Monday, April 18, 2016
In Africa, ten years ago, our trip moved from the soft pink dunes and flat seas of sand in the Sahara to what my guide called, "Black Africa," the plains and jungles of Benin and Togo. It was a frightening transition from open to dense land from laid-back nomad to wary villager. One night in a village in Benin, my travel group was invited to a ceremony where we were told a shaman could help us achieve our dreams.
I don't remember all the details, but I do remember the heat, the sweltering heat, and the humidity, and the crazed drug-induced frenzy of the village shaman. I was brought before him after he made a frightening entrance into a dark hut. He was bugged-eye and spitting everywhere, sweat gushed out of him in multiple rivulets and he half-danced half-walked around the room talking to the unseen spirits in the hut. Finally, he stood in front me and looked down. I was kneeling, sitting back on my legs, in the dirt. Our trip guide told me it was time for a donation so the shaman could work with the Gods to make a dream come true. What would I like? I reached into my grimy sweaty travel pants and pulled out the suggested donation of a US $5.00 bill. Did I want happiness? Long life? Money? Good health? No...... I whispered to my guide, "I would like to write a book." The guide spoke to a man, an assistant, who translated the wish to the imposing shaman standing above me. The money moved from the guide to the assistant, who inspected the bill in the dim light, then nodded to the shaman. Shouting up to the heavens and twirling in the dust, the shaman seemed energized by my wish for a few minutes then suddenly staggered to a stool. He sat down. It was a done deal.
After I came home from Africa, I wrote a children's book about my African adventures. It took me a long time to perfect the style of writing I wanted to use, to select pictures, and to create a layout. I went to a New York writer's conference and took a copy of the manuscript with me. The seminar had specific times when you could talk to agents about your project. There was interest....many questions....suggestions. One suggestion from a National Geographic editor was to rewrite the book with a different lead character...someone familiar--like a crazy old professor who happens to take his niece or nephew or both on a tour of Africa. After so much effort, I was exhausted just thinking about re-writing the book from a different point of view. While I was in limbo over the re-write, I took a job as a community relations manager for Barnes and Noble. Limbo disappeared because my full time work schedule forced me to concentrate on my corporation's welfare and not my writing. A year into the job, my dad had a massive stroke and my mother collapsed into heart failure. I walked out of the book store office and never returned. The next few years were filled with the necessities of tidying up the legal, financial, and emotional consequences of their sudden deaths.
The African manuscript sat on my shelf and I busied myself with other callings. Then, I started doing research in an archives concerning religious ceremonial objects and donor families. I discovered vibrant and memorable stories behind so many of the objects. I started collecting stories in the archives....in a way....I felt like I simultaneously created a puzzle and the pieces. In January, after two years, the puzzle was finished--the photos were set, the text maneuvered in intricate boxes on each page...the book was done.
I should have taken a picture when all the copies arrived. But I didn't. I'm not sure why...it was almost like I was afraid that showing off the piles of books would somehow jinx the reviews or the reception of the book. But the book recipients have been pleased....and I've received a tremendous amount of positive feedback. I'm down to three books now....and realized I best take a picture of the books now before they are all distributed. Tomorrow one book will go to the State Archives...by the end of the week another book will go to another archive out-of-state. I have chosen to keep just one copy for myself.
Since the books arrived, I've been thinking of the shaman. I've been meaning to pull out my diary from Africa and reread the entry. The purchase of a goat was somehow involved in all this too...but my memory of the night has gotten a bit soft. I supposed what's important is the deal has come to fruition--ten years, 5 bucks, a goat, one wayward manuscript, and finally one realized manuscript. I've never regretted asking him for this dream....I'm just surprised how the request was answered.