I went to Rwanda on the first day of 2017, and I spent my entire plane ride from Chicago to Detroit (the first weird leg of my trip) looking out the window and crying, quietly, hoping that the loud-breathing man next to me didn’t notice.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you have a sort of an idea that my 2016 was hard, very hard. I spend the year nearly doubled over with anxiety and depression, massive highs and lows that affected my physical health in addition to my mental and emotional health. I spent the year feeling like a fraction of myself, constantly just trying to manage, manage, manage, wishing for it to pass, feeling like it was my fault, like I was doing something wrong, like I was supposed to just pull myself up by my bootstraps and be better.
In the middle of it, my friend Sophia asked me to come to Rwanda to collaborate on a theater project at the school where she teaches middle school. She asked me and some of my dearest friends, and we murmured about it over dinners and coffees wondering, “Could we?” Of course, my anxiety brain always answered with, “You can’t and shouldn’t, absolutely not.” But, with my wavering voice I always, somehow, said, “Yes.” I said yes over and over and over again until saying yes meant buying a plane ticket, a task that left me crying at my kitchen table finger hovering incredulously over the button, marvelling at my own ridiculousness and recklessness, thinking that this decision was sure to be the end of me, thinking that it was quite possible that I would not survive the trip. (This is what happens when your heart and mind are spinning out of control.)
In some ways, it felt like I never had a choice, like the answer always had to be yes. That probably has a lot to do with God and his grace, his way of making paths straight and clear and obvious at times, like you’d have to be an idiot to wander away, tempting though it is, pulled though you are by weakness and fear. What sort of person are you if you say no to an incredible opportunity to travel across the world with your dearest friends to do something that you’ve always, always loved? I knew that my “no,” though it was the only answer that felt safe, would mark me, make me a person who rejects what is good and true, label me as a deplorable wanderer, send me even further into the depths of despair and smallness. So, I said “yes,” and got ready, terrified, even sort of angry, as I waited to depart.
The saddest and hardest part about the whole thing was that Isaiah was not able to join me. My anxiety latched onto this fact wholeheartedly, telling me lies like, “You’ll never see him again if you go.” It’s amazing how exponentially fear increases as love increases. The more important and dear Isaiah becomes to me, the more I clutch him close to me with tight fists, the more terrified I am that I cannot always protect him, that I can’t control everything in the world. My tears at the kitchen table were mostly for Isaiah, prematurely missing him, worrying about him, not wanting to ever, ever leave his side. He was disappointed, very, very disappointed, to have to stay home and work, but he also encouraged me to go, to challenge myself. He told me that we would absolutely see each other again, that there was nothing, nothing to worry about, that my choice was good and true, that God loves both of us, that he would still be there when I got back. He told me that I could do it, that I was strong enough to go, that it was worth the money and the time. He tells me these things over and over through my sadness and fear.
So I went. I made it from Chicago to Detroit where Margaret and Annie were passing the time waiting for me by riding the escalator up and down, up and down. We ate at an Outback Steakhouse and then boarded our plane to Amsterdam, where I watched The Family Stone for the first time and cried again for different reasons (i.e Diane Keaton, Christmas, love, loss, etc.
And it began! I was doing it! It wasn’t terrible! Each day happened, I took a lot of deep breaths, I felt a little lost sometimes, but also very strong. I was not in control, I didn’t even have the illusion of control that I cling to so tightly in my Chicago life anymore, which I think made the whole thing feel more possible. Like I had only to be there, like the being there was enough triumph for the whole thing, and any good thing beyond being there was just a cherry on top! Giraffes, cherries! Time talking and laughing with favorite friends, cherries! Eighty degree weather, cherries! Pizza made by an Italian family in Kigali, cherries, cherries, cherries! Writing a brand new play, cherries!
I was there, eyes open, and so unbelievably proud of myself every single day. I was doing a thing that had felt impossible. I was in a place I had hardly even known existed. I was walking, talking, sitting, standing, making my way in the wide world, and on top of that teaching other people the things I know! Leading yoga classes, writing a musical, laughing with middle-schoolers, asking questions.
All throughout we were working with Sophia’s students to adapt You are Special by Max Lucado into an original musical, written by the kids with help from us. We worked well together, like a well-oiled machine, feeling very tired but strong, smart, like we could do exactly this for the rest of our lives, take our show on the road, adapt children’s books everywhere into charming plays for small communities. But, life is not so kind or simple, and these are not the things we get to do everyday, good though they are. So we relished our chance to do it there and then, with little blossoms of hope in our guts that we could do it again someday, hope that this practice is a sort of preparation, not something just for this time this place. Funny how in life you never know if something is preparation or not. Everything sort of is, I guess. Doing it there was sweet enough. If never again, enough still. The being there was quite enough too, the steps upon the land, different air, time together. With every hill we rose and fell, new things to see at the tops and bottoms. The hilltops felt best, on top of the world, seeing so far, nothing to fear, just air, birds, green below. Not impossible. Just life.
More below in words and pictures.
A jet-lagged walk through Amsterdam, where all the coffee shops sell weed and we were very disoriented and found some good sandwiches made by cool girls to eat.
I wanted to barge into this house and ask if I could buy it.
Every city should have canals. It really enhances the quality of life!
Three tired stomach-achey gals ready to take on the entire world and in-flight movies!
When we arrived in Kigali, Sophia and Matt were there to pick us up. It was nighttime, and I still spent the entire ride home with my eyes stuck on the windows. So much to see, even with no light. In the morning, this is the view we were greeted with on Sophia’s front porch. A view that stretches miles, so much between, big sky, green, bumpy beauty. We were all taken aback. I don’t know what we were expecting, but whatever it was it wasn’t as grand as this.
A dream team, stuck in the middle of a dream, doused in mosquito repellant.
A first tour of Sophia’s sweet school, which was more beautiful than any of us had imagined or wondered. Hard to know how things will be till you’re there in the middle of them. Here we are in the space where the kids eventually performed their play for their community.
Views like this all the way.
Kayonza EcoLodge, the site of our retreat with the students, and basically heaven on earth.
We spent hours around this table, planning and eating, talking, sitting and looking. I’d call this place a holy place.
So special to have our dear teacher with us as we tried to teach. He encouraged us, built us up, told the kids what he knows, looked on with love. They were hanging on his very word, much like we did in all his classes.
We facilitated ensemble-building, and material-generating exercises in the beginning stages of writing a brand new play!
We also were the whisper-patrol at night. Sixth graders are CHATTY.
There are sunflowers on a distant hill. You can’t see them in this photo, but they are there.
At home in Sophia’s living room.
We went to Matt’s favorite Kigali restaurant, which quickly became mine too. Beautiful pizzas made by an Italian immigrant family who had been there for years and years and years. It tasted as good as it looks.
A thousand, thousand twinkly hills!
We were whisked away to a game reserve for the weekend!
Mark bought Margaret a chocolate cookie for safari preparation.
We were thrilled by the pop-top of the safari truck.
Diet coke and sandwiches before zipping away to a boat ride.
Even the boat driver was surprised by how many elephants we saw, taking mud baths and drinking water.
The distant hills are Tanzania.
The world, wide. And different trees.
Sophia in her social studies classroom.
We wrote original songs with the kids’ lyrics.
And we did a bunch of movement.
This was the day we were the most tired. Here’s evidence.
Making plans and sipping Rwandan coffee, feeling like the power ladies we are ( we think! we feel!).
Always on top of the world, in some way or another.
We went to a fancy tapas dinner at what used to be Sophia’s ex prom date’s house, so there were all sorts of feelings about it, mostly awkwardness. And good aioli.
A very special place in the universe.
First read through!
Once a week, some cool bakers sell donuts and bagels out of the back of their van after school! Can you think of any better thing?
After the genocide memorial.
And after Annie spotted a big cockroach.
A tree can be a theater if it is a theater tree.
You don’t want to know how hot it was.
A fancy dinner, a celebration.
The way home.
We went and we came back and it was many degrees of beautiful and hard. Mostly because of who we were with and where we were. Mostly because of how it meant something different to every single person. Mostly because when you say “yes” to something so wonderful as this, it’s nearly impossible to regret it, no matter how hard or how scary or how much you miss your husband back home in America. You go, knowing that you’ll cry on the plane, knowing that eating will be hard, knowing that you won’t always be able to sleep, that you’ll sometimes ache, that you’ll miss things and sometimes count the days till it’s over. You go and you let it move you, change you. You go and see about it. You stand at the top of one of a thousand hills and you can see so far.