between running tugs.

Our Berbera waiter is proud and purposeful, he dances from the kitchen to serve the customers. Pasta. Fish. Vegetables. Mixed fruit juices or straight lemonade. Watermelon juice. And bottled water. The customers shelter from the sun under fringed umbrellas, made locally by the eccentric engineer, Umbrella Man. Umbrella Man lives in a box near the docks. He is proud of his umbrellas and they are very useful in the Berbera sun. Engineered in Berbera. The Russian crows wait for their food, too, above the Somali cats, fit cats living around the primary restaurant here on the waterfront. The black billed white ibises cruise elsewhere now, sometimes returning to replace the crows, pecking in to feed when the customers finish and leave a table.

We eat fresh fish that comes in with fishermen and the tide, barracuda, from head to tail. Twenty five horse outboard fishing boats are anchored not far offshore. We can see where the fish came from, the calm Gulf, the small boats. My Evaluators grade the meal “surprisingly good.” “Now I know why you insisted on this restaurant.”

My drivers are looking at the black sky south of town, over the mountains. It would behoove us to move. The Evaluator plane, a UN Beechcraft 1900, is scheduled to fly in the morning from Hargeisa, two hours and many tugs away. Don’t want to get caught between running tugs. I am talking and thinking, explaining project objectives and silently calculating weather. I am driven by events here, not timetables and matrix analysis. Ideas and concepts born in Washington fluorescent lighting, hatched in bureaucratic studios, incubated in budget workshops don’t matter much in the field at times. They lose their shine, don’t make as much sense as they did at their birth. No dress rehearsals here. Live action only, improvised, we plan by quick consensus in a group held together by trust. Evaluators are not in the group yet. I love the Somali drivers, fellows who walked the terrain in peace and war, who know where it is appropriate to say “many snakes.” Or “water one meter deep here.”

The sea is calm, the port activity is calm. We finish our meals, apply toothpicks, wash and then spray cologne on our hands. I catch a glance from the Somali drivers. Back to work. We walk toward the Land Cruisers. My turn to speak.

“Let’s push it a little. We might have a problem with rain if we delay too much.”

That Russian crow is waiting for our leftovers. How am I doing? How do you do?

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor