Love looks like leaving the youngest to carry his Lightning McQueen backpack with his peanut butter and honey sandwich in it to the neighbors to enjoy a not-long-enough lunch just us two, on a sunny patio, talking about dreams big and small.
Love looks like doing the 3 pm school pick-up together, with kids more than a handful all talking in our ears at once.
Love looks like stopping for a tub of ice cream for an ice cream sundae dessert because the lemon pie didn’t get made.
Love looks like a table set by girls, with a Masai blanket table cloth, with three blue wine-bottle candles, four skittles each, and white napkins begged from the neighbors because the Cars birthday left-over ones in this house wouldn’t pass inspection by the 10 year old.
Love looks like a hand-made menu, with options of beer–hot or cold–wine–hot or cold–apple juice–hot or cold–or milk (hot or cold).
Love looks like dinner at half past seven because the boys are out riding, staying until the light is draining away, until the mountain darkens to silhouette, until the sun slips out of sight.
Love looks like an iPhone photo taken by a 9 year old, happy faces showing in the frame, all dressed up because love looks like putting on a dress, buttoning up a shirt, sitting at a table for six.
Love looks like ice cream served by a son, and daddy finishing three bowls because everyone’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs.
Love looks like parenting a youngest child, laughing instead of scolding, chasing instead of insisting, tossing through the air instead of putting in time out.
Love looks like the same words falling out of our mouths every single night: brush your teeth, wash your feet, yes, I’ll read a book.
Love looks like wrestling the 3 year old through a shower because he missed his afternoon nap and has taken to throwing fits as three builds to four.
Love looks like listening to dishes clattering from the kitchen, 9:15 and three of four still awake and dishes still dirty, laying in the little one’s bed, pulling the covers up tight against cold Meru nights.
Love looks like kisses on foreheads and I love you‘s from doorways.
Love looks like sighs of relief for another day done, crawling into bed, interlacing fingers and touching knees, love looks like 9:45 feeling like a night too late.
Love looks like dreaming.
Love looks like celebrating another ordinary day.
Love looks like an empire of six.
Love looks like dancing, at times tiptoeing, on the graves of all the selves we’ve buried beneath our feet.
Love looks like resurrection, to wake up in the morning, to start it all over again.
wandering the grass out front, eyes down, hands ready, to catch the unsuspecting grasshopper to feed the slow and steady chameleon residing on our porch
5 am and a brown chair in the corner, by the window where the cold air comes in
slipping on the red runners, scraping hair back into a messy pony tail, turning the key in the lock quietly so no one awakes, heading out into the gray of the morning new
her question: ‘is love really free?’
four pots of flowers filling up my windows, carefully watering their ever-thirst, considering their fragile beauty, tamping down the panic they might wither on my watch
his curls, scraggly more than shining, keeping him small
poetry; and this line: ‘…Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart…’*
the cat I tried not to love, who sleeps curled up in the bend of my knees
hanging the laundry, snapping out the wrinkles of the brown khaki skirts, the brown khaki shorts, lining up the white button up shirts (stains from paint, ketchup, green-grass tumblings I couldn’t remove) and the blue school emblem on the pocket
how he smiles when he might have scowled, how he laughs in spite of himself
him, walking by the window on his way down the hill, pausing to scratch the dogs’ heads and I’m there at the window, washing the dishes, and he doesn’t know I’ve seen him there
how she reminds me of a camping trip along a brown, muddy river, high on a sandbar, when she caught the biggest fish and her daddy brushed the sand off her feet and rolled her into the tent for the night
a candle in the dark, for when words are too loud and too uncertain, flame flickering and dancing, heaven-bound
staying out too late on a Thursday night, wrapping hands around warm mugs on the back veranda of our friends’ house, kids running in the dark when they should be long in bed, chatting on when we should be saying good-bye
the flock of birds gathered in the tree out front that Saturday afternoon, a symphony of chaos, wagging their tail feathers as they called and sang, flying off to the next tree, and the next, until I couldn’t see them anymore
the nights not so black, the ones shimmering silver, when I know the moon continues her ever-circle, even when I see her not
ruminations on prayer and memory, longing and faith, doubt and silence: about love, about hope
I wake early and run. I come home to splatters of milk on the counter top, kids half-ready in navy blue school socks pulled up mid-calf. I say the same things I say every morning: did you brush your teeth? is your homework in your bag? is your bed made? how did you sleep, stop fighting and I love you so. I scramble to get us all in the car, 7:50 is two minutes too late, and I bump them down the rutted dirt road to their school and their teachers, their friends and everything else changing them and growing them and filling up their lives. I come back up the hill to the demands of the day and go about in various stages of contentment and dis-ease, depending on the day and the mood and the way I find the heart to trust that day. I sweep and I cook and I pray and I hang laundry and I fold clean clothes and I play games of Uno with the wide-eyed boy with the crazy hair and the unending smile. I watch the clock and head back down the hill to collect the children, I make it in time to watch them swim with their swim team, to never stop marveling at the resiliency and evolution of kids. I watch for Kilimanjaro from the window of my car, these rainy season days unveil her shroud of silver and gray to let the sun shine on her looming slopes in the late afternoons. I bring the kids home and say the same things I say every evening: do you have homework? change your clothes, put your uniform in the dirty clothes basket. how was your day, stop arguing with me and I love you so. I fix dinner like every other night of the week and I pray bedtime will arrive because this is the hour things like to fall apart. I help wash their feet and their hair, squeeze a pea-sized ball of toothpaste on Cinderella and Lightning McQueen toothbrushes. I tuck her under pink and blue sheets, pull the blankets up high against the cold nights, read Prince Caspian to her and listen to the sounds of a game of Uno coming from the boys’ room. I give kisses on foreheads and whisper prayers with hands smoothing their hair, sing ‘I lift my eyes up’ because he wants me to every night, and always answer from the doorway: yes, you can call for me in the night if you need me.
So many ordinary days. So many ordinary ways to be saved.
*from Thirst by Mary Oliver
It turns out three days in bed with typhoid is more than enough sleep for awhile and so I lie awake with the coming and the going of the rain.
The rains come at night now, crescendoing and falling away in turn, full and heavy on the tin roof, then slowly stopping: a drop here, a drop there. Until they build again, a roar of water and wind, and again, away to near silence except for the slow drip-drop from the edge of the roof, the pitter-patter falling from the gutter. Where have you come from? Where are you going? I imagine a drop falling from an everlasting sky to land on silver tin, running together, water meeting water, falling from the edge of the rooftop, catching the edge of a leaf, running together, water meeting water, to land softly on the welcoming earth, water meeting water.
I feel small under the weight of noise and water: a good, right kind of small.
If I were a different sort of mother I would pull my daughter out of bed and take her out in the night and stand in the rain and let the water run down our faces, those drops from the everlasting sky, let them run down our arms and down our fingertips, to fall to the welcoming earth, water meeting water.
All I know of rain and weather is a picture from an old I-Can-Read Science. A picture with the ocean and sunny skies above and then a black raincloud over the land, rivers flowing down mountains and meeting the sea, arrows going up and down and all around to show water rising to the sky and returning again. All I remember thinking whenever I read that book to one of my children is how eternally comforting it is, to know nothing is ever lost. One small drop of water, swallowed to the earth, spending itself, rising, rising, rising, welcomed home, flung out all over again. I imagine the drops of water falling on my house have come from rivers I love, imagine maybe the water evaporating in the afternoon sun tomorrow will fly and flip and dance and twirl its way to a rain cloud above the head of someone I love, and fall on them.
And then maybe she’d remember a night in the rain, when I got just her out of bed, when we stood in the ever-dark and drenched ourselves in the glory of it, she’d remember that and she’d know without a doubt she was so very, very loved.
Does the moisture in the roots of the ficus, settling itself in the darkness of the ground, know it is eternal? Does the water in the ocean, bumping against itself a trillion times over, know it will rise? Does the raindrop, falling effortlessly to this awful earth, know the work it will be asked to do? Cleanse us, grow us, enliven us, cool us, sustain us, quench our dying thirst. Does the stream, gurgling its journey onward, know where it will end? Does the droplet, clinging to the edge of the leaf, know it will be reborn?
I will return to my bed, and sleep. I won’t get her out of bed. The rain has stopped, at least for now. It is the time for sleep.
But tomorrow, I’ll tell her. About how the rains came in the night and I couldn’t sleep and and I lay there and thought about water, and about her. About taking her out in the rain and twirling around a couple of times and mostly standing still. About water falling and rising again and nothing ever, ever being lost.
We will go about our day and we will go through our same motions, finding and missing each other as we do. If it rains tomorrow night, as surely it will, she might awaken, and think of me, too.
And then maybe someday, she will read this. And she will know: water meeting water, you are so very, very loved.
Once, when I was running, the sky opened up and I caught droplets of rain on my eyelashes. The light reflected and danced from the corner of my eye and I felt beautiful as I ran slow and steady up the long hill, though I knew my hair was plastered to my head and I could feel the softness in my under-toned belly.
Once, I skipped church on a Sunday to run the twisty roads. I passed under canopies of green and watched the shadows shift and slide over the path, I waited for a break in the trees to glimpse Meru rising, and I listened to the sounds of a myriad of congregations pouring from assorted buildings, make-shift and permanent, blue-tarp walls and hollow stone edifices. As I passed a set of open doors a stately old priest clad in his white and red robes lifted his hands high and I knew I’d been to church just the same.
Once, I ran straight into the end of a rainbow. The sky was deep blue-gray in front of me, pale blue buoyed by fluffy white clouds at my back. Rain came down lightly on my skin and I looked for the pot of gold, but all I found was water and light, which turned out to be more than enough after all.
Once, it was early morning and I startled two wazee, dressed in their everyday best, suits and stylish hats, one with a walking stick and one without, walking the paths above Nshupu village, like they had this century, and last. I ran by with my call of Shikamoo and Semahani! and they both let out yelps of surprise and then bent themselves double with laughter. I laughed, too, and thought about a never-ending capacity for joy.
Once, I met a girl to run with, and we became friends. We told each other stories and talked about our kids, our experiences, our pasts as we ran mile after mile after mile. I made a friend, and I didn’t feel quite so alone after all.
Once, I was running at home and I ran by an old Daasanech grandma crouched by the shade in her garden, the smoke from her fire rising in her eyes. She stood up and stared at me like I was the craziest, palest thing she had ever seen. But then the next day, and every day after, when I ran by, she said hi to me to like she had been waiting all day for me to pass.
Once, I ran up the mountain further than I’d gone before. I didn’t know where I was, but I didn’t not know where I was. I was wandering, but I didn’t feel lost, and I liked that feeling a lot.
Once, I could feel my ponytail slapping the back of my neck and shoulders and it stung a little, but it was a good kind of sting and made me feel young again, like hot summer days, like big open soccer fields, like bike rides, like Dairy Queen and like kick-the-can on stay-light late nights.
Once, I received a Marahaba like a song from a dignified old man answering my greeting as I passed him standing by the road. I waved my hand to a neighbor and was given a smile so wide it lit up all the space between us. The morning had already known harsh words and frustrated sighs but I was given the poetry of a greeting, the grace of a smile, and I ran home lighter, to begin again.
Once, I slowed to a stop coming into view of my house and pulled out my phone to pause the app tracking my run. I checked my mileage and then checked my brother’s: him pounding concrete on city streets half a world away, me dodging siafu trails after a thunderous nighttime rain brought out all the pinching ants.
Once, when I stopped in the woods because of the two cups of coffee I drank before starting my run, I didn’t feel irritated at a body so changed from 10 years ago, before four babies. This body had seen her share of glory, housing and giving birth to those four babies so quickly grown, and there are more important things than finishing a mile under 9 minutes.
Once, while I ran I wrote the most beautiful essay. I wrote it in the twists and the turns of the trail, wandering but not lost, I wrote it in the rhythm of the pound of my feet, of the inhale and exhale of my breath. When I got home again, the words washed off in the shower along with the sweat and the dirt of the trail, and I resolved to
get up the next morning
if I could write it
Today I saw a paradise fly catcher–body black, long white tail trailing–sitting in the branches of the desert rose, the one at the corner of the house. He sat next to a tiny malachite kingfisher, they took turns diving in the pool.
Today I watched the sun rise pink through the trees over the horizon. She lit up the whole sky in streaks of lilac and gold, and the river shone.
Today I ran the riverbank and placed my feet next to a thousand other footprints: the mirrored horseshoes of a herd of goats, the reptilian four-footed claw and tail-slide of a monitor lizard, tiny barefoot toes splayed in the dirt, tire-tread sandals crisscrossing the path.
Today I scared a fish eagle from her fig tree perch. She soared but fifteen feet in front of me, startling me, too, and I stopped to watch her flight.
Today I sat under a sacred tree with small brown bodies crowded around, my own small child heavy and asleep in my lap, sand and dirt coating my feet and settling under my finger nails. I wondered, as I always do when he falls asleep on me, so rare as he grows up and away from me, if this will be the last time I’ll hold him like this.
Today I watched a vee of egrets, snow-white in a twilight sky, sailing low over the water. I imagined waterskiing behind them, leaving a wake in the surface of glass. And then a group of sacred ibises, five or six of them, rose up from the edge of the river, honking on take-off, and nearly crashed into the egrets, and flew on in the updraft.
Today I held my youngest girl close, she bent her body half to curl up in my lap, I laid my cheek against her warm yellow hair and we sat for a long time, rocking in the boat.
Today I looked up toward crocodile mountain and saw rain come down on the hills. White silver clouds built up above the storm, one like a cheetah, chasing the rain.
Today I sat with my best friend on the top of the riverbank and watched a storm roll across the horizon. He said why didn’t we do this everyday, I said I have no regrets.
Today I watched the sun set in a sky like a bruise.
Today I laid in bed and listened to the starlings argue in the neem tree outside my window, awake in the glow of the moon shining full.
This just today.
What about yesterday?
What about tomorrow?
It seems to come to this, again and again. Always circling back around to these same things. Home, what it is. Memory. The things we lose, and how we find them again. How we remember. And faith, in the light, always dancing with the shadow of doubt, impossible to shake loose from under your feet. For me, it’s always about this.
We arrive in the full light of midday, pull up to the back gate, after traveling a road we’ve never traveled before. Four days from northern Tanzania, first a stop in Nairobi, celebrating a fleeting early Christmas with my mom and dad, a choked quick good-bye before the last goodbye looming in January. And then on to Kitale, six of us in two beds in a room painted bright pink. Waking the third morning to wind down through the mountains, following the Turkwell rushing through rocky riverbed. Finding the last of the tarmac, potholes larger than trucks swallowing our car and spitting us out the other side. Reaching Lodwar seeming an illusion on the worst stretch of road in Eastern Africa, but finally the mountains surrounding Lodwar emerging from the haze, and Jesus, stone arms outstretched, keeping watch over the dusty town from his mountain perch. The fourth morning finding us eaten alive from a mosquito-filled night, with legs and backs marked with hundreds of tiny red welts, a hope and a prayer and a dose of malarone to keep malaria away, nonetheless–content to drive on in the early morning light: on the road home.
It’s been raining for two months, an El Niño year so we all say, and the whole compound is carpeted in grass. The trees are fuller, taller, the neem branches dragging the ground, the flame tree scraping the house. I’m bringing, too, the babies taller, fuller, with shaggier heads of hair, limbs grown and stretched and brimming with another year of life. It makes me infinitely happy, and wondrously sad, to understand the unrelenting truth yet again: time never stops.
There are long hugs and tears that won’t be held back, four sets of feet thundering up the gray stairs and shouts and smiles and joy, joy, joy. It’s like moving through a cloud, feeling my way home, all familiar, all strange in its sameness, as if a year never passed, as if the cool cement was under my feet just last week. I kick off my shoes in the same corner, slip on house flip-flops, hang the stained green hat on the neem branch by the door where it has always hung before. My hands and my feet know by touch what my mind takes time to recall–step here, place that there, walk this path. Coming home is the unassailable sense of knowing and being known: hanging on the worn hook of shifting-sand memory.
Their faces and their smiles are the same, our greetings long and our faces split open with smiles wide. I catch the words they use, the rise and fall of words I once knew rolling over me in a wave. I can only manage the most basic greeting, my fragile Daasanech buried under a new sea of Kiswahili words. But the words stay with me like a song, memory of the sounds slowly tugs back the layers and there it is: I can hear what they’re saying.
The night is black, the moon new on our first night back. But my feet remember the way in the dark, sliding over the smooth floor, when Dexter calls for me through the night. The village is quiet as I stretch out on the window-high bed, but the mornings are not, light beckons the morning and the birds announce the day. I make my way down to the river’s edge, a wide brown expanse, ripples on the surface shining in the morning. I’ll come every morning, to remember, to be home, to have faith in the light of the new day: every morning, I’ll come, until we leave again.
Home, and what it is. Where it is. The things we lose. How we find them again. Memory, and faith, trailing a shadow of doubt. For me, it will always be about this.
Rinsing the last of the lunch dishes, I catch a scent from my childhood. It has rained all morning, soaking the Tanzanian earth and there, lingering in the moisture, the smell of a California summer. An old house in Portola Valley, a stone pool, a rock diving board at the edge of blue-ink water. Endless games of 1-alligator, 2-alligator, 3-alligator, who can stay under the longest? Jumping from hot tub to icy depths, canon-balls and pencil dives. A small white dog named Mitzie–and me, telling a joke, something about Mitzie and a hot dog, making my brothers laugh, the greatest accomplishment of my five years.
And dancing at the edges of consciousness, a beautiful woman with a head of white hair, slender noble hands, impeccable clothes and nails. A smiling man, skin marked with sun and age, belly round and full.
I almost turn away–pull the plug, shake my hands of bubbles and water, reach for the blue towel hanging by my window–and let it all slip back into the murky recess of memory deep. But it’s not everyday I am visited by my grandparents, not everyday they spin in the raindrops falling outside my window. And so I stand a moment longer, close my eyes, inhale.
I turn from the window, and write it all down. I no longer can be certain, once I open my eyes, if I am remembering or imagining, recalling or fabricating. If I see their faces staring at me from an old photograph, or if my fingers are creating them in black and white type. Or if I really see them: as they were. As they are, somewhere in the hollows of history. Of family, and of legacy.
I cannot help but think of how we become who we are. The names we are given at birth. The head of hair and the blue eyes, the long legs and sharp wide shoulders I have passed on to my own wee girl. The family who raised me, the family I am raising myself. The things I’ve done, and the things I’ve left undone. The lessons being learned, and learned again. Every smell and sight, taste and touch, buried within the routine of ordinary days.
This is not earth-moving. This is just the scent of a California summer, carried to me, at the end of the rain today.