Monday, December 27, 2010

Muscle Memory

When I sit at a piano or any keyboard instrument, my hands start playing John Rutter’s Toccata in Seven – they can’t help it. It does not matter how long it has been since I last played it, if there is music in front of me, if my eyes are open, or even what I am concentrating on, my hands know where they should be placed and my fingers automatically tumble through the strange but familiar chords. It is so easy, so thoughtless. After years of practice, this song has been engrained in my memory so deeply that I can feel how the song is supposed to progress without even actively thinking about it or doing it. We all experience this muscle memory- whether it is playing a song on the piano or riding a bike – there are things in our lives that we have done so much that our body just knows what to do.

Sitting outside on a sunny afternoon in Masealama, I experience a similar muscle memory. With the warm sun beating down on me from the cloudless blue sky, my body knows that it is time for cold drinks, fresh fruits, green grass, and summer vacations spent relaxing with friends and family. I am prepared for the hot months ahead, full of barbeques and fun, and when at last the days begin to cool, my sun-soaked skin will slowly pale as pants and sweaters replace breezy summer dresses. When that time comes, my body knows it is time to snuggle up by a fire with a cup of hot chocolate and whistle Christmas tunes. But my body has been deceived. Living in North America for my whole life, I have grown up associating the Christmas season with winter, but now in the southern hemisphere everything is thrown off. I don’t feel like Christmas is coming because the influences which have previously triggered my Christmas “muscle memory” (such as cold weather, warm sweaters, and snowflakes), are not present. I know how it used to go, I can hear it in my head, but the piano isn’t there for me to tap out all the right notes. I keep reminding myself that it is December and Christmas is almost here, but my body is telling me otherwise. I am internally engaged in a civil war- one side fighting for the true Christmas, and other fighting for my memories of Christmas.

My favorite Christmas song is White Christmas by Bing Crosby, which I usually play on repeat for the entire month of December. In South Africa this has not changed, I still love and play this song tirelessly, but now it is full of contradictions. As I sing along while my good friend Bing describes his dream of glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow, my internal war rages. How can it be Christmas without the low threatening snow clouds or morning frosts? Living with and fighting this contradiction is one of the hardest things I have had to do during my stay here- even harder than eating a chicken head. I have always been big on holidays, but when the traditions and muscle memories associated with those holidays are taken away, what is left? For me it is hard to leave behind my North American Christmas traditions during my time here in South Africa. This year I pulled out my wintery Christmas music well before the socially acceptable point of Thanksgiving (like I do every year), I have baked all the usual Christmas cookies, and on Christmas Eve I will open a few small but special gifts from my family. All of these things I am doing to make Christmas real to me this year, and to ease the civil uproar inside of me, but I must remind myself that these things do not MAKE Christmas.

We all know what Christmas is really about- that Jesus Christ our Savior was born to Mary and Joseph, and through this gift from God, we are saved from our sinful selves and given eternal life. We all know this, but are our actions and associations with Christmas showing this? Our minds know Christmas is about Christ, but do our bodies feel it? Has Christmas become so easy and thoughtless to us that we can tumble through the season without really concentrating on what it is that we are doing and why- much like I mindlessly play through Rutter’s Toccata?

I have been caught up in all the bells and whistles associated with the Christmas season in the US. It took a large jump in perspective (i.e. a move to a different continent) for me to realize that my small idea of Christmas was distorted by my westernized upbringing. Seeing Christmas from a different angle- one that has not yet been tainted by years of repeated traditions that alter perception- I am able to better see the true Christmas which is a Christmas of celebrating the best gift we have received and can ever receive- the gift of Jesus Christ. The question is this - how do you choose to celebrate this gift?

I love traditions, and will most definitely continue practicing some of the Christmas traditions on which I was raised. But there are a few problems with traditions; we typically do not understand the reasons behind their establishment, and we do not like to see them change. We exchange gifts on Christmas, but who started this tradition and why? If we can understand the initial foundations of our traditions, then we can better understand why we do them, and how they can become more meaningful to us in this day. My task this Christmas is not to give the perfect gift, but to receive the perfect gift. The traditions which I choose to continue should reflect the receiving of this gift from God. I do not know how I will reconcile these two battling fronts of Christmas vs. Christmas tradition, but in the upcoming season I will attempt the painful process of making peace accords. It will take compromise and sacrifice, but if the result gives me a more meaningful understanding of Christmas and the traditions associated with this holiday, than it will be worth it. I encourage you all to consider going through this process with me- and slowly we can redefine Christmas. The tune may not change at all, we can still participate in the same traditions, but by breaking the habit of going through the season using our muscle memories, we will be able to enjoy the true gift of the season.

~Heather Anne Nelson


The following are a collection of out-of-the-ordinary occurrences during my stay here in South Africa which I thought should be shared- to add a little bit of humor to some otherwise heavy blog posts. It is times like these when I stop and ask myself “is this really my life?” Enjoy!

An Innocent Death

Sitting outside on a sunny afternoon with the ladies of the Drop-In Centre, our silence was suddenly interrupted by a sharp squeal. Turning around I see S
ister Marion pulling away in fear from the object which frightened her, and instantly everyone around me screams in a similar manner and does one of two things- runs away to the safety of Mamalume’s stoop, or jumps on top of their chairs. I remain seated and calmly look for whatever devil creature had caused such a scare- and to my surprise- I found a harmless little chameleon to be the source. It was kind of cute, blending in with the dusty yard and walking slowly toward me. “Heather, are you not afraid of it?” I was asked by my co-workers. Well, I can not think of the last instance when a chameleon did harm to me or any of my acquaintances, so no, I am not afraid of it. But they were. So Mamalume, being the brave one of the group, comes off of her stoop with the end of a broom in hand, and slowly approaches the creature. She puts the end under the chameleon, and starts flipping him up in the air toward the gate to get him outside. Once he is out of our gate, I thought it was over- that he could go on with his normal life of blending in, just not with anything in our yard. But no, apparently this chameleon was so frightening and repulsive to these ladies that he couldn’t just be sent away, his life must end, which is a logic that I apply to spiders. So Mamalume proceeds to pick up large stones and throw them upon the little chameleon until he was no more. That is when I screamed. IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

Impromptu Safari Tour

It is a Sunday afternoon and we are on our way to a joint wedding party of some friends. Piled in a large blue truck, we are flying down dirt roads in an attempt to make it to the wedding reception on time. The pastor who is driving decides to take a short cut he knew from four years back when he lived and worked in this area, so instead of following the
dirt road which forks to the left, we take the dirt road which forks to the right. A little ways down this road it becomes clear that this passage has not been well travelled recently- for the sweet thorn bushes have overgrown into the road, and as our large blue truck whipped down this road, we all sat listening to the painful sound of the spikes scraping our car. After twenty minute of this scratching, we come to the place where this road is supposed to hook up with the other road and continue toward our destination. But there is a problem- at some point in the last four years a new fence was placed around the perimeter of the land we were on. That doesn’t stop us! In order to ensure that the last 20 minutes of our lives and the scratches on the car where not done in vain, we proceed to jump off the dirt road and begin driving through the high prairie grass- dodging bushes and large ant piles and looking for some kind of gate. Another 10 minutes passed, and we are now in the middle of nowhere with our only trail back being the inconvenient fence which we are desperately trying to break through. After asking a local across the fence for the location of the nearest gate, we turn around only to find out that we were lied to. Accepting our defeat, we proceed back through the prairie grass, ant hills, and spiky bushes to the narrow dirt road and when we arrive back where this story started, we decided to take the left fork. Off-roading through the plains of Limpopo with a pastor- IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

Celebrity Status

Arriving at our final destination of the wedding party, we find ourselves in a very rural setting at the foothills of a mountain in Limpopo. Much to our surprise, we arrive to hundreds of cars surrounding a house and large party tent which is housing the wedding party already in session. We walk in late (after our safari excursion), and are standing at the outskirts of the tent with the hundred other people looking in on the festivities occurring, but we are instantly spotted, called out, and drug inside the tent- front and center. After forcing some other ladies to relinquish their seats, the man with the microphone sits Andrew and I right beside the bride and groom who we do not know in the front. Looking around, I know that there are countless eyes on me and Andrew, not to mention the video cameras, regular cameras, and cell phones which are snapping picture after picture of us. Why? We are different- we are white. A rural area like this does not se
e many outside visitors, so our presence gave us somewhat of a celebrity status- something which I am not used to and do not really enjoy. But all you can do is smile at the cameras and laugh at the situation that you are in. At a wedding of someone whose name you can’t even pronounce and you are all of the sudden drawn into the wedding party to be gawked at by hundreds of onlookers. IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?
When the ceremony was over, we ran quickly out of the tent for some fresh air and hopefully to sit in a little less conspicuous location. But our presence was already well known, so we were found and greeted by many people. Unfortunately as with most parties, some had been celebrating a little too much and approached us with a semi-drunken air. Politely we shook their hands and listened to their slurred Sepedi (which makes it infinitely more challenging to understand), and usually they smiled and moved on. However, there was one man who was enjoying his one-sided conversation with us a little too much, and he refused to leave. A man we were with kindly asked him to step away from us and give us some air, which swung him into a violent rage where he started hitting our friend and saying that he had no right to tell him what to do! Luckily, his intoxicated state resulted in him not being able to maintain his balance, so his punches did not have much force behind them or else he would have thrown himself to the ground. Another man from the wedding party came and escorted him away, and no one was seriously injured. But, a pastor just got punched at a wedding celebration- IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

Video footage from the Wedding Party

No Hooting

Riding in a taxi around my area of Limpopo you frequently hear the horn sounded. Whether it is to ask people walking down roads if they want transport, to honk at other cars on the roads, or even to get cows goats and chickens out of the road, the horn is one of the most important means of communication for a taxi driver. Riding in this particular taxi I notice a general silence- the horn in our taxi is not functioning. No worries though because over head the taxi driver had placed a y
ellow vuvuzela to pull down and blow whenever he needed to honk! One of the many uses of the vuvuzela…. IS THIS REALLY MY LIFE?

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Merry Christmas to All

As the Christmas season is approaching, we are used to returning home
for the holidays to be with family. We are used to participating in
our traditions of old- of baking christmas cookies, decorating trees,
hanging stockings, and sipping on hot cider to warm us from the chilly
air outside. Sometimes it feels like these things are what makes
Christmas, our family and our traditions, but when these things are
stripped away, doesn't Christmas happen anyways? This year me and 10
other young adults are seperated from our families and homes, we will
not be participating in our typical Christmas traditions, and we will
certainly not be expecting a White Christmas which I am so used to
pining over in the States. We are breaking our traditions and living
alongside our hosts to experience their Christmas traditions, and we
may not be by our blood family, but we are certainly welcomed into the
homes of our South African family. Each of us look forward to this
new experience, and I personally hope to come out of it with a deeper
understanding of what Christmas truly is without the North American
ideals which I typically associate with it.

So from our family here in South Africa to yours- we wish you a very
Merry Christmas- regardless of whether you are snowed in or lathering
on sunscreen on Christmas day we are all celebrating together!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Non-Existent Personal Bubble

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of travelling back from Polokwane to Masealama via taxi after the workshop that Monene and I attended. I have taken this taxi a few times, and it has always been fairly crowded, because people will come into town to do all of their shopping and then try to transport everything home via taxi, which leads to some very creative packing skills. This particular journey, however, was the most crowded taxi ride that I have experienced to date, and the following is a vivid description of the ride, for those who have never had the pleasure of experiencing the South African taxi system.

Monene and I arrived at the taxis with our bags for the week just in time for the one to Masealama to depart. There were two seats left, one for Monene near the front, and one in the very back row for me to climb into. I left Monene with my luggage and headed to the back row, which was currently being occupied by three very healthy ladies. Typically fitting four in one row is a pretty tight fit, but this was tighter than usual. Doubting whether I could fit in that seat I started to turn around until one of the ladies motioned to me and told me to squeeze in. She slid over as far as she could exposing about a three inch gap between her and the lady beside her- and it is into that three inches that I attempted to squeeze. This process resulted in me half sitting on the lap of the lady to my right with my right arm behind her, and me leaning in behind the lady on my left because we had to zig-zag shoulders to fit properly. Then the man in front of me sat down in his seat which reclined more than usual due to old hinges,,, which resulted in my legs being crossed and squished up near my chest.

Just when I thought we were settled, it turns out the lady to my right had purchased a large red bucket to do her washing in, so it was passed back to our row. After hitting me in the head with this bucket repeatedly, the lady finally got it situated on her lap in a way that suited her, but that meant that it rested right below my chin. Also in the back row the metal frame of the van comes down further than the rest, so now my head is caught in between the metal frame and the rim of this very large red bucket,, resulting in a game of pinball every time we hit a bump in the road.

Now we are situated and ready to go, but our proximity to each other and the heat of the day has caused us to break out into a sweat, so the lady to my left decides to open the window. In the process she has to lean toward me, which results in my head being thrust totally into the bucket (which is filled with peaches and bananas) and my ability to breathe drastically diminishes. But at least now the window is open and we can cool off. So at around this point, the taxi driver starts pulling away, which forces high pressure cool air into the back of the taxi resulting in my untied hair whirling rapidly around in the sudden wind storm. I have no hands to calm the hair, so I just have to let it fly. Soon some hair gets caught in my left eye, so I have to shut the eye for the remainder of the trip since I can’t get the hair out. Then some hair wisps by my right cheek causing me to suddenly itch in that location, but I am unable to scratch it. I seriously debated asking the lady beside me to scratch my face for me, but I am fairly certain that would require being hit in the head again multiple times by the large red bucket.

We are travelling down the road, about five minutes into our hour long journey, and I notice a familiar car to my left on the highway. Looking closer I confirm the color and the style of the car to be identical to that of the Dean’s (a lime green Nissan), who lives 20 feet away from me in Masealama. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony that we could have been riding comfortably with the Dean all the way home but instead we were packed into this taxi like fish in a can. It is a good thing I got rid of my need for personal bubble space a long time ago!

And that is the story of the most crowded taxi ride of all time. If only there had been a live chicken in the bucket.