argument

I wouldn’t mind sand and salt

in my hair, which I imagine long and unkempt

loose about my shoulders, sticking

bare skin cool in pools of gathering water about my limbs

the sunlight gleams on my ocean, always setting, always rising

your voice elevates in pitch and I turn

the foamy white waves turning with me,

hair billowing, suspended in watery space,

the anger I was trying to let go of

returns in full force. I don’t want to hate,

so I will focus it, damn this table between us.

and the switch clicks off again, I am

somewhere drowning and you are still talking rivers of words at me

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to my future kids.

There are a few things that I want my children to understand.

Now, I don’t have any children of my own. I don’t have any plans to have any in the foreseeable future. But kids have always been a significant part of my life, and I believe that one day I will have a house that is full of loud, crazy people and pets, since I have always gravitated towards such chaos. I really really want to raise children to love things that I have come to love – not force their interest or anything, just sometimes I get really excited when I think about the possibility that one day I could share these amazing pieces of my life with them.

I want these kids to understand why swimming in the river out back of Natedewai village is amazing. The river is not always there, since it’s dependent on the seasonal rainfall, but when it is it is full of mudfishes and bugs and sand. Swimming in it this past summer was unbelievable. Floating along in the current clinging to a capped jerrycan, with eddies of latte-coloured water twisting about my limbs, the thought struck me in an almost desperate way, as thoughts sometimes do when I’m afraid I’ll forget the meaning behind them: My children need to understand this.

I want my children to understand the feeling of free air, open windows, and why riding in the back of the pickup or motorcycle is the best place to be. In the western world, climate control always has freaked me out. You move from bubble to bubble, where everything is perfectly adjusted and culture whispers that you are the center of the universe. At home, my favourite place to be was always in the way back of the pickup, with my hands to the sun and my hair being thrashed about my face in the breeze – NOT perfectly straightened and sculpted to look a certain way, free to just be. They have a saying in Uganda: “be free”. Not just “feel free”, the way Americans say, BE free. That really makes me happy, for I think it says a lot about the place. I want my kids to be free within and without, to understand the love of warm and cold weather, and to value the untamed in nature and in themselves.

I want to teach my children the love of music. Not in an academic, theoretical way, necessarily, just the warm comfort that I now feel when I listen to my “parent’s music”. Now, it’s not the typical mom-and-dad kind of music. No cheesy love ballads or awkward annoying pop songs. Rich traditional Irish music that never ever ever grows old, that I listen to when I’m feeling sad. My parents taught me a real love for that music – even though I don’t understand it completely, I absolutely love listening to the dusky voices of Dick Gaughan and Paul Brady, the violins of Altan and Kevin Burke, and so on. There are some things that should never grow old, and this is one of them. Irish music is just a tiny facet of the world of art they introduced me to in a way that encouraged me to explore it for myself, though I am a paltry musician at best. I want my children to understand a love for the artistic creations of humankind – not in a fluffy pop sense, but a real deep love that will never leave them even if I do someday.

I want to love my children with the love of God. I want them to understand that love and be filled with it. I wish with all my heart that I could meet them now and just hang out and talk about life, but that’s not how the system works, so I will love them all the way from the beginning of our relationship to the end. I will pour the spirit over them in every way I can and work ceaselessly to build for them a foundation of family love that is rooted in the Lord first and foremost. For nothing is more important to me than this.

I cannot wait to meet them.

grading curve

Part I: Sunday

It is my first day back home. I have risen slowly, taking my time to wake in my own room, in my own yard. Your cries startle, bring my eyelids open, so I shuffle out of my round, thatched-roof room to meet you.

Sunday. Sunday boy, your mother calls you. She waves a sudsy hand up at me – “Good morning!” and plunges it back into the wash basin with our slough of grimy, travel-stained clothes. My tired glance finds you, a little bundle perched on our lawn in the shade, a pile of material around your little legs. Your perfect spherical eyes are glazed over, gazing up at my glowing visage as I tousle my hair out of my eyes to see you more clearly. Sunday boy, your skin is perfect chocolate and you are so cute.

In my dazed half-awake state, I realise that lifting you in my arms is better left for later. I have two months to hold you, I think to myself, smiling in security. I am not leaving for a while. We have weeks to get to know each other. I tear my eyes from yours – brown on brown – and walk towards my morning coffee.

Part II: Monday

I am working on my final paper for the semester, on the night it is due. I am revising my thesis with a friend after a warm meal with guests. A mug of tea is in my right hand and I am glowing with the knowledge of finality, the end of a day and a semester.

My mother gasps, startling us. The next few moments blur by, the question WHY resounds in my bones. They did all they could. It was sudden, unexpected. No one saw it coming; he was so healthy. This is the second child they have lost this year.

The paper, my world of the past few days, lies forgotten before me as the computer screen blends into a single white glow in front of my eyes. My hands shake, and I cannot force myself to care about theories of modernity when I never held him. I never picked up Sunday boy. He is gone and I never held him.

Somewhere, his mother is wailing in the night; I am pressing send on a half-finished paper and we are all crying out to God in the dark to spare us this heartache that has been cut out of us so quickly.

Part III: Tuesday

It is one of my last days in Uganda, and I am waiting, watching in the corner of the back room of the clinic. The doctor is beside me, giving instructions in a loud and firm voice. Our white gloves are sticky with blood and fluids as a woman I have never seen before in my life swears violently on the table before us, clutching her knees as her abdomen heaves.

I will spare you the details, but the first thing we see is his hair. Tight curls, damp against his scalp. Quickly, suddenly, his face squirms out into the world. His cries light up my heart. He is healthy, beating the air with tiny fists.

All sorts of things that I don’t understand are happening around us. Clamps, towels, scissors, and you wailing, little new boy. Welcome.

You are weighed and wrapped, little one. Your reflexes are perfect. You are placed with gloved hands by your mother’s side, where she embraces and nourishes you. Not my hands – I never held you.

Tiny, unnamed boy. Culture says you will remain nameless until it seems you are here to stay.

Stay, child, until I can return to hold you.

catacombs

These holy remains,

stacked “like firewood”,

their empty cavities moaning silence

blind sockets gaping at us, we gape back.

did they imagine, when they laid

their beloved ones

here, stacked in rotting stench –  knowing they

would not move again but would only grow more still

rooted to this cavern, flesh melting into

the ravenous dark –

they would only be illuminated by camera flashes?

drowning

When I first went to India, I wrote a piece concerning drowning and being drowned in a culture that was not my own:

“Each of her parents had gone their own way. Her mother had walked out of an icy, damp land, hair blowing in the wind – Ireland, the place she mentioned with longing sighs and wistful glances out the door. Her father had stood tall on the decks of ships way out across the Caribbean, traversing the dangers of South America, a land that had chiseled him down and made him a man.

So it was only natural that, after they’d all been together on the plains of Africa, that she would dive off the deep end and drown herself in the madness of India.

The drop into India was longer than she expected. She fell silently, her eyes open and her arms outstretched, until she crashed into the water with a mighty SPLASH, where it tore at her clothes, ripping out her hair. She sank swiftly and silently, shooting down by her skeletons of dreams and tattered kelpy thoughts, sinking deeper and deeper into darker and darker waters.

She came up for air in Agra, where she found a sort of life raft named Andy which carried her along for a while so that she could wipe her hair out of her eyes and catch her breath. All the water she’d swallowed stayed down, and he told her that she should keep it there because it would keep her alive.”

(2008)

Now I am melting, falling into this wasteland that says I belong,

I am overcome with memories and confusion

this constant reminder of You Do Not Understand,

You Do Not Belong

even though I look and speak like a native

I have perfected this chameleon act, blending

speaking this language to communicate a modicum of thought.

 – And yet, it is never enough.

I am exhausted of getting everything wrong, failing

in work friendship conversation class assignment meeting

I truly just want to get back to a language I can speak fluently,

speaking the truth into every ear, bold in faith

knowing that I am wholly loved and that I love wholly.

Let me fight this current, hold down this fiery water that burns my lungs

offensive, grating, I will breathe it

and swim to summer shores

then from there learn how to breathe air again.

breaking

My hair is brown, my eyes are brown, and my skin stays papery-pale, thin enough for word pencils to break right through every time I get an idea of who you think I am.

I love you more than my own blood sometimes, I am willing to let it flow out over this scrap paper, sticking with dirt and thorns, clotting over my thin wispy hair, weak.

Because of you I got horribly lost, lost in the stereotype of the dumb white girl who could get lied to over and over again and give and give herself away before realizing that she was stuck and trapped and loved you way too much to let go of what we had.

Friendship? What does that even mean? Is it clinging to the IV of your baby while we fly over the dusty roads in the back of the car, praying, splattered in someone else’s blood,  holding puddles of vomit in my lap while your wrinkled skin grows weaker and paler, carrying your family’s food for kilometers with your hand in mine? Is it sitting together on the dark damp floor of a hut, passing around the pitcher until our vision gets blurred, words slurred, the sun dropping into our gaping mouths over ages of confusion?

Because that’s what we had.

And what is now? What is this, what I’m doing? Scribbling down endless facts, shoving words into my ears and mouth until they bleed, overflowing with things that I think I might understand. If you could see me you would laugh and peel off all these layers I’m trying to keep myself warm with, slinging your arm around my shoulders, holding my hand and never once worrying about it being awkward. You would help me re-start the fire in the burn pit in the backyard, tossing in all the assignments and ideas and stress and orders and arguments, saying, “It is nothing.”

Whatever the outcome, we’ll have a little bit of time to clean me up before I crash back out again. I hope this time you’ll remember me and we’ll be able to scribble a little something short-hand in another one of our whirlwind, photo-snap relationships, where I don’t worry about being awkward or uncomfortable and just lean on your ribs and sleep.

I am on my way home to sunlight, to burn away these snowflakes caught in my brain and heart, freezing muscle, tensing and curling up in fear – those will fall away in the equatorial sun in water from my skin, perspiring toxin from my blood. I will sing my heart out into the wind, filling my lungs and exhaling all the cold into the breezes. I will stand and dance, fill my arms with family and friends, tangling fingers without worry, pour love into ears and eyes until they overflow in tongues. I will raise my arms to heaven and cry out in thanks for all of you.

And we will laugh at everything.

I don’t care who sees this anymore.

why do people count so much on outward beauty?

it makes me so angry

to see you treated like this

sure, I guess by general standards you’re pretty

but that is not why I think you’re beautiful.

I have had the time with you to understand

and read into the deeper, more intricate parts of your heart and mind

I SEE YOU

and they don’t and it makes me so angry.

Yes, it is true they always choose you before me

because they are shallow douchebags.

Even my own family doesn’t bother tell me

they love me more than you.

And yes, I have been rejected because of this

but who cares anymore

because if one day a man comes for me and

isnt interested in you

then i will know he is special. truly wonderful.

I am so angry

at all of this.

i wish everyone was blind to faces

so they would stop using me

so they would listen to your heart

and know you

and love you completely.

Why I didn’t think that joke was funny at all.

I got dressed quickly when I found out we were going,  throwing on a skirt and my new wrap, a piece of brightly patterned material over it to keep the wind from tearing up my skirt.

We pulled up outside of the ramshackle hospital and jumped out of the car. A nurse led us to the ward where she was lying, barely moving under the gaily patterned pink sheet. We joined the family around her who stood silently, taking turns holding her hand. Slowly, tears began leaking from our eyes as the reality set in. The little one had not survived.

A nurse came in to check the incision, a long mark across her stomach held together by tiny pieces of thread. Her two living children glared as we patted their backs, tears filling their eyes.

After a while, we returned to the van with most of her family. Her mother carried the small figure in her arms, covered by her shawl. We rode silently home, our faces cold and set.

When we reached her village, her husband began digging in the yard. Her mother carried the baby over to the hole.

“We need something to wrap the baby in. We need something nice.”

Without even thinking, my hands were at my waist, untying the wrap and handing it to the grandmother. The tiny little one was wrapped in it and placed in the ground, quickly covered.

We sat for a long time, weeping silently by the small mound of earth. When the sky began to dim, I walked home, my skirt rippling in the wind, flapping and tearing at my legs.