A couple of weeks ago, I took a Friday morning to do an exercise from Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write, which was to construct a time line of my life. I left the house thinking I would be gone a couple of hours. Almost three hours later, I came home with one section done: from my birth to age five. I wrote about things I remembered and things that had been told to me so often I feel as though I remember them, looking back to my birth in Corpus Christi, Texas to moving to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia to coming to Fort Worth, Texas for our first furlough from the mission field, using the vocabulary of those days.
As I began to write what specifics I could remember, my mind began to turn them into larger themes, giving me eyes to see the traces of melody in my early childhood that have continue to inform much of the soundtrack of my life. One of those themes is a sense of rootlessness. We were on a ship to Africa when I turned one year old, so Corpus was nothing more than a birthplace and I never went back there with any intentionality, either as a child or as an adult. When we returned to Africa, we didn’t go back to Bulawayo, but moved north to Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia because my parents saw greater opportunity there. I’ve never gone back to Bulawayo either. Fort Worth has some long standing connections for me, but those grew later rather than earlier in my life. I was married and faraway from both Africa and Texas before a place (Boston) ever became home.
I’ve written before of Arnaldo, the Cuban dishwasher who works with me at the Duke restaurant. He is a wonderful and kind man who came to this country as a part of the Mirabel boat lift in 1980, after having fought in the Cuban army in Angola. Last week he asked if I could find someone to work for him on Tuesday night because he was graduating from his recovery program at Urban Ministries of Durham. (I feel comfortable sharing this with you because his picture was on the front page of the paper.) Though he has not been in Cuba for almost thirty years, Cuba is home to Arnaldo. I love to hear him talk about the country, the people, the food, and the music. On any given night, he will regale us with a Cuban song without much cajoling at all. And so, as a graduation present, I gave him a copy of Ry Cooder’s production masterpiece, The Buena Vista Social Club.
Last night, he came into work with his graduation certificate high above his head, and we cheered for him. “Arnaldo,” I said, “I have something for you,” and I gave him the CD, which he immediately unwrapped and put into the old boom box in the corner of the kitchen. He began singing along from Note One.
“I knew these guys,” he said. “I knew these guys.” And he, Abel (our Guatemalan cook), and I danced around the kitchen, except, in my case, danced is a euphemism.
“Thank you, Milton,” he said. “It’s the best thing you could have done for me.”
In the garden of life, I’m a potted plant, able to moved about as the need arises. I thrive fairly well, though I appear to need increasingly larger pots as I mature. Arnaldo is an old oak, even though he is far from the land where his heart took root. He has the dirt in his DNA. They may have shipped him off because he wouldn’t stay in the army, but he is Cuban to the core.
I have very little idea of how that feels, yet I did learn yesterday that even those of us who don’t know much about home can help someone else find their way there, which turns out to be an incredible gift for everyone involved.