A Pilgrimage to the Holly Land

From the moment my children were born, I anticipated the day they would be old enough to take to my home.  I grew up far away, in Kenya, a place that can never quite belong to me and yet has stolen my heart, as in some tragic, unrequited love story.  They actually made that love story into the movie Out of Africa, which was coincidentally filmed in Kenya while I was living there.  I am Karen Blixen, without the gorgeous safari wardrobe and, I hope, the colonial overtones.  I am an American, I know that, I am proud of that, I cherish that, and yet I am not fully comfortable with that.  As Americanness has flourished within me, every year getting bigger and stronger, like a garden of hardy perennials, I have stubbornly fenced off a part of myself that I will not give over to it, and I carefully pull any shoots that may invade.

My children have challenged this strategy.  They are fully, unapologetically, ungratefully Americans. They live overindulged lives without seeming to consider themselves fortunate.  They think a WiFi outage is a human rights violation, become indignant when we run out of their favorite cereal, have more books and toys than they can even remember owning, know that with one click things will magically appear at our door, and behave as if they are owed a supremely comfortable life, complete with video/snacks/fun/unconditional love on demand.  They don't know how to be uncomfortable, and they don't even know that that should make them a little uncomfortable.  They have a stable family whose parents have no (definite) plans to send them to boarding school, and God willing, they will never experience trauma.  I am thrilled for them, scared for them, scared by them, disgusted by them, alienated from them, convicted by them, all at once.  I see myself in them, the self that I have slowly become over these years.  They distract me from tending to my secret Kenyan garden, and the weeds multiply like English ivy.

I have travelled back home many times over the years without them.  I feel the rush of joy when I step off the plane and walk down into the dingy arrivals hall that has changed little in 35 years.  I hear my heart pound like an African drum as I approach the school that became my home.  I feel my soul quiet to feel the warmth of the equatorial sun on my face, to see the vast universe unfold in the night sky, to hear the wind and the train make their way through the forest in unison, to know it's all still there, it's been there this whole time, waiting to see me again.  It recognizes me, and I know that I am still there, too, in my complex entirety.  And as my plane lifts off to take me away again, I talk myself through the terror that this has been my last time to set foot on that red earth, that it may only exist for me as a dream, that I will strain to hear its music in the distance until it is finally crowded out by the din of America.

And then I get back to my children, my other heart, my other soul.   And I try to remember, and I try to forget, so that I might be whole and unbroken.  I can't do both, and I can't be both, so I just go on, trying to love them as they are and as I am, trying to explain to them who I am and who they should be, where I come from and where they should go, what I have seen and what they need to see.  So that they appreciate the massive good fortune of their lives and so that they know the astounding beauty they are missing out on by living in a world so comfortable and sterile and tame.   I take them to homeless shelters and talk to them about refugees and yell and scream when they pick at their bountiful food.   It frustrates me that I can't teach them the lessons of my childhood because I am no longer living them myself.  It enrages me they don't understand who I am because I am not really who I was.

And I have waited.  Waited for the day I can take them home with me.  Waited until they are old enough to keep it with them.  Waited until they are old enough to fly for 24 hours without driving me out of my mind.  Which they still will.  And it is an absolute certainty they will whine the entire trip about everything from dirt to pillows to strange insects to inadequate entertainment.  Because they are American children and have that luxury.  But I also know the beauty will penetrate them whether they like it or not.  My daughter will remember seeing the dorm my parents left me alone in when i was just her age, and she will hear my tears in the walls.  She will see the other dorms where I built a joyful childhood for myself with the help of friends who became family.  She will see the room Christina and I lay in at night with the windows open so we could be rocked to sleep by the crickets breathing on the breeze.  My son will hear the silent echoes of human ancestors and tectonic plates shifting long ago across the Rift Valley, the ones that healed my heart and tucked me in at night.  He will see the sunset that taught me to believe in a loving God.  They may never let on, but they will be changed.  And the garden in my heart will be sustained and cultivated a little longer by their memories.

When it's all over, I am sure I will be forced to write a more humorous post about all the many things that went wrong and how badly everyone behaved, myself most especially.   But for now, I'm going home, and I can't hide how I feel behind laughter.


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