Sunday, July 16, 2017

The 28 Things I Know For Sure

Last week, I celebrated my sixth straight birthday in Rwanda. I woke up at 5:15, a little bit earlier than usual since D'Assise had exams that day (one of the things that's utterly bewildering to me: on his exam days, his school starts at 6 am instead of the normal 7 am), we biked to school together, had a pretty normal work day, and then celebrated with friends that evening. Side note: I'm pretty sure D'Assise is the only person on the planet I'd wake up at 5:15 am for on my birthday.
How could I ever say no to that face? 
I'm always a bit reflective near my birthdays, evaluating how the year has gone so far, what lessons life has taught me (for better or worse), and what else I want to accomplish this year. 27 was full of change for me (adopting a kid, maternity leave in the U.S, which was the longest I've been back on American soil in 5 years, moving to a new home, the end of some relationships and the beginnings of others). I'm now officially in my late rather than mid-twenties. I'm also a big fan of Oprah's "The Things I Know For Sure" lists, so for my 28th year, here are the things I know for sure:

In no particular order:
1. A good friend is worth more than just about anything on the planet.

2. The true test of friendship is what I like to call "The Trash Heap Test." If you could spend a day perched on a giant trash heap with someone and still have a great time, they're probably someone you should keep around. It's not where you are, it's the people you're with.

ok, even for friends that pass the Trash Heap Test, stunning Rwandan rainforests never hurt ;)
3. I work best with deadlines, in work and in my personal life. If I give myself a deadline for when something needs to be done, I do it. If it can be done anytime, it's always at the bottom of my to-do list. That yoga app I have on my phone? Almost never used. Yoga class I signed up for? I'm there.

4. Just because someone is attracted to you, doesn't mean they care about or respect you.

5. I'm an introvert that enjoys being around people, and that's ok. For a long, long time, I thought there was something wrong with me for not wanting to be around people 24/7. I now realize there's nothing crazy about needing a little me time every day. It doesn't mean that I don't love being around people, just that if I'm around people for long periods of time I get worn out and need some alone time to recharge.

6. Cooking a meal for friends and enjoying it together (optional: good drinks and nice views) is one thing that never fails to make me happy.

7. Books and art and music make life worth living. Discovering an awesome new song makes my day (and I will play it every day until I get sick of it. Literally, D'Assise's nanny asked me if my computer was broken because I had this song on repeat for weeks on end at my house).

8. Sunscreen errrrryyy day. Especially when you live near the equator and your ancestors are of the Irish variety.

9. People sometimes change in incredibly beautiful and strange ways, and I shouldn't hold people to my image of what they were like in junior high or high school (to the people who knew me in junior sincere apologies).

10. I am a crazy, miserable person when I'm sleep deprived. I would do crazy things to get more sleep. If I were ever a spy and got caught and someone sleep deprived me, I would 100% reveal every secret that I knew.

11. I have a daily "wonder" quota, and adventure makes me feel alive. This often comes in the form of nature (Rwanda has no shortage of stunning scenery and beautiful sunsets), or just trying something new.

12. The two worst feelings in the world, to me, are unrequited love and feeling alone in a crowd.

13. Never take your health, or access to good, affordable healthcare for granted. This has been a lesson I wish I didn't have to learn the hard way. When I was trying to find out what was causing D'Assise's brain lesions two years ago, we saw several neurologists in Rwanda (there are only a handful in a country of 11 million people) and they told us to come back in 6-8 months if things were worse. When I took him to doctors in Kenya and in Rwanda about his walking problems, they told us he would never walk normally. Then in December, D'Assise had life-changing surgery on his achilles tendons that will enable him to walk normally, but because my insurance didn't cover pre-existing conditions, it costed over $27,000 for the treatment. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I will never stop being grateful for having him with me, in good health.

14. As an INFJ personality type, I'm driven by meaning and connection in my life. It's probably one of the reasons I've stayed in Rwanda so long (and love the work that I do)--I find a lot of meaning and purpose both in my work and my daily life here that I felt I often lacked in the U.S.

15. Goofiness is one thing I really value in my relationships, and it's probably one reason that D'Assise and I get along so well. When you're being goofy, you're being your most real, ridiculous self. It's hard to take someone too seriously when you're making fart jokes.

16. Don't compare other people's outsides to my insides. This has been a tough lesson for me to learn this year. No one ever has a bad day on Instagram. Other people's lives/bodies/ relationships/kids can look perfect from the outside, but you'll never know what they might be struggling with, how awful their relationship actually is on the inside, or what kind of parent they are.

17. Being grateful goes a long way. This year, each night before we go to bed, D'Assise and I tell each other what we're grateful for. It's often little things (that dope pasta my friend made, a cool swim in Lake Kivu, the kid who loaned me a pen at school when mine broke), but it's such a wonderful way to end the day.

18. Indulging in schadenfreude is like eating a ton of junk food. It feels good at first, but you regret it afterwards. It can feel good when bad shit happens to that kid who made you miserable in sixth grade or you hear some juicy gossip about your ex, but it doesn't make you feel great about yourself later.

19. You find out, for better or worse, who your friends are when you have a kid, and doubly so when you're a single Mom.

20. Travel is one of the best teachers and I'd rather spend my money on travel than just about anything else (ok...maybe cheese). Traveling has taught me that there's more than one way of doing things, and your way isn't always best.

21. Exercise makes me a better person. This year, I've been biking D'Assise school on our tandem bike, and it's a great start to the day.

22. Just because I like to dance doesn't mean that I can dance. Same goes for singing. D'Assise reminds me of both of these daily.

D'Assise at karaoke
23. Being a parent has made me realize why my parents did they things they did (no matter how unfair they seemed at the time!), the sacrifices they made for me, and it's made me admire them even more than I already did. I'm so grateful to have two incredible parents, and I literally can't imagine having 4 kids in 5 years while maintaining demanding full-time jobs. Mom and Dad, you're the best.

24. 99% of the time, people are making it up as they go along. No one has everything figured out before they do it (especially parenting!).

25. Journaling and writing are essential to me. I'm forever grateful to my Aunt Margaret who got me started on journaling at a really young age, and I've kept up the practice. My journals are the one object that I would save in a house fire. It's awesome to be able to look at what I was thinking as second grader, my worries as a seventh grader at a new school, what I thought of my high school boyfriend, and my first impressions of arriving in Rwanda five years ago.

26. Nice sheets are worth the money.

27. In the words of my 90 year old grandmother, Bubba, "It's easier to go up than to go down." You can get used to almost anything, and it's a lot easier to see and appreciate special things as luxuries than to have the special things become your normal every day. It's easy to add things but hard to take things away. I've realized this a lot going from being a Peace Corps Volunteer to having a steady paycheck and a real job in Rwanda. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I rode on the slowest, cheapest bus. I was used to eating beans, rice, and boiled cabbage for two meals a day, nearly seven days a week at the convent; if I went out for Primus beer and grilled potatoes, I expected the beer to be warm and for the potatoes to take two hours.                                                  

            Now, I frequently drive myself or have a driver and can arrive in a third of the time as the slow bus. I have access to a pretty wide variety of ingredients, and can cook in a well-stocked kitchen. I can afford to eat at restaurants in Kigali that I couldn't as a volunteer, that take well under two hours to deliver the food. But it's too easy to start taking all of that for granted. I remember walking into the beautiful modern kitchen of my current house over three years ago and just standing there in awe of it. I was used to cooking over an ancient wood-burning oven with a metal sheet over the top of it as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I had just walked into a huge communal kitchen with three refrigerators with cold beers inside and two sleek, gas stoves with ovens. Words escaped me it was so beautiful. And yet, three years later, I find myself too easily forgetting, and too easily taking things for granted. I find myself complaining when the food takes a long time at the restaurant, or when the power goes out and those beautiful refrigerators aren't working. And then I have to remember my Bubba's words and remember how lucky I am to have access to those things in the first place.

28. I need to be more patient with myself and others. I can be my own worst critic, and that's something I'm trying to change. My goal for age 28 is to be a lot more patient and forgiving of other people and myself. I read this beautiful thing the other day, about how we're always forgiving young children's behavior by attributing it to them missing a nap or being hungry or just having a bad day, but we're loathe to do the same for adults. We notice it with kids, but we forgive it and forget and move on. Maybe that colleague sent that passive-aggressive text because they were stressed with work right before their vacation. Maybe that friend who flaked out had a rough week and was just really hangry. Maybe that rude guy on the bus just needed a nap. I've tried being a lot more patient and forgiving of other people (and myself) the past couple of months, and it really changes your perspective.

Here's to you, 28. May you be a bit easier on me than 27.   

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.