Artist Date 44: You Are Really More West African

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.

One of the many children I met in Kigali...introduced by Mary.
One of many children I met in Kigali, introduced by Mary.

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.

rwanda filling rxOn 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.

Patrick.  His greeting to me each time we met: "Liora, you should stay."
Patrick’s greeting each time we met: “Liora, you should stay.”

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.

rwanda dance posseDancing 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.

Bye Bye Bindi

bio photo for u club 2I took off my bindi the other day.

Stopped at a red light on Michigan Avenue, I dragged my middle finger from between my eyes down the bridge of my nose, bringing the bindi with it.  Green and gold.  Sparkly.  I looked at it and deposited it in the cup holder.

I’ve been wearing a bindi faithfully since last spring – the result of self-sufficiency gone awry.

One of my first acts of independence, following my then-husband’s request for a divorce, was to pay someone to shave my head.  He had done it for me for years, making sure all the tiny hairs stood uniformly erect – especially in back.  It’s not as easy as it seems.

I went to Rudy’s – a chain of hip barber shops – in Seattle for a $10 shave.  I asked for a one guard on the clippers – what my ex always used.

Rudy’s one guard must have been different from mine, because I walked out far more sheared than I had anticipated.  Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, hair grows – quickly.  But I had my eyebrows tinted a little darker than usual, and the combination of the two was jarring, a little bit scary.

Afterwards, I stumbled into the boutique next door to Rudy’s.  I’d been curious about it for a while.  Inside, I eyed a basket of sticky bindis, next to an array of cuffs and bangles.  $3 a package.  I thought it might soften the look.  Or at very least, act as a distraction.  It did.  And I began wearing one, every day.

Pink.  Blue.  Purple.  Glittery.  It became “my thing,” or “one of my things,” like the shaved head and the iridescent shadow I wear in the corners of my eyes.  Another “accident” that stuck.

I wore a different one every day.  On hikes.  To dance class. Camping in North Dakota.  All over Rwanda.  I got a tip to use eyelash glue to hold it in place when the sticky wore out.  When I moved back to Chicago in the fall, I went to the Indian shops on Devon Avenue to buy more.

People asked me about it all the time.  Why?  What does it mean?  I’d explain that it brought attention to the third eye, the seat of hidden wisdom, and joke I needed all the help I could get to see clearly.

Sometimes I’d explain that in parts of India it designates that a woman is married and that ironically, I began wearing mine during my divorce.

But really, I just liked it.  It was jazzy and fun.  It spurred conversation with people I otherwise wouldn’t meet.

At least, that’s what I thought.

When I mentioned it to my friend Rachel in an email, she wrote, “I found your calling toward bindis to be a heartbreaking subconscious gesture by your soul to remain coupled, or at least connected with the sacred masculine.”

I questioned if I should continue wearing it after my Get, my Jewish divorce, as I was no longer married.  When the ritual was complete, I stood in the mirror contemplating.  I decided I wasn’t ready to let go of it yet, and told myself it was a symbol that I was “married to myself.”

Every once in a while, I would forget to put one on and I’d feel naked.  Sometimes I would put a Weight Watchers BRAVO sticker in its place.

And yet when I lost my bindi at my massage therapist’s office last week, I didn’t put another one on when I got home.  I forgot.

I considered “forgetting” it the following day.  But it seemed that NOT wearing one would be a statement, one I might feel compelled to explain if asked.  So I pasted one on.

I did the same the next day, but slid it off in the car in the afternoon sun.  I haven’t worn one since.  Just a few people have noticed and asked about it.

Why now?  I’m not sure.  I felt a shift, a change.

Perhaps I’m “getting ready.”  Getting ready to meet someone.  I’d like that.

And yet, in moments of quiet I’m not certain that I am ready.  Not because it has been suggested that I don’t date right now.  But because I continue to pick unavailable.

Mr. Thursday Night.  My Divorce Buddy.  The Southern Svengali.  Most recently, the guy from Trader Joes.

I thought we were flirting so I gave him my card and said to call me if he’d like to have coffee.  He never called.  When I ran into him a week later he said things were “complicated.”

More than one person has suggested that I might be giving off signals that I’m not available – unconsciously.  Like by wearing a bindi – the mark of a married woman.  While most Westerners don’t know its significance, I do.

Is the glittery third-eye gone for good?  I don’t know.  But for now, there is a space between my eyes – an opening.