Category Archives: Zimbabwe

Santa’s Helper

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Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis

It’s late and I really want to post a Christmas blog for you (kind of like Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day TV broadcast), so be forewarned: this entry is going to be less elaborate and twisty than usual because I’ve given myself a deadline of blog post by sunrise on Christmas Eve.

 

Have you ever had one of those December evenings when you find yourself chasing a stranger girl wearing a Santa hat through the aisles of Meijer insisting that she let you help her?

 

No?

 

Midwinter has been weird this year for me, so it wasn’t that surprising. The night before I was sitting at a Quaker meeting house, learning about meditation from a Buddhist wearing a gorgeous blue meditation blanket while I tried not to fall asleep and tip over onto my former shrink who had invited me to attend. A few days before that I was hugging a guy who was homeless in downtown Indy (I’m not really a stranger hugger, fyi, so this is abnormal behavior for me). Before that, and this is probably what should have alerted me to the fact that it was not a normal December, at the airport, I said goodbye to Z—who would be leaving for Zimbabwe for a month the next day—and I DID NOT CRY as I headed off to Indiana solo. I miss him like crazy, but for the first time in 16 years, I said goodbye to him at an airport without feeling the need for a sob. You know, like a grown-up.

 

Also, I usually start rocking out to the Christmas tunes the minute the Thanksgiving dishes have been cleared, but since I got to Indiana, the only CD I’ve listened to in my car is Jethro Tull’s 1977 album Songs from the Wood. It’s been on a continuous loop. I haven’t listened to it this much since my senior year of college when I had a crush on a Tull fan at the exact same moment that I found six Tull albums at Goodwill and believed at the time that this meant he and I were destined to be together. This time of year, I am usually found in my car, zipping past the Christmas lights of Indiana and belting out songs from Dean Martin’s Christmas album, but instead, I have been singing “Jack in the Green” over and over at the top of my lungs and feeling urges to go to a Renaissance Festival and give Z a pair of leather breeches and deer-hide boots for Christmas.

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(This photo rudely stolen from Wikipedia.)

I missed Z more than usual at Meijer today when the young girl in the Santa hat appeared beside me with a wide, vacant stare, and said, “I can’t find my mom.” Z is stupendous in a crisis. I believe this is because in my youth while I was reading confessional poetry written by women who would later commit suicide, Z was learning to lifeguard and how to perform CPR and generally be an upstanding citizen instead of someone who feels her feelings every second of the day. He’s not exactly MacGyver, but I have no doubt that in a crisis he could figure out how to land a plane, defuse a bomb, or set a compound fracture. He’s that guy.

 

Who I am, though, is the person who looked at this poor kid—Santa hat bobbing as she twirled her head from side to side looking for her mom—and sighed deeply before saying, “Let’s see if we can find her.” I don’t know what the proper response should have been exactly, but the fact that that sigh was so deep is pretty damning.

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Who doesn’t love a Me Christmas?

After the sigh, I briefly felt pretty pleased with myself that this kid had recognized in me a helper, someone who looked trustworthy and good at locating missing parents. But it pretty quickly became apparent that I was just the first warm body she bumped into.

 

Everything about Santa Girl was vacant, God Bless her. She couldn’t answer my questions about where she’d seen her mom last, how much time had passed, or what her mom had been shopping for at the time they were separated. Had Z been with me, he would have had the store on lock down, hunkered down next to the girl so he was looking directly into her lusterless eyes, and come up with a plan to reunite her with her parent. Instead, she was stuck with me. My plan, when I realized she wasn’t going to be helpful in tracking down her mom, was to find a store clerk who could take care of this problem for both of us. We walked through a few aisles, her hat bobbing from side to side, and then I spied an older guy wearing the requisite Meijer gear.

 

He looked benign, but I didn’t feel right about dumping a little girl off with a strange man in case it scared her or he was a serial killer, so my plan of a quick escape was nixed.

 

He was a guy who had clearly been through this drill with someone else’s kid before, because he knew what to do. He asked Santa Girl her mom’s name, and thankfully, she knew that. Then he paged the woman. The minute he said Santa Girl’s mother’s name over the loudspeaker, the child looked horror stricken for a second and then she took off running away from us, away from what was likely to be a crabby reunion with her mother, and away from the spot where he’d directed her mother to meet us.

 

I’m not much of a runner unless a bear is chasing me. Fortunately, Santa Girl wasn’t a runner either in her fleece boots, so I was able to keep her in my line of sight as she darted in and out of aisles, looking frantically for her mother. Part of me wanted to shrug and say, “Oh well. She’ll sort herself out,” but the louder part knew that it was important she not dart out the door and into traffic and that she not be terrified, running haphazardly through the frozen foods section. The store clerk who had made the announcement was right behind me, and then somehow in front of me, and though Santa Girl would not listen to my pleas to return to me, when the clerk spoke to her with a kind but authoritative voice, she stopped dead in her tracks. When he called her to him, she came. When he put his arm around her shoulders lightly to direct her back towards the rendez-vous point, she transformed from one of the wild horses of Chincoteague into a tamed creature on a lead. It was amazing.

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I don’t have any horse photos at the ready, so here, look at our wedding cake topper from 8 years ago.

In the time it would have taken me to weigh the pros and cons of putting my hands on a stranger child, this guy instinctively did exactly what she needed to calm down. The way Z would have.

 

It would be so nice to have useful skills like these.

 

We rounded the corner and her mother spied us. There were other kids in and around the car. It was probably two, but it has multiplied in my memory to at least five. I feared Santa Girl would get hollered at, or maybe even smacked, but instead her mother said dryly, “Well, well, well. Who do we have here? It’s Katelyn.”

 

Not Santa Girl. Katelyn. Katelyn who possibly needs one of those child leashes when going out in public.

 

Godspeed, Katelyn.

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Blue Christmas.

What I haven’t told you about this interlude is that I had on sort of loose fitting jeans. And apparently I had on malfunctioning underwear, because somewhere between Katelyn darting off at the sound of the loudspeaker and us doing the perp walk with her back to her mother, my underpants had somehow rolled themselves down to my knees, forcing me into a sort of waddle.

 

After my brief charge was returned to her mother, I considered the possibility that I should trudge the half a mile to the women’s toilets to readjust whatever had sprung itself loose in my Levis, but it seemed so much easier to waddle to the checkout, waddle to my car, and drive myself home to take care of all the unfortunate bunching.

 

Had Katelyn’s mother been friendlier, I might have offered advice about how mis-sized underpants could be used to keep her young fugitive in check.

 

This is not the blog post I planned as a holiday token of my affection for you. I had big plans for a richly woven tapestry of Christmas angst, long-time friendships, my 8th anniversary spent alone, Z in the “new” Zimbabwe, and homelessness. In the end, I realized that present would have been more about pleasing myself and less about entertaining you.  And frankly, it would have been kind of depressing.

 

So instead, you get underpants.

 

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Mom’s tree, which is 10,000 more spectacular up close but my camera won’t cooperate.

 

Whatever you are celebrating this solstice season, I hope you are celebrating well with people you love, festive headgear, the music of your choice, and foundation garments that don’t roll down.

 

 

 

Hope Wrapped in Plastic

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At this moment, my writing studio has been overrun by men in hi-viz construction garb who are installing supports in the apartment above ours to earthquake proof the building. Or, more precisely, to fix a bad earthquake proofing that happened a few years ago. It’s frustrating when you live in 900 square feet and are told you have to move all of your earthly possessions five feet from the south wall and five feet from the west wall. And when you are booklovers, it is possibly worse.

 

I spent last weekend moving the hundreds of books I own and love and the hundreds more I own and have never read. They are now in unreachable piles, covered by a plastic tarp, while sawing and hammering make them jump.

 

When will this fresh hell be done?

 

Oh, they can’t tell us. It could be by the end of the week or it could be in two months. It just depends on how the work goes in the apartment above. And based on a conversation I overheard (while eavesdropping and peering out the peephole), there is some worrisome shaking in the apartment above or below, so it’s possible that when I get back tonight all of our belongings will be living in the apartment underneath ours.

 

Added fun: we can’t be in the apartment from 9 to 5, which would be fine if I didn’t work from home, but I do, and so it’s hard not to feel put-upon and a little homeless. And in case you are wondering, no, no we don’t get a reduction in rent for our inconvenience. We’re getting a “gift certificate” for our trouble, which we’re pretty sure will be a $10 card to Starbucks, and neither of us drinks coffee. When we complained about this injustice, we were sent a copy of the contract we signed years ago at which point we agreed easily to this arrangement because we were imagining “maintenance” as “person in your apartment for twenty minutes trying to fix leaky pipe” not “gang of workers cranking up your heat and reducing your square footage while you are cast outside.”

 

There are worse things in the world, and we both recognize that people who live in their own houses also occasionally have to put up with tarps and construction dust and strange men peeing in their toilets. A friend of mine just found out part of her house is sinking and will have to be jacked up, for instance.

 

But when you rent, it feels a little like you don’t have control over your life. You realize this space you call home isn’t really yours at all, and the owners could boot you out on a whim in order to raze the building to erect a 30-story condo on the site.

 

When I first got out of college, I had a job I loathed at a public library. I thought I’d love it, because books, but instead, every morning when I shut the door on the free world and trudged to the front desk, a little part of me died inside. Patrons yelled at me when they couldn’t get their hands on the latest John Grisham book immediately, books were returned smelling foul (and forever changed how I feel about getting books out of the public library, hence the large collection of books I had to move from my south and west walls this weekend), and it was mind-numbingly boring because we weren’t allowed to read at the front desk during slow periods. Because it wouldn’t look “professional.” In a library. Reading. In a library.

 

Also, my immediate supervisor had some mental health issues that unfortunately took their toll on us as well as her. We were sympathetic to her condition, but when her chemistry was off-kilter, we all suffered. On her best days, she was a control freak, but it was magnified a thousand fold when she was not. The worst day I remember was an early morning staff meeting she’d called to tell us about her new policy on vacation days. We could ask for them, we could be granted them, but if there was a staffing emergency, we could be called in and must immediately abandon our free-time plans. Like we were ER nurses. We could be at the airport ready to fly off to Bora Bora, and if there was a need at the circulation desk, too bad.

 

We were outraged but also felt powerless. Jobs were not easy to come by right then, most of us were at the library because we were uniquely unqualified for other types of non-bookish work. We whined and kvetched and slammed books onto the re-shelving carts, but mostly what we felt was that we had no control over our own lives. We were at the mercy of the forces of the universe and our micro-managing boss with the super tight penmanship.

 

Not long after this incident, I decided to go to graduate school. My mother was worried that I was giving up a job with a paycheck for not-a-job-and-debt, but I knew if I spent much more time in that place, bad things would happen to my head and my heart.

 

So that’s where Z and I are right now. We’d like to flounce off and announce Cartman style, “Screw you guys! We’re going home!” Except this is home and by the time we might find another one we can afford in America’s 3rd most expensive city, the flounce will have lost its dramatic effect.

 

Also, in light of world events, what we have going on here is a hangnail. So I’ll just stop whining now. At least about that.

 

Here’s something else that is concerning.

 

Though I’d vowed never to take another stupid online quiz like “What Hogwart’s House Do You Belong In?” or “What’s Your Power Animal?” (I can answer both of these with no test: Ravenclaw and Indiana Box Turtle), a former student posted a link to the “What Murderous Villain Are You?” quiz, and I was drawn to it for reasons I can’t explain. The quiz itself seemed to be a semi-legit personality test with thoughtful questions and I gave thoughtful answers, and so I was fully expecting to discover I am most like some socialist/communist folk-hero-turned-bad-by-power-and-greed. Somehow, that seemed a tolerable sort of “murderous villain” to be—one who had originally imagined a world where people were equal and working together for the greater good before the corruption and mass executions and full-time-wearing-of-fatigues commenced. I could rationalize that this would not be a bad comparison. I could imagine a world in which given the chance to be a dictator, I’d be a benevolent one.

 

But then I pressed “send” and the computer spun its little wheel for several seconds before giving me my result.

 

 

Hitler.

 

Granted, there was no way I was going to “win” this game. Even if I’d given Mother- Theresa-style answers on every question, I was still going to end up with a murderous villain dopplegänger.

 

But Hitler? You don’t really get worse than that one. It’s not a piece of party trivia you can pull out, like announcing to people you just met that you and Richard Nixon are both Capricorns or that the wife of Jim Jones—the Kool-Aid-making lunatic who killed his followers in Guyana in the 1970s—was from your home town. If you have any connections to Hitler, you keep them to yourself. (Unless, of course, you don’t, but that’s a whole other faction of humanity I don’t particularly want to identify with, thanks.)

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And look at that chart. Just look. According to the experts at Individual Differences Research Labs, I’m only slightly more warm-hearted than Hitler. I never imagined him any amount of warm-hearted, did you? And I’m more brooding. In fact, I’m off the charts with the brooding.

 

Oh dear. I’ve got to go brood about this.

 

I was so disturbed by the results of this test that I took another one at IDR Labs based on the Big 5 personality test that not only tells you your personality but also shows you which president you most align with. On this test, I got Thomas Jefferson, which I was okay with. Yes, he made some dubious moral choices, but it was a different time, I told myself (my white self). He loved books, he was a Renaissance man, I could picture myself easily living at Monticello with him and being happy while he tinkered in the other room with his inventions.

 

But according to the breakdown of this test, Thomas Jefferson was more conscientious than I am and he had slaves. Human people he actually owned (to say nothing of Sally Hemmings, who wasn’t free to say “no”). How? How was he more conscientious than I am? Me, who is not complaining to the building manager about our current living conditions because I know it isn’t her fault, she just works here.

 

You might want to take this opportunity to consider whether you want to keep reading a blog written by a woman who has similar psychological make-up to Hitler and America’s most famous presidential slave owner. (See how conscientious I am, warning you off?)

 

Speaking of dictators and people with poorly-functioning moral compasses….

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Photo credit: _The Telegraph_

 

 

If you’d asked me in 1982 what the likelihood was that I’d marry a man whose home country was in the midst of a not-a-coup coup, I’d have laughed in your face. The odds of  even meeting someone whose home country is coup-inclined in Richmond, Indiana, are not high. And yet there I was two weeks ago, watching social media with a weird mixture of hope and concern for our people in Zimbabwe (and for Z who would soon be headed to Zimbabwe for the holidays) and watching Z watching the remarkable news from Harare as it unfolded.

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That’s not just a car ride to Cincinnati.

Also, I have to tell you, until you are married to someone whose home country is on the verge of a bloodless revolution, you have no idea how truly tedious and self-absorbed the U.S. news outlets are. We were searching frantically for any information from a trusted news source, but instead they were re-hashing various sex scandals in U.S. politics over and over and completely unaware or uninterested that the world had shifted on its axis south of the equator and across the Atlantic. We finally gave up and relied exclusively on social media and texts from friends and family “on the ground.”

 

I loved the look on Z’s face while he watched fellow Zimbabweans in the streets of Harare as they draped themselves in flags and danced and sang. He was leaning forward towards the screen with a smile, clicking between different sites to see what the latest was. Shaking his head in disbelief.

 

If he could have teleported to Zim, I’d have been sitting on the sofa by myself. But the truth is, I wanted to teleport with him. I wanted to see in the flesh those people  draped in flags, dancing in the street, hugging each other regardless of race or political affiliation. It was heady.

 

It has been a weird year for me. For us. We’d never protested before in our lives, and yet for the last 12 months we’ve been more politically active than the all the other years of our lives combined—we’ve marched, spoken up, altered behavior, discussed things we never imagined needing to discuss like what we might  do if Z isn’t allowed to live in America anymore, and so on. Z does it because he says he’s not letting what happened in his home country happen in his adopted one. I do it because I believe in the idea of America, and right now, America is falling short of its own idea of itself. But also, we both do it because this is the only control we have: what we do with our own bodies, our own behavior, our own vote (or at least my vote since Z is not yet eligible).

 

What a weird sort of synchronicity that our year of protest wrapped up with a march we were too far away to participate in, so we had to just sit on the sofa and watch. Z dragged out his Zimbabwean flag and hung it in our front window, and that night we had friends over and he cooked a traditional Zimbabwean meal (Huku ne Dovi, sadza, muriwo and also garlic rosemary chicken for me because I am picky and not that adventurous), and we warmed ourselves with hope for better tomorrows everywhere.

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Two Dreams Diverged

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Z is hounding me that October is almost over and I haven’t written a single blog this month. Not a word about my two weeks back in Indiana in September, Mom’s three week visit to Seattle, nor a week-long interlude with July, who we haven’t seen since this time last year when we descended on her cozy home in Wales. Nor have I mentioned Z’s birthday this week.

I also haven’t coughed up a sentence about how this is pretty much my favorite time of year from mid-September through my own birthday in January, and how though I generally find Pacific Northwest autumns subpar when compared to Indiana, it’s been stellar out here this year.

Nope, you’ve gotten bupkis from me. I’m beginning to feel guilty at night when I look over and see Z re-reading old blogs of mine, refreshing his browser, as if his wife in an alternate universe—the wife who is more productive, less anxiety-ridden, more inclined to clean and have a regular skincare regime—might have produced a nugget or two for him to read. (I just know that alternate-universe wife of his has a VERY popular blog that has a bajillion followers, just signed a three-book deal, and would not have banished half of his Zimbabwe-inspired art to his office. I also suspect she makes her own pie crusts, uses one of those plastic exercise balls to keep herself Olympically limber, and never takes a bad pic. I hate her.)

Even when I’m not blogging, I email Jane regularly about my joys and concerns of the day. She is the kind of friend who actually listens to me and tries to help me figure out what my really real (read: multi-dimensional/fully sensory/non-grainy) dreams mean, but her hot water heater is busted and I don’t want to bother her right now while she’s bathing with bottles of Aquafina and wet wipes.

So instead, I’m going to tell you about my dream analysis problems. Lucky, lucky you!

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Last night, I dreamed Sandra Bullock had died and somehow I had gained custody of her son Louis. In the dream, he was just a toddler. In the dream, I didn’t know Sandra Bullock any better than I do in real life, which is to say not at all. I’m not sure how the kid ended up in my arms. I like her as much as everyone else in the world does. A couple of her movies are my favorites, but I’ll probably never watch Speed or Miss Congeniality 2, so I’m not like a Kathy Bates style #1 fan. A few months ago I was happy enough to read a cast-off People about how she loves being a mother to Louis and his new sister, but it’s unclear why her “death” featured in my dream or how I got saddled with her little son.

For the record, I did feel terribly sad that she’d died because she seems like a genuinely decent human, and I was relieved to wake up and realize she’s still out there raising her kids and donating her millions to worthy causes.

Anyhow, I was carrying Dream Louis around the house, wondering what to do. He was upset and I was upset: poor Sandra, poor kid, poor me. Even dream Beth seemed to know she wasn’t equipped for instant motherhood. There is no What to Expect When You Suddenly Become the Guardian of Sandra Bullock’s Toddler for sale on Amazon, so I couldn’t bone up on what to do. I was wiping away his tears and shoving food in his mouth and jiggling him around in a manner meant to be soothing. But also, I was pacing because I knew Child Protective Services was headed to the house and if it seemed like anything about me wasn’t legit, then they’d take this kid away from me. Despite concerns about whether I could rear him appropriately and how his presence was going to alter my daily life, I suspected that I’d be a better mother to him than some arbitrary person. Particularly a person who may or may not love While You Were Sleeping as much as I do. (Seriously, y’all can have your White Christmas and your It’s a Wonderful Life, but if I don’t get to see While You Were Sleeping every December, I feel like a major strand of lights has gone out on the tree.)

In the dream, I was frantic to paint a picture of serene maternity as the authorities pulled up to the house. I wanted to look capable, confident, and like Louis and I already had a unique bond. So I asked Dream Louis what he wanted me to call him— like a special nickname between us—and he said quite clearly in his little toddler voice, “Carrington.”

I’ve never written “WTF” in a blog before because I like to keep things halfway wholesome in the public domain, but surely this is an instance that deserves it.

WTF.

Just as I was thinking, “This kid does NOT look like a Carrington. He’s got to come up with something better,” Z’s alarm went off, so I have no idea how it all turned out. Was I allowed to keep Louis/Carrington? Did I rise to the occasion like Sandra Bullock in Blind Side and make sure my young charge graduated from high school and went on to college? Would there be any money rolling in from the Bullock estate to help me raise this kid or was he going to have to get used to a lower standard of living, maybe eating the off-brand cereal and having a homemade Superman costume instead of a real one this Halloween?

Elements of the dream possibly worth exploring: motherhood, babies, Carrington.

Though there have been points in my life where I hungered to be a mother, this is not one of those times. There are a few small children I’m personally smitten with, but on the whole, I’m quite happy with my child-free life and the easy access I have to my non baby-proofed electrical sockets and cabinets full of poison.

So I don’t think this is about babies and the impending fossilization of my own womb.

In the mid 1990s during my “depressive” stage, I was briefly obsessed with Dora Carrington when the movie about her starring Emma Thompson came out. I read books. Studied her art. Felt cross that she wasn’t quite in the inner sanctum of the Bloomsbury group despite loving Lytton Strachey quite literally to the death. (One of the only times I haven’t liked Virginia Woolf was when I read something in her diary about Carrington that lacked compassion.) Two books about Carrington are sitting on the shelf by my desk here in my studio, but they are in the extra dusty upper reaches and are never taken down.

I suppose I did sort of date a guy in high school who turned out to be gay, but I wouldn’t have killed myself over him a la Carrington and I’ve never worn jodhpurs like her, so I don’t think this dream was about Carrington either.

I’m at a loss. It was all so real. Louis’s breath in my ear was kind of sweet and snotty because he’d been crying so hard and my arm hurt from the weight of him. My subconscious might have given me one of those “real” dreams to help me with something I’ve been struggling with (writing, geography, existential questions), but I’m not Robert Langdon and thus can’t decipher my own personal Da Vinci Code.

Hopefully Jane’s water heater will be fixed soon.

In the category of dreams becoming reality, it’s Z’s and my 10th anniversary of love today. If you’ve read this blog before or come within a mile of me, you already know our story, but it’s my favorite and all roads seem to lead to it eventually. (And why shouldn’t I prefer it to all others?)

Because it’s close to Halloween, I’ll tell you the extra eerie, woooooooo elements I sometimes leave out.

We met in the fall of 2001 when he was new faculty where I was teaching. We were at a faculty party, I saw him, felt the love instantly in a way I previously thought was entirely made up, and drove straight to Leibovitz’s house to say, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.” Over the following weeks, I gave him a battery of personality tests and listened carefully for him to say something that would put me off him forever, making special note that his delicious accent might well make something truly intolerable sound acceptable. He only ever said delightful and funny things though, and when he went home to Zimbabwe for the holidays, he left a message on my voicemail: “I’m just calling to say ‘banana,’” because I’d told him how much I’d miss hearing him say that while he was away. I played it for any friend or relative who would listen: all agreed, his accent was exquisite, and surely he must be flirting back to leave such a message.

This is not the wooooooo part, fyi.

He wasn’t flirting. For the next two years we were together almost every day—after work, having dinner, going to movies, shopping—but I made no headway and was choking on my love. Finally, a few days before he left to go back to Zimbabwe for good, I screwed up my courage and told him how I felt, vowing that I didn’t care where he went, I wanted to be with him.

(Note: I’m hoping this vow is not legally binding because we once stayed at a truly deplorable motel at Plymouth Rock and if he decided to take up residence there, we’d probably have to live apart. It was disgusting and the smell of the moldy carpet is still living somewhere in one of my olfactory receptors.)

He was kind when he said he didn’t feel the same way and that he’d always consider me his friend.

Later that day, I had a spiritual experience that I’m not recounting here because believers will say how could you ever doubt that you’d end up with him eventually after that? and cynics will say your brain simply invented that so you’d be comforted. Suffice it to say, while I had a sort of knowing that Z and I would end up together eventually, I was also full of doubt. Over the years, my brain has concocted a considerable amount of bullshit that did not ever come to fruition, so while I hung on to the possibility that maybe eventually we’d be together, I was pragmatic enough to know I needed to get on with my life in the meantime.

The next day, I dropped Z off at the airport, unsure when or if I’d see him again. I sniffed his neck when I hugged him goodbye and sent him on his way. I cried all the way home, stopped at the reservoir to collect myself and was greeted by a gaggle of goslings, waddling up the hill, which seemed to speak to all sorts of hope.

But none of this is really the weird, other-worldly part.

When he was teenager, he was an extra in a crowded market scene in that Richard Chamberlain-Sharon Stone “masterpiece,” King Solomon’s Mines. We’d watched it one night in his flat, and he pointed out the two very brief shots where he is in the background. He is playing the role of “European riffraff” and when there’s a kerfuffle in market scene involving the stars, the camera pans the crowd and there is Z—brows furrowed—as he looks to see what is going on.

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Z and friend, on set but not scowling.

The night he left for good, I went home and moped around the house like you do. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but if the movies are to be believed, I probably cried and ate a carton of ice cream. What I do remember is that I couldn’t get to sleep that night, so I turned on the TV. What was on the exact channel the TV was tuned to? King Solomon’s Mines. Whose face was staring at me a second later, brow furrowed?

Until I’d met him, I’d never seen the movie, and I have never seen it airing on cable since. But there it was, and there he was, peering at me from the big screen, daring me to try to forget about him.

But wait, there’s more. Woooooooo.

Two months later, my brother and I went to Ireland to celebrate his 21st birthday. It seemed a good way for me to distract myself from the terrible ache of life post Z. We saw nearly the whole of the Republic in something like six days and we had a good time. He was several years younger than me and, I could only assume, not that interested in the quality of his big sister’s broken heart. I wasn’t inclined to point out to him that I’d just passed a hamburger joint with Z’s first name in neon just as I was thinking of him, nor did I mention the irony of the rugby poster above our heads in Temple Bar that said “Ireland vs. Zimbabwe” just as we were having a conversation with a couple about rugby. My brain was filled with the photos and stories Z had shared about his own rugby days, but I didn’t say a word. Surely to goodness these were all signs from on high that Z was back in Africa, realizing he loved me.

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Stevie Nix & I keep our crystal visions to ourselves. Unless one of us decides to blog.

The night of my brother’s actual birthday, he was deep in his cups at the pub and I was tired and didn’t want to bring down the mood, so I left him dancing with a Scandinavian woman and went back to our hotel room where there was little to distract me from my thoughts. There was a tiny TV with bad reception that had sound on only one channel. Sadly, the channel with sound was playing a spooky old black and white movie starring one of those cadaverous actors like Peter Cushing. I was not interested in the plot but the company was nice and distracted me from the idea of Z. As I settled in to lose myself in a mindless scary movie, in his creepiest voice, Peter Cushing said Z’s very obscure and completely rare last name in reference to a developing situation with the occult.

I’ll grant you, the hamburger joint with his first name was just wishful thinking on my part. And the rugby poster with Zimbabwe written on it was probably a coincidence. But Peter Cushing in a movie I would NEVER have watched had there been even one other working channel on an otherwise soundless TV saying Z’s surname that if Googled produces only results for Z and a guy from Sweden?

Imagine some eerie music right here, would you?

If, three years later, Z had not come to his senses, then these would just be unfortunate coincidences, but because he did, I can only see it as messages from the divine or as an unbelievable plot device should I ever turn this into a novel.

All this week I’ve been forcing Z to remember how I arrived in Seattle right before his birthday in 2006, reminding him where we ate meals, where we walked on Alki Beach and badgering him about why he didn’t say right then how he felt. “Shame you slept on that foam egg crate all those nights in your living room and left me by myself in your bed,” I’ll say. And then I’ll pester him about why he let almost all the days of my visit go before he told me his feelings had changed.

Poor, poor Z. When I declared myself in 2003 (after two years of suffering in obsessed silence), IF ONLY he had gotten on board with my plan for his future he would have saved himself all of this future grief, wherein I force him to remember all of that wasted times. Total strangers on the interwebz would not be reading about his hesitancy. My friends who marvel at the quality of our rightness together now would not say to him, “What were you thinking? Why the delay?”

I’m insufferable on this count, and he’s a trooper. He’s put up with the teasing and the ribbing for a decade now. Though please note, he never will say, “You were right, Baby. I was SO wrong.” Instead, he says, “Things happened as they were supposed to.”

Possibly if he said he was wrong I might relent. Or possibly not.

Anyhow, today is the anniversary of the night we went to the Quarter Lounge around the corner from his apartment (and which you can see for yourself in the opening episode of Man in the High Castle—a First Hill claim to fame) and we had too much to drink and we were both being more honest than perhaps we had previously been, and soon enough he said what he said about us needing to be together, and I slammed down my hand on the table and said, “I KNEW I was right!” in a truly insufferable way (and so unlike how Sandra Bullock would respond as a romantic heroine).

This was not a cinematic climax to a love story with ocean waves breaking over rocks in the background as he wrapped me in a passionate embrace. Instead, something like “Play that Funky Music” or “Back in Black” was on the jukebox and I excused myself to the women’s room where I looked in the mirror at my red, bleary face and then did an honest-to-God happy dance with my arms raised in victory. Probably you will never see the story of our love on the big screen because of these details.

I may be incapable of deciphering my dream about Louis Bullock, but this Z dream of mine? The visions? The coincidental placement of rugby posters and hamburger joints? The late night TV programming of both America and Ireland? All those signs pointed to “yes” and that has made all the difference.

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A Tale of Two (or more) Christmases

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It’s that time of year when I drag out all the Christmas videos that put me in a happy, Christmas space, and force Z to watch them. I don’t always watch all of them—Little Women often gets a miss because I end up in tears when Beth dies—but, like clockwork, there will be a viewing of Christmas in Connecticut, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, A Holiday Affair, While You Were Sleeping, A Christmas Story, and eventually, my favorite, Moonstruck, which, honestly, I sometimes forget is set at Christmas because it’s also one of my favorite non-holiday movies. The script is great, the writing is tight, the scenery is wonderful, and the acting really was worthy of those Oscars back in 1988. The main thing all of these movies have in common though is the promise of a two-hour block of time when Christmas is exactly how you imagine it should be.

 

As you may be aware, I do my fair share of complaining about city life, but this is the time of year that while I miss home—the city…any city really—comes alive for me.

I first discovered this love for city-life-at-the-holidays in Chicago in the mid 1990s when I’d stand for an hour studying the window displays at Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott. The displays at Field’s were themed and you’d wait anxiously to see what would be revealed each year: Cinderella, Pinocchio, Wizard of Oz? I could easily get teary-eyed talking about Macy’s take-over of the main Marshall Field’s on State Street and subsequent refusal to retain the historical name and traditions and the bland, seen-it-before holiday decorations that are the new normal, or the Target logo that now hovers over the beautiful ironwork on the Carson Pirie Scott building. So don’t mention those stores to me please. Seriously. Can we just pretend it’s still 1997 and all is as it should be on State Street?

 

When I was in Chicago, I somehow didn’t mind the cold. I’d stand outside, purposeless, watching the ice skaters, guessing what might be in the bags and stacks of boxes people were carrying around on the Magnificent Mile as horns honked in what seemed like a less aggressive, more festive way than at other times of the year. I’d make time to go to one of the free weekly concerts at Fourth Presbyterian, staring up at the decorated sanctuary that was meant to look like the hull of a Viking ship, and listen with pleasure to carols and concertos. Then I’d get cocoa on the second floor of the now defunct Borders bookstore and stare down at the historic Water Tower and watch the carriages there, carting tourists around with horses sporting Santa hats. I was meant to be in the city for a man, but he was often at work or disinclined to venture out of his Bat Cave, so my time there was solitary and oddly delightful. I didn’t need to be doing the carriage riding or the ice skating; I was content to observe it, to walk amongst the revelers, to soak it in. There was nothing about Christmas in that snowy, blustery city that I didn’t love; even the labored breathing from the icy temperatures and difficulty walking on the snow-packed side streets seemed magical.

 

Rockefeller Center, 2010

Rockefeller Center, 2010

 

Chicago set the bar high. Four years ago, Z and I had a blizzard-induced flight delay when we were headed to Zimbabwe, and thus we ended up spending a few nights in New York City. For the first time ever, I finally got to see—in the flesh and electric lights—those famous windows at Macy’s, the tree at Rockefeller Center, wreaths on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It made our interrupted—and thus shortened—trip to Africa almost worth it. Christmas in New York certainly rivals that of Chicago, but for me, it doesn’t quite win. Maybe a tie. I’ve seen Dublin, Galway, Rome, New Orleans, Harare, Seattle and the closer, Midwestern cities of my youth decorated for the holidays, but Chicago will always be the city that lives inside the flurry-filled snow globe in my brain. I try not to hold that against Seattle, which even managed to produce a few tiny patches of snow this year and get cold enough to keep little driftlets at the bases of about three trees.

 

But it’s no Chicago.

 

December hasn’t impressed me much this year. It’s my favorite month usually, but it seems like the whole world is coming unhinged. Normally, it’s the time of year when you can safely insulate yourself from the ugliness out there so long as you toss some money in the Salvation Army pot outside the door at the grocery and feel grateful for your own bounty. But it’s harder this year. People are mad and unhappy and in pain. There have been nightly protests in downtown Seattle to remind us of this. On the one hand, I want to be annoyed that the protestors made a bunch of kids at a choral concert at the tree-lighting ceremony cry at the beginning of the month, but on the other hand, I am sympathetic to the frustration of a faulty system. I am in awe of people who are inclined to let their voices be heard en masse. When I get outraged about something, I send an email and write in my journal or whine to Z, so this level of commitment and the possibility of being on the receiving end of violence—or at least pepper spray and handcuffs—is something to behold. Certainly, it’s making for a different sort of holiday season.

 

At the beginning of the month, Z and I made our first trip to Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, to hear the Pacific Lutheran University choir and orchestra perform a Christmas concert. We were excited to finally get into the building that for the last eight years has only served as backdrop while we wait for the #12 bus to pick up our tired backsides and cart us up the hill. I admit that I even had some Moonstruck fantasies that I was Cher and Rick was the (pre-crazy) Nicolas Cage, decked out in our finery, going to see La Bohème at the New York Metropolitan Opera, never mind Z’s lack of tux and my clomping around in Danskos and slacks instead of high heels and red velvet dress. We had box seats which we’d been assured were “awesome” by Hudge, and we were imagining something similar to the seats Princess Di used to sit in, looking down on everyone with a clear view of the stage. The view was good, though not Royal-Family private, but my seat was not befitting a princess or any other human. Possibly a potted plant would have found reasonable purchase there. For the duration of the concert my knees were pressed against the banister, my feet had to be tucked far beneath my chair, and during the portions where the audience had to stand up to sing carols, Z had to help me over to one side so I could stand without toppling over, which made me feel even less like Cher (or Princess Diana) and more like someone’s clumsy, ancient, slightly drunk aunt.

No Leg Room for a Princess

No Leg Room for a Princess

Still, the music drifted up to the rafters and the choir members sang their way out of the auditorium while holding electric candles, and we were both feeling extra Christmassy as we walked home. The flashing lights of cop cars monitoring another night’s protest were at the periphery, blending in with the other twinkling lights of the city. Everything appeared peaceable even if discontent.

 

The following night we went downtown with Hudge and friends of hers to experience the Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition, a yearly event in Seattle, wherein a variety of groups sing for donations that support a food bank and a senior center, and at the end of the evening the loot in the pots is counted and the “winner” determined. Though it is just a few blocks from our apartment, the streets were packed with, according to some accounts, 10,000 or more people. It was fun, in that it was nice to see so many denizens of Seattle happily bumping against each other in Santa hats, happily dropping money into buckets for a worthy cause. But it was overwhelming to my highly sensitive self. All those people! All those sounds clashing somewhere just above my ears so nothing sounded particularly melodious but more like an aural war being waged, or at least a border skirmish. The police were in full force for crowd control and also because there were rumored to be more protests (later, we learned the protestors and organizers worked out a deal since the event was for a charitable cause, so the protest happened later), but it was jarring to see so many cops at such a happy occasion. And then other little wars started happening inside of me, wherein I wanted to tell them to be safe and that I respected how hard their jobs must be while at the same time I wanted to give little smacks to the ones I thought looked most likely to be trigger-happy racial profilers. (Granted, I had no real data to determine who were the good cops and who were the potentially bad cops, but still, my brain raged to various choruses of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and I came to no solution other than to smile at anyone who made eye contact with me.)

 

Figgy Pudding crowd, 2014

Figgy Pudding crowd, 2014

The following day, Z and I had rented a car and found ourselves with some leftover Christmas spirit that we were uncertain how to expend. We tried eating pie, but that wasn’t enough to sate us, so at the last minute, we drove onto a ferry destined for the Kitsap Peninsula for an ill-planned visit to Poulsbo’s tree-lighting ceremony. It was so ill-planned we weren’t sure we would even make it as it was meant to happen as soon as the sun went down, and the sun was sinking rapidly as we dozed in our car, bobbing across across Puget Sound. (Ferry sleep is the best sleep you will ever have, fyi).

 

You may remember my earlier description of Poulsbo, the little Viking-inspired village that was founded by Scandinavians who arrived in the late 19th century for the fishing. It sits right on the Sound and has a quaint downtown with Viking murals and Scandinavian building facades and signs that are in Norse (or an English version of Norse). Z and I arrived just in time, and as we were racing down the hill to the city park by the waterfront, we saw a group of people in a wooded lot, standing around a fire in Viking headdress and furs, making plans for the ceremony. Though we knew during the day they were probably computer programmers or carpenters, it was easy enough to pretend we’d happened upon an encampment of soon-to-be marauding Vikings.

 

We left them where they were and continued down the hill and got to the city park, just in time to see Miss Poulsbo light the village tree. We were imagining some massive fir tree, because the trees grow big and plentiful in western Washington, but no, the tree in question was only about a foot taller than Miss Poulsbo herself, who Z briefly mistook for a snowman because she was wrapped so tightly in a white cape. We’d been imagining something much grander and briefly considered we’d made an error in choosing our evening’s destination. But there was a huge stack of wood in front of us that was intriguing and talk of Vikings escorting Saint Lucia in to light it, so we stood around with the townsfolk waiting. Compared to the night before in downtown Seattle, this group was much smaller, maybe 200 or so people, and many seemed to know each other. Some little boys dressed in skins raced around the wood and a young bulldog made friends with everyone who walked past. We’d recently binged on all seven seasons of “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix, and frankly, Poulsbo felt very Stars Hollow-esque. (Even the emcee was reminding us a little of the insufferable Taylor Doose.)

 

Z and I stood by the waterfront looking at the lighted houses across the Sound. And then, off in the distance, we saw flames coming towards us as the Vikings approached on the river walk, brandishing torches. (A kid behind us thought they were bringing us all giant, roasted marshmallows to help celebrate.)

Saint Lucia? Is that you?

Saint Lucia? Is that you?

 

The anticipation grew as they got closer and people made way for them to get to the wood that would become a proper big bonfire. As they arrived, in their midst were a variety of girls and young women, and we’d be hard pressed to tell you which one was St. Lucia, but my money is on the one with candles on her head because she looked the most regal. (The crowd surged towards the wood and we couldn’t see if Candle Head did the actual bonfire lighting, so I’m still none the wiser.)

 

Vikings lighting the jule fire, Poulsbo, WA

Vikings lighting the jule fire, Poulsbo, WA

Before the torches came down in unison to light the bonfire, one of the Vikings spoke about the meaning of the celebration, the importance of light reaching out in the darkness at a time of the year when the darkness is so vast. Even though it was a fun, silly sort of activity akin to going to a Renaissance Festival, I felt tears threaten because it seemed like the most apt of metaphors this dark, dark year when the world seems to be extra violent and angry and brokenhearted. Maybe this is why it is my favorite time of year despite the crowds and the way my eye starts twitching because I let myself get stressed about buying subpar presents or the guilt I feel that while I’m having a perfectly lovely Christmas, a score of people are depressed or hungry or victimized or not able to be with their families. Z, for instance, will be with me this year instead of in Zimbabwe with his family, and while I’m thrilled that we are together and thrilled that I’m destined for an Indiana Christmas, there is still a certain sadness that we are not with his people too.

 

But as the bonfire got higher and higher, illuminating the darkness around us (and some of the ash threatening to set those of us in nylon jackets ablaze), I was able to push those trickier aspects of the holiday season out of my mind and focus instead on the light, on the freshness of the impending new year and the possibility of the world getting brighter and kinder.

 

It was the best kind of holiday night. Maybe even better than a mid-December on Chicago’s wintry streets.

 

Viking winter bonfire, Poulsbo, WA

Viking winter bonfire, Poulsbo, WA

 

 

A Matter of Perspective

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Here in the land of excess, I am able to drive past sub-par holiday decor and curl my lip. Downtown on Tuesday there was an ice sculpture–lovely, lovely ice sculpture–and instead of being amazed that something so intricate could be cut from a block of ice, I sighed and thought, Oh, the Grinch. I was hoping for something more beautiful.

Meanwhile, in Z’s little hometown, people were camping out to see the lighting of the town Christmas decorations. It was cause for celebration. It’s a single string of colored bulbs stretched across a parking lot.  It is cheery and fun and also has pretty much cornered the market on simplicity. While I can’t personally imagine waiting outside for any amount of time to see them lit (with no guarantee that there would be power to light them), I appreciate that single strand of holiday cheer.

So my goal for the remainder of this holiday season is to think like a Zimbabwean. I will turn my nose up at giant, inflated snowmen, and electrified reindeer whose antlers move in time to Jingle Bell Rock. Instead, I will do my best to delight in a sprig of holly, a cardinal on the snow, a single strand of giant, 1950s style Christmas lights lining an eaves trough, which come to think of it, is all the Christmas I needed when I was a kid. My grandparents would hang those lights on the awning of their patio and just seeing them there, ushering in Christmas, gave my cousins and me the wriggles. I remember thinking, “These lights are so beautiful, why don’t they leave them up all year?”

Flashback Friday: Our Bold Lies, Our Selves

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Now that you know the improbability of the fairy tale coming true, I thought you deserved a peek into darker days seven months before Z had his love epiphany.

Monday, March 13, 2006

It’s March. It’s hot. I hate summer, and today has been a painful reminder that we’re heading straight for the inferno. Kamikaze flies are buzzing around my lamp because I opened a non-screened window in hopes of catching a breeze. I’m thirsty and feel like I should sleep in mosquito netting tonight and go on safari.

A while ago I had a thing for an African guy I know. A friend. In my deluded, lovestruck state, I actually thought for the right man (and he seemed like the right man) I would be impervious to heat, to bugs, to dictators, to poverty, to eating crocodile. This is why women haven’t ruled the world for a few millennia: if a man is involved we believe the most ridiculous crap, and most of it is our own fabrication. This guy wasn’t hinting I should come home with him where we could make a home at the foot of the Ngong Hills with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Mostly, he wanted someone to go to movies with, someone to play miniature golf with, someone to drive him to the airport for his 20 hour flight home twice a year. I’m the one who filled in all the blanks.

No. It wasn’t any sweet nothings he whispered to me that made me imagine this Daktari-style future. It was all me. And yeah, I wanted him (he smelled good, he was funny, and I loved the way he said ‘banana’), but it is  possible that I also wanted to believe I am the kind of person who doesn’t require air conditioning and porcelain. A person who could say at cocktail parties, “Oh, yes. That’s when I lived in Zimbabwe.” But I’m not. I’m me. I need several months of cold weather to get me through July and August. I need a suitcase with wheels. I don’t really want to drink out of a canteen.

So I kind of know who I am, but what I wonder is this: who ARE those people we imagine ourselves capable of being? What’s the line between having a goal/overcoming personal obstacles and just completely deluding yourself? I’ve never really wanted to be a self-deluder, yet the evidence indicates that perhaps that’s exactly what I am. Perhaps that is the only way we are able to live with ourselves. I could admit–at nearly 40–that I’m never going to join the Peace Corp, yet I like the idea that I might. I might quit my job and join the Peace Corp. I might become a foreign correspondent. Or maybe one of those people who cashes it all in and lives on a sailboat.

This is how fairy tales (and heat) addle our brains.

A Sort of Fairy Tale

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Zebra wedding cake topper.

December 12, 2009

 

Today is our fourth anniversary, and as you may have heard, Z and I are in different time zones and on different continents. I fully expected to be in a full-tilt fit of melancholia with a side order of pout as soon as the clock struck December 12th, but it turns out, it’s not happening.

 

Here’s the thing: we shouldn’t be together.  At all. If I wrote a book about my life (Oh, wait! I am!) and you were introduced to a character called, say, “The Reluctant Girl Scout”, and a character called “Z”, you would say to yourself, Who is this writer kidding? This would never happen. It’s just not believable!

It isn’t believable. It’s a fairy tale. Highly improbable.

1)   There is the improbability of geography. How many Zimbabweans did I meet before Z? Zero. People in Richmond, Indiana, do not meet people from Zimbabwe as a matter of course. Often people in Richmond, Indiana, aren’t even sure where Zimbabwe is or that it is a country. (There is a water slide at Holiday World in Southern Indiana called “Zoombabwe” and that’s about as close as we get.) Statistically, since Z came to college in America and stayed through two graduate degrees, there was a high probability that he might end up married to an American. But me? I haven’t crunched the numbers because I’m not that strong a mathematician, but I think the chances that I– a person who had mostly lived in Richmond and traveled primarily to Ireland and Indianapolis–would marry a Zimbabwean are about .00000000001%.

2)   There is the improbability of time. What are the odds that a visiting professor position in Z’s discipline would open up at the teeny university where I had just been hired full-time six months before? (Sub improbability: what are the odds that at this university, his discipline, which is often considered a social science, would be housed instead with the humanities, where I was, so we could sit next to each other at faculty meetings for the next two years, bonding via the series of disgusted looks we would flash at each other whenever our senior most colleague started clipping his nails in the midst of budget debates?) You’ll have to do the calculations on that one yourself, but I’m telling you, the odds are not high.

3)   There is the improbability of Z finding a cyber café with electricity (there are a lot of Zesa cuts in Zimbabwe) and then finding the ad for the position at my teeny university (not to mention the improbability that he would be hired via a phone interview alone).

4)   There is the improbability of me, an introvert, going to the beginning-of-the- year faculty party where I would have my first conversation with him and make the improbable proclamation to a friend that I was going to marry him. (I didn’t even believe in marriage at this point in my life. I thought marriage is where love went to die.)

5)   There is the probability of Z’s policies working against us. Z did not believe in dating co-workers (he says), so we were never going to happen. I did not know this, nor did I know that when Z has a policy, he sticks with it. (The only policy I’ve ever known him to break was his “I do not go to Starbuck’s” policy, which is hard to do in Seattle.  He let this policy lapse in 2009 when he was out with Z-ma  and she needed the loo.) The whole time we worked together, we never dated. Instead we had “outings”. The closest we ever got physically was when our heads bumped up against each others one night when I was helping him put together his new Kathy Ireland stationary bicycle.

6)   Z just wasn’t into me. We were friends. I was delusional. The end.

7)   I am not a tenacious person. If I have a goal and am met with opposition, I often just change my goal instead of fighting to meet it. Yet when Z left town for Zimbabwe after his job ended, instead of rationally assuming I would never see him again, I became uncharacteristically cunning. I suggested he store his belongings in my attic, thus ensuring at least one more meeting.

8)   The final, most outstanding improbability is that after five years of pining for a man who was only ever going to be my friend I was ready to admit defeat …just as he had an epiphany of his own.

 

 

So yes, we aren’t together today. Instead, we are in our respective countries looking at photos on our respective computers of our American-Zimbabwean wedding with the zebra cake topper and the fire in the fire place and the Christmas trees and the kissing ball and the hula hoops and the Scottie dog and my blue suede shoes and his rented tux that was so big it required safety pins and made him look like William Howard Taft.

 

We could be sad, but in the face of such dire statistics, wouldn’t that just be greedy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue(ish) Christmas

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Z just called from the airport, ready to board his flight for the other side of the planet.  As soon as we hung up, I burst into tears. I hate these Dark Side of the Moon hours, when we can’t communicate because one of us is in transit. Astronauts’ spouses have my sympathy, especially those wives and husbands of astronauts who did boldly go before it was possible to tweet from space.

 

No matter how many times I check Flight Aware and know he’s on that plane watching some Owen Wilson movie, it is not the same as getting an email from him or hearing his voice.

 

Prepare for some whining in the next twenty-three days. I apologize in advance, but because Z-ma has been suffering with vertigo, Z and I decided that though we were loathe to spend the holidays apart—not just Christmas, mind you, but our fourth anniversary as well—we’d feel better if he headed to Zimbabwe to help her out while he’s on break from classes. Because I have an allergic reaction to the thought of being in Seattle without him, I boarded the next available flight to Indiana two days ago, and here I will remain until New Year’s Eve. If Providence, weather patterns, and flight times agree with us, Z and I will be reunited just in time to see 2014 in together.

 

This is the time of year when I am torn between being delighted to be in Seattle, gearing up for the Christmas traditions of the city—the Christmas ships, the tree on top of the Space Needle, the tree lighting and carousel at Westlake Center, the scheduled “snowfall” at Pacific Place Center, the illuminated fruit atop Pike Market—and feeling a little bit envious (and maybe a little angry?) at the people who live in our city amongst family and life-long friends. Of course I don’t actually know any of these people—these native Seattle-ites with a rich web of their own tribe—but when I go past certain houses in neighborhoods with driveways and where wreaths are on the doors, I imagine entire multi-generational scenarios for them that would probably even make the Waltons envious. Or nauseous.

 

So, though I will be missing Z, I will not have to be hating on complete strangers in Washington just because their imagined holiday lives are more glorious than my own. Instead, I can partially live the dream in my beloved Midwest, where I have already been greeted with snow. No one here will think less of me if I wear a holiday-themed sweatshirt or my Santa troll earrings, which is an added bonus.

 

Because I’m not in Zimbabwe to see that it isn’t true, I can even imagine Skampy (and possibly a zebra or two) wearing a Santa hat at a jaunty angle to usher in the season.

 

But still, I promise you, there occasionally will be whining, gnashing of teeth, renting of cloth. I am heartily sorry.

A Little Cup of Zim

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Sometimes on weekends Z and I get this awesome $9.99-a-day car rental from Enterprise because we’re “preferred customers.” The only time this is useful is in the winter when the tourists have gone away and there is a surplus of cars or when we are at the airport rental facility where we can zip into the preferred customer lane and by-pass the line of people, who are generally looking at us as if they hate us. (If I’m dressed well and can pretend I’m someone important, it bothers me less, but when I look like a hobo, I feel guilty because normally I’m just one of the poor slobs waiting in a tedious line right along with everyone else.) In fact, this summer right before we left for Zimbabwe, being a preferred customer was not helpful at all. We tried to return a car to a different location the day before we left to make our schedule a little less tight, and the preferred customer customer service representative basically said, “tough luck” and then had the nerve to ask, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” seemingly oblivious to the fact that he hadn’t helped me at all. Normally, I’m so sweet and placating to service people that I make myself nauseous, but because I was stressed out from packing, I had no sweetness to give this person in a call center in Dubuque who was not sympathetic to my plight. So I said very sharply, “Well, the time to help me would have been now, and you can’t seem to do that.” The thing about a cell phone is that it is not so satisfying to hang up as a phone with a cradle, where you can take out your frustration on a safe, inanimate object.

Remind me why I’m telling you this story? See, I just got all annoyed again and lost my train of thought. Okay. I think I’ve got it.

So Saturday we had a rental car simply because it was cheap, I had a baby shower to go to, and the whale bathtub that the impending baby was getting as a present from us would have been a pain to tote on the bus. After the shower was over, Z picked me up and we were both pleased that I’d scored a jar of peanut m&ms as a game prize and a jar of homemade jam from one of the hostesses, but we couldn’t figure out how to celebrate my winnings. We made no plans for the car beyond the drive to the shower. We weren’t ready for the day to be over, but driving around aimlessly seemed pointless. Fortunately, as we got closer to home (exclaiming over every red, orange, or yellow tree we zipped past), Z remembered that there was a South African tea shop that he’d been wanting to check out in Queen Anne.

We couldn’t remember the name of it or where it was exactly, and my semi-smart phone was dead, so we were flying blind. I vaguely remembered that the front of the building where it is was “kind of roundy” and Z was fairly certain that it was upper Queen Anne at the top of the hill. So we drove and went ahead and parked in the area where we thought it might be, and we were about to cry uncle and go to Chocolopolis, which looked promising. And then I spied the South African flags. Above it was this sign, with what might be the world’s most charming business logo.

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It’s worth noting here that I am about to commit one of the sins that Z hates. I am about to talk about being reminded of Zimbabwe and tasting the flavors of Zimbabwe and feeling a little like we were home in Zimbabwe. As if Zimbabwe and South Africa are the same country. They are not. They have their own cultures and customs and foods, but some of these things have been adopted or shared so for our purposes, let’s pretend they’re second cousins anyhow.  (And word to the wise, if you ever talk to Z in person, be sure to let him know how clever you are and that you recognize there is no country called Africa, that you fully recognize it as a continent containing diverse sets of people. He’ll think highly of you for making that distinction!)

In a land of coffee houses and no southern African food, Cederberg Tea House was a real treat for us to stumble upon. Rick often misses the tastes of his “real” home and goodness knows, if it’s not Pop-tart Surprise, I can’t duplicate it.  The shop was inviting. There was a good bunch of tables and chairs, plus the requisite sofa and overstuffed chairs by a fireplace. Photos of African animals lined the walls, and there were even two stands that displayed various specialty items that I’d been looking at with some regularity with Z-ma in Harare. (Who doesn’t want Eat-sum-more cookies?) My favorite thing there though was a collection of Origami African animals that had been folded out of animal print paper. Adorable.

Eet-sum-mor

The South African woman who runs the shop with her parents and her husband greeted us warmly even though it was close to closing time.  She recognized Z’s accent and so they talked briefly about home while I peered in the case at the koeksisters and melkterts. We ordered a pot of black  tea and then listened as other customers came in and the woman explained to them the variety of teas they had and their special concoction that makes a sort of tea espresso.
Our pot of tea came in a groovy pot on a contemporary tray. A delicious butter cookie each rested on the doilies under our very modern cups. In addition, we’d each ordered a koeksister.

The verdict? Delicious. The tea was good. We personally think Z-ma’s koeksisters are more delicious and certainly we appreciate that she presents ours to us in a plastic tub filled with multiples of the little syrup-soaked pastry twists, but these at Cederberg Tea House were a very, very close second, so we were not complaining.

We stayed longer than we meant to, making comparisons and reminiscing about our time in Zimbabwe last month. We studied the menu to see what we might get next time (sandwiches!).  It was a bit of unexpected fun that our rental car drove us to this weekend, and I think it may get put on the “things our guests should experience” rotation, since most of them might not have a chance to go to southern Africa. You really shouldn’t have to live your life not knowing what koeksisters taste like.

P.S. You should visit their website and read on their blog about the contest for their sign and how it went missing: http://cederbergteahouse.com/

Return with an Itch

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I won’t pretend I knew from girlhood that I was going to marry a man with an accent, but I will admit when I would hear about some daughter of a friend of a friend of my mother’s who had married someone from Scotland or Italy, I’d have a coal of envy inside of me that would ignite. When other young women were thinking about partners who would be good providers or who would support their careers or who would change the world, I was thinking more along the lines of: is he smart, can he make me laugh, and does his voice make my knees weak. I hit the jackpot with Z in all those departments.

His students who don’t know he is from Zimbabwe can never guess properly. They know it isn’t exactly an English accent, but they guess a variety of possible nationalities for him, some of which make sense (Australian) and others that make us scratch our heads (Belgian). Back when we were just friends, he knew I liked his accent, so if he was leaving for Christmas break or summer break, he would leave a message on my work voice mail. My favorite was, “I just called to say ‘banana.’” I’d save it for weeks. Play it for my friends. Sigh over it until he got back, and then hit delete.

Now, it is just Z’s voice. Friends will mention his accent and I think, “Oh, yeah. I do like that.” I barely even think of it unless he is razzing me about how my Midwestern pronunciations of “pin” and “pen” are identical. Then I have to remind him that he can’t say my Aunt Barb’s name without sounding like a pirate. (He tries and tries to stuff that “r” into her name, but inevitably it sounds like either “Aunt Bob” or “Aunt B’arrrrrrrb.” Kind of how Hagrid in Harry Potter speaks.)

But the minute we land in America, I realize that for three weeks I’ve been listening to softer versions of my native tongue from his whole family and set of friends. It’s jarring to hear Americans barking things at me over loudspeakers and shouting into their phones like they are walky-talkies. (Why do people DO that? Hold it to your ear—YOUR EAR—people We don’t need to hear the whole conversation.) My paisanos  suddenly sound so loud, so harsh.

What’s worse, as we stand in the very slow immigration line for folks without a U.S. passport, like Z, I realize that accent of his has a price and it costs a lot of my own  itchy, itchy time. This line is going nowhere fast. If anyone is watching me on a closed-circuit camera, they probably think I’m smuggling something illegal in my capri pants because I’m hopping from foot to foot, trying to secretly scratch my bites and it is impossible for me to stand still.  Plus, I’m pretty sure if anyone really got a load of the nickle-sized red welts on my legs they’d assume I was bringing some plaguey kind of horribleness into the U.S. and put me in quarantine immediately.

The  Americans get to go ahead of all the rest of us, and I want to cry out, “But I AM an American. I’m just standing here in this slow line because Z has an unfortunate passport and I’m being supportive!!” All I can think about is the bucket of ice water I’m going to plunge these mosquito bites into when I get to our apartment. Z tries to distract me with fantasies about the day when we actually bother to get him a the green card so the two of us can hold hands and skip through the express “Welcome Home to America” line, but it doesn’t help. Instead, I look at the grumbly Americans who have nothing to complain about zipping through the line I should rightfully be in. I can’t help it; for a minute, I hate them. What have they got to grumble about?!

Z’s scholarly specialty is intercultural communication, so he’s generally aware of the things people are saying directly and indirectly before mere mortals like me have even noticed that communication is happening. Over the years, we’ve discussed at length his particular intercultural focus, the re-entry process for people who move back from their host culture to home and the phases they go through as they re-adjust to their old lives. But while we stand in the insufferable immigrant line, I can feel the dreaded fingers of re-entry grabbing me by the throat and it is no abstraction.  By the time we get to the immigration official, I’m starting to feel really annoyed with us for not applying for that card the day after we got married in 2009. In our defense, we were busy and also, I didn’t want to give anyone in my family who had any doubt about Z’s love for me the satisfaction of thinking he was only in it for better immigration status.

The immigration official looks at Z’s passport and at mine and then back at Z’s. Our last names are different, so we assure him that we are married, and what I want to hear him say is “Welcome home.” One of the delights of traveling abroad is that moment at passport control when one of your fellow citizens looks at you, acknowledges you as one of his or her own, and says, “Welcome home.” I’m not the world’s most patriotic person, but it’s one of those moments like casting a ballot in a general election that makes my chest puff up and tears threaten to drip from the corners of my eyes.

Instead, this official looks at Z , looks back down at his Zimbabwean passport—which needs a visa jammed into it so he can go basically anywhere on the planet that isn’t Zimbabwe—and with a thick, Eastern European accent the guy says, “If you are married, you really should apply for a green card. It’s so much better.”

You think?

Things I’m glad to have in America as we navigate the airport include lines that basically work in a linear fashion and are as efficient as they can be, running water in the restrooms, lights. Also, my cell phone works again and I can call my mother and tell her I have not been eaten by a crocodile, which she appreciates. It is four o’clock and no mosquitos are coming out here and when I go to bed I won’t need a mozzie net. Tonight, when we settle down in front of the TV as we try to regain some brain function, we’ll have more channels than French news in English to choose from. These are all good things.

Yet, as we pass a tiny fluffy dog in a quilted jacket and then later, an old man hollering into his cell phone while holding a giant walking stick with an eagle carved onto the top of it, I find myself missing Zimbabwe. I can’t even name what I’m missing, except the Americans around me seem ridiculous.  For three weeks I’ve been missing people like me and now I’m amongst my own kind, and they seem so big and loud and self-important and unaware that they are blocking walkways or being rude.  This is re-entry. It really isn’t them; it’s me. Re-entering your home culture is like putting your jeans on in the fall after you haven’t worn them all summer, and they constrict you in ways they didn’t before and the legs seem suddenly wider and more untrendy than you remember. For a moment, you suspect they aren’t even your jeans.

And that’s how I feel, as we stand on the escalators, re-emerging into our American lives. I’d feel better, I think briefly, if one of these smiling faces here belonged to my family. Our existence out here on the edge of North America feels tenuous at a time like this. Who here would know if we never got off the plane and returned to our lives? No one. A few friends who would be hard pressed to contact our families if we both die of my mosquito bites.  I have this urge to glare at people who are being welcomed by large families in particular.

Our friend Hudge, who is retired from the Army, comes and gets us, though while we wait for her, we get a little ratty with each other. We have been having fun and then suddenly nothing feels like fun. I’m annoyed with my highly sensitive body that can’t handle insect bites like a normal person, and Z has to be tired of my whining and snappishness. I’ve got my giant, swollen, bite-addled feet propped on the little strip of air conditioning that comes out of the floor. My leaking plastic bags of ice have dribbled a trail of water across the baggage claim area, and I don’t care. I move my legs from place to place, trying to find optimal ice cold air since my real ice has melted. My swollen ankles make me feel 15 years older than I am.

I am the lady with ankles that hang over her shoes now. Swell.

Mostly we sit in silence and wait and wish we’d just taken a cab home because we’d be half way to our building by now. I think things like, “I will never go anywhere without snow again.” I’m mad at myself for not having taken a fresh bottle of DEET with us to Zimbabwe because obviously being frugal and using three-year old DEET was ineffective.  Z does not look as miserable as I feel, and momentarily I feel annoyed at him for having less delicious blood than I do. He could be sharing this burden if only the insects of his homeland had found him as tasty as me. At some point, I turn into Woody Allen and start obsessing about whether I’ll need to see a doctor and what this physical over-reaction to bites must mean about my immune system and how if I scratch them and one gets infected from something on this filthy airport air conditioning strip, I’ll probably lose my feet, and then how will I get to the grocery since we don’t have a car in Seattle. Will my insurance pay for one of those electric scooters, and what kind of brakes do those scooters have? The hills in Seattle are so steep. It goes on and on these voices in my head. I look at Z and he’s just sitting there, stoically. If I were him, I’d probably go sit at a whole other table away from my miserable self. Forget the green card. The man deserves instant citizenship for putting up with me when I am tired and itchy.

Hudge pulls up and we toss our suitcases into the back of her SUV. She hands us plastic containers with hot food she’s just cooked for us because she knew we’d be hungry when we got off the plane, with the added bonus of chocolate covered macadamia nuts that she got on a recent trip to Hawaii. Briefly, I wonder where the gift we got her is and immediately realize I’m too tired to try to find it. She’ll get it later.

I sit up front and the heat from the engine blows directly onto my feet and makes them feel as if there are a million tiny insects inside ankles and legs, all carrying micro-knives that they are using to liberate themselves from my skin. We are almost instantly in a traffic jam, and I’m picturing how the pothole filled roads of Zimbabwe were never this crowded. Why aren’t all of these people walking instead of driving, thus freeing up more road space for hard luck cases like me?

The entire drive is a pityfest.

Hudge is talking animatedly about everything she’s done since we’ve been gone. We’ve been to Zimbabwe but she’s out adventured us by weathering two weeks of vacation with her parents, a trip to Hawaii, and doing a stint at Burning Man. She’s well-rested and upbeat and ready to talk, and I feel like a caveman right after a bison hunt. I want to be a good friend and concentrate on the details of her trips, I want to be able to tell her the details of mine, but instead, all I can eek out is “It was good. We saw over 40 elephants,” because it takes that much energy not to scream about the itching and about the stupid Seattle traffic that stands between me and my feet’s date with ice cold destiny. When Hudge misses the exit to our house, I think I’m going to burst into tears. We will never get home. These bites will never stop itching. I am a bad friend. A bad wife. A big whiner.

Finally, we pull up to our building, unload our goods, wave goodbye to her and say what I hope sounds like a sincere thanks because I do sincerely mean it, I just can’t sound sincere because I might be dying of terminal  mosquito bite. We knock our bags into half the walls of the hallway and I swear, like I always do, that next time I travel I will pack light. How stupid are Americans, thinking they need so much luggage? And also, why is Seattle warmer than Harare was? Is this city trying screw with me?

Z unlocks our apartment door and I strip off my clothes before he has it shut and locked. If we had neighbors at our end of the hall, they would have seen me starkers and I wouldn’t have cared. He looks at me like I’ve gone off my tree, but I know if I don’t get instantly into a cold shower and calm the crazy that is crawling up my feet, ankles and calves towards my brain, I will die. I’ve been through this before. It’s just exhaustion and moving my brain and body across time zones and cultures in a 24 hour span, and the pills I’ve taken to make the itching tolerable, and the intolerable itching. At this exact juncture I don’t like the city, I don’t like this tiny shower with the curtain that grabs me instead of Z-mas lovely big curtainless shower room, I don’t like our aloneness, or that we’ve missed tea with Skampy. I cry a little while the last traces of Zimbabwe wash off of me and swirl down our hundred year old Seattle drain.

When I emerge, slightly more sane, Z has three fans pointed at the sofa and a pan of water on the floor filled with ice cubes. He smiles at me like he loves me and I wonder if he’s suffering short-term memory loss. But this is how he is: he has patience and an accent and he’s taken me to one home and brought me back to another.

I might be itchy, but I know I’m lucky. So lucky.