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. 

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Space in Between

For the past couple of months, I've been living out of suitcase, traveling between what has been my home for the past two years, in Kamembe in southwestern Rwanda, to where my work is primarily based now, in Rubengera in western Rwanda, to Kigali in the center of the country, to get physical therapy for a foot problem I have from running a half marathon in May (side note: when given the choice between running a half marathon in a hilly city on a warm day or getting a few more hours' sleep, always choose sleep). 

I've been feeling a little discombobulated with all of the traveling, like a plant trying to grow without proper roots. I'll take the last bus after work to Kamembe, in the dark on the road that twists alongside the shores of Lake Kivu, or a 6 am car to my work's headquarters, fueled by coffee and on too little sleep, or I'll drive myself from Kigali late at night to make an early meeting the next morning, without ever unpacking my bag. On average, I'm commuting about 9-12 hours a week. I've been living somewhere in the space between all three places, without properly feeling settled in any of them. 

The feeling of living in this strange space-in-between hasn't been limited to only physical spaces. For the past two months, I've been taking care of D'Assise* every other weekend, in full mama mode. I feel a wave of gratitude wash over me when he gets to join me, and my weekends with him are usually filled with playing soccer, reading Goodnight Moon, and trying to teach him how to use his new bike (which is a lot harder than I expected and a good exercise in patience). My bedtime is somewhere around 9 pm, with a few middle-of-the-night wake-ups because D'Assise is scare d of the dark and not used to sleeping in his own bedroom alone, and then he wakes me up to start the day around 5 am, a time of day that in my mind was previously reserved for red-eye flights or maybe your house burning down. Though my sleep is lacking, our weekends together are filled with joy, and I feel incredibly grateful to call him my son. 

But on the weekends that I don't have him, I'm still living my old life: enjoying Kigali's lovely cafes, binge-watching terrible reality tv shows, staying out late and sleeping in later. And somewhere on the motorcycle taxi ride in between leaving the bar and arriving back home, I feel a pit in my stomach, and a sort of emptiness at saying goodbye to my former life. I'm living in the space in between being a mother and being a childless and relatively carefree 27 year old, and it has not been an extremely easy transition for me. In some ways, I wished that I had to go through the nine months of mandatory mental preparation for motherhood that accompany pregnancy. I don't feel like a proper Mom with a capital M yet. 

I feel so many things slowly changing, and it's been hard for me to cope with them with an at-times grueling schedule and so much travel. Most of all, I feel many of my relationships changing since I've become a mother. I have only one good friend in Rwanda who has a kid, and I've found myself longing for more friends with kids, to be able to relate to people who know what it's like to have a seven year old who insists on sleeping with all the lights on, no matter how many times I tell him there's nothing to be afraid of, or calling for me to come pull him out of the toilet because he fell in. 

At the same time, I sometimes feel like a fake when I think about befriending other mothers, for I have never given birth to a baby. I've never breastfed or spent sleepless nights with a crying infant or heard my child's first word, and I was not there to see D'Assise take his first few steps. On the weekends that I have D'Assise, after we've brushed our teeth together, sung our nighttime songs, read his stories, and tucked him in by 9 pm, I wonder what my other friends are doing, if they're having fun without me, and I ask myself if some of my friendships will survive motherhood. I feel extremely guilty for even thinking that, but it crosses my mind in those brief moments of solitude when my head is on the pillow before sleep overtakes me. 

In November, both D'Assise and I will be moving to a new home, three hours up the lake from Kamembe, to Rubengera, Rwanda. I already have a room in a house there, and I won't have to commute as much every week. It was a difficult decision to make; I will be leaving southwestern Rwanda, where I've lived for more than 4 years. I will miss my friends in Kamembe, and I will be much further from the nuns, who have been my rock in Rwanda, celebrating with me during the good times and making me waffles and giving me group hugs during the not-so-good times (seriously, they're the best). As hard as it is for me to move from beautiful Cyangugu, I think it's what will be best for my little family right now. I'm looking forward to feeling settled and to once again growing roots. I'll be happy for the day that I'm no longer stuck in this space in between three cities and between motherhood and my former life. 

*If you're wondering why I'm now spelling D'Assisi as D'Assise, it's because that's what's on his official Rwandan passport (and is actually the correct French spelling of his name, Francois d'Assise). The nuns had always spelled it with an "i" before, but because I want him to use the correct official spelling, I'll be spelling it with an "e" from here on out :)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Prepping for Parenthood

I've been D'Assisi's parent for a week now, and I still can't believe it's real.

First photo of us right after the adoption hearing
We have a one-month waiting period for the adoption papers to be totally finalized. Then, the nuns and I decided that D'Assisi will start spending weekends with me for a couple of months, and then he'll move in with me when the end of the school term ends in December (we didn't want him to have to transfer schools in the middle of a term). The nuns and I wanted to have a slow transition period to make sure he's not shocked by moving out of the convent overnight, and it gives me a bit of time to prepare. I'm looking forward to our first weekend as family this coming weekend.

There are a massive amount of things I'm trying to prepare for, jotted on a note in my phone in stream-of-consciousness gibberish whenever I remember one, which is often in the middle of the night.

  • Where will we live? Look at options
  • How to get health insurance and meds for D'Assisi (does work cover it?)
  • Changing his last name? Do I want to change his name or not? 
  • Get a US immigration/adoption lawyer for US citizen process
  • Visa process/bringing him home for Christmas
  • New clothes for D'Assisi (how do boys' clothing sizes work?)
  • Childcare for when he's on school vacation and I'm at work
  • English tutoring? Should he learn French? 
  • Look up parenting advice on interracial adoptions living in child's home country
  • Look up parenting advice in general
I don't think I've ever examined my life as intensely as in the past week. What parts of myself do I want to pass on to my child? (my love of dancing and cooking, being Catholic, a fondness for being outdoors and in nature) What parts do I want to make sure he doesn't adopt? (my lack of patience and intense frustration at incompetence, forgetting that people are watching me dance) What do I want him to be able to decide for himself? (being a vegetarian, whether he calls me Mom or keeps calling me Claire or Mahoro, my Rwandan name) What do I need to change about my current life to make sure he comes first? (reserving dedicated family time, making sure I'm really present and not checking email or being on my phone when he's around, probably going to bed a lot earlier). 

I'm both elated and pretty nervous about being a first time parent. I know there are going to be challenges, and I'm trying my best to prepare for them. But I guess becoming a first-time parent is a bit like boxing. You can train for endless hours, but you don't know where the punches are going to fall until you're in the ring. 

I'm most apprehensive about how D'Assisi is going to take the adjustment, and how my relationships will inevitably change. Even though I've been in D'Assisi's life for the past four years, it's different than living with me. I don't know if the transition will be natural, or if he'll really struggle not living in the convent. And I know some of my relationships will probably change. I don't have very many close friends who are parents here, and my usual weekend social life has not been playing Chutes and Ladders and going to bed at 9 pm. It's absolutely a sacrifice that I would always choose to make, but it does make me a little nervous. 

Ultimately, I'm trying to channel the Rwandan parents I knew in my village, who seem infinitely more relaxed about parenting than Americans do (and most definitely more chill than I am about it). The modern American parenthood preparation checklist is about 10,000 things long, costs a couple million dollars in unnecessary expenses, and has too many recommended parenting books to be reasonable. Rwandan mothers gave birth (silently! Rwandan culture is crazy sometimes) at our rural health center, laid on the simple metal beds packed into the maternity ward until they regained their strength, and then took the swaddled baby home perched on the back of a motorcycle or bicycle taxi. They made sure their babies were clean, dressed, had food to eat, and then just loved their kids. Fancy baby strollers and Mommy and Me classes be damned. 


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Love Wins.

In Rwandan culture, mothers take the name of their first-born child. I have officially been Mama D'Assisi for about 36 hours. It's a name that I will never take for granted.

So many thoughts and questions are rushing through my head, and it's hard to wrap my around what motherhood entails. So perhaps I'll just start with how the adoption went, for my friends and family who have been asking about it, and also so that I never, ever, ever forget all the beautiful parts of yesterday.
First day together, four years ago. 
He was such a tiny little thing. 
The past few months have been at times a soul-crushing blur of paper-gathering. I gave tax returns, police background checks, graduation diploma, attestations of my character, and various official forms to my lawyer for our adoption dossier. Translations and notarizations, copies and more copies. A local official who refused to sign the papers. I had multiple meetings with him that he would blow off. With a little convincing from the nuns (okay, a lot of convincing from the nuns and my lawyer), he finally signed them. I thought we were going to have a court date in January, then March, then May. I didn't know if I'd ever see the end of the paper-gathering process.

Francois D'Assisi, the day we first met. 
Finally, our dossier was complete we were granted a court date at the tribunal in our district for his adoption hearing. A judge would decide if I could become D'Assisi's legal parent on July 19. I awaited the date with a mix of excitement and apprehension, even fear. I wanted so badly to be his parent, and was terrified at the idea of the court saying no.

Many people reminded me that even if the judge ruled no, I'd still be able to be a part of his life, and that's very true. I'm extremely blessed to have been able to stay in Rwanda, just 30 minutes from the convent where he lives, and to be able to see him on a regular basis. Although I would be able to see him on weekends and sometimes for a quick meal midweek, it felt like he had grown a foot and aged five years in between. I wanted to be there for the life "in between", the small moments like eating breakfast together and reading to him at night. I wanted to be able to make medical decisions for him. I wanted to provide stability (he lives with 8 sisters, but they switch out every two years or so depending on what the order needs them to do, so he's had over twenty parents in his life already). I wanted to provide him love.

Before I knew it, it was the night before our adoption hearing. I couldn't sleep from thinking about all of the what-ifs and maybes. I finally fell asleep around 3 am, and awoke to the blaring of my alarm clock at 6:15 am. I picked up my lawyer and one of the nuns who would serve as a witness, and we drove the two hours or so to the rural tribunal, first along smooth, paved roads, and then along rough, rock-strewn ones that wound through the hills near the Burundi border.

In the car, my lawyer quizzed me on questions the judge might ask:
"You are now single. What if you get married and your husband does not accept D'Assisi?"
"I would never marry anyone who didn't accept him."
"Oh. I didn't think of that."

"How can you prove that you are not a child abuser or trafficker or just trying to adopt a child to serve your own purposes?"
"Umm....I lived in a convent for 2 years and the nuns are supporting me in the adoption? And I don't know, if I were trying to traffic a kid, I probably would have given up on this one a long time ago and gone for someone easier?"
"Okay, noted."

My lawyer asked me if I'd like to defend myself, in Kinyarwanda, or if he'd do all the talking. I gladly gave him the responsibility. My hands were cold and clammy, and my throat was as dry as a cotton ball, and my lawyer certainly had a lot more experience than I did.

At last, we pulled in front of a small brick building where a few people were waiting on benches outside the court. There were signs hanging up on the doors that said "Corruption is forbidden. You don't have to pay for your rights." We went inside to the simple courtroom, filled with rows of wooden benches, a raised platform for the judge in front of a large framed picture of the President in the front of the room, and a Rwandan flag. My lawyer put on his lawyer robes: black satin with ancient-looking white puffy sleeves at the wrists, and we waited for the judge to arrive. I expected that we'd be alone in the courtroom, especially since ours was the first appointment of the day, but other people who had hearings that day all crowded onto the benches inside.

I tapped my feet nervously as we waited for the judge, and Sr. Alphonsine held my sweaty hand to calm me down. The judge came about 40 minutes later, wearing black robes and a round black pillbox-style hat, and everyone stood up. He called my name, trying his best to pronounce my unfamiliar last name, and the hearing began.

My lawyer presented him with the meticulously collected dossier, as well as copies of all of D'Assisi's medical files from Rwanda and our trip to Kenya. My lawyer presented our case. In short, D'Assisi had been abandoned as a baby, was HIV positive, and was taken in by the nuns, since several of them worked at the health center. I lived with him for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and fell in love with him. A year and a half ago, we discovered that D'Assisi had brain lesions and doctors in Rwanda couldn't diagnose what was causing them, so we travelled to Nairobi to see a pediatric neurologist there, who discovered that he had brain parasites. The treatment was successful, and he's healthy now, but the nuns have limited means and aren't able to provide a steady environment.

Given the quizzing in the car, I expected us to be at the tribunal for hours, with an intense volley of questions from the judge. My lawyer talked for maybe forty minutes, and answered a few questions ("How old is the woman pursuing the adoption?"). The judge paused, and said, "It's so obvious that this adoption would be a clear benefit to the child, and I really have nothing to argue about. The adoption is successful. Come back at 2 pm to pick up the signed official documents." And just like that, the judge called someone else's name and it was all done.
Toddler picture. That hat! Those little legs. 
My lawyer and Sr. Alphonsine stood up to head outside, and I followed suit. I thought I had perhaps misunderstood the decision.
"So, we won?"I asked.
"We won. You're a parent. Where are we getting drinks?" my lawyer responded.

I burst into tears, which shocked both my lawyer and Sr. Alphonsine.
"Why are you crying?! You're supposed to be happy!"my lawyer exclaimed confusedly.
All I managed to blubber through the tears was that I'm an American, and sometimes we cry when we're happy too.

I called my parents, even though it was around 2 or 3 am Nebraska time, and told them the good news. We had to come back to the court to get the documents in a few hours, so my lawyer wanted to get buy some maize flour at the local market, and I tried to answer a few emails in the car. It was a surreal experience, having your life completely and utterly changed forever, and then trying to focus on some mundane, real life thing like answering an email.

Sr. Alphonsine had to get back to her work at the local school, so we drove her back. All of the sisters and I hugged, and I cried all over again. D'Assisi came back from school for his lunch break, and I practically smothered him I hugged him so tight. We ate lunch with the sisters, the usual rice, beans, and boiled greens, and I then I asked D'Assisi in Kinyarwanda, "Ese urashaka kuba umuhungu wanjye?""Do you want to be my son?" He responded, "yego."

Four years, one month, and six days passed from the first day I met D'Assisi until I became his mother. I could not be any more grateful for the time we've spent together, for his health, and for the support from family and friends near and far. I'm looking forward for all that is to come.

Love wins.
Mama D'Assisi

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Four Years in Rwanda.

It's been awhile since I last wrote. I find that I don't have as much time to write as in my Peace Corps days, and that I don't take the time to write as much. They are two different things. I hope to get back into writing more frequently, if for nothing than for my own good, like being able to look at a map as you make a long voyage and remembering all the beautiful places you passed on the way.

Anyways. As of 10 May, I've been in the Land of a Thousand Hills for four years. Give or take 1,460 days. Two years longer than I planned on staying.

I suppose that I'll have to get another subtitle for my blog now, as it's currently set as "One Girl. Two Years. My Life in Rwanda", which was last appropriate in May 2014. Alternate options for subtitles include "I Never Expected to Stay this Long" ,"The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Who Never Returned", "The Staring Never Stops", "I Swear Rwanda is Awesome" and "Sorry, Mom."

I'm sitting on the long porch of my house in Kamembe thinking about how I somehow never left Rwanda, watching lightning flicker across the inky sky over the DR Congo. Night is when my small town in the southwest is the most peaceful--the border closes, and the hustle and bustle of traders and travelers ceases. The lights of fishermen's boats are scattered across placid Lake Kivu, the darkness of the night disguising the depth of the lake. I can faintly hear the songs of the fishermen on the lake, Congolese rhumba music playing across the peninsula in Bukavu, and engines braking in the distance. It's when I become most introspective and thoughtful, thinking about life and what I'm doing here, so far from my beloved Cornhusker state.

Fishermen on Lake Kivu
Sunset on Lake Kivu
When I strike up conversations with Rwandans on the bus, in a restaurant, or in the crowded sauna I sometimes frequent here, they almost always ask how long I've been in Rwanda. Imyaka ine, I respond. Four years. Then they ask how long I will stay in Rwanda: iteka ryose, I respond jokingly. Forever. We both laugh, and they almost always ask why I stayed so long. Abantu beza, Imisozi myiza, I respond, trying to condense four intense years into as many words. Good people, beautiful hills. 

I guess I don't have any good answers to why I stayed, other than I have found meaning and purpose and beauty in the everyday here that I have not found anywhere else, and these are more necessary parts of my life than nearly anything else.

Part of this is my job, working with a fantastic group of people to make farmers in Rwanda and East Africa more prosperous, part of it is the communities I'm a part of and the people I love here, including D'Assisi, and part of it is seeing growth and change all around me, and feeling that I am contributing to that, in the smallest of ways.

One of the many lessons I've learned: always work with joy

Rwanda is not the same country as in 1994. It is not the same country as when I stepped off the plane in Kigali in May 2012. In the four years I've spent here, I've seen roads being paved, hotels and buildings going up, the Kigali Convention Center's dome lighting up the city.

I've seen friends from my village improve their houses, get bigger harvests, buy cellphones, open bank accounts, and attend university in Kigali.

 I've talked to members of my community who had their lives destroyed in 1994, and have managed, impossibly, to forgive and to rebuild. It's hard to describe this feeling of momentum, but it's exciting to be a part of, like being a tiny droplet in a river rushing rapidly downstream.

I fell in love with this mysterious, beautiful, bewildering, lush, exciting country, and sometime during those four years, it became my home. 

I adore the vibrant colors and patterns of the igitenge clothing worn by Rwandan women, the kinyarwanda songs and energetic dancing of my colleagues before and after every meeting, the reddish brown earth that seems to pervade the very pores of my skin whenever I wander outside, piles of speckled multicolor beans at the market and mounds of fresh fruits balanced atop vendors' heads, the fresh air and tall trees of the misty rainforest near my house, and the cool blue waters of Kivu. I traded the flat plains of the Midwest for the green rolling hills of this small east African country. For how long, I don't know. It's hard to give up on momentum.

For now, I just want to be grateful for the most challenging and most rewarding four years of my life.

Murakoze Cyane, Rwanda.