Tuesday, October 10, 2017

World Mental Health Day: My Struggle with Mental Illness

Today is October 10, World Mental Health Day.

Each year, I’ve silently commemorated this day, but until today I’ve never publically shared my own struggles with mental illness. I’ve whispered to a few close friends what happened to me over ten years ago, but I have always been too ashamed to talk openly about my battle with depression and suicide when I was a teenager. I’m no longer ashamed.

When I was 16, my world turned upside down.  During my sophomore year of high school, I went from being a happy, normal teenage girl to suicidal in the period of a few months. To this day, I don’t know exactly what happened; there was no triggering event or traumatic circumstances that caused my slide into severe depression, but every day, I felt my world become a little bit darker. Food had no taste, the world became colorless and dull, and things I previously enjoyed no longer brought me happiness. Eventually, I could not bring myself to get out of bed in the mornings and I thought about suicide on a regular basis. I felt like I had to be perfect, and that I was disappointing people if I wasn’t. To be totally honest, I felt worse than useless, and felt like the world would have been better without me.

I’ve kept journals since I was in first or second grade, but the diaries from my sophomore year of high school are particularly difficult to read. My entries turned from cheerful dithering about the minutiae of my life and everything I was excited about in the future to what a waste of space I was, and how I wasn’t good enough at whatever I did. I once went to the library and checked out every single self-help book on happiness, determined to find the answers to my depression in literature, but nothing seemed to help.

My writings became darker and darker until I wanted to end my own life in the middle of the night in May of 2005, the spring of my sophomore year. I woke up in a padded room in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. There was nothing but a bed inside the room, and a nurse had to accompany me when I showered or went to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t try to kill myself when I was alone. I remember nothing of that dark, dark night—I do not recall my parents driving me to the hospital or getting checked in or falling asleep. I stayed in the psych ward for a week, and was finally released with multiple prescriptions of medications to take and appointments with a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

For a little more than a year, I switched from medication to medication, trying to find the right combination that would magically make me feel better, and I saw the counselor each week and the psychiatrist each month, lying to my friends about where I had to go after school.


Then, on a youth trip to Germany several months later, I had another suicidal episode and was taken to a hospital near Cologne. It was the same routine in a different place. I remember nothing of the trip there or being checked into the hospital; I remember waking up and being in another room with just a bed in it, doctors with German-accented English, and a big observation window where the nurses could watch me around the clock. I felt like an animal in the zoo as doctors in white coats would gather on the other side of the observation window and write notes on their clipboards. I do not know how long I stayed at that hospital. It could have been two days or two weeks. The entire rest of the trip was a blur—I do not even recall the transatlantic flight home.

After I returned, I again cycled through a host of different medications, trying to find something that would work. I continued meeting with a therapist who wasn’t that helpful and a psychiatrist who was amazing. And I started practicing yoga, five or six days a week.


Slowly, I came out of the fog that had haunted me. I eventually stopped seeing my psychiatrist and therapist. I finally discontinued my meds, but kept up my regular yoga practice. And a couple of years after that first stay in the psychiatric ward, I felt back to normal. Like waking up from a nightmare, I was back to being myself again.

I’m writing my story today for a few different reasons:

Firstly, I felt a huge sense of shame for over ten years for having struggled with suicide and depression in my past. But I’ve now come to realization that you should feel no more shame about struggling with mental health than physical health (which is to say, none). I shouldn’t feel any more stigma to share my story about depression in high school than if I broke my arm or tore my ACL as a teenager. I am no longer ashamed to tell my story.

Secondly, when I was going through my battle with mental health in high school, I knew no one else who had struggled with depression or suicide, much less anyone who had come out alive and well on the other side. Not knowing anyone else who was going through something similar made me feel much more ashamed and isolated than if I had known depression is a fairly common illness, affecting more than 16.1 million American adults each year. At the time, I could not even fathom a time in the future when I would ever feel happy again, when I would stop dreaming about swallowing pills or fantasizing about walking off our roof or hanging myself. If you are struggling with mental illness, know that you are not alone, and that it is possible to recover completely. Over ten years later, I’m living life to the fullest, I have a wonderful son and a job I love, and I’m grateful to still be here to tell my story. Know that there are lots of different treatment options, and sometimes it takes awhile to find out what works. Not all therapists are created equal—find one that understands your needs. Yoga for me was a lifesaver and more effective than the therapist I was seeing. Keep trying even if it feels like things aren’t working—it took me a long time to get the right combination of support, medication, and doing yoga. Know that you are not alone, and that you can heal.


Thirdly, if you never struggle with mental illness but want to support a friend or family member who is going through it, I want to offer a few words of advice based on my own experience. Although this may sound obvious, never, ever shame someone who is struggling with depression. When I got out of the psychiatric ward, my high school tennis coach let me know how disappointed she was that I’d missed a big tennis meet (WTF). I had a few people who were probably trying to help, but would say things like, “Just think happy thoughts!” or  “You need to start loving yourself” or “Stop being so sad all the time, and realize you have so many great things in your life.” This is like telling a diabetic person to just control their blood sugar.  These comments just made me feel even worse—it made me feel that feeling depressed or thinking suicidal thoughts was my own fault and personal failing, rather than a chemical imbalance in my brain that I had no control over.

Things that you should do if you have a friend going through a mental illness: continue to tell your loved ones that they’re valuable. I had a good friend who was a Catholic priest who continued to tell me that I mattered and my life was important even through the very worst of my depression; he saved my life on more than one occasion. My Dad and brother used to write me notes and leave them on my bed with song lyrics (“I think I can make it now the rain is gone”) or just an “I love you.” Continue to be there for that person, even if they try to push you away. Let them know that you’re there to listen, and actually show up to listen. If they are opening up to you, don’t try to make the focus about you or say you know exactly what they’re going through if you don’t. Don’t even think about saying some shit like, “Everything happens for a reason” to someone in a serious situation like this (this seems like an obvious thing to me, but I actually got comments like that surprisingly often). Try not to take it personally if they try to push you away. Be there, listen, and be supportive.

My brother really took the whole "be supportive" thing literally
Fourthly, I’m writing this today because I have loved ones who are currently struggling with anxiety or depression and are too ashamed to seek treatment. Know that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and there are also multiple treatment options available. You can feel better. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness.

And finally, although I don’t want to put my contact details here on the internet, if you do know me personally, know that you can call me or message me any time of the day or night if you’re going through something similar and want someone to talk to about it. The Samaritans is also a great organization for people going through any sort of crisis—big or small. They operate a free hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you are connected to a trained volunteer who will confidentially listen and offer support to you. When I was sixteen and it was three in the morning and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I called them.

Know that you are valuable, know that you are loved, and know that things can get better.


Love,
Claire

Saturday, September 30, 2017

How Young is Too Young to Teach About Genocide?

I look forward to Saturday mornings the entire week. If I'm lucky, D'Assise will wait until 6:30 am to wake me up, giving me a whole glorious hour of sleeping in. And then I make us some coffee (watering his down with lots of additional hot water and more milk), and we either play card games, watch Beatles concerts on YouTube, or if we tried to watch a movie the night before but were too tired to finish, we watch the rest of the movie on Saturday morning. It's peaceful outside and the morning sunlight streams into our house, and he snuggles up next to me on the cushions in our living room.

Last night, we'd started to watch The Sound of Music, one of my all-time favorites, but we were both full of pizza and nodded off shortly after Maria gets kicked out of the convent. D'Assise had seen the movie before, when I would regularly watch it with the nuns I lived with as a Peace Corps Volunteer (the nuns would sometimes jokingly call me "Maria" as a result), but he was too young to remember.

This morning, he was entranced by the seven Von Trapp children singing together and delighted when they all fell out of the canoe on the lake. But there were several parts of the movie that were confusing to him as well. When Captain VonTrapp ripped down the Nazi flag that was hung at his house in the movie and when the family flees to the Alps to escape the soldiers, D'Assise asked me what was going on. Why were they so scared? Why were the angry soldiers trying to catch the family?

I have wondered many, many times this past year when it's appropriate to start telling D'Assise about genocide. He's eight years old, and I have parsed my memory trying to remember how old I was when I heard about such atrocities, and wondering when I could talk to him about it without overwhelming him.



Perhaps if we were in the U.S., I would choose to wait a little bit longer to explain the terrible things that humans are capable of. The earliest I could remember learning about the Holocaust in elementary school was fourth grade; D'Assise is in third grade. But we live in Rwanda, where the country still commemorates the million lives lost in 1994 each April, where there is a genocide memorial nearby the route to D'Assise's school, and where human skulls are displayed right outside of the church that we attend on Sundays. A month or two ago, D'Assise asked me after school if he is Hutu or Tutsi. I was shocked and saddened to hear that question from him. I responded that he's Rwandan. I asked D'Assise where he heard those terms, and he responded that he heard kids at school talking about it and was just curious.

D'Assise was born in 2008, fourteen years after the genocide in Rwanda. Since he was abandoned as a baby, we do not know his biological parents, and I couldn't answer the question any other way, even if I had wanted to. He is, and will always be, truly a Rwandan.

This morning, I decided that it was probably a good time to talk about it with him since he was asking questions anyways. I started by talking about the events that were confusing to him in the movie. The movie was based on history, and I gave him an overview of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Holocaust, and the invasion of Europe, while trying not to go too far into some of the horrific details.

I then asked him if he knew what the word genocide meant, and D'Assise responded yes, jenoside---the kinyarwanda-ized version of the same word. I asked him if he knew what the word meant, and he said it was a type of war, but he didn't know much more. I asked D'Assise if knew that Rwanda had experienced a genocide, and he said yes but he wasn't born yet. I asked D'Assise if he had learned about genocide in school, but he said no. He had overheard the Sisters he lived with talking about how one nun in their order had gone out to buy potatoes during 1994, but she was found later with a machete through her skull. I was horrified and incredibly saddened. I asked him if kids at school talked about the genocide, but he said no, that if they ever talked about it, they'd be sent to the police.



I asked him why he thought people committed genocide and how it happens, and he said "because they hate other people." I said yes, but also because a lot of people--their friends and neighbors and community members--- looked the other way instead of doing anything. We both sat there in silence for awhile--I could tell that he was processing what we had discussed. Finally, I gave him a hug and he went out to play soccer.

I know that this won't be the last time we discuss these difficult topics. But I hope that by starting the conversation now, instead of staying silent if his classmates ask him if he's Hutu or Tutsi, that he'll be able to respond that it doesn't matter, that they're all abanyarwanda, Rwandan.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

One Year as Family

Although it feels crazy to actually type, D'Assise and I have been a family for one year. 


Well, technically a year and two months (I intended to write this around the time of our actual "Gotcha Day" on July 19, but in true working-single-mother-fashion, I'm writing it two months later when I'm in bed with malaria and actually found the time to write). 



I've been his mother for one year. He's been my son for one year.



And he's totally turned my world upside down.



We've gone to the U.S. twice together



In winter

First time seeing snow!
And in summer


We've celebrated his birthday


And my birthday


Christmas


And New Years
Asleep by 10 pm :) 
And my very first Mother's Day. 


There have been hard times.



But there has also been joy.


so, so much joy. 


Having D'Assise as my son has been the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I feel like I'm a hundred times more grateful because I felt that our family was never going to happen, not in a million years. 


When I first met D'Assise, as a 22 year old Peace Corps Volunteer, I knew that I wanted him to be my son someday. I called my family back home that night and told them I wanted to adopt him. They told me that I was crazy and not to mess up my life. And that was largely the message most people gave us for the next two years: don't do this. Why not just pay for his school fees and his healthcare but not adopt him? And I doubted whether it was possible, and I questioned my own sanity for wanting to do something that so many people advised me against.

I was dubious that D'Assise would ever become my son when he started having serious health problems and we discovered he had brain lesions in 2014. I did not know whether he would survive the year.



I doubted that we would be a family even after taking him to Nairobi for treatment and learning how long and complicated the adoption process would likely be for us. Rwanda has largely barred foreigners from adopting, and there were zero successful international adoptions in several years.

Even when my lawyer and I were driving to the courthouse for D'Assise's adoption hearing last year, I could barely entertain the notion that the outcome would be a positive one. I had prepared myself for rejection because I was too scared of getting my hopes up only to have them crushed.

And yet. 


Here we are, five years after I first met him in the convent, as family, just living normal life. We have our little three room house together, I wake him up with the Beatles and make him breakfast as he gets ready for the day, and we bike to school together, blasting music from our speaker and talking about our hopes and fears and everything in between.



I still have to pinch myself to make sure it's not all a dream. 



We read stories together every single night, and sometimes D'Assise will fall asleep before the story is even over. And sometimes I just lie there, feeling the weight of little head on my shoulder, listening to his peaceful inhales and exhales, and seeing his tiny toes peek out under the covers. No matter how tough the day has been, I feel a huge sense of gratitude that everything worked out in the end, that we were lucky enough to get the million-in-one-chance to be a family.



And it's all real. 







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 high...my 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?"
"Yes."
"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.