Mary is coming toward me but I can’t place her. In fact, I don’t yet recall that this is her name.
I scan through my mental Rolodex as quickly as I can trying to match a face, a name, an experience. I come up blank other than to know that she is familiar, and we are at my synagogue, so I figure I must know her from here.
She puts her arms around me and asks how I am. I tell her I am well and she says that I look it. Her response is genuine. Like she has taken a few minutes to take me in. All of me. Like she’s seen me before. And she has. Even though I cannot remember where.
She begins talking about the speakers I am here to hear. Dr. Naasson Munyandamutsa and his wife Donatilla Mukumana. That she has been traveling with them. Out West, where Naasson received the Barbara Chester Award from the Hopi Foundation, for his work with torture victims. And now here, to Evanston. To my synagogue. My more head-y than usual Artist Date – Number 44.
Finally, I humbly admit I cannot remember her name. It is Mary. I tell her mine is Lesley. She hadn’t remembered either. Just my face. She has seen my face.
In Rwanda. Her name shakes something loose. The pieces fall into place.
Mary is one of the founders of WE-ACTx – an organization supporting women and children with HIV and AIDS in Rwanda. We met in the summer of 2012 when I traveled there with my Rabbi and members of my synagogue, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.
On the ground, we filled prescription packets, painted walls, built a library. But mostly, we witnessed. The people. Their lives. The help they required. And the heroic, albeit shoe-string, assistance that was being provided.
It was an antidote, a balm, to the crazy, or at the very least, unsettled, that was my life at that time.
Smack dab in the middle of my divorce. Neither in nor out. I was living in Seattle, with my soon-to-be ex-husband, sleeping on the fold-out couch in the office. I had decided I would decide in Kigali where to go next. If I would stay in Seattle. Move back to Chicago. Or San Francisco.
Or go somewhere else entirely – like Kigali. Where it was suggested more than once, by residents, by ex-patriots and by several of those on my trip, that perhaps I should consider staying.
All of this comes flooding back to me as Mary is speaking to me.
The bindi I wore every day – the jeweled accoutrement pasted between my eyes that I had taken to wearing. The mark of a married women in Indian culture. My own private, not-even-conscious, barrier between me and the world. A secret “Don’t-even-fucking-think-of-it.” Even though it was all I was fucking thinking about. Fucking. Because I wasn’t.
The name I claimed – Liora, my Hebrew name. It means “my light.” There were two Lesley—s on the trip and it just seemed easier. For everyone except my Rabbi, who knew me as Lesley.
The words, “It’s ok. It was a long time coming,” that flew out of my mouth regularly. Every time I spoke of my impending divorce, which was a lot. It was my story, as we each told our stories to one another – 12 of us over 12 or so days in sub-Saharan Africa.
It seems a lifetime ago.
Nights under my mosquito net talking with my roommate – who, just a few months later, would begin walking through her own divorce – talking about the day. Blogging by the light of my computer after she had gone to bed.
Dancing with a professional troupe in a “cultural village” (read: Tourist Destination) near the Ugandan border. Dancing on the hot concrete at the WE-ACTx compound and on the lawn outside of the hotel in the evening – a party thrown just for us, complete with a DJ, BBQ, and a movie – Gorillas in the Mist – shown on a screen outside, just like in Chicago during summertime in the parks.
I am jostled back into today as Mary introduces Naasson and Donatilla.
They are sitting at a table, each with a laptop computer in front of them. His, a MAC Airbook. Hers, an HP, like mine.
They talk about their work with rape. With depression and suicide. Their voices are sweet, slightly lilting. Easy on the ear. Their faces express nothing of the pain of their work. Of what they, and those around them, have experienced. It is typical for people from this part of Africa, and they speak to it – the shrouded emotional life of Rwandans.
There are only five psychiatrists in all of Rwanda.
I lean over to my Rabbi. “It’s a good thing I didn’t stay there, “I whisper, remembering he was one of the ones who encouraged me to consider staying – perhaps his own “road-not-traveled.”
“Yes, you are more West African,” he whispers back. We laugh. Even though I don’t quite know what it means. But I like it.
I like it because I “study” West African dance. Spending Sunday mornings barefoot, moving in lines across a wood floor, supported and surrounded by a posse of drummers and other dancers. Leaping. Learning to shake my hips like a not-locked-up-up-tight American woman.
My heart seemingly bursting through my skin.
I don’t know anything about West Africans – other than what I experience from my dance teacher and some of the drummers. But I know that I am emotionally “raw.” And not just now. That I am “wild” in comparison to Rwandans. And to many Americans.
I like the idea of a place where people live like this. A land of “misfit toys,” like in the animated holiday special, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. Where everyone’s heart is seemingly bursting through their skin. Spilling out with love. With pain. With life.