msf’d

23 May 2011 Comments

i am, and that’s the way it is.

last saturday night, we stood in a puddle around stacked soda crates, a goat sizzling over coals beside us, when the three, buzzed-out speakers in the canteen started to play this song and the same dozen cast of characters that i share my hospital days and compound nights with drifted to the tent, and danced, grinning, mud between their bare toes.

soon, it was only me and one of the departing three for whom the party was held leaning on the red cubes of coca-cola, and we agreed that there was no club in new york city that was better than this one, none where you could dance so sincerely, freed completely from the fear that there might be another, better way to spend your time.

this afternoon, i tried to walk from my outpatient clinic to the ward, and was stopped every three yards by a somali woman who pointed at the baby on her hip before detailing an illness in a language i could’t understand. one of the nurses smiled as he walked by. you’re going to miss being so famous when you leave, he said. i will.

so i nodded my head to the beat of a mother’s wagging finger, and over her shoulder saw the familiar eyes of a woman from the TFC’s (therapeutic feeding center) perilous first bed. i looked into them each morning as she asked me, wordlessly, to do something more, anything. he’s dying, she would say. i know, i know. patience. he’ll make it, i said, only half believing.

now she was moving through the gate’s swinging door, a box with a month’s worth of cups and shawls and mats and plates under her arm. behind, an older daughter carried her happy young brother, newly discharged. his mother and i looked at each other, as we had each day for a month. this time she raised her hand in the air, shook it as she walked past. though i will never be on the field for a goal that 60 000 fans will cheer, there’s no way it could sound any sweeter than the beads did clacking on her wrist.

the credit, of course, was hers and the trip she made back and forth to the jug of ORS so she could pour water in as fast as it poured out, the nurses who took over when she was too tired, the people who gave us money for the tin cup she used. but it is these moments that are so remarkable, that they keep us coming back, are worth all the sleeplessness and latrine running, daydreams of drooping faces, the awkwardness of a home that fits you less well than it did before you left because we get to be witness to the concentrated effect of the human spirit’s brightest part; intention manifested.

i remember once, months and a lifetime ago i watched a lizard track a moth up a wall. as she fluttered from one face to another, the lizard leaped, flew, narrowly missed, and the bug bumped back to the burning light. in that instant, i saw how lizards became birds. not by trying to grow feathers, and not by imagining what it would be like to fly, but by wanting that moth in their mouth so sincerely. the wings come later, but they fit perfectly.

you become what you pay attention to. and what that is, there are no rules, only possibilities. we’re all making it up what a human being is as we go along, moment to moment, and if you’re not deciding, someone is. in that understanding is a scary freedom and the world’s real magic, that as the universe manifests perpetual change, it does it, at least in part, through our imaginations.

intention made manifest. for me, some of it is self evident. msf is the world’s largest medical NGO and despite a teetering financial system around the world where even the most confident economist admits she doesn’t know what’s going on, its budget is the largest in its history, made up almost entirely by contributions of individuals around the world who give a few dollars each towards the idea that reducing suffering, even by a little bit, lightens the weight on us all.

with that money, we mark on maps military movements, to decide if we can get close enough to strike, not with weapons, but with a hospital large enough to accommodate the wounded from both sides, the hundreds of civilians who are drawn screaming into today’s modern version of war. with it, we sit like i did the other day, with a group of new arrivals who walked for kilometres through the desert heat to give up their freedom in dagahaley because it was better here, in this place where camels drop, than where they came from. among them, was a young mother who had delivered just the day before, on the road, a tiny baby, invisible under scarf. it wasn’t until she pulled it aside that i saw him, fragile and new, clinging to her breast. we said to her, we’ll take you to the hospital to rest, and we’ll find room for your husband too, and tomorrow we’ll help you work on tents and food, don’t fear, we’re here, you’re safe. it’s not near as sweet as kissing away the tears of someone you love, but it’s about as close as strangers can get, and if there’s any hope to be had in the world, it is in this direction.

like any optimist would, i deny the aspersion, citing realism. either way, i think we’re slowly winning, and if you’re not convinced, talk to your grandpa who lost two brothers to measles and one in the war, then take a walk down your quiet city street. but as you do, and the thousand dollar computer in your pocket shuffles songs, remember that there are still places where tin cups matter. it starts outside this door, the one with the curtain billowing in the sandy wind, and it reaches to the curb you’re stepping off of.

the work is never perfect, only better. but we try, sincerely, and one day, maybe, wings that fit. should you want to be msf’d, or its equivalent, i’ll write more about how you can make happen in another post. if you want to know why, it’s because we’re gonna win and we have the best parties. so if you’ve got the fire, and the tools, we’ll take you lost, we’ll take you found, we’ll take you running as long as that is how you hit the ground, and it’s in the direction we seem to be going, because there’s still so so many more miles.