Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Put Yourself in the Way of Kindness

It's no secret that these past few months have been full a lot of big life changes, and it hasn't been the easiest time of my life. Since my last blog, I've done a lot of journaling and self-reflection and perhaps a bit too much navel-gazing trying to forge a path forward.

Two weekends ago, D'Assise and I took a trip down to southwestern Rwanda, where I lived for four years. It had been a particularly rough week, and my mind was filled with worries as we piled into the dusty old white Land Cruiser I occasionally use, affectionally named Doc, for the winding three hour trip to the motherland.

As D'Assise dozed in the back, sprawled sideways on our suitcases, and the green hills of Rwanda rolled by the windows, I was reminded of a quote by Cheryl Strayed: "Put yourself in the way of beauty." As I drove on through the lush forests and verdant valleys, bursting with the crops that are soon to be harvested, I got goosebumps on my arm and felt my blood pressure slow. Even five years later, the sheer beauty of this country can still be a salve to my soul.

I pulled into my old house in Kamembe late that afternoon, knowing that it would be the very last time I'd do so. I was there to pack up my house, and say goodbye to the place where I felt I became a real adult, the house where I'd spent so many wonderful times with good friends. As I started to dismantle the beds and take down the art on my walls I had so carefully hung, I felt a tightness in my throat from the nostalgia overdose.

I didn't feel like cooking that night after a day of packing, so D'Assise and I headed to the convent next door for dinner. Les Soeurs Penitentes de Saint Francois, or the Penitent Sisters of St. Francis, had a motherhouse next to my old house, and I'd lived with the same order of nuns in a different village for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer (fun fact: I almost always win at "Two Truths and Lie" with the "I lived in a convent for two years" line).

Nun dance-off at D'Assise's adoption party
Some might think it's a bit strange to hang out with a group of nuns on a Saturday night, but to me it was the best possible treatment for an anxious mind. Each of the sisters greeted D'Assise and I with a hug and a warm cup of tea laced with ginger, with a healthy dollop of slightly smokey Rwandan honey. We ate dinner and D'Assise told cheesy jokes to peals of laughter from the nuns. D'Assise eventually went to play outside, and the Sisters listened to me talk about what's been on my mind, the struggles of being a single working Mama and my worries about whether I'm being a good enough parent for D'Assise and what the future holds for us. And they just listened, and listened.

The Mother Superior, a kind, soft-spoken woman named Sr. Donatha, took off her glasses and looked me in the eyes, her brow slightly moist with sweat from wearing her veil in the day's humidity.

"Are you loving him, each and every day?"
"Then you're doing a good enough job. If you're loving him, then you're doing enough."

She poured me another cup of tea, with double the amount of honey, and told me the story of how she felt called to be a nun. As a young girl, some Belgian sisters had started a health center nearby where she lived. It was the only health center for miles, and people would walk for hours with no shoes to come get medical treatment. One of the Belgian sisters would take the worst jobs at the health center, cleaning the latrines and the bedpans and wiping down the floors. Sr. Donatha said that this nun would wash each patient's feet as they came into the health center, calloused feet that had marched for miles through dusty roads and muddy fields, and seeing these small acts of kindness were so powerful to her that she wanted to devote her life to service. Sr. Donatha talked about being uncertain as a young sister, but felt guided by the Penitent Sisters' motto: "Servir dans la joie et la simplicité", or "to serve in joy and simplicity." She'd ask herself whether she was accomplishing just that, day in and day out, and recommended that I do the same.

I guess I've always found the Sisters so inspiring because they've chosen to lead such radical lives of love and service, working as teachers and nurses and running centers for the handicapped in Rwanda. I admire how boldly they love, how much they sacrifice, and among them are some of my biggest heroes. There's Sr. Adelinde, who came out of hiding during the genocide to help others to safety (and never spoke about it to anyone--the only way that I found out was through a documentary crew that came to film her about her story after talking to those that she had saved), and Sr. Agnes, who walks with a limp after she survived a bus attack that killed everyone else on the bus, but tends to the flowers in the convent with care and the families with malnourished children that came to the health center with such tenderness. Despite experiencing such tragic events in her own life, she'd always greet me with a smile and maintain her unshakeable belief in the goodness of humanity. Living in their community for two years was such a profound experience it's hard to put it into words.

D'Assise saying final goodbyes to the nuns on the day he moved out of the convent
The next day we headed to Mushaka, my Peace Corps village, so that D'Assise could get some time with his old friends. As I entered the convent where I spent two years, the familiar smell of fresh bread baking in the wood-burning oven filled my nose. A couple of the nuns were baking that week's bread, and they rushed to greet D'Assise and I. I sat in the living room where I'd spent so many evenings playing with tiny three-year old D'Assise and listening to the nightly news with the nuns.

We sat down to a simple meal of beans and rice and boiled cabbage, and then Sr. Appolinaire brought in a omelette for D'Assise and I to eat. I protested, knowing that the nuns had likely just cracked every single egg from every single one of their chickens to make that omelette; that if we hadn't been there all eight of them would have shared it, each taking a tiny sliver. I knew that they only ever served the eggs on Sundays, and if they gave all of their omelette to D'Assise and I it would be another week before they'd get another chance to eat their small portion of eggs. But they resolutely insisted. I felt overwhelmed by their kindness, even though it was such a small gesture.

On the way back to our home from Kamembe, I again thought of the quote, "Put yourself in the way of beauty." I found that its corollary, for me, is to put yourself in the way of kindness. The intense kindness that really hits you somewhere deep down and fills up your cup and allows you to continue. Experiencing real goodness, that kind of raw and rare and unselfish love, is more powerful than even beauty. As dusk fell and we reached our new home, I felt that a huge weight had been lifted. My cup had been filled up, and I was ready to take on the next week.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Five Years and A Few Heavy Things.

In a couple more weeks, I'll have been in Rwanda for five years. 

My Rwanda host Mama, May 2012
When I arrived in Rwanda as a fresh-faced Peace Corps Volunteer eager to change the world, I was 21. I've celebrated six birthdays in the Land of a Thousand Hills, and I could apply for citizenship in Rwanda this May if I choose to do so.

My first week in Rwanda
(Side note: It's really time to change my blog's header "One girl. Two Years. My Life in Rwanda." Now accepting alternative blog header suggestions).

One of the first sunsets I experienced in Rwanda. Yes, they're really this beautiful. 
I never imagined that I'd stay for this long, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to stay in such a beautiful, vibrant country, doing work that I find very meaningful. I feel even more grateful to have adopted my son, D'Assise, and to have started our life together amongst these thousands green, rolling hills.

But if I'm being honest, the last three months since I came back from maternity leave in the U.S. have been the hardest of the five. To put this in perspective, the last five years have included times without water or electricity living in a rural village, starting my Peace Corps projects and learning kinyarwanda, getting held for ransom on a boat by Congolese soldiers with a gun to my boat captain's head, going into septic shock in a hospital in Kigali while the doctor was giving me the wrong medicine, having my heart broken a couple of times, the time I found half a lizard in the vegetable curry I'd already eaten, and trying to find treatment for D'Assise's mysterious brain lesions for several months and eventually bringing him to Kenya for treatment.

Five years ago, learning kinyarwanda by headlamp and introducing my host siblings to glitter (?!) 
Actually taking care of D'Assise has been far easier than I was expecting. Before the adoption, I was worried about having his life and health entrusted to me, whether I'd be a good enough Mom, and whether I could balance work and motherhood. Taking care of him has actually been the easy part, and the past three months have actually been very full of happy moments with D'Assise. We've settled into our routine, and being with him is the best part of my day. We bike to school together on weekday mornings, read books together before bed, and spend Saturday mornings drinking coffee and watching old Beatles concert videos. He is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world getting to be his Mama.

Back when D'Assise was just a little tadpole. 
 When I read through my old blog entries, where I dared to hope that I could one day be D'Assise's parent, the things I longed for the most weren't the big things like going on vacations or getting him Christmas presents or seeing him graduate from college. It was the every-day, the mundane activities that tend to slide by without much notice, but that are the tiny threads that make up the fabric of our lives. In many ways, I am living in the dream world that I imagined nearly five years ago. 

D'Assise didn't have any toys, so we'd play "bowling" using a ball and some water bottles. 
What has been exceedingly difficult is everything outside of taking care of him. I didn't expect that my social life would change as radically as it has as a single Mom, and I took having close friends in Rwanda for granted. After five years, I find myself lacking a community, when I need it the most.

Although expat life can be (really) fun and adventurous (exotic travels! a life off the beaten path, free from the daily grind! an international group of friends!), the underbelly of expat life in Rwanda is that there's a steady churn of friends and faces that can be exhausting and isolating. In five years, I've gone through several groups of friends, and countless goodbye parties. Each time, it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under you.

Gug crew, you are missed. 

None of the people I arrived with and was friends with five years ago are here. Zero. I can count on one hand the number of other expats in the entire country I know who have lived here longer than I have. After moving to a new place in November and the departure of two very close friends this month, I find myself looking to make new friends all over again.

But this feels much different from other times.

In my previous life, upon the departure of friends, I'd energetically work on building new relationships--inviting people to my house and planning trips and attending parties, saying "yes" to anything and everything, and slowly but surely making new friends.

But now, I'm a single Mom.

Who's 27.

Who has an 8 year old kid.

The number of other 27 year olds I know who have 8 year old kids include me and the cast of "Teen Mom", and the number of other people in my age group I know in Rwanda who keep hours of 5:30 am-9 pm, nearly seven days a week is approximately zero.

It's hard to build new friendships under normal circumstances, but doubly hard when my schedule is crammed with either work or being with D'Assise. Being a single Mom feels a lot like juggling some porcelain plates and trying not to let anything smash (while trying not to show your kid how worried you are about things smashing). I've engineered my day to be as efficient as possible from the moment my alarm goes off at 5:30 am, and a lot of the time it feels like a huge accomplishment just to make it back to my bed at the end of the day with no major casualties. But that means that I don't have as much time for saying yes as I used to, and that can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow. If there was some friendship app for people who are looking for friends but who are only available in between 8:30 pm and 9 pm, I would definitely join it.

I'm trying to be patient with myself, and realize that I've just made two really, really big changes in my life (adopting a kid and moving to a new place), even though that's a lot easier said than done. I'm trying to be okay with giving myself more time to make new friends and build existing relationships, even if that means getting a babysitter sometimes. I'm trying to stay open to whatever the next year brings, and to continue saying "yes."

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Maternity Leave, America style.

Although it's hard to believe, D'Assise and I have been back in Rwanda for two weeks now after a wonderful six weeks is the U.S. (I am extremely lucky to work for a fantastic organization that offers paid maternity leave even for adoptions). Even though it was the longest time I'd been back in the U.S. in five years, it went by in the blink of an eye. But man, those six weeks were pure magic, from beginning to end.

I had time to actually create new memories and relax rather than just having a week of quick one- on-ones catching up on a year's (or several years') worth of news and gossip. D'Assise and I got to the chance to unpack our suitcases, and spend quality time with my family, and reconnect with old friends.

As I sit here overlooking Lake Kivu in Western Rwanda, looking back on the trip, the word that I'm constantly reminded of is gratitude. We felt so welcomed and loved by family members, friends near and far, and even complete strangers. I wished I could bottle the feeling up to save it for the tough days.
D'Assise assigned all of my family members nicknames during the trip (sometimes more than one). He dubbed his Uncle Paul "Uncle Monkey" and "Uncle Strawberry."
Before we even arrived, a few friends and relatives donated warm clothes to D'Assise to wear (since the temperature rarely dips below 55 degrees here, both of us have only light jackets, and no hats or gloves to speak of). On the train connecting the international and domestic terminals at Chicago O'Hare airport, some people wedged between us on the crowded trip overheard me talking to D'Assise about we were going to do in America and proclaimed "We're so happy you're here! We hope you have a great time!", and my aunt, uncle, and two cousins dropped everything to come and meet us when I called them to tell them our flight was delayed in Chicago. A neighbor gave us a little tent for D'Assise's room for when he arrived (which he promptly called "his house" and wanted to spend all of his time snuggled in). One of our former neighbors who is an orthopedic surgeon came over on his off hours to examine D'Assise's legs. He and his wife helped get us an appointment the same week with the pediatric orthopedic surgeon who operated on D'Assise's Achilles tendons. Today, D'Assise is walking better than he ever has, despite the advice of several doctors in East Africa who told us that nothing could be done and that he'd never walk normally his entire life. 

Goodbye casts! Goodbye wheelchair! Hello new legs!

One of our family friends who is a police officer stopped by with gifts, a police badge sticker, and he let D'Assise sit in his police car and turn on the lights (the thrill of the trip! D'Assise couldn't stop talking about the REAL police officer and how he got to ride in his REAL car). When I went with D'Assise to get his hair cut and had to explain to the barber to talk a bit slower to D'Assise so he could understand because it's his first time in America and he's still learning English, the entire barbershop erupted with high-fives and "Welcome to America!" Other customers at the barbershop were buying him snacks left and right and a local pastor asked to carry him to our car. When we went to go see a Creighton basketball game and were waiting for my Mom to pick us up (D'Assise was in casts and a wheelchair most of the trip), the mother of one of the players saw us and asked if we wanted to go see all the players outside the locker room. D'Assise got to meet all of the players and the coach, and they signed a poster and his leg casts.

The Bluejays!
D'Assise at the barbershop
Even on our plane trip back to Rwanda after tearful goodbyes with my family, the pilot on our Omaha to Chicago flight let D'Assise pretend to fly the plane, helped me schlep my carry-on luggage to our seats in the very back of the plane, and carried D'Assise to the wheelchair waiting outside the plane for us after we arrived. The entire trip felt like the end scene from "It's a Wonderful Life", when George Bailey returns to his previous life, feeling grateful for the gift of being alive.

Most of all, I feel overwhelmingly grateful to my parents and siblings. Having a child in a wheelchair is no easy task (and I have a newfound serious respect and admiration for parents who have children with permanent disabilities), but my family was so supportive through it all. They helped me lug his wheelchair through snow and ice, they babysat for D'Assise so I could slip out to a yoga class or to a concert with my siblings, and patiently played hours upon hours of Candyland (which is definitely in running for most boring children's game of all time) and Old Maid.

GrandDad on his thousandth game of Candyland

My mother would get off a long shift at the hospital to come home and watch D'Assise, even though she probably needed the extra sleep a lot more than I did. When my insurance company unexpectedly refused to cover D'Assise's surgery or the leg braces he needed afterwards, my parents comforted me through the shock (let's just say there were a lot of tears involved), helped me make an action plan of what to do, and offered to help me to cover the costs.

It wasn't the maternity leave I had planned (in typical Claire fashion, I had carefully crafted a to-do list about a mile long and had mapped out a roadtrip across the East coast and Midwest to visit friends), but it was perhaps the maternity leave that we both needed. I ended up losing my to-do list three separate times (which I took as a divine sign that I needed to chill on being productive for once in my life), and having D'Assise in a wheelchair meant that we hung around Omaha playing Go Fish with grandma most of the time, except for an amazing weekend in Chicago with friends. It was a maternity leave that focused a lot less on the "doing" and lot more on the "being."

So many games of Go Fish. 

 I couldn't have wished for anything more. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Chasing Shadows

I've been back in Omaha, Nebraska for nearly three weeks now, and it's been terrific and strange at the same time.

Omaha is an unsuspecting Great Plains city. It's unpretentious and pleasant. To East and West Coasters, it's in the heart of flyover territory and perhaps difficult to locate on a map. Omaha's not pretending to be anything it's not, and that's why I like it so much. Omaha is the girl next door. The city is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of place. It's Nebraska nice.
The last time I lived in Omaha, I had just graduated high school, still wide-eyed and optimistic about this crazy planet, and anxious to experience life outside of the Cornhusker state. But Omaha has changed so much in the decade since I graduated from Duchesne, I hardly recognize parts of it. Waves of gentrification have lapped and crashed against neighborhoods I used to know, changing them for better or worse.

Some things remain the same, and I'm hit with a nostalgia so strong it's almost as though I can see the shadows of my memories: the coffeeshop where I crammed for exams and outside of which I had my first kiss, the hospital where I was treated when I broke my arm when I was seven, the old concert hall where I used to see angsty bands perform shows, the long-unused tree house in my parents' backyard, the park where I'd go for a run and see the annual 4th of July show each year, the church my family dubbed "the basilica of South Omaha" that I grew up in and where my parents were married, the worn brick roads of the Old Market, the concrete steps to my junior high where I waited for classes to start as an awkward preteen, and the beautiful old buildings of my high school that I walked through in my red Fairmont plaid uniform for four years.

One of the strangest things besides the changing architecture is the feeling that the city has moved on without me. Most of my friends no longer live in Omaha, and as I sit in the cafes and drive the streets I once called home, I realize that I hardly know anyone. It's said that we're six degrees of separation away from anyone on the planet, but in Nebraska (population 1.8 million), it's usually one or two degrees and it's almost surprising not to run into a familiar face at your local haunts. I've realized how much it's not just the buildings that make a place, but the people as well. The tide came in and washed away my footprints in the sand. It's not necessarily a sad feeling, but it's strange and nostalgic and at times overpowering.

I keep recalling a passage from one of my favorite books, Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, visits the Museum of Natural History and is hit with a wave of nostalgia upon finding the dioramas in the museum are as unchanged as when he went to the museum as a child. Faced with the dioramas as a constant in his life, he's forced to realize that it's he who has changed.

Like Holden in the museum, I too have been forced to admit how much I've changed in the past ten years, punched with a dose of nostalgia at the city I once knew but will always love, confined by buildings that are familiar but surrounded by faces I no longer recognize.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Confessions of a New Years Naysayer (Or Why New Years is Awful and No One Admits It)

2016 is quickly ending, and the holiday I dread is quickly approaching: New Years. I'm generally a holiday lover, but New Years' is one that has never won me over. In fact, it ranks dead last on my list of holidays (Valentine's Day only slightly edged it out because of the prospect of copious amounts of chocolate).

Why pick on New Years, you say? Isn't it a time to celebrate with friends the joyful end of one year and the welcoming of a brand new year, full of hope and possibilities? No, it's not. Allow me to explain why New Years sucks and no one will admit it.

The principle reason New Years sucks is that it never lives up to expectations, no matter what you do. I've been graced with an incredibly low amount of FOMO in my life (for my non-millennial readers, that's "Fear of Missing Out.") and I generally try to keep my expectations low. Even though I like (okay, love) to make plans, I'm generally just as happy meeting up with friends, going out, or attending an event as I am staying at home, taking a bubble bath, reading a book, and being soundly asleep by 9 pm, regardless of what anyone else is doing. But each year, when New Years' rolls around, I feel a ridiculous pressure to have some sort of exciting plan for New Years. It's somehow impossible to not have high expectations of doing something awesome on New Years, and then inevitably being disappointed.

No matter what you do for New Years', you're screwed. If you stay home and take a bubble bath and go to bed at 9 pm, you feel lame for not going out and doing something, even if you never feel that way on literally any other night of the entire year. If you do go out for dinner, you have to make reservations way too far in advance, and then you'll pay five times as much for it as you normally would just because it's December 31 and they give you a glass of cheap champagne (see also: Why Valentine's Day sucks). If you go out to a club, you end up paying some insane cover fee to finally dance with strangers after freezing your appendages off standing in line outside (well, if you live in the Midwest, at least). Then you get to feel alone in a crowd full of strangers (which, by the way, is one of the worst feelings in human existence), and wish you were at home taking a bubble bath.

Another reason New Years is awful and no one admits it is the forced self-flagellation of making meaningless resolutions that rolls around at the end of every December. Don't get me wrong, I think the process of careful self-reflection and making purposeful resolutions regularly is a really good thing, and I usually try to do it once a year or so. But as I pushed my grocery cart towards the checkout lane today, I realized that all of the "resolutions" that are pushed by American media are all about one thing, and one thing only: physical appearance, or more specifically, weight loss.

As my eyes perused the magazine covers in the checkout aisle, their titles screamed things like "Get ripped in 2017!" "Get the abs you've always dreamed of!" "30 ways to lose the holiday pounds." Not one said something like "Be less of an asshole this year!" "Try a little kindness in 2017!""Love yourself the way you are!" It bothers me that our society focuses so much effort on the physical, and so little on the spiritual and emotional. It troubles me that nearly all of the magazines in that supermarket aisle were specifically targeting women, their covers telling us that we're not skinny enough, that we are not whole and complete and valuable as we are. I am all for being healthy, and I'm all for making resolutions, but to me putting so much effort on outward appearances compared to little or none for what really matters underneath makes me feel sick.

Resolutions that matter seem all the more urgent this December 2016. The world feels a little less welcoming, a little less kind, and a lot less reasonable. Though I usually make resolutions around my birthday, I'm trying to keep these in mind for 2017:

  1. Kindness is never a mistake. One of my former yoga teachers used to say this, and I think I could be a lot more conscious of how I'm coming across to other people in 2017. The world needs a little more kindness. 
  2. An empty cup cannot pour anything out. I tend to burn myself out and not take enough time for self-reflection and solid introvert time with no distractions; I sometimes focus on what needs to get done rather than where I need to go. Taking quiet, alone time seems all the more urgent now that I'm a working Mom, and didn't exactly do a great job finding time for myself the past few months. When I don't take time for self-renewal, I don't have as much energy to give. 
  3. Prioritize relationships. In 2016, I wasn't great at prioritizing my relationships, and took a lot of them for granted. Part of this was feeling overwhelmed trying to find a work/life balance with a new son, but I too easily forget that relationships are like house plants, and need regular watering and attention. I need to make more time to talk to, see, and spend time with the people I really care about, and tell them how much they mean to me in 2017. 
So if you're feeling alone in a crowd this New Years, know that I'm probably feeling the exact same way (and deep down, every wishes they were taking a bubble bath and going to bed early). Take some time to make some resolutions that matter, and maybe it will help a little bit.

I'll see you on the flip side. May 2017 be a little easier on all of us than 2016.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Four Weeks a Mother.

Today marks four weeks of motherhood. My world has been shaken up, in the best way possible. It has been four weeks of small triumphs and a lot of learning as I go. Even though it’s only been four weeks, D’Assise and I are slowly settling in to our routine. He still calls me Claire-ay or Mahoro most of the time rather than Mama, which the nuns scold him for, but since he’s called me that his entire life, I don’t really mind. I figure that if Jem and Scout called their Daddy “Atticus”, it’s ok for D’Assise to stick to my other names. 

We’ve had two adoption parties, the first to say goodbye to my Peace Corps village and the convent where he lived, and the second to welcome him to his new community where we now live, about three hours up the lake. 

At the goodbye to his village, I gave the nuns a cow to thank them for raising D’Assise, and two of my friends dressed up like a cow and a cow herder, complete with sound effects. I wore a traditional umushanana, D’Assise wore his little three piece suit, and I tried hard not to cry as our friends and neighbors sang a “Goodbye D’Assise” song.
D'Assise was clearly more interested in his Fanta than picture-taking
The nuns and I packed up all of D’Assise’s belongings from the convent, from the little room that he shared with three other people, and all of his belongings fit in two small suitcases: a five shirts, and two pairs of pants and two shorts, his suit for church on Sundays, four pairs of shoes, some socks and underwear, his medicine and tooth brush, and the books and games he’d been given over the last four years. He gave each of the nuns a hug, got in the pickup truck, and we headed to our new home along Lake Kivu.

The following weekend we had an adoption party to welcome D’Assise to our new community. We shared some Rwandan buffet, my friend Justin served as the MC, and several people made speeches (including a hilarious one by D’Assise) and gave us gifts (including some avocados, cassava flour, and pineapples). I tried to make a speech and ended up crying through half of it (Motherhood has made me into even more of a sap, which I didn’t think was possible). D’Assise and I wore matching kitenge outfits, and he played with the balls and bubbles that he got as gifts. After that party, when I finally took D’Assise back to our new little house to go to bed after the day of dancing and playing, I felt then that I’d really become a parent.

D'Assise making a speech at the adoption party
We’ve had some fantastic times so far, and some not so great ones (D’Assise getting diarrhea, a three hour car trip at night in which we nearly ran out of gas, and me accidentally slamming the car door on his finger on the same day were involved), but it has been exactly what I hoped for. In many ways, it’s easier than I thought it would be. In the month before D’Assise came to live with me full time, I had a lot of anxiety about what I was about to do. How would I know how to parent? Was I crazy for doing this? What if he hated it and wanted to go back to living with the nuns in the convent? Since then, I’ve realized that most of the time, parents are making it all up as they go along.

Overall, the past few weeks have been what I dreamed of doing: the messy, joyful, exhausting job of being a full-time parent. Last week, D’Assise had a morning meltdown, screaming and crying and hyperventilating, while I was supposed to have a meeting at work. I held his little wriggling body and felt his chest heaving amidst the sobs rolling down his cheeks, and even though I was on my very last nerve, I thought to myself, “This is what I signed up for.” In the past year and a half, when I was going through the adoption process but not yet Mama D’Assise, I felt that I was cheating in a way. I would appear on weekends or stop by the convent for a midweek dinner, and I would reap the rewards of a short-term appearance, but I never had to endure the hard parts of being a real parent. I got the hugs and the dance parties and got to give him presents, without the long, sleepless nights when D’Assise is afraid of the thunder, the sullen faces when I say no to his third helping of French fries for dinner, or the tears when I finally have to pull him away from trying to jump on the bed with muddy shoes. Even though having all of those things in my life isn’t easy, it all feels more real this way.

Our first Thanksgiving together as family
The hardest parts so far have been the sleep deprivation (I love sleep more than any other person I know, as anyone who has ever lived with me can attest), worrying about D’Assise’s health constantly, and missing “down time” to catch up on things like responding to friends’ messages or the bits of work that don’t always fit neatly into a 9-5 workday. I try to fit things in where I can—doing some writing on a Saturday morning when D’Assise’s playing soccer with kids in the front yard, or waking up before he wakes up to finish something for work.

It’s not always easy being a single working mom, but I’m trying to remind myself that I’m doing the very best that I can. It’s non-stop activity from when D’Assise wakes up (normally around 5, although I’ve been trying to keep him up later in the hopes that he’ll sleep until at least 6) until we’ve read our last story around 10:30 or 11 pm, and then sometimes night wake-ups if he’s scared from the dark or the thunder (it’s rainy season in Rwanda). My single person bedtime routine used to be something like: take a hot shower until the water runs cold, get into my pajamas, spritz some lavender spray on my pillow, surf the internet or read a book for a couple hours, sleep a good 8, preferably 9, hours.  My bedtime routine now looks like: try not to fall asleep while reading D’Assise Goodnight Moon for the thousandth time, shower for 5 minutes as soon as D’Assise goes to bed, tiptoe out of the bathroom so he doesn’t wake up, fall asleep before my head hits the pillow.

But being able to create a childhood is an exciting thing. In some ways, having a kid is like giving yourself a second childhood. D’Assise and I can built forts out of bed sheets, re-read all my favorite children’s books, have morning dance parties when we wake up, and watch all the classic Disney movies. In the past two weeks, I took D’Assise to swim in his first swimming pool (he was cautiously optimistic at first, but quickly became addicted) and attempted to take him to his first movie in a real movie theater (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I was a rookie Mom and didn’t check the ratings of beforehand and it turned out to be way too scary for a 7 year old. We left after 20 minutes or so. Which was nearly as bad as my Dad taking all four of his young kids to see Rabbit Proof Fence, thinking it was about Peter Rabbit. Seems to run in the family…).

I was reading some old posts on my blog, and how badly I wished to be exactly where I am right now. Wishing that I could have more of a life together than just the bits and pieces of D’Assise’s childhood that I got to glimpse when I visited, feeling that it was never enough, and having a pit in my stomach whenever the car pulled away from the convent. Now I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

On Nostalgia.

My good friend Alex recently left Rwanda and was taking photos, a couple per day, of the commonplace objects and scenes of his everyday life here. We talked about it, and both realized that it’s only when one faces the prospect of leaving a beloved place that you feel the need to record the banal everyday glimpses that makes up our lives, like a fish living in water. 

My city, Kamembe, Rusizi District, Rwanda
As I face moving to a new home about three hours north with D’Assise in just two short weeks, I’m hit by a wave of nostalgia at the thought of leaving what has been my home in southwestern Rwanda for the past two and a half years. 

The Kamembe harbor, just down from my house
It is not the fear of leaving this physical space that hits me with a tidal wave of nostalgia; it is the memories contained within these walls over the past two and a half years that make the thought of leaving so difficult. It’s the person that I was while living here, that I won’t be ever again. I won’t ever be a 25 year old, high on living on her own for the first time and discovering all the triumphs and difficulties of complete independence (upsides: no one cares if I never wear pants in my own home, listen to the same dumb song on repeat for a month, or hog the hammock on my porch the entire weekend, downsides: the dishes don’t do themselves, when I hear scary noises at night there’s no one to either comfort me or to hope that the would-be robber gets to them first). I won’t ever be a 26 year old, feeling like I got this living-by-myself-thing (even though to this day I have no idea how to cook for just one person), exploring nearby Congo, and training for half marathons in the hills by my house. I won’t ever be a 27 year old new mom again, equal parts ecstatic and nervous, trying to figure things out. 

Mu rugo wanjye, my house
Each room that I’ll be leaving has a million memories. The kitchen where I’ve made countless meals to be shared with friends (those who have visited my house in Kamembe know that they can predictably expect cheese tortellini from Trader Joes shlepped in suitcases across the Atlantic and cooked with my homemade marinara sauce, a red curry miso soup with kale fresh from my garden, hummus made in my blender that is so loud you either have to scream or stop talking when it’s being used, or cacio e pepe with cheese that is either fresh from America or six months old, depending on how recently I took a trip to the States). 
The kitchen
The walls of my kitchen are lined with four blown-up photos from around the world, and I usually have visitors guess where they were taken (Zanzibar, the Amalfi Coast of Italy, Bujumbura, Burundi, and a pile of oranges in the convent where I used to live). There’s the ancient looking electric cooker that I inherited from friends leaving Rwanda that takes a pot of water up to an hour to boil (and leaves me eating exclusively raw fruit and salads when the power is out), and the fancy two-burner gas stove that my friends Kaity and Diana bought for me on my birthday this year (whether it was out of pity for me or frustration that meals took two hours to make whenever they visited, I’ll never know).
The old electric cooker. We had some good times together. 
There were the times that I spent all day in the kitchen with friends preparing food for one of my Kamembe parties (to my lime team: I owe you so much), and the time I tried out the new gas burner for the first time and went upstairs to go work for an hour (as was expected with my old electric cooker) and came back to find my meal burnt to a crisp. There are memories so clear they almost materialize in front of me like ghosts, of waking up to coffee already made, with a kind note nearby it left my Italian loving roommate Robin, cooking pizza or chapatti with my first roommate Lora, and the first time I brought D’Assise back to my house as my son and we made banana bread muffins. 

There are the hallways, lined with beautifully woven Moroccan rugs I bought on one of the best trips of my life with my friend Daniel, stuffed in rice bags that barely made it under the weight limit and brought back to Rwanda, and art I’d bought to liven up the bare walls. There are the two guest rooms, occupied at different times by two roommates, both painted in colors I grew to dislike but was too lazy to ever change. I had some lovely couchsurfers stay, from places far and wide, and I had good friends stay, sometimes three or four to a bed after passing out after a night of dancing. There’s the old wooden chest of drawers that came with the house and that I wanted to get rid of, but it was too heavy to move, even with my two guards and several of my neighbors. So it stayed. There’s the bathroom which has a shower I thought only ran cold water and in which I took only cold water showers for the first two or three months of living in the house, until my genius friend Abby visited and showed me that I just had to turn the faucet the other direction (in my defense, I had just gotten out of bucket bathing myself in Peace Corps and wasn’t used to these newfangled hot water running showers). 

My bedroom, with open windows that look out onto Lake Kivu, is upstairs. It’s painted a subtle yellow and the sunlight streams in through the windows in the mornings. When I wake up on a Saturday morning, the distant laughs and shouts of children playing at the youth center behind my house reach my ears. Photos of people I love are in frames around the room, and little trinkets from my travels line the windowsills. 

When I first moved in two and half years ago, the bed I got was too warped to put together so I slept on a bare mattress under a mosquito net for the first month. I’d both cried myself to sleep on that bed and sobbed from sheer joy after D’Assise fell asleep on my shoulder while I read him his goodnight stories on his first visit to my house as family, knowing that he was finally mine. I’d decorated my room exactly how I wanted it, and every time I went to sleep in my own bed, I had an immense feeling of satisfaction. 

The robin’s egg blue living room upstairs was probably one of the least used rooms in the house, not because I disliked it but because it was overshadowed by my favorite part of the whole house right outside of it: the massive porch that overlooks my most beloved view in this whole country. I’d always heard that people who live near beautiful vistas eventually get used to the view, but I never did. Every morning, I’d drink my coffee overlooking the blue, clear waters of Lake Kivu and the metal roofs filling the mountains and valleys of the city of Bukavu in Congo across the lake, and pinch myself because it seemed too beautiful to be real. 

On this porch, my former roommate Robin would gather to watch “the nightly show”, the stunning orange sunsets over the Congo mountains. We’d drink wine in our “front row seats”, and talk about our days. Sometimes she would give me advice on boys or my career, and other times we’d decide to head down to the lake for a dip while the water was aglow in silver and gold shades from the setting sun. There were my annual Kamembe 4th of July parties on this porch (it’s both America’s Independence Day and Rwanda’s Liberation Day), when the occupancy of my house would swell with friends and colleagues, Rwandan and international hits would blast from the speaker we’d borrowed from the youth center, I’d wear my American flag dress and burn sparklers, we’d drink warm beer because my fridge is super tiny (and normally crammed full of cheese from America, anyways). 

There’s the colorful hammock where I spent many a lazy Sunday buried in a good book, and the collection of Rwandan pottery full of flowers I could never keep alive. There was the time I hosted an arts and crafts day for D’Assise and four of his friends, went downstairs to cook lunch for them, and came back to something similar to the aftermath of a hurricane (#rookieparentmove). 

At night, the view from my porch is equally as breathtaking as during the day, with moonlight glittering across the dark, deep waters of the lake, and the million twinkling lights of Congo spread before me. There were the evenings I spent gazing out onto the lake to catch a glimpse of the distant fishermen’s boats illuminated by kerosene lanterns or looking up at the billions of stars. 

Even though my childhood was in the U.S., I feel like I became an adult in that house along the lake in southwestern Rwanda, and that’s hard to leave behind. I know that I will miss Rusizi so much. At the end of my Peace Corps service, we talked a lot about “readjustment” and I think a lot of my fellow volunteers were going through what I’m feeling now. I avoided a lot of those feelings by simply moving 40 minutes down the road from my village, in the same district. But now all of that readjustment is hitting me full on. Like my friend Alex, I’ve begun documenting the small moments and banalities of my house here in Kamembe: the way the sun hits the small colorful baskets I bought in Kenya on my wall, my beloved porch, and even the terrible linoleum lined floors on the second floor of my house. 

As I was documenting all of these nooks and crannies, it reminded me of being a senior in high school in Omaha, Nebraska. A few weeks before graduating, I meticulously photographed the halls, classrooms, lounges, lockers, and courtyards of my all-girls Catholic school (making girls into women of conscience and confidence since 1881!), knowing that it would change and I would change. I knew I was grabbing fistfuls of sand, trying to hang onto the place where I’d spent every school day dressed in my red, black, and grey Fairmont plaid uniform for four formative years, knowing well that my hands would eventually give way and the grains of sand would pass through my fingers. And yet, I still treasure that album full of photos of the Academy among my most prized of possessions, though I haven’t been back to the school in years. 

Even fifteen years ago, when my family moved from our small town in northeastern Nebraska (the Swedish capital of Nebraska, no less) to the “big city” of Omaha when I was going into junior high, I remember feeling an overwhelming sadness as a twelve year old about leaving the only house I’d ever known and our sloping street lined with oak trees and friendly neighbors. I had been hit by the nostalgia wave. 

I remember being terrified about moving from a town where I’d known nearly everyone and everyone knew me to a city where I’d be anonymous. I had this same feeling of trying to soak up the memories that had happened in every single room—the swingset and tree fort where my siblings and I spent our summers, the kitchen table where we’d have family dinners every night, the bunk beds my sister and I shared and told stories until we fell asleep, the raspberry patch where we’d collect juicy fruits and few pricks after August evening walks, the dog bed where my brother insisted on sitting and drinking his milk every morning. 

I think this wave of nostalgia that seems to hit me is more than just wanting to hang onto memories. It’s also a moment for reflection about whether I’ve left a mark on the places I’ve been, if they’ve been better or worse because of my presence there. I took this literally my senior year at Notre Dame, when I carved my initials onto the boathouse wall with two of my best friends, though a) I had zero connection to the boathouse and b) they’ve probably painted over it by now (sorry, Fr. Jenkins). I again felt those grains of sand slipping through my hands and my time in college running out, and clearly I felt that doing the ol’ initials on the wall carving was a salve for that wound. 

In my case now, I more or less know what I’m getting into moving to the new place. I have already moved a lot of my things into my three room house in Rubengera, and I’ve tried to make it feel more like home. D’Assise and I will have our own bedrooms with a small kitchen/living area in between. There's a beautiful view of rolling green hills and Lake Kivu, distantly. There's an awesome community of friends and colleagues, and so much to be excited about. But I haven’t really made memories in that house, yet. It’s my house, but not yet my home.