I stepped out of the shower and blew my nose. Red. Inside my ears. Red. The remnants of a day at Akagera National Park on safari. I had been warned.
Awake at 4 a.m., we climbed into Land Rovers at 4:30 and were on our way. People walking on the sides of the street. Always walking. Bicycles loaded up with “umbrellas” of green bananas. Yellow canisters for gathering water. Gathered sticks and wood. Futon mattresses. All morning long. From the city on the way out to the park. We go through a traffic circle and I see arrows for Tanzania and Uganda. We are not going there.
Dawn has broken and children are walking to school. Different colored uniforms denoting the different schools. Many wearing hand-me-down uniforms, several sizes too large. All of them smiling, waving. Some yell out “muzungo” or “well to do.”
We stop at a gas station to use the toilet and we are guided to a pit toilet that needs to be unlocked. Why is it locked? I roll up my pant legs and go in, but refuse to shut the door. I squat low to the ground. I feel like I’ve gone native. My friend Lilly recommended I bring lots of tissue and hand sanitizer to Africa. I am grateful for her advice.
The road into the park is windy, uneven, chewed up red dirt. Long. An hour or more to the entrance. Once in we see zebras, giraffes, tiko. Running water buffalo. Hippos bobbing their heads out of the muck – one up, one down, like whack-a-moles. A handful of gray monkeys.
Rwanda has far less developed safaris than Kenya. It is known for its gorillas. The country limits the number of permits issued to visitors. One of our group has snagged a coveted permit and for $500 is off early in a jeep by herself. Later, over dinner, she tells us about feeling black fur between her legs as a gorilla pressed into her and kept on walking.
The ride home is long, dusty, red. We see banana and pineapple trees. Corn, rice and sorghum are growing. We doze on and off. I listen to a political debate about Israel from the seats behind me. I am quiet and I learn a lot. We are on Africa time. Everything takes a little longer. Everything moves a little more slowly. There is time for talking.
Yesterday morning we met with the Peer Parents from WE-ACTx and learned how these HIV-positive teens and young adults are providing guidance, support and an experience of hope and health to other young people with HIV – most of them born with the disease. In the afternoon we brought yoga mats, collected by the congregation, to the younger children living with HIV – and watched David lead them through Ashtanga poses and an overall experience of joy. His goal, he says, is to bring smiles to their faces. And he does. Later, the children have a snack of donuts and milk. All of them are thin. All of them want their photograph taken and to see themselves on our cameras.
We walk to dinner in the Muslim quarter and eat whole roasted fish and potatoes. No plates, no utensils. Prior to eating, a server brings liquid soap, warm water and a basin to each of us. We eat with our hands. It feels intimate, communal.
Back in our room, my roommate and I debrief on the day. It is full of emotion. We want to leave our American lives at home but all the “stuff” of our lives follows us here. And I have the great, good fortune to have a new friend to unpack it with.
We just got back from dinner – Ethiopian food. The music is cranked outside the CommonWealth Guest House where we are staying and people are dancing in the yard. Last night it was Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing Islands in the Stream. The music seems as random as the architecture.
Tin shacks dot one side of the green hills. Modern, clean-lined homes surrounded by walls the other. It reminds me of Mexico. The dichotomy is everywhere. Women in traditional African fabrics, baskets on their heads, walk side-by-side with women in jeans. Sidewalks (and dirt roads) teem with people walking. Toyotas line up in traffic.
Those who visited Rwanda four years ago are amazed by the growth and changes. Today we visited the WE-ACTx clinic that provides comprehensive health and human services to women and children with HIV and AIDS. A doctor from Cook County Hospital in Chicago founded the organization in 2004, along with a handful of other individuals. She lives in Boston now and visits the clinic a few times a year. The permanent staff is comprised of locals. Chantal, one of the employees, holds a notebook emblazoned with the Oracle logo.
In the morning we filled packs with 30-day supplies of AIDS medication. In the afternoon we helped paint a mural in the library. Filling the medication packs, talk turns to politics and the country’s insistence upon calling the 1994 genocide, “the genocide of the Tutsi People.” It seems obvious. Stories are shared in hushed tones about the tensions that remain between Hutus and Tutsis. And what it is to have victims and perpetrators living side by side. I hear the words Rwanda is a lot about veneer – appearances. Newly paved streets. And the absence of ethnic identity cards.
In our down time this afternoon, several of us go for a walk. We ask Judith at the reception desk if it is safe to walk. “Very safe,” she says. “You will have no problems.” We pass a gaggle of uniformed students leaving school at 5 p.m. The youngest ones want to touch our hands. They say “hello” and “bon jour.” The older girls – tweens at best – look at me with surprise. Their heads are shaved short, as are the heads of the smaller girls. It appears to be the custom. We imagine they are not used to seeing a white, Western woman with a shaved head. It still draws attention in the United States. The younger ones are excited to have their picture taken.
We walk up the hill two by two. A truck full of young men passes by. The give us the thumbs up. I am painfully aware that my skirt is a little shorter than the norm here. Above my knees. I am uncomfortable.
Tonight I will sleep under my mosquito net again. It feels like a dreamy pillow fort. My roommate has a twin version in the bed next to me. Last night we traded stories of our lives, as if at camp. Tonight, perhaps, we will sleep.
Last Monday, I mentioned to my therapist that I was put on a diet when I was 10. I was in the 5th grade; and seemingly overnight, our 1970s harvest gold kitchen was transformed — divided by foods that were “mine” and “theirs.”
This was also the year I stopped going to recess.
Instead of going to the “senior” playground at Green Elementary School, I took my “diet lunch” (consisting of melba toast, a measured amount of cheese, and sliced carrots or a piece of fruit) to my 4th grade teacher’s classroom, where I sat alone, correcting papers.
I stopped playing when I was 10.
The story of being forced to diet in fifth grade has deep grooves in the brain. I know it like I know my name. But, I had never connected it with my ceasing to play with my pals. Or the understanding that I had become serious — young. And fast.
As a way of helping me develop compassion for myself, my therapist suggested I look at 10-year-olds this week.
“They are really little, ” she said.
I didn’t see any until today at dance class. My teacher’s daughter, Rose. She looks about 10 to me. She is small, lithe, boyish –with short dreadlocks. Adorable. I watch her wrap her arms around her stepmom’s waist, and around other students. Her father is away right now, in Africa.
I did not look like that at 10. I am certain of it.
I look in the mirrored wall of the dance studio and I see my soft arms and my rounded belly. And I think of Friday.
I am sitting in the cab of my friend Kelly’s truck — in the middle, three across. The third passenger squeezes in and says, “It’s a really good thing you are skinny, Lesley. Otherwise we’d never be able to do this.”
I don’t think of myself as thin. In fact, I’ve always guessed that my Weight Watchers members are thinking, “Yeah….she could lose 5 or 10.” Or that the reason they like me so much is that I am, ahem, “real.” And by that I mean, not “too thin.”
I tell the third passenger that he made my day. He replies, “It isn’t a compliment, Lesley. Just the truth.”
I want to believe him. Instead, I think that maybe I should get to know him better. That maybe he is really nice, rather than a teller of truths. I call my best girlfriend, Julie and we laugh. We talk about the word “skinny.”
And I think about 5th grade, and the Sasson jeans my mother bought me when I lost 10 pounds.
Every year for Chanukkah my mother sends me a wall calendar. I always know it is coming. It is understood.
More often than not, my mother’s gift mirrors where I am in my life. Like the year that I bought her the book “Mothers and Daughters,” and she sent me the calendar of the same name. Sometimes the calendars are about food — always a safe bet. Or spirituality — ditto. One year it was “School House Rock.”
“Conjunction junction, What’s your function?”
Every December I transfer birthdays to the new calendar.
This year I am a little late. And in transferring the birthdays and anniversaries, I am also privy to a chronicle of the days before I left Chicago.
I’m not sure why these occasions are marked on the “family” calendar hanging in my kitchen, instead of in my day planner. Perhaps because I wanted my husband Lee to be on the same page as I. So much was happening, beginning in June.
June 3. Lee’s graduation from residency. My mother and stepfather drive in from Tennessee. And my cousin and his partner make the trek from Minneapolis. We don’t know for certain where we were going to yet. I remember lunch at Le Creperie on a sunny Chicago day, and holding my cousin Andrew’s hand as we walked through Lincoln Park.
July 15. Lee’s last paycheck from Rush. July 23. My 15-year-old niece comes to visit. Our first solo trip. Five minutes after walking in the door she asks, “Has my father told you what’s going on in my life?” I respond, “Why don’t you tell me yourself.” Miraculously, she does.
We go to Shabbat services at the beach and for gelato with my girlfriends Pam and Kristen. It rains so hard overnight the architectural boat tour is cancelled as the river has swelled too high for the boats to clear the bridge. We take a Double Decker tour of Chicago instead. We ride the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier and eat more ice cream. She leaves me a note telling me, “I will always trust you to tell me the truth.”
July 30. My last day in my office. My office, the one with the placard that reads “bodysherpa.” The high brow address off of Michigan Avenue. My durga sculpture — a gift from my therapist when Lee and I were married — comes off of the wall. Lee’s nearly 20-year-old massage table is folded up. I close the door on the pale green walls and load up a trolley with my belongings. Most of them are sitting in my garage. I haven’t brought myself to unpacking them yet.
August 5. We drive to Kalamazoo for a final midwest visit with Uncle Bob and Ann and their new dog, Libby. August 6. We meet my oldest and dearest friend, Julie in South Haven, along with her husband and son, Jaron. I was there for Jaron’s birth. He is four now. August 8. I mark Tisha B’av services on the calendar. A dozen of us sit on the floor in a circle with candles between us. I read one of three poems that Rabbi Brant has chosen. Rochelle tells me that Seattle is a healing place. Even though she has not been there, of this she is certain.
Two days later Lee and I meet my client and “Chicago Dad” for dinner. He holds court at his favorite restaurant. When Lee is in the bathroom he looks me square in the eye and says, “So kiddo…how are you really?” I cry and tell him I am so sad. He pulls me to him and kisses my forehead.
August 11. My friend Lisa has a potluck at her house for some of my closest girlfriends. They give me a prayer shawl that I picked out with Pam a few weeks earlier at Spertus. I cry. No one is surprised.
August 12 I lead my last Weight Watchers meeting in Chicago. 11 a.m., Friday at the Century Center. I read to them what was read to me a few weeks earlier by a Weight Watchers member at a going away party. From Jane Howard’s Families: “…what E.M. Forster called ‘an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky,’ whose members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.’ ” My throat catches. I receive a standing ovation. Cards. Gifts. And lots of tears. I receive in August.
August 16. Brandi. I have no idea what this means. Who this is. I am lost.
August 19. The final JRC Shabbat service at the beach of the season. Friends meet me for a potluck. It is the first time Stuart has been to synagogue since he was a child. He is middle-aged.
The next day Lee and I host our own going-away party. The rain stops and 70 of our closest friends take over our tiny greystone condominium and shared backyard. Colette rewrites “You’re So Vain” about me and sings it to the crowd. August 21. A brunch in my honor.
August 22. Lee’s board exams and Rachel’s PET scan. Rachel receives good results — No evidence of disease. She is far away in Bali.
August 23. Packers. Five of them arrive and have us packed up and moved out in three hours. Lee and I sit on the back stairs. It is raining. I book a ticket back to Chicago for the High Holy Days on Lee’s United Airlines vouchers. ($400. He received them when he was bumped off a flight from Seattle to San Francisco and flew directly to Chicago instead. It seems poetic.) I pick up lunch at the Birchwood. Daniel, one of the owners, won’t let me pay. I have ceased to cook. Daniel and Judd are feeding me almost exclusively now.
August 24. Walk through with our new tenant, Jeff. I hire Melissa to clean our home. We spend the night with Pam and her daughters in the “high house.” They give us a mezzuzah. Charlotte finds the seemingly “missing” screws we will hang it with at our new home. She hands them over without a word. Crisis averted. Juliette and Charlotte perform a dance for us. Pam makes Lee an egg and cheese sandwich for dinner.
August 25. We go to our condo in Chicago one last time to pick up our cats. The Thule rack doesn’t fit right on the roof. Lee rigs it best as he can and we pray. Inside, I pray too. I drop to my knees in the back corner office, the room with the best sun, and sob. I thank God for this home. For my time in Chicago. For my life.
We leave for two nights in Minneapolis, staying with my friends Peter and Janice and visiting with my cousin and his partner, Ryan. August 26. It is my birth father’s birthday. I do not send a card. I trust he understands.
August 27. We are slated for Bizmark, ND but decide to tick off two more states (Wyoming and South Dakota) and stay in Rapid City, SD instead. We have dinner at the Golden Corral and fall into bed. We have driven nearly 12 hours. We stick our free Wall Drug bumper sticker on the 2000 Honda Civic, next to Amoeba Music.
August 28 Bozeman. Maxwell and his girlfriend, Annie are in the garden. We met Maxwell in Mexico many years ago and have seen him only one time since — when we drove to Chicago from California. He gives me a few books to read. We eat dinner in the backyard on a picnic table with a red and white checkered tablecloth. Pasta with tomatoes from their garden. In the morning Maxwell pulls us cappuccino and sends us on our way.
The next night we stop in Missoula, instead of Spokane, and stay with my college friends John and Karin, their two sons and dog. We arrive on the first day of school. They don’t mind. We go for a hike out their back door and John reminds us that the road behind his house leads to Canada. I eat cardamom ice cream at Big Dipper even though I am not hungry. I am not sure when I will be back.
August 30 we arrive in Issaquah. The 31st we drive into the city, receive our keys, and see our view of Elliot Bay for the first time.
The calendar marks little else after this. Some birthdays. Julie’s father’s yahrzeit. Dinner at Matt’s house when I return to Chicago for Rosh Hashanah.
Lee’s 30-year class reunion. He goes without me, and I stay in Chicago for Yom Kippur. Our 10-year wedding anniversary. Dinners with cousins David and Lois, Stuart and John. My sobriety anniversary. Surgeries: my stepfather’s and my friend Stephanie’s. Both go well. A Chanukkah party. Cat sitting for Jessica.
I cut out a few quotes from the calendar before I toss it in the recycle bin:
“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.” Buddha. “I want you to be everything that’s you, deep at the center of your being.” Confucius. “He who is contented is rich.” Lao Tzu. “From caring comes courage.” Lao Tzu. “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” Buddha.
And finally, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I want to be.” Lao Tzu.
I attended Women’s Torah Study for the first time today.
Also at the table was a woman slightly younger than me, a woman slightly older than me, and many women much, much older than me. Imagine a circle of Bella Abzugs, sitting at plastic folding tables, eating poppy-seed cookies and drinking coffee in paper cups. Sans hats. A feminist Jewish take on “Being John Malkovich” — the scene where Malkovich, having tumbled inside his own head, at every turn, sees another Malkovich.
Except we didn’t say “Malkovich.” We were talking about sex. And status.
The Bellas claimed that women without children held higher status today than those that were mothers. Janet, a woman in her 60s or 70s, recalled being fired from her job as a teacher for becoming pregnant. I, 42 and childless by choice, somewhat cautiously begged their pardon.
I explained that, having recently moved, I am often telling “my story.” The inevitable question, following the disclosure of my husband’s acceptance of a job here, is “Do you have children?” When I reply “no,” the conversation halts abruptly, followed by a cocked head and an awkward, close-lipped smile.
I often feel I have to save the conversation, save them from their discomfort, and me from mine. I make a joke. “Just cats. That’s all the responsibility I can handle.” But that’s not even close to true.
It’s the same awkward feeling I have when asked what I do for work. “A little of this, a little of that,” I reply, feeling a lot like the Big Lebowski. How do I explain that I’m consciously not really working right now? That I’m healing? That I’m practicing really good self-care?
Who am I if I am not a mother? A reporter? A massage therapist? A Weight Watchers leader? Someone’s wife? Someone’s daughter? Who am I if I am not earning money or saving the world or taking care of someone? How do I claim my place at the table?
A number of the Bellas came to greet me after class. They said they enjoyed what I had to say. The perspective I brought. I had a voice, something to offer, regardless of my status, or how I named myself.
Before I left, one of the oldest women pulled me aside. “Do you choose to wear your hair like that?” she asked, referring to my shaved head. I bristled and prepared myself for unpleasant-ness. “I do.”
“You are so lucky. You have a beautiful head.”
Indeed I do. In many ways.
It’s ten of 10. Shabbat services begin in 10 minutes but I’m still in my husband’s bathrobe. I’m not going.
Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s fatigue. Maybe I’m acting like a petulant 5-year-old. But I’m not going.
My search for a Jewish home in Seattle has proven to be a lot of work. And the response, or lack thereof, for today’s chosen congregation, has me feeling a little demoralized and a little beaten down. I feel like I’m dating. I suppose I sort of am.
I decided to “try out” services at a Jewish “co-op” in my neighborhood. The group meets just once a month for Saturday morning minyan. Their address is not listed on the website. Instead, I was “invited” to send an email requesting their location.
I did that earlier this week. I did not receive a response.
I’m pretty sure I know where the group rents space, because I’ve seen their sandwich board inside of the church up the hill. But the lack of response left me feeling less than welcomed.
I spoke to my cousin about the situation this morning. (He attends a different congregation that I’ve been flirting with — attending Torah study, occasional services and meeting with one of the rabbis.) He said the co-op’s approach — including the lack of address — is intentional. You aren’t supposed to just “show up.” You are supposed to be “invited,” as it were.
And I wasn’t invited.
For years, the organized Jewish community has cried out, “We are losing Jews. No one is affiliating — joining up.” And here I am — trying to show up. “Hineni — I am here.”
It felt like I was calling into a well.
I made that same call — here I am — a number of years ago when I was living in Chicago. And it was met by the heart of a kind teacher.
We studied together for my conversion to Judaism. (I am an adoptee. Raised a Jew, but not born one.) His gentle prodding encouraged me to join Torah study and worship services. To be a part of. He told me I couldn’t be a Jew alone. He was right.
But this morning, I am a Jew alone — waxing nostaligic about my “ex” congregation. Tomorrow I will not be. I have a “date” with a women’s Torah study group.
Still dating. Desperate to go steady.
If my years of dating taught me anything, I’ll find my beloved when I stop looking. And then wonder why I couldn’t just enjoy dating.