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.

Doing It Again. Confessions of a Reluctant Doula.

I vowed I would never do this again.

And yet, the words tumbled out of my mouth.  At the same time both jumbled and awkward, certain and clear.  Clover reflected them back to me.

With Clover, on one of our many gelato/sorbet dates this summer.
With Clover, on one of our many gelato/sorbet dates.

“Are you saying you want to be my doula?”

“Um…yes.  I guess.”

Pause.  Smile.  Squint.  Think.  Nod.  Nod again, excitedly.

“Yes.  Yes, I do.  If you will have me.”

She stood up from her chair — her pregnant belly announcing itself to all those around us – and threw her arms around me.   Both our eyes wet with tears.

Just a few months earlier, she had told me she was pregnant.

Sitting on the marble wall outside of the Sulzer Library.  It was summer and we had just polished off our cups from Paciugo – sorbet for her, gelato for me.  I was talking about boys.  None of it new or terribly important.

And when I stopped, she was talking about babies.  Specifically, her baby.

Later that night, we danced in the street to a band from West Africa.  And when she was tired I walked her home, suddenly terribly protective.  I called her Lil Mama – what a boy from South Carolina used to affectionately call me – and told her I would support her in any way I could.

So it shouldn’t have surprised either of us when I offered to be her doula.

Except that I am not certified as a doula.  Greek for “a woman who serves.”

I am a pre-natal massage therapist and instructor.  A friend.  Terribly interested in the miracles our bodies engender.

And I’ve done this once before.  A little more than six years ago, for my oldest and dearest friend Julie.

My then-husband and I were preparing to move from California for his medical residency.  In the two months leading up to our departure, we would travel to Chicago to look for a home, and to Oklahoma for my ex-boyfriend’s wedding.

Julie asked that I consider a third trip – to Detroit, for the birth of her son.  She wanted me to be her doula.

I was in an underground parking lot when I received her call.

Every fiber in my being wanted to say no.  It wasn’t practical.  It was expensive.  I felt overwhelmed.

The words that flew out of my mouth were, “Of course.”

Before the birth, with Julie.
Before the birth, with Julie.

I arrived a few weeks later – three days before her due date, and departing four days after.  It was spring.  No one thought my schedule and the baby’s would sync.  We gave it to the universe.

We spent our days on long walks.  Visiting her mother.  Talking – about everything and nothing.  Like we always do.

I massaged her legs while she sat on the exam table in a flowered gown, waiting for the obstetrician.  And pressed acupressure points on her hands and feet – “downward elevators” in Chinese medicine.

We ate a late breakfast following a trip to the gym – her last before becoming a mother.  Julie wanted to use the elliptical machine.  (She swears this is what started her labor.)  She ate little of her French toast.   Her stomach pushed so far up into her ribs, it left little room for food.

Around 11 p.m. that night I got the call.  It was time.

I met Julie at the hospital door.  Steve parked the car.

We walked the hospital floors for an hour, until she was dilated enough to be admitted.

Once in her room, we talked and laughed and napped over the next many hours.  Somewhere there are photographs of me wrapped up in blankets, looking like a woman from the old country.

Her husband fed me crackers and peanut butter.  I watched Julie instinctively comfort herself.  She labored many hours, insisting on a vaginal birth – even though the doctor on call wanted to perform a C-section.

Thankfully, the labor nurses supported her choice.

At their urging, I held up one her legs and counted her contractions out loud until hoarse.  Jaron’s head emerged.  Then his shoulder.  And then the rest of him – slipping out quickly like a fish.

I saw him first and looked at Julie with wet eyes, nodding.  I didn’t have any words.

Jaron was placed under a heat lamp, like a Big Mac, while the doctor tended to Julie, and the nurse made notes.   He looked wise, terribly nonplussed by this abrupt move from his inner world out.

“You’ve done this before,” I said.

Right after the birth.  My first time as a doula.
Right after the birth. With Jaron.

They say babies don’t smile right away, but I am certain he did, as he reached into the air.  “Playing with the angels,” Julie said, referring to the idea in mystic Judaism that babies are born so pure they can see angels.  A lovely idea.

I returned to the hospital the next day.  Julie was eating a cold grilled cheese and French fries – seemingly already accustomed to the realities of motherhood.

She told me I should do this work professionally.  “Never,” I replied.

A few years later her niece asked me to come to New York to be her doula.  I was flattered, but politely declined.

I didn’t want to be on call.  Couldn’t imagine putting a price to the work.  Wasn’t willing to sleep on a fold-out chair for just anyone.  Just her.

I was grateful for the experience.  To be invited so intimately into my friend’s life.  But I had no desire to repeat it.

Until I did.

Clover had just gone public with her pregnancy on Facebook.

As we ate perhaps our last gelato and sorbet of the season, I intuitively knew that I would be there.  Sleeping on a fold-out chair, eating crackers and peanut butter, a blanket wrapped around my head like a babushka.  Serving the miracle.