When you read you begin with A, B, C, when you sing you begin with Do, Re, Mi. And when you are thinking about moving back to the USA after fifteen years of becoming a family and thriving in West Africa and Kenya you begin with… (insert big, gaping, searching silence, wherein I swing wildly between anxiety and optimism, and on a whim, dye my hair red).
I left the USA before 9/11, before iPhones, before Colbert, and way before Trigger Warnings. It was the very beginning of my adult life, before I had made a home of anywhere at all. I dragged my few belongings: twinkly lights, a silver-painted flea market dresser, a futon, and passed-along pots and pans down the narrow stairs of my Brooklyn brownstone. Within weeks, I went from being an up-and-coming health editor at a big women’s magazine to being a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Cote d’Ivoire. And although important life events had occurred before that, in my mind, the move to West Africa was the beginning of my becoming the person I am now. It is here, in Africa, that I found the parts of my life I am most in love with: my work, my adopted daughter and biological daughter (aged fourteen and nine)… and my husband, Brian. It is here that I have faced and overcome real hardships. It is here I grew up and discovered my true self—my “real life.” And then I looked up and fifteen years had gone by.
I never planned to be a forever expatriate, but life here has been good to us. We love that our friends get their news from Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Radio France Internationale. Our multicolour family is just one of many at the sweet British school the girls attend (plus the uniforms are ridiculously cute). We love driving out of Nairobi on the weekends and hanging out with giraffes. Something very innovative happens when diverse perspectives interact, and I feel excited to go to work for my Kenyan boss, and apply my creativity to public health problems. But in the last year or so, it has started to feel different. Smaller. The Westgate Mall terror attack shook Kenya—and us—to the core. Since then security has deteriorated. If I go out with friends, I race home through the darkness, praying that tonight won’t be the night that I get carjacked and kidnapped. That adorable British grammar school is not such a good fit for high school for a young lady who does not do well on tests and has an exceptional talent in sprinting. We are not sure how much longer we can stay in our current jobs without stagnating. Brian misses my stepsons (who live in the US) almost unbearably. All of us are evolving and our needs are shape-shifting. The Africa skin that we have worn long and loved hard is starting to feel tight and itchy. It sort of feels like my favourite shoes felt after pregnancy—before I figured out my feet had grown. I never stopped loving those shoes; they just didn’t feel quite like mine anymore.
No Place Like Home
Our idea is to head “home,” according to our passports. So, shouldn’t this change feel easy? Comforting? Familiar? Shouldn’t I be more enthusiastic about great public schools, reliable electricity, affordable pickles, and always-available chocolate chips? Shouldn’t we feel a sense of relief about moving closer to family? But after so many years of nomadic life, the notion of “home” itself feels foreign, as does the United States. The truth is the new skin underneath my Africa skin is fragile and dewy and raw. I am scared to expose it, afraid that it won’t break in, worried it won’t develop the same beautiful patina of confident comfort. I suspect we will be strangers in a strange land, excluded from the cultural context that has built up, like sediment, over the years, and yet expected to “get it.” I am afraid I will lose myself there—or go back to some former version of myself who was still bulimic, less secure, less interesting, just…. less. Ironically going “home” is proving to be a lot more fraught than going somewhere we know is an “adventure.”
And perhaps it is because going home feels so loaded that I’m finding myself stuck in between. I get overwhelmed with tenderness for things I love here in Nairobi, and then enraged about the things that rankle—sometimes all within the space of my commute. I start envisioning our life on the other side—I hit job boards with a vengeance, find the perfect school for the kids… and then turn around and create an adolescent sexual health initiative at work that I am totally passionate about. It’s a little like Maui’s road to Hana around here—lots of switchbacks, a feeling of climbing, the dizzy, nauseous euphoria of high altitude… and the most incredible view.
Or maybe it’s much simpler. Maybe it’s just that if this new chapter in our story is to begin, then, by definition, wonderful things have to end. And I’m crap at endings.
I wish I was writing this piece from a lawn chair on the field of that perfect school on the other side of the ocean. Hopefully by the time we get there, I’ll have something less cliche to say than “Change is hard,” even when it is a beginning. But I’m at the very beginning of this new beginning (or is it the middle of the end?) and I am trying to figure out how to do it gracefully.
I’m trying to keep my eyes on the remembered promises that distant shore holds. Like waves of fireflies and the smell of summer evening grass. Blueberry pies bought at farmer’s markets and soft-shelled crabs with Old Bay. Dogs in costumes at Halloween. TV series watched in real time. Seeing my daughters enjoy cheerleading and metal lockers and the prom. Visiting my stepson at college.
I’m reminding myself that we get to choose who we are. I am not twenty-two anymore (thank God for that). I don’t have to be bulimic, or fight in the mommy wars, or do anything at all that doesn’t feel right for me or my family, no matter where we live. We have our own traditions and our own micro-culture that includes all kinds of wonderful elements borrowed from the places we have been. And because we have been “outsiders” for so long, we know how to do that. We get to keep all of that skill and experience and sense of adventure and humour. We will never be less. Sure, we might get a little disoriented from time to time, but we get to keep us!
I am really trying to enjoy the heck out of our life here, second by second, day by day, as long as it lasts, until the last juicy second. Distancing myself from living wholeheartedly here will not protect me from the heartache I will feel the day we leave—it will just cheat me out of today’s joy. So, I am choosing to savour.
And finally, I am allowing my marriage to anchor me. As I toss and turn in this insomniatic storm of possibilities, my husband, Brian, is here with me. Brian, with his calm, steady love. Brian, grappling and listening and struggling and planning alongside me. Brian, as invested in my unfolding as he is in his own. Brian and I united in the shared desire to launch our children well, and create a home they are happy to come back to. Brian, my steady, stalwart friend. No matter where we end up going, it will be a chance to love and discover Brian through another adventure.
Wherever the winds blow us, and whatever the color of my hair, my home will always be where he is. And as long as we just begin together, the road will take us somewhere wonderful.