Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mma Rosina and the "washing of the feet"

Have you ever noticed that if you speak about someone you haven’t seen in awhile, perhaps even in years, and then the next day find yourself running into them? Deanna and I seem extremely aware of this “coincidence” and sometimes joke of the ability to “conjure” people. It’s uncanny how frequently this happens with us, and again, perhaps we’re just extra aware of it.

One of the greatest spiritual comforts I have is the belief that we are all connected together by the Great Spirit, the Higher Power, or God (whatever it is that you name it). And I believe that we are all connected. A good friend describes it with the metaphor of a tuning fork: that as the fork vibrates, we can all plug into the resulting tone and be “connected.”

In my first weeks at my permanent site, as I was trying to adjust, I had some very rough emotional days. I have several spiritual guides in my life but one is particularly powerful. On an extremely bad day, I spent the evening convincing myself that I must call her and seek counsel in negotiating this spiritually difficult time. The very next morning, when I had signed on-line, there was a note from her in my email inbox.

Deanna and I might joke that I “conjured” her, or my friend may have noted she was simply “plugging into” the tone that we shared. Another friend might ask, “Is it odd or is it God?”

Similarly, at the three month mark of my service to Peace Corps, I spent several days thinking about how my last big volunteer adventure ended at the three month mark. In 2006, I volunteered with Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park of Alaska. My service there was only for three months, and after three months in Alaska I went home. Since I’m serving 27 months with Peace Corps, I’m not going home after three months! But the three month anniversary was significant and I spent several days thinking about how the trips were comparable. I found myself almost aching for Alaska.

At the end of those several days, I heard from the woman that supervised my volunteer work in Alaska. While I consider us very good friends, we rarely “talk” so I think it more than a coincidence that I suddenly hear from her after thinking about my Alaska trip so intensely for several days.

During pre-service training, when I was staying with my African host family, my nkuku (African grandmother) was very, very sick. She was so sick; I was worried that she would die. As old African grandmothers go, she sat on the cold stone floor all day. She sat with her back against the wall and her legs stuck out straight in front of her. Her body was bent at a 90 degree angle. I was horrified at seeing such an old, sick woman sitting on the cold floor all day.

One night at dinner time, Mma Rosina was nodding off. She was so sick and tired. Apparently, she was hard of hearing as well, because the family would holler at her to wake her up. This woman would begin dozing off, and her head would gently nod down toward her knees an inch at a time. She would nod a bit, and her head would drop. Had she been allowed to nod all the way down, which would have taken several hours, she would have touched her forehead to her knees.

For a reason I am unsure of, the family did not want her to fall asleep. Each family member would take turns hollering at her to wake her up.

As was my custom, I sat beside her for the evening meal. So every evening, I would help my Mma Emily with dinner, then offer the ritual hand-washing bucket, and then sit by Mma Rosina to eat. Mma Rosina always prayed with me before eating and also directed the hand-washing.

I was sitting in my usual spot by Mma Rosina, she was terribly sick and nodding off with her head drooping and drooping, and the family was screaming at her to wake up. I found this terribly upsetting because were she my grandmother in the US, she would be off that cold floor (and had never been on it!) and in a warm bed resting as comfortably as possible. At ninety four years old, she would have certainly slept when she pleased.

The shouting went on and on and I became more and more distressed. I felt desperate to offer some type of comfort, some type of solace to this woman. As I was sitting beside her, and often in charge of smoothing the covers on her legs and feet, I reached down and slipped off her shoes and began massaging her ankles. Her ankles were swollen and I knew they caused her pain so I was very, very gentle.

I looked her deeply into her eyes as I gently rubbed and wanted her to know that I was there with her in her suffering. I couldn’t offer her anything but my presence, but I wanted her to know that I was present with her, present with her in her suffering, and on some level, suffering with her too.

The family thought this gesture was uproariously hilarious and who knows what kind of culturally inappropriate thing I was doing, but I didn’t care. I proceeded as if we were the only two women in the room and I continued rubbing her feet and looking deeply into her nearly-blind eyes.

We did not speak the same language, but I think I “spoke” to her through this gesture.

I had spent several days thinking about how I wanted to frame this story about Mma Rosina and our “washing of the feet.” The very next Sunday, after these few days of concentrated thinking, I was invited to a church in a nearby village. Would you believe, that during the church service, the whole congregation participated in a ritual “washing of the feet”?

One of my favorite images from the Christian tradition is that of Christ washing his disciples’ feet.

One of the most loving touches I’ve ever experienced has come from someone massaging my feet. When I was a little girl, my sister and I would run the streets barefoot. In those days, children could run the streets barefoot with little risk of injury. I remember my grandmother lovingly washing our feet before putting us to bed and fussing about the bottoms of our feet being as black as coal.

Many years later, someone gave me the gift of a pedicure. I had never had a pedicure before and was struck at how intimate the touch was: even at the hands of a stranger. There is something about being touched this way that moves into me very deeply; the sensations generated seem to resonate off of my spinal chord.

When I was reading meters for LG&E, I would come home from my routes with my feet and legs aching. Deanna would often massage my feet and legs, and more often than not, I would be moved to tears from the resulting sensations.

I do believe that we’re all connected. And as reminders, I’ve been given an unsolicited email from a spiritual mentor, an unsolicited note from a friend a world away, and a congregation inviting me to participate in a ritual “washing of the feet.”

November 13, 2009


  1. Oh Karen, what a lovely post. Reading this brought tears to my eyes and hardly laughter to boot. Athough I didn't get to spend lots of time around you, I miss you. I guess it's cause your so far away. you have a wonderful way of reminding us all that we are indeed connected. Good night my friend In South Africa. Love, Wren

  2. HI WREN! What a treat to hear from you! I miss you and Bernheim more than you can know (but really, you probably DO know!) and am counting the days until my return. I hear Deanna is enjoying your farm, so I have some solace at being "near you" through her!

    Thanks for reading!