The Ancient Modern

On the Way to Church Today /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

On the way to Church today, we followed the winding streets of Addis Ababa.

On the way to Church today, we saw Syrian refugees walking from car to car, begging for money; a father carrying his young daughter through the traffic during the long red of the lights at the intersection. He knocked on my car window.

On the way to Church today, we saw rows of wheelbarrows filled with watermelon, bananas, sugarcane and root vegetables, each with a young man or woman standing beside it, ready to bargain, ready to sell, ready to return to the mountains and gather tomorrow’s food.

On the way to Church today, traffic became suddenly congested when a group of schoolboys blocked half the highway with an old car and trash cans, making themselves an impromptu soccer field of the northbound lanes.

On the way to Church today, we saw goatskins spread out on the sidewalk to dry in the sun, and later, several herds of goats busy eating grass along the median.

On the way to Church today, three generations of a family crossed the road ahead of us: a young mother held up her hand to stop traffic so her son could help his grandmother slowly, gracefully navigate the crosswalk.

On the way to Church today, half the pedestrians were wrapped in shining white linen, making their Sunday pilgrimage by foot to the many Ethiopian Orthodox congregations scattered around the city.

On the way to Church today, the few European faces I saw seemed pale and strange and out of place.

On the way to Church today, broken mannequins dressed in a mix of American and African clothing lined the windows of dozens, maybe a hundred, tiny clothing stores.

On the way to Church today, our driver told us about the part of town where he grew up. He told us about his mother and his mentally disabled brother. He drives on the weekends for foreigners because they are kind and they pay on time. He uses the money to help send his brother to a special school and to buy food for his aging mother.

On the way to Church today, we saw the proud, gentle faces of a group of elderly men playing checkers and drinking coffee near the steps of a mosque, and later, a group of boys taking turns around an old foosball table in the middle of an alley.

On the way to Church today, a tree abloom with bright violet-blue flowers the color of the morning sky brought back the memory of a similar tree I once saw in Los Angeles, when I went there to see a friend almost a decade ago. I remembered that her husband served in the army. They were divorcing because he had become abusive. She wondered if it was PTSD or peer pressure from his fellow soldiers who were always asking him to go gambling and to strip clubs with them. She was so grieved, worried for him and for her kids. We talked and shared several meals. But we’ve since lost touch. I wonder where she is.

On the way to Church today, we passed the embassies of South Africa, Mauritania, Lesotho, the Vatican, Canada, Austria and Omar. We passed the offices of the African Union and the hospital where I was vaccinated for Yellow Fever. We passed four Italian restaurants. We passed the kiosk where, last week, we stopped to purchase cell phone time and I thought about getting a hat.

On the way to Church today, the sun shone intensely on the civic monuments erected at every roundabout, and on the mysterious Amharic script that explains the significance of these monuments to the locally literate eye.

On the way to Church today, one of my friends talked about the new book she was reading; the other followed a Ugandan news program on his phone. They are full-time residents of Addis, and the sights are not new or interesting to them anymore.

On the way to Church today, I found myself unable to concentrate on the description of the new book or on Ugandan politics, because two days ago the wife of a dear friend died suddenly and under difficult circumstances, but I only just got the news. And, I am in Addis, and I can’t be home to sing with the choir at her funeral, or grieve with my community there.

On the way to Church today, I thought all grief is helpless. But I don’t know what this means. I thought, I want the world to have only its beauty, without its destitution, decay and deathIts intoxication, free of the following day’s despair.

I want the world to stop longing for violence.

I want the world to be a haven for fragility.

A world of traffic halted for the sake of children’s games.

A world of white linen pilgrimage and blue-flowered trees.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

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