Wednesday, April 3, 2019



      I finally gave in and started pulling on the thread sticking out on my yoga pants. I had been obsessing over it all morning, like an unsightly piece of dirt that needed to be rubbed off. But it wasn’t dirt, I knew that. Two hours prior, when my brain was online and fully capable of balancing the desire to pull on the thread against that of ruining my costly Lululemon yoga pants, I was able to successfully ignore the temptation. I only pick when I am nervous or afraid. 

            “Don’t freak out about the room,” my friend said in that way only a friend who knows your inner workings so well could possibly communicate. She knew I was freaking out. Any sane person would freak out. “Oh, wait,” I silently reminded myself, “you are where you are because... well...let’s face it, you are anything but sane!”

            I found myself sitting in an oversized gummy leather chair, strategically placed in the middle of a small, sterile windowless room, that frankly appeared and felt like it was padded, because my sanity was being called into question. A blinding interrogation light beat down on my head and in to my eyes, making it virtually impossible to see my friend, much less anyone else who entered my room. I was cloaked in the uniform, a nice smelling hospital gown carefully placed around my body by a large woman cooing accolades about bravery and optimism reminiscent of what I did with my voice, raising it few octaves, in praise of my child who performed some sort of activity that made him or her beam as if gleefully singing, “see mommy. I can do it all by myself!” 

            I thought it funny that she did not remove my black yoga pants. Maybe it was for the shear fact I was obviously experiencing paroxysmal shivers beneath my clammy skin. Filling in the dead space and time of uncertainty became a priority, so I began pulling so damn hard on that piece of thread that the line across my thigh became perfectly and irrevocably taut. I stared at it with fascination, trying to decide if I wanted to give it that with one final pull that would be the demise of my expensive yoga pants.

As I sat and waited for whatever was to happen next, my thoughts played back and forth between 2 embedded and insightful mantras— Norah Jones singing, “How much can a heart and a troubled mind take, where is that fine line before it all breaks; can one end their sorrow just cross over it, and into that realm of insanity’s bliss;” and the prophetic words that seemed to be a family favorite, when all else failed, “you are our mother.” Trust me, it was not meant as a compliment. 

             “Have you thought about killing yourself?” the kind doctor inquired in a half whispery voice that I am sure he learned in a medical school class on how to coax the undone patient into a not so violent disposition. I was somewhat distracted from his words by how much he craned his neck in my direction, bringing his face so close to mine that I found myself wanting to  count the fillings flickering as the interrogation light played in his open mouth. I maintained just enough mental acuity to know, that how I answered this question made all the difference in the outcome of the day—which would highly influence how I would be perceived, with the ever-real possibility that this event would quash my incessant struggle to do all things good, and well, so as to avoid the ever-waiting narrative my family clings to whenever someone demonstrates an embarrassingly unpropitious action. I knew this part of the script all too well. I have spent my life knee deep in the waters of mental illness, trying to hold many-a-heads above the water. 

            “Doctor,” I say between the sobs that sprung up as a result of such an intense and pointed question, “if you are asking me if I would take my own life, then no— for the shear fact I love my children too much. But if you are asking me if I want to die, I would say yes. There is a difference, you know,” I say as if I am giving him a medical school lecture. He silently stared at me for a beat longer than I was comfortable with, as I wiped my eyes and my nose on the corner of my gown. “Am I O.K,” I followed up after enough time had past? “No, I am not. In fact, I feel horribly and desperately awful.”

    There it was. The words flowed out of my mouth like that last bit of helium eked out of a partially deflated balloon. I sobbed some more. I was exhausted. I was broken. I was scattered pieces irretrievably broken. 

“Life is about making meaning.”

     The movement is barely perceptible, unless you give it your full attention. The to and fro and back and forth of the body in synchrony with the metronomic clickety-clack of steel wheels running across railroad tracks, is emotive—soothing comfort, safety and surrender. Add a light blanket, a sweatshirt to roll up as a pillow to wedge between the head and the window, and loose fitting, elastic waist pants that allow the legs to fold up under you like a purring cat, and you have the perfect set up for a sweet mid-morning nap. I love the train. If I had not been so comfortable, I would have made my way to the dining car and ordered a cocktail and sat at a table, staring at the passing scenery while I recalled every movie I could think of that had iconic trains scenes.

            I allowed my eyes to close. I had seen enough to spend a lifetime reflecting on it all. I needed to rest. I was on the first leg of what ended up being an epic 46-hour trek home from Africa. I fell into a half sleep as the train rolled from Mombasa to Nairobi, smiling with flashes of the brilliant wild, masterfully orchestrated by movements of the sun and the stars, and the direction of the wind. The lion, the cougar, the elephants and the rhinos, running along the plains back dropped by the looming snow peaked angles of Mount Kilimanjaro as she glimpsed over the top of the mounding white cumulous clouds, left no doubt in my mind that a master artist, desperate to share wonder and whimsy and beauty with all beings, designed it all out of love for our enjoyment. 

                        I rolled down the window of the backseat of the car that picked me up from the train station and would eventually drop me off at the airport. I wanted to smell the air, a combination of dust and roasting corn and animals hauling carts filled with fruits and vegetables to sell in the market. No matter where I traveled in Kenya, there was a consistent expansion of warmth—a dayglow of long grasses and endless plains dabbled in various shades of mustard and wheat and luscious greens of plants that can survive months without water. The fury and motion caused by the bumpy roads and cacophony of sounds emanating from wheels, sputtering motors  and impatient blows of high pitched horns by the crazy drivers of dust glazed matatus, boda-bodas and safari jeeps, no longer resulted in the white knuckled seizure of panic that owned me those first few weeks in the city. 

            We pass the city park. It is filled with families picnicking on blankets, eating Ugali and corn and mounds of fresh fruit from the open market. It is rarity if any of these families own a television, much less a gaming system like those that occupy the empty spaces of children and adults in the West who have long ago forgotten what it is like to freely play outside with a few friends and a large imagination. To the visitor invited to any one of these families’ homes, the wonder at how they manage to survive would be an understandable inquiry. But to see the smiles, to hear the raucous laughter as adults and children play, and to witness the glow bouncing off their breathtaking ebony skin, tells a story of fortune that many of us will never know.

            Before heading to the airport, we had to stop by the center, my home for the past 3 months. I had to retrieve my large purple suitcase that I left behind while on my week of solo travel. As the gate opened, I felt a lump swell in my throat as I watched Jeridda, in her lime green flowered head scarf, her red shirt and pink skirt, hold the gate open, with a large grin and a welcoming wave. I jumped out of the car and rushed towards her, wrapping her in a tight hug indicative of the intensity of love I felt for her. “Habari yako? I missed you. I missed your cooking,” I rapidly announce, in that excitable voice indicative of overwhelming joy.  She responded with her usual wide grin and laughing eyes. I’m sure she was taken aback by my bigger than life gesture of affection, since Kenyans rarely, if ever, demonstrate such open acts of fondness and love. 

             I rushed to the kitchen to get one last glass of water from the filtering system that, at the beginning of my stay, I avoided due to a fear of a bout with cholera, and rapidly drank it down with cooling delight. I ran up the 3 flights of stairs and down the hall to my room. I unlocked the door, and stared into the simple space. I took it all in with one deep and grateful breath. I walked in to the room remembering the culture shock I experienced my first night in this room, wondering how I would manage without all the comforts of home. In this sacred space of aloneness, I had the time and the freedom to integrate the challenges faced throughout the class, especially those I met at the hospital every day. I questioned boldly and out loud—tossing and turning, crying and throwing things in unquenchable anger— to the walls, and maybe God, if God is an essence that actually listens.

            I moved to the bed, giving the mustard colored blanket that served as my comforter a soft caress, thanking it for providing me the best sleep I have had in the past couple of years. I glanced out the window to the police brandishing those same rifles that made me feel uneasy those first few weeks, until I saw their quick and impressive response to the terror attack at the DusitD2 Hotel early in my stay. I learned to feel strangely comforted as I listened to the rifles being cocked every morning at 5 am, and quietly thanked them for their protection. I walked to the bathroom that smelled like Brussel sprouts and heat mixed with a generic, sweet soapy fragrance. I paused and took a good long look in the mirror. I was covered with the familiar coat of yellowish brown dust that required no less than 3 cleanser wipes each night to remove. My hair was a wild nest of orange and gray that had not been tamed by any sort of heating instrument for 3 months. I smiled at my make-up less face with the small creases and lines that, as Brandi Carlisle sings, “tell you the story of who I am, so many stories of where I’ve been.” No criticism, no reduction of pieces and parts to agonize over. For the first time, I was aware that I was quite fond of that woman staring back at me.

I grabbed my heavy purple bag. I did not discard anything. I discovered that all those fractured pieces, those ones I had  lost count of on that pivotal day, over 5 months ago, while I sat in the oversized sticky chair in my fresh smelling hospital gown, were essential parts of me. They are part of my story, my narrative, filled with wonder, fear, pain, mistakes, unchartered sadness, joy, adventures…everything and every dark and bright corner I have passed by. I finally admitted to being lost, as I continually tried to deny those pieces chiseled away into fragments. Over the past 3 months, I have learned that each piece, no matter how minuscule, had an  important and worthy story to tell, about who I am, and what I was to myself and to others. 

It was a pivotal point in my life, that day in the hospital several months prior. Like Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
I heard a voice, I will claim it was my father’s voice—all the wiser as wise may be, telling me it was OK to forge my own path, to let go of all that was and all that should have been. I reflected on his words with gratitude; those words he said to me as I lie in the crook of his arm, in the hospital the day he made the choice to die, “I will always be with you Mary, you just have to be quiet and listen.” If nothing else, I know Dad gets me now. 
Yes, it took a hospital visit to offer me the chance to find a new narrative, one that was authentically and wholly mine. I left the hospital determined to be the author of my own script. 

I have spent the last 3 months focusing on finding my broken pieces, polishing them off and gently and lovingly putting them back in place. I knew I had to go far away in order to succeed. The opportunity to do my last semester in Kenya presented itself, with a class I knew would guide me on this path. It was perfect. I was surrounded with others working on the same project for themselves. We held each other’s pieces with care as we learned to reconfigure the fractured pieces of self that we were intent on reclaiming. Through my work at the hospital alongside the immersion in the Kenyan culture, I witnessed atrocities, pain, injustices, love and unfathomable beauty that has forever changed and reconfigured how I make meaning. 

            I left with my purple suitcase. I stuffed the tube of red lipstick into the pocket of my jacket and headed to the car. Halfway to the airport, I laughed to myself as I noted the black yoga pants I was wearing, the Lululemon brand, absent of any loose threads to obsess over.

            As the plane reached a cruising altitude, I ordered a cold beer, wrapped the red Kenya Airways blanket across my legs, and closed my eyes. “I made it,” I smiled to myself as I drifted off under the fatigue of travel. Before I fully released into sleep, a whisper breezed across my mind, an awareness of something refreshingly redemptive and beautiful— “Yes, in many ways I am like my mother.” I had to say it to myself again, since this was a new configuration of a mantra I have fought most of my adult life. No, I am not my mother, but I have those parts of her filled with inquisitiveness and passion, intensity and longing, and the capability to witness the hidden beauty she saw in others, especially those who were different than what was deemed “comfortable and acceptable”—this was her authentic self. Unfortunately, creativity, passion and free thinking misunderstood can be interpreted as mental illness for so long that it becomes an inescapable reality.

            In the bathroom at the Nashville airport, I looked in the mirror, pulled out my red lipstick, and swiped it across my lips. I love red lipstick. It is daring and bold and makes some sort of statement of self-confidence. But my reason for wearing it now is different than it was 3 months ago. I wear it not to hide behind, but to walk in to the world wholly me.

P. S.   My last day with the children, the little beings I loved with the intensity of a mother, was the most difficult day. Life goes on, and the children will go on. Ronald, my little guy who I wrote of earlier, the child burned by his father, is fortunately physically healing well. But on that last day, when I brought crayons and paper, along with cheese puffs and lollipops as a “see you” celebration (I avoid good-byes with all I have—they are much too painfully final for me to handle without melting into a wreckage of tears), I watched as Ronald repeatedly struck a young girl with his little fists for the sole reason she ate one if his cheese puffs. She said nothing. She did not fight back. In fact, all the little ones around the table continued to draw and munch on their snacks, alarmingly unmoved by the violence at the end of the table. I ran to Ronald, held his little hands in mine, and said, “no Ronald. Stop! You may not hit anyone, for any reason.  “Samahani.Tell her” I demanded continuing to hold his tiny fists. “Samahani,tell her you are sorry.” I tried to get her to turn and look at him, but she refused and continued to draw on her piece of paper. I sat down in front of Ronald, looking in to those beautiful eyes that not a month ago screamed in terror, and told him it was OK to be angry, but he could not use his fists because of it. He looked back in to my eyes. I was at a loss of what his gaze was trying to communicate to me. 

            As I walked back to the compound, I thought about the incident. I tried to convince myself that the look Ronald gave me was one that said, “you are right Mzungu Mary, I should not have done that.” But he would not say he was sorry to her. Instead, he dragged his tiny green plastic chair out into the hallway, holding his pajama bottoms up over his bandages. He sat, turning his head away from me, refusing to look at me again. My heart gripped with pain knowing this will not be the last time Ronald hits someone. It will not be the last time that little girl will be hit and remain silent. It is what they know. It is what they saw and experienced themselves, in ways so atrocious that my telling him not to use his fists in anger seems somewhat condescending and out of place. His response, sitting alone in the dirty hallway in his green chair, is all he could muster. I don’t blame him. Maybe one day he will remember the Mzungu who tried to show him love, for a few days, before she flitted off to her country of wealth and plenty.

            I have his picture framed and sitting on my desk. It is a reminder to me of what I have, and what others will never have. It is also the reminder that I am not done with Africa. I don’t know when or how or what I want to do. All I know in this moment is, I will return.

Pictures taken during my last week:

                                                                                                                    The Banks of Lake Victor...