Tag Archives: grandma

british red #350

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When I started wearing lipstick regularly about a year and a half ago, Yazina looked at me with her inquisitive eyes and commented emphatically, “teacher this decoration you have, ah-ah-ahh!”

At the time, I hadn’t yet learned the ins and outs of Rwanda’s language of sounds and noises set completely a part from the actual language of Kinyarwanda. You see, Rwandans can express themselves totally without words and by using various inflections, mumbles, and hums to get their point across. So, I had no clue what “ah-ah-ahh!” meant.

I prodded her by saying, “yes? This decoration (referring to my lipstick) is…?”

“is wonderful!!! Today you are beautiful very high in the face.”

I blushed and told her she was beautiful too.

It was around that time I became a firm believer in lipstick.

*

I love lipstick because it makes me feel awake, energized, and yeah, beautiful. Some women preach the mascara gospel or believe in the empowering effects of going au natural, but as for me, I know I’m ready to take on the day after a cup or three of coffee, writing in my journal, and adding a slight ‘pow’ of color to my lips in the mornings. I’ve worn lipstick nearly every day here. We’ve gone on a lot of journeys, lipstick and I.

I wore lipstick on the first day the girls’ had shoes at football practice, I had it on when I taught my very first lesson, and when I went to visit Michelle in England earlier this year I think I even applied two coats. This now strikes me as ironic because in British history, mostly in the 19th century, makeup of any sorts was not at all acceptable for any “respectable” woman. Thank God for progress.

They refer it to it as “bello” in my village, which could be some kind of French influenced word, but to be honest I’m not too sure. While I’ve never seen a woman in my village carrying around a tube of the stuff, occasionally my girls will have a purplish-brown tint on their lips. This comes from the small circles of gloss sold at boutiques and they take these little things everywhere. To GLOW camps, to church, and even to school. They too understand the powers of adding a bit of pizzazz to “decorate” their appearance.

Perhaps not fully understanding the stronghold my favorite lipstick has had in my daily life, one of our Peace Corps leaders in Kigali once suggested that I limit my use of lipstick in my community. We were having a conversation about integration and dealing with men and he delicately said that it was “advisable” to not draw even more attention to myself with the fire red lipstick I had smeared on. I chuckled, nodded, and thought to myself, “um. There is no way in hell I’ll be stopping to wear my red lipstick.” It’s not that I’m insubordinate, it’s just that I decided well before joining Peace Corps that to survive this experience I had to embrace the give and take. Visit people and eat their food? Absolutely. Refrain from drinking in public? Sure. Covering my knees when wearing clothes? I can do that. But, I want to also be who I am so there are some non-negotiables. As silly and small as it sounds, this was one of them.

And so maybe I should explain the other dimension lipstick – well, this particular red color – has in my life.

The red lipstick I have worn consistently while being a Peace Corps Volunteer is appropriately in a gold tube and is called “British Red,” number 350 from L’Oreal. Today, if you open it up you can instantly smell the flowery, old time fragrance. You would also have to use your finger to get any of the color; I have used it so much that it is nearly finished. But I just can’t move onto another color. I can’t rid myself of this is small golden encompassed treasure.

*

I was packing for Rwanda and searching through some of Grandma Jenny’s things. She was still alive, albeit in a nursing home unable to speak or move, and I was headed to the facility for the last time because I would leave for Rwanda the next day. I reached for a red leather purse that I found hidden away in a box and inside I found old receipts from a frozen yogurt shop, gum, sunglasses, and a half-full bottle of Chanel No. 5. It was so her; it’s like this bag had all these little things that represented a bit of who she was as a woman. And that’s when I found the lipstick. It was half-used and I tucked it into my pocket, intending to bring it along for the next couple of years. I wasn’t even sure that I would use it, but I figured it would be a good reminder of her while away.

The day I took the lipstick was the last day I saw my grandmother. Her cold and wrinkled hands filled mine as I said goodbye. Grandma had hung on for a long time as I think Newell’s do, but I knew when my time in Rwanda was over and I came home, she wouldn’t be there. I took in everything about her that I could. I lingered when I gave her a hug. I memorized the color of her pure blue eyes. And I also was sure to capture moments from when I was younger so that the memory of grandma was more about who she was before Multiple Sclerosis slowly wore away at her body. When I was alone in my car, crying into the steering wheel, I felt like I had missed something. I felt cheated of closure. Grandma, the woman who indescribably anchored me for much of my life at that point, would never hear my stories from this new journey in my life. She wouldn’t be there when I needed to call home because I was lonely. She wouldn’t see the friends I would come to deeply love in this country. And down the road, she wouldn’t be present as my life started to weave together all of the things from my past, present, and future. She died in October of that year.

So, this lipstick is grandma’s and is one of the most important things that came from her and continued on to Rwanda. The other things that I hold dear that are with me in my village are a gold ring from her mother and a small chipped wall decoration with West Highland White Terriers that says, “when you have a friend, you have everything.”

*

Last week, I experienced what I know will be one of my favorite Rwandan memories. Sometimes, you just know you’ll remember something forever.

I was visiting Divine’s family because her brother had broken is leg and came home from the hospital and I felt very strongly that Divine should be there, even if just for the weekend.

To help her family with the workload, I joined them in finding firewood and cutting down bananas from their endless amounts of banana trees on their land (ubutaka). We laughed and chatted and watched the sun leave the Eastern hills of Rwanda. Her sister helped place the pile of sticks on my head to carry home. I grasped above my head with both hands and was pleasantly surprised by my ability to keep it balanced. I mean, I’m no Rwandan who could do this job using no hands, but still. We walked the small and narrow brown paths back home to get cooking started. I was in the middle of the line of some seriously strong women – her mother, Divine, and her sister. This was so that Divine could keep an eye on me as she knows my night vision isn’t the best. I listened quietly as her mother and Divine discussed how grateful they were for my visit, how they would pull together as a family in this difficult time, and how it was simultaneously funny and beautiful that I was carrying firewood on my head. Funny because I’m a white girl in the middle of nowhere doing such a thing and beautiful for the same reason. I’m not above doing that or helping with chores just because of where I come from. Finally, a family that gets that.

I looked above at the stars, at the rolling landscape, overwhelmed with gratitude as I thought about my family. I thought about the family I have in Rwanda and the family back home that has raised me, loved me, and supported me for my entire life.

I smacked my lips, of course wearing that red lipstick, and remembered Grandma. Memories flooded back and they seemed to collide head on with the memories I was making in that moment. Love is so powerful sometimes, I think. It reaches far beyond our understanding. It’s so strong that the feeling of love you felt years before can come back and hit you in the exact same way.

I smiled as we finished the small journey home, indeed with firewood on my head, doing what the world might see as a menial task. It was much more than that. I felt a part of something. I felt connected. And as I found myself thanking God over and over again on that walk, it sort of felt like Grandma was there right with me.

*

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living your best life (or at least trying).

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Come August—just when deep summer heat strikes the US and it will simply be just another 75 degree Rwandan month (here it’s not about the temperature as much as it is about rainfall: rain? Or no rain? That’s the real marker for seasons…)—I’ll be helping to lead GLOW. GLOW sounds like a new perfume scent recently released from J.LO or Beyonce but instead it’s a summer girls’ camp with the mission of instilling self-confidence in young women, discussing gender equality, and even creating a comfortable atmosphere to discuss HIV/AIDS.  GLOW: Girls Leading Our World. In addition to assisting in creating the schedule and curriculum, I’ll also be a cabin leader for 10 young ladies. (!!)

Maybe even more exciting (probably for me than anyone else) is that each cabin leader chooses a strong woman from any country—a “hero”—if you will, and the cabin leader is responsible for creating a cabin theme surrounding this person or figure. True to form, my friend Sara has chosen J.K. Rowling (she, Sara, is indeed cooler than me) and as for me? Well it’s a pretty obvious choice: OPRAH. Hello. I can see my girls now…cheering live your best life!…In fact, when submitting Oprah’s bio that I put together to our camp director for approval, Caitlyn, the director, applauded my detail, but gently reminded me that these young Rwandan girls would have to understand everything in the biography. And, it has to fit on a relatively small piece of paper. In essence, cut it down sister.

In doing so, I got to thinking, what’s so great about Oprah anyway?

I just read a fantastic article entitled, “The Glory of Oprah: Why the ‘talkinest’ Child Understands Women and the Power of Television Better than Anyone Else” (by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic). A good portion of the piece is devoted to examining exactly how Oprah came out of a deep poverty in the Jim Crow South and was able to make something of herself. The article is good though, because while acknowledging and celebrating Oprah’s connection to women, it also is unequivocally fair and doesn’t shy away from issues regarding her celebrity and the controversy surrounding her almost religious (no—I take that back—her very religious) elements within her pomp and circumstance.

Anyway, that really has nothing to do with this. I just try to keep up on my Oprah reading and this writing piece was particularly riveting.

My reasons that I chose Oprah as my ‘hero’ and why the slogan Live Your Best Life appears as my ‘about me’ on my twitter account are quite simple.

I first watched Oprah in my grandma’s kitchen: newspapers scattered on the coffee table, plants creeping in from the garden outside, and often full of the irreplaceable smell of a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.

I was probably in like second grade or something, but I remember watching her speak, eating away at slices of cheese grandma had prepared for me (with a fresh apple of course), and thinking that this woman was very cool. Plus, grandma liked her, so she had to be good. Lance would be there with us sometimes (or he’d go play Oregon Trail on the big hunker of a machine that was the computer in the 1990’s) but somehow, Lance or not, it became a tradition.

Wednesdays in elementary school, grandma drove her proverbial big boat (the maroon Chevy Lumina) to school and waited for us with open arms. Sometimes we’d mix our routine up with fro-yo (YUM), the library, or a quick spin past my dad and uncles’ childhood home nearby. However, two things were constants in our visits with grandma: walking to feed the ducks at the park and Oprah viewing sessions.

Whatever episode we watched, even as a young girl, I deciphered the shows and the long, sometimes arduous lectures from Oprah with a true sense of positivity. Oprah’s message, when you really boiled it down, was about taking a problem,  our life, because that’s pretty hard too, and pushing forward. Cry, scream, smile, whatever. But do your best because you can do it. And life’s too short not to. Yeah, it’s the gospel of self-help books and maybe grandma read too many of those too (she wasn’t the cleanliest of folks and I remember these books littered around her 4 (or was it 5?) story townhouse) because as I grew up, grandma carried and shared the very same message. I don’t really know who said it first—Oprah or grandma—but it didn’t matter. Grandma’s echoes of positivity and believing in yourself, I know, came from her own life experiences. And, I believed it. And, I still do.

I don’t think my relationship with Oprah is unhealthy. I joke—often, especially with my friends—that it is, but I promise, I have my head on straight (most of the time). Oprah is not God, is not my grandma, is not the world’s perfect person or idol, however, she went to hell and back when she was young, took life by full force and followed a dream. I admire that. Plus, she’s pretty funny to boot and has about three million inspirational quotes to draw from. I. LOVE. Inspirational quotes.

The trick with all of this rhetoric about ‘living your best life’ is that’s hard. Really really really hard.

For nearly 8 months I have been living and breathing Rwanda.

8 whole months.

That’s a long time.

I think it’s possible that I’ve spent some of my very best days and very worst days here. That’s how this goes, I suppose.

I love what I do. Through and through. Even on the tough days. And it’s really coming together—my first football and volleyball practice (with me coaching!) is tomorrow. Our first matches? THIS weekend. On top of that, I have wonderful neighbors and can’t speak enough about the transformative experience of integrating into something completely unfamiliar. It’s unreal how blessed I am to have this. Yes, I love my job. That’s 110% true.

But the other truth is this: like anywhere or anytime in life, we’re human, and with that comes beautiful happiness, but also sometimes, intense sadness. Lately, I’ve been feeling sad. And there’s all kinds of sadness: sometimes I’m sad about the intense poverty here, sometimes I’m sad because every day, at some point, I am called umuzungu. Sometimes I’m sad because I wonder about how much of a reach I really have.

Am I able to do this?

Is my presence here really actually doing anything?

Yeah, self-doubt is not very fun.

But more recently, I’m sad because I’m alone. No matter how you slice or dice that, it remains true.

People are here, yes, and some I’m growing to really appreciate. I have friends here in the village, and I couldn’t even ask for more support than I’m already getting from them.

Yet, at the end of the day, the story is mine, isn’t it? How do I begin to share what life is like here? And how do I share life with these people I am beginning to know?

What a weird feeling, indeed. I think that’s one of the things that made studying abroad in Ghana my junior year so special. Amidst volunteering, studying (sometimes), and travel, my best friend, Rachel, and I were doing it together.

But here, it’s me.

For nearly 18ish more months I will continue to teach,  help, listen, motivate, share, and reflect as a Peace Corps Volunteer, out in the village, trying to figure out what this journey—this story—actually is.

For a few days now, this has saddened me. I’ve felt unmotivated, restless, and tired. I’ve cried just a couple of times and getting out of bed has felt…challenging. It feels good to be honest about all of this. It was at Rachel’s encouraging that I share this, because yes, emotional challenges have a place in this story too. I was afraid of singing my own sad sorry song, because I fully and completely realize that there is much, MUCH more in the world than my temporary loneliness. But again, it’s what I’m going through. It exists. So I recognize it, I feel it, and I deal with it. Certainly doing this—living this life—is taking a lot more strength than I imagined, particularly because some days just feel so easy and effortless. Peace Corps warned me this would happen. I can’t blame them. They told me, time and time again, that I would miss things from back home. I would miss weddings, funerals, graduations, engagements, and I would be here, away from it all. I listened. I knew it would be hard. So, this really should come as no surprise, right?

I am ready though, to take all of these emotions in stride: feel them, live them, but do not be defined by them. Most importantly, as alone as I feel, I am not.

Taped to my desk is a note from Philippians 3 that says this,

“Let us live up to what we have already attained.”

God has a hand in all of this. It’s not me achieving, accomplishing, and overcoming; it’s all possible because my strength comes from something much more than just myself.

And also, sometimes living your best life is just doing the best you can on any given day.

Some days, it’s just a smile, while other days it’s full of immersing yourself with everything you got.

Yesterday, in class, in one period mind you, I managed to teach my dear students how to ‘disco’ (and along with that, provided a completely inaccurate historical explanation of where the disco came from—I said it was because Americans wanted peace during the Vietnam War?…*) and also provided reinforcement with the verb ‘to win’. To do so, I demonstrated the power of T-Pain lyrics (an artist most of them, if not all, know) with the classic and memorable hit “All I Do Is Win.”

All I do is win win win, no matter what.

Let me just say. Watching students disco and singing T-Pain at the same time? As an educator, it doesn’t get much better. It’s quite possible my um, teaching methods, might be a little unsoud (even by American standards) but whatevs. Sometimes, you just have to have a little fun, right?

I did all of this—laughing hysterically of course—and also while dealing with this whole loneliness thing. Did I walk out of class completely cured and rejuvenated? No. Because human emotions often don’t work like that.

But, I did feel better. And I know that soon, this loneliness thing? Well, this too will pass.

 I can do it, I can do it, I can do it.

 Grandma’s mantra is fresh in my mind.

 How I miss her.

 Maybe it’s scary to know I’m doing this alone. But it can be empowering too: the stories, the experiences, everything—I have all of this to share for the rest of my life.

 Anything can be a miracle, a blessing, an opportunity if you choose to see it that way.

–Oprah

 *the history of disco is rather extensive after skimming some of the information provided on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. While some of the elements of the disco craze certainly are traced to the culture of the 70’s—largely shaped by the war—the dance itself was even considered a reaction against the domination of rock music.