I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.
In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” – signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.
And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”
The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.
Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.
Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.
Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.
That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.
She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.
It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.
“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”
Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.
“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”
Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”
Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.
“I think you should wear it,” she says.
I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.
“I appreciate you,” she says.
“And I, you.”
The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.
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.
I have admitted that so many areas of my life had become unmanageable, and then asked for help. So why not here? I’m tired of the stacks and stacks of paper that have no home.
I am, as Maggie – the professional organizer – said, “the tidiest, unorganized person” she has ever met.
We met last week for a consultation. My assignment prior to our first paid meeting, this coming Tuesday, was to go to The Container Store and “just browse.” My only guidance was to think of “boxes” – four of them. In. Out. To Be Dealt With. Want to Keep – Just Because.
We agreed I would take photographs of items that interested me, but that I would buy nothing. It seemed like an easy Artist Date – Number 34.
I was mistaken.
I rode my bike over to The Container Store this afternoon. Tossed my basket in a cart and began my work. Up and down every aisle.
Almost immediately, I was overcome with sadness. All around me, groups of people. Couples shopping together. Roommates shopping together. Moms and dads and bound-for-college kids shopping together. Together.
I remembered shopping here with my ex – when we moved to Chicago for his residency. I felt wistful stumbling over the collapsible mesh cubes – the kind we bought to store our record albums. He didn’t think they would work well, but I knew better. Three of them sat under the Parson’s table, holding our music collection – his and mine. I left them in Seattle.
Albums I bought in high school at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale. The Specials, debut album of the same name. Elvis Costello, “Punch the Clock.” Howard Jones, “Human’s Lib.” My mother’s copy of the original Broadway production of “Hair.” My brother’s copy of Queen, “A Night at the Opera.” There is a piece of masking tape on the front cover with his name and our telephone number written in magic marker. I’m not sure how I ended up with it.
I knew every word to every song, having spent hours on my blue-shag carpeting, in my bedroom, singing along with the words printed on the album sleeves.
I don’t have a record player, so I left them. Plus, they were too cumbersome to pack. Funny thing is, it’s not the lost records that choked me up. It was the damn mesh cubes.
And the laundry aisle. I remember spending hours trying to find just the right laundry bin to collect my massage sheets and take them back and forth from my office to home, to be washed and folded. First I bought a cart with the idea that I would take the train to and from my office. With sheets. In the winter. I quickly gave up this environmentally-conscious fantasy and started driving to work.
I found a lot where they cut me a deal because I was a local business owner – $14 a day. A steal, considering I was right off of Michigan Avenue.
Tony, the Palestinian kid who hooked me up, got fired right before I moved away. I always felt badly about it – even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. I used a red, collapsible “laundry” backpack to haul my sheets the six blocks from the lot to my office.
I missed having someone to discuss options with today. I suppose that is why I took photographs, to discuss them with Maggie.
I looked at fabric bins. Metal bins. Cardboard bins – some made of bright, solid colors, others printed with flowers and graphic designs. Bins made of recycled paper. I snapped photographs of each product and its accompanying card, describing the item and listing its price.
I got distracted by travel supplies. Luggage tags. Hanging dop kits. (I need a new one. Mine is torn.) And Ziploc bags for creating more packing space – like the space bags I used when moving cross-country. I stacked my dresses and trousers inside, while Michael used a vacuum cleaner to suck the air out. We were giddy when the first was complete. Shrink wrapped clothes.
I remembered that I needed hooks for hand-towels in my bathroom. Milk crates for my prayer and meditation nook – to lift my deities and ritual items off of the floor, and to be covered with a piece of fabric I bought in the market in Kigali.
I also remembered that Maggie and I discussed finding a solution that didn’t involve putting anything else on the dining table – which is also my writing desk, my art table, and where I spend about 80 percent of my time when I am home.
I looked at hanging solutions. There weren’t many. A few different kinds of folders that hang from the wall. Some painted metal. Some plastic.
Then I wandered into the Elfa department – custom solutions for the closet. So complex there are employees specific to just this department. I know people go wild for the yearly Elfa sale, as it is pricey.
And yet, open, wire drawers on casters seemed to make sense. With a top to hold my printer. I looked at other shelving units as well. I remembered our conversation about rethinking how I consider my dining area. That is it really more multi-purpose. Think function rather than fois gras or fondue. I serve neither. But I do throw a hell of a dinner party. And it needs to work for those occasions too – especially as Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner and for the past 19 years I have, more often than not, hosted a holiday meal for stray Jews and others.
I thought about my friend Tom who is going to string two lines of wire across the wall opposite the windows so I can hang photographs, cards and collages with metal clips – slightly reminiscent of the drying lines in the darkroom I once inhabited.
I picked up several catalogs, tucked them into my bike basket, and did a final sweep of the store.
I felt myself welling up the entire ride home. I wanted to be excited but I wasn’t. I was sad. Acutely aware that this was yet another step in creating my home, my life, without my ex. Acutely aware that we don’t talk much lately – my choice, to save both my heart and my sanity. All of this necessary, but still painful – nearly a year after our divorce was final. Time takes time.
I thought about something Maggie said. That there is always something more under the disorganization – something else going on. She believed the stacks of paper, the lack of “home” for my things, was me being afraid I couldn’t put my hands on something when I needed it. A need to keep all of my things near.
My friend Kevin refers to this as my issue with object impermanence. The notion that until a certain age, children do not believe in that which they cannot see. Put a towel over your hand, et voila, you have no hand. At least in their minds.
It’s like that with me and people sometimes. If I can’t put my hands on them – see them, feel them, hear them – it is as if they were never there. It’s better than it used to be. At least to me. I’m not sure what Kevin would say.
So this organizing business – finding a home for my things, learning to be ok with them in their proper place – maybe it will spill over into the other areas of my life. That the people I can’t put my hands on anymore – for a variety of reasons –perhaps they too will find new homes. Tucked away in my heart. Never gone. But in their proper place.