Month: July 2013
There are many tiny flowers poking up through the parched cracks in deserts all around the world.
I meet one while in a rural village in the tiny, overlooked country of Swaziland, Africa.
She has a small frame with delicate features and a big smile. Her hair, like all of the other children, is swirls of coarse curls trimmed to her head. My guess is she is about five years old.
We are leaving to visit the many rock and stick huts that hunch along dirt trails in this area, called Matsetsa. She is standing next to several other children who are coaxing water out of the ground via a pump. She reaches for my hand as almost an afterthought. As we start out, I ask the pastor, “Can I keep her?”
A native Swazi, the pastor doesn’t sense my jest and tells me it will be too far for her to walk. So I say goodbye and tell her I will find her later.
I do, playing with other children near a swing set made of stripped trees and pieces of rope, the kind that would be ripe for law suit potential in America. As it is, each wild sway has me a little breathless on behalf do the children, who breeze by each other pumping their stick-thin legs energetically. I sit down on the ground near it, the grass pickling my legs through my skirt, and she gravitates to my lap.
We don’t speak the same language, but I am learning that in countries like this, where love is the only ready currency, it doesn’t matter. Children just want to be held, and love needs no translation.
That afternoon we sit by the soccer field as other children kick a ball across the expansive field. The bloated sun sinks into the ragged horizon and the winter air cools. She leans over my shoulder to watch me sort through my camera’s photos, as I look for ones to delete to make space on a disc packed with faces and smiles. Another child notices too and climbs in my lap. Then another. Then another, till my lap is full of little black heads tucked in a circle. They watched a video of children singing, then sing their own songs between chest-deep coughs and sneezes that shake their little bodies. Their colds don’t slow them down. They cycle through the ABCs. Ba Ba Black sheep. A song about a black mambo that creeps up while the singer is doing laundry, complete with mimes of them washing imaginary clothes between their wrists.
That night at a church service I find her again, in a puffy blue jacket, its hood circling her face in perfect symmetry. She sits on my lap as our team member, a pastor, speaks to a warm and gregarious crowd. I marvel at how still and quietly she sits for the hour. A team member leans toward and me and explains softly, “She’s asleep.” I peek around her hood and see her eye lashes laying on her cheeks. I feel the quiet draw of her breath and the warmth seeming through her jacket.
An unexplainable tenderness wells in my heart for this child, who I only met that day.
The next morning, as I paint her nails pink, I ask the pastor’s wife about her. Her name is Mela. She is one of 13 children in a household run by a single mother. Her father left awhile ago.
My farewell comes as I hold her in my lap awhile she eats a porridge of rice and meal the pastor’s wife has spooned out of a large metal pot. Meala scoops each bite into her mouth with pink-tipped fingers. I wonder if it will be her only meal that day. I wonder if I will ever see her again. I wonder if she will be OK.
But, like those many tiny flowers, I believe she will flourish in the desert against all odds too.
I love that old picture. My dad carries my little sister on his shoulders. He holds my hand. The three of us are standing in front of the skeleton of framing that was to be our new house amid a blanket of snow. It was our new start. A fresh start.
Dad is wearing his Sorel snow boots. They were one of many sets he’s always worn until he wears through the lining and they become shells of blotched leather.
My dad’s beard is full. He looks young and strong with a head of brown hair tamed with a hat. His biceps, which he had nicknames for, both built that house and wrestled us to the ground in giggles at night. He always gave those muscles a dramatic introduction before snatching us up. “This is Thunder!” he announced over our squeals, flexing his left arm. “And Lightening!”
It was a different time. A time of heartache and laughter and confusion and little joys. I don’t remember much, but I remember his strength. I remember feeling safe because no one in the world was stronger than him. We used outhouses and bathed in the lake. We started fires in a small wood stove in the bus we lived in while he built the house. He pulled us around town by a yellow rope tied to an orange sled.
The picture doesn’t tell the whole story. But it tells enough. It is a picture of perseverance. It is evidence of our determination. It shows love.
It is a place I always dread going, yet my own personal economy requires I make my bi-weekly grocery shopping visits here.
It is a maze of people pushing carts and pallets of boxes and rows packed with a dizzying display of choices. I find it completely overwhelming.
A man walks through the automatic doors toting a baby carrier. Inside, the baby’s head bobbles from side to side each time the carrier hits his leg. A woman in heels and a dress that is too short on both ends maneuvers around me. Her basket has become an extension of her hip, promising a painful run in should I get too close. Two guys with greasy hair beat me down the next isle. My impulse it to find different route, but my course seems predetermined by the rickety cart I push.
I know what my expression must look like: It’s one of glazed impatience and apathy. As I course back and forth down the isles, I close my eyes. I want to abandon my cart and go home. But to do so would necessitate a second trip, which is a more unbearable thought.
When I reach the check stands, they are a dam to strings of carts heaped to overflowing with boxes of electronics and dog food and cereal boxes and diapers. There is no other way out but to join the masses.
When it is my turn, as usual, the checker places two items per bag. Despite my scramble to rearrange, I end up with six plastic bags instead of the necessary three. I resolve to bring them back to recycle, instead of add them to the pile bursting from underneath my sink.
Someday, after I marry rich of course, I will never shop here again.
The bike swayed heavily against the metal pin designed to keep it upright. The awkward angel of the stand set the bike comically cocked sideways. It dominated the space of two bikes within the bike parking spaces at the ground floor of my Berlin flat.
Two days earlier I had seen the bike chained against a parking sign, with a “for sale” sign taped to its seat. On my quick test drive, it seemed adequate enough. It was a little long for my 5 foot 1 inch frame. But I only needed it for two months.
The ride home was long enough to show its faults. A loud clang emanated from with the chain guard each time its pedal passed. I lodged a screw I dissected from its floppy head lamp in the guard in attempt to quiet it. It worked, for a day.
Now standing in the foyer, my head tilted as I eyes grazed over its chipped paint and rusted corners, I realized that maybe I had made a poor investment.
I named him Ike.
Somehow, in those two months, Ike became a lifeline in a strange city where I lived perpetually half uncomfortable. Together we visited markets at all corners of the city. We got lost together. We almost hit pedestrians together. We sailed solo under the leaves of trees in parks and set off with flocks of friends on their own dilapidated versions of bikes. We rode through rain and heat and hail and cold. I saw sides of the city I might never have glimpsed if it weren’t for Ike.
Two days before I flew home I met a Canadian girl at the shopping center a few blocks from my flat. She passed me cash, and I reluctantly gave over custody.
Walking home felt grueling and eternal, when just before the blocks had breezed by in minutes. I went to work by way of underground tunnels on the plastic seats of the train, missing the quiet morning dew rushing by me beneath maple trees. I felt as if I had lost a piece of what had turned the prospective lonely two months in a foreign place into one of finding hidden treasures. And suddenly, I was very ready to go home.
Because Berlin wasn’t the same without Ike.