What I’m reading.

I finished this book a few nights ago. My eyes were heavy when I put it down, but I still struggled to drift off. It wasn’t a book I expected to like, let alone stay up far too late for. Yet, there I was, shaken by hazy visions of the dead man’s walk that kept sleep at bay. I was tired, and saddened that I had reached the conclusion of the story. I never cease to be moved by the magnetism of a wonderful tale. I felt grateful to have found this one, and eager to lose myself in another as soon as time allowed.

Until then my dreams will drift to a bare and dangerous plain in a West that no longer exists. A good story visits us again and again, even when we’ve put it to rest. I long to be bewitched by some passage – left wondering if spells might not be cast beyond the pages of a favourite fairy tale. Sitting by a campfire, watching smoke rise and send the mosquitoes back to the woods, I’ll ask for one last yarn before we return to our tents. To hear tell of a monster and know that sleep will not come as easy; there is a strange beauty in that. How stirring it is that simple words, spun in such a way, can cause the heart to beat faster and the mind to wander to a place where terrors come to life, and journeys, fraught with peril, make heroes of ordinary men.

The right book refuses to be forgotten on the shelf. I’ll close the cover and I think the lines wind outward, resting quietly in the wings of my imagination. A day or two passes and I find myself searching for the words in subtle ways. I look for meaning in common gestures. Is this stranger whose eyes meet mine the character upon whom the entire plot depends?

I jump from one chapter to another, and it’s as if I’ve never realized how quickly a narrative can course in a new direction. This reminder of constant possibility is what makes a story great. When I spend too long away from books I forget that no day passes without offering a chance to alter the ending. Maybe today I’ll walk down a different street, and say hello instead of lowering my gaze.

One minute I’ll be carrying on as usual, and the next the roar of the city will shrink to a whisper and everything will have changed. The grand adventure begins.

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In progress.

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I’ve been waiting to tell you a story. I wanted to offer up some hero or heroine, a struggle between good and evil, or a tale of loss. I sat down and never made it much further than the opening line.

It used to be easy, when the violent drama of survival was played out against each brilliant sunset. There were the terrifying and beautiful hunters, and the prey that ran, hid, and lived for another day or hour. I saw animals die, gasping for air in the death grips of the painted wolves and cats that instilled fear in every fibre of my being the moment I left the safety of my little home for the wilderness outside. It might sound strange, but that fear – that knowledge that I was always in danger of disturbing the bush and the mighty giants it hid – gave me peace. As my date of departure grew near, I relished the feeling of dry leaves giving way to dust beneath my feet, and the quickening of my heart at even the slightest noise that met me in the darkness. I had to say goodbye, but my chest ached at the prospect of leaving this place – and place is a word ill-suited to describe the Linyanti, the keeper of so many stories.

The constant dirt had made my fingers rough so they caught on every groove and nook of your surface and my hands wanted to keep searching, reaching for every undiscovered corner. Though my palms would not release you, it was time to go. I bent my head to the elephants and let the sand run through my fingers one last time, hoping it might leave some imprint there.

Part of me wonders if I will ever be able to write about anything else. Desire always brings me back to the page, but I’m not sure what’s worth recording anymore. I don’t know how to bring meaning to the simple ebb and flow of the everyday. I never intended to share many details of my life here, but in the absence of a thrilling saga, that is all I have to offer.

I long to be inspired as I once was, but I am also sure that I am meant to be here, far from the wilderness that I fell for with such abandon. Over a year has passed since I left, and I am struck by how much there is to be thankful for. I was home when my family needed me (and when I needed them). Mom is healthy. I get to see B and her little ones every few weeks, and J knows my name and greets me with a smile when I walk through the door. Months don’t pass between visits to my old home, and we get to do all the things I missed when I was away; coffee each morning, breakfasts at our favourite greasy diner, and long Friday night dinners with kind and familiar faces.

I found a job last January and moved to the city. I discovered brunch, and ordered dozens of eggs before picking a favourite. I saw many wonderful concerts and I remembered how happy music made me. I baked in my new kitchen and my mom taught me how to properly roast a chicken. The purchase of kitchen appliances, more than anything else, seemed to signal a genuine entrance to adulthood. In a further attempt to join the ranks of the young professional, I went on my fair share of first and second dates, discovering new favourite places in the process. I wore down my shoes walking everywhere I could, and rested my tired feet in the first apartment I’ve ever called my own. At the end of the year I went to Costa Rica and finally conquered my fear of the ocean. Thanks to a gentle surf and a fine and patient teacher, I caught my first waves. Today my dad sent me a picture of my sister and I watching the sunset on the last night of the trip. Back in a chilly city, I lament the lack of sunshine, but know too that life has been good to me.

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It isn’t perfect, but then nothing, not even my time in the Linyanti, ever was. How easy it is to forget the difficult parts when we leave a place. Maybe it’s a sign of my age that I have begun to welcome life in a slightly rougher form. I like to think that the rough patches exist to bring what’s great into sharper focus. While there are days I miss Botswana desperately, I am equally grateful for the shape of things now.

Still, I have no story. All I’ve been able to muster are a few reflections on another passing year. I was always taught that a tale should begin and end. The lion takes chase and the impala draws its final breath. All my stories remain in progress. There is work, and a city, and hints of adventure hidden between the cracks of these weary sidewalks. This will have to do, for now.

Not for the first time, I’ve been drawn to my oft neglected bookshelf, getting lost in the words of those who seem to effortlessly give form to the human experience, both real and imagined. In these pages, if I’m lucky, I will find my way to the beginning of the story I am meant to tell.

“The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered.”

– Henry David Thoreau

More than words.

When I was ten my parents enrolled me in piano lessons, and I enjoyed them. I know this, because I read about it in my diaries. There are several of them sitting on the bottom shelf in my old bedroom, filled largely with empty pages; it seems I’ve been honing the art of procrastination from an early age. My eyes scanned the sparse entries and I was greeted with a telling picture of my younger self:

“Diary is just such a dull name. As if you were just some old book.”

“Piano lessons were just too fun to go by as fast as they did.”

Oh goodness. The girl who penned those lines might be saddened to hear that nothing ever came of the piano lessons; I believe I gave up after the first recital. Several failed attempts at other instruments followed. In elementary school I played the ukulele for a year, and then the flute. I went to guitar lessons for several years after that. I vaguely recall the period of weekly singing classes and my first musical role in our summer camp’s production of the Wizard of Oz. I played the Tin Man. After two years of terrible results at the local karate studio, I began dancing. Though I loved it, I also took up the discipline a decade too late, and shared the stage at my first performance with girls not much older than ten.

None of it stuck. I can’t read music anymore. My voice is reserved for singing along badly in noisy bars, and I suspect I possess no rhythm to speak of. I still own a guitar, but I can only play one song: Dust in the Wind.

I am no performer; that much is clear. I don’t consider myself an artist. I’m terrible when put on the spot. Even short presentations make me nervous. My heart beats too fast. My voice often breaks.

Sharing prose is almost as scary.

The writing is the easy part. The pages belong to me and I can sit alone with the words for hours until I know they are arranged just so. Then, after I have read the lines a hundred times, I will feel the same unsettling pang in the pit of my stomach.

I ask if what I’ve created is good enough.

Each time I return to the blank page I work at it a little harder. I detect doubt and choose to ignore the discomfort. I keep writing. I’ve been at this since I was a child penning silly lines in unfinished diaries, and there is immense joy imbued in the act. I have long understood that even if no one read these pages I would keep filling them, and this would be enough.

There are weeks when my job and routine crowd out what precious space I should reserve for writing, and I forget the words for a while. I forget until I’m walking home after dark, drowning out the noise of the city with a favourite song, and it hits me. A mess of scattered thoughts forms the faintest outline and my fingers are hungry for a pen and paper.

I barely scratch the surface. The outlines fade, or are lost altogether. I am tempted to stop trying – to put it aside as I did all the other pursuits of my childhood.

I was never any good at playing the piano. I was never a great performer. If writing is my craft, then I am in desperate need of practice. Though the yearning is near constant, I only pick it up in my spare time.

I am in awe of the ones that make a life from what they love. Did they doubt, as I do, in their ability to create something worthwhile?

I dream of constructing, as they have, works that enrich the ordinary with beauty and meaning.

I read so that I might be shaken by the brilliance of prose for the umpteenth time. I place a tag on the page so that the lines won’t be lost, as mine so often are. I play the song again and I am no less moved than I was the first time I heard it. The lyrics are a vehicle for a memory that becomes corporeal just long enough to reduce the distance between present and past to a single verse.

A song casts the shadow of an elephant drinking at sunset on the white wall in front of me. A poem re-read suddenly takes on the weight of a final embrace. The words on the page – the melody echoing in an empty apartment – they are another means of holding onto moments that might have otherwise slipped away.

The day ends and I accept that my words are still far from perfect. Too troubled to sleep, I play a familiar song. I imagine it was written for an old lover, but when I hear her sing, she tells a story of any longing that makes it impossible to set aside that which feeds us. Sometimes it is a person that tugs at the heart. Sometimes it is a mountain that must be climbed. Sometimes it is an instrument that cannot be put down. Tonight it is a blank page asking to be filled with words.

Once it grabs you, there is no use in letting go.

“I remember that time you told me you said love is touching souls.
Surely you touched mine.
‘Cause part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time.”
 
– Joni Mitchell
 

Where it goes.

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This post is not about cinnamon buns, though I could say a great deal about how delicious they are. I could tell you to make them in the early evening and let them rest in the fridge overnight, so that upon rising you can fill your small apartment with the sweet aroma of delectable yeasted dough. Have a friend over and serve breakfast with steaming coffee from the french press. Pack the rest up and bring them to an almost neighbour who lives a block away. Walk through the park and give silent thanks for every inch of late spring sunshine. These are the mornings you remember when the city confronts you as a grey maze of rushed strangers. You fill the coffee cup again, breathe deeply, and know that in the midst of it all you have found a new home.

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I’ve packed my life into boxes more than once in the past few years, trading one adventure for another. The place changes, and you try to start again. I want to believe that the essence of these journeys, and the people I met, is preserved in me. I had often imagined that it was only a collection of stories I would tell later when someone asked me what I left behind in the various homes I called mine.

When I ponder the accumulation of past experiences, and the faces that accompany them, I can’t help but consider where old love fits in. I dream of the assorted lifetimes ago and it returns to me, a gentle tug at a heart that has nearly forgotten.

I once fell in love in the span of an evening. Usually it’s much slower, but however it occurs, the shift is immeasurable. A different kind of happiness presents itself and there are moments I hold it in my palms in such a way that love becomes tactile, filling the gaps between our tightly clasped hands. I feel it there in the nook of his chest in the precious hours before sleeping.

I want to know where it goes.

Where does he place my secrets and where do I hide his? You come to know someone so remarkably, and I ask whether this knowledge of the other is lost.

I know that I carry it with me. I throw the tangible remnants away, but something settles there. I might lose track of the details, but this does not alter the deeper sense of remembering. I cannot forget that I’ve loved, even when the spark has burned out and the scent of old ash can no longer be detected.

Perhaps it’s a bit like the patch of ancient earth I left. I used to be perpetually covered in a fine layer of dust. My hands and feet were stained with the stuff, no matter how hard I scrubbed. If you saw me now you’d never guess it. My nails are polished, and my curls are tame. My skin is clean and grows paler each month. I live in a city now. There are fewer spiders on my walls and the bugs (mostly) stay outside at night. If, however, I examine the parts that aren’t so visible, I find that I am still altered by it. The dust and dirt have marked me further beneath the surface. The heat of African sun warms me and sometimes, when I blink, I see George and his billowing eyelashes. His steady and proud gaze is upon me and for a moment I am back in the swamps, at peace in the shadow of giants. I would like to know that the earth that I so loved remembers me too – that my soles left some imprint there – but I will never be privy to such knowledge.

A place changes you. The people you loved change you. The wisdom, the joy, and the hurt take up residence in your being, undetectable to everyone else. There is pain in asking where the love goes. There is sadness in wondering if you carry its memory in solitude. Then I imagine that to know this is not so important now.

I have loved – men and corners of paradise – with equal earnest. I have said goodbye to both, but this does not erase the acts I performed, both tiny and grand. All that I gave away I gave to myself too. I remain marked with the wondrous colors that reflect the measure of my passions.

I used to begrudge the reminders. I considered them an intrusion – an affront of sorts to the life I was trying to build for myself. Then I came to understand that I owed my current contentment to all that came before, even the parts I thought I should forget. Every story begins and ends; there are difficult chapters and joyous chapters, and to remove any would fragment something that was never broken. Cup of coffee in hand, standing in the first kitchen that belongs to me, in a city I already adore, I am no longer afraid to confront the memory of old places and faces. They brought me here, and for that my heart is grateful. Nothing more and nothing less.

Something about faith.

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An Old Story

Damaraland

Every so often I read a story that begins with the creation of heaven and earth. I read it in bits and pieces, in those stolen minutes before sleep, when I am alone and something moves me to pick up the dusty book from where it lies next to my bed. It is curiosity, I suppose, and not an urgency so profound as to call me to question and grow fearful. Sometimes I see beauty in the pages. Sometimes I recognize a saying I have heard frequently and I am surprised to learn that it was borne of this ancient work. On most nights the unkindness I detect in the words gives me somber pause and then the tiny text is out of focus and I close the cover in a hurry.

I keep returning to the story. When I was a child, it was chanted from scrolls written in another language and though I understood almost nothing, I loved it more than I suspect I ever will again. I knew too little to doubt the source of what I read and heard. It is difficult to recall now, but I’m not certain I even thought the tale to be true. The accuracy of these books was not relevant or important. They contained a history and the weight of lessons that I was sure applied to me. I believed in the way that only children can, enveloped in the warmth of faith that has not yet been scarred by the pain of an oft broken earth.

Somewhere between then and now my faith shifted from a place of apathy to a place of anger. As a student of history I was drawn to religion. I pored over the writings of clerics, soaked up the biographies of reformers, and read with fascination the re-telling of battles and wars waged over the interpretation of words. These bloody histories were not for the faint of heart, and they shaped my consideration of faith, and all that it implied. I lost touch with the child who once believed, until there was no longer a trace, even in the vestiges of my memory, of the ghost of this girl who knew God.

Then I moved to Botswana, farther than I ever had been from the reminders of the religion I was rooted in, and into a new community of people with an unshakeable belief in God. All around me the faithful were steadfast and doubt was wholly absent. I was prayed for by my colleagues, blessed, and urged to pray and count my blessings. I was often told that my day of reckoning had already been chosen for me. “Death will come,” they said. Yes, indeed, but the strongest parts of me still hoped that I might play some role in the circumstances of my ending.

I’ll admit that as the months passed, my cynicism softened. I began to listen with genuine interest and found myself, for the first time in my life, jealous of what the faithful possessed. I wondered what comfort I might take in surrendering worry and fear to something outside of myself. During my last week at work, P, the head chef, told me that she would pray for my mom’s good health. I thanked her, not with veiled doubt or reservation, but with overwhelming gratitude for her compassion. I left with a feeling of respect for faith and the goodness it contained, even as I knew that I could not take it up for myself.

I am back home, and after several years nearly devoid of any religious celebration, I have been here to take part in the holidays again. I can share challah and wine with my family, and softly chant the same blessings I sung happily as a child. The familiarity of the ritual feels inviting and safe. I am undoubtedly thankful to call it mine, yet I still struggle to reconcile my practice of these traditions with all that I’ve learned. I try to separate ritual from doctrine and the lines remain fuzzy. The book closes, and I have to accept that there will be always be more questions than answers.

I meant to say something about faith, and instead I’ve laid out another unfinished story, and one whose final chapter is out of reach.

I meant to say something of my own faith, but I fear I have never been, and will never be, a grand storyteller. I can only write what I know, and when it comes to God, there is so little that I have ever been certain of.

If you ask me what I believe, I will tell you this: I have made mistakes. I have spoken too quickly and caused hurt with poorly chosen words. There are times that I think I should pray for forgiveness, but it feels unnatural, so I pause, step outside, and tilt my head up. Beneath a sky painted by city lights, I am left to imagine those most precious nights – the ones undisturbed by the moon – when the stars are brightest. I am insignificant, standing solitary under the immense black canvas. I remember how small I am and this brings me more peace than all the ancient words I have read.

You ask me what I believe, and I can only tell you about this tiny space between my heart and the illuminated universe that extends beyond comprehension. In this sliver of silence cut from a world gone mad with noise, I find for a moment, a dark corner that contains the whole of my faith.

 

 

 

Family recipes.

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Every Friday we sit down to dinner with our closest friends and family, sharing food and good company at one of four houses. The menus change, of course, but many dishes are as familiar as the people who prepare them. I can taste them now: Aunt Hazel’s chicken curry, Judy’s veal brisket, Jesse’s couscous, and my mom’s herb-crusted salmon, to name only a few. My dad is a wonderful cook, and he has whipped up countless dinner hits over the years, but his challah stands alone. His expertly prepared loaves are warmed with nostalgia and the memory of hundreds of Fridays gone by.

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After I moved back home I told my dad that I was ready to learn how to make his challah. Up until this point I had avoided baking bread; as an inexperienced baker, I prefer precise recipes that leave little room for error. Bread is unpredictable, and my dad’s baking process is untidy in a way that has always maddened me slightly. He has a recipe, but it is more scribble than guide. His variations on the quantity of sugar and eggs make the bread his own. He does not measure out the flour carefully as I do. He neglects to shake the cup lightly to allow the grains to settle, and never sweeps the butter knife across the top to create a flat surface. He throws flour into the mix with ease, watching the dough gather and form, knowing instinctively when it is ready to be turned out and kneaded.

I am soon proving a less than capable student. I have split the readied dough into two rolls and braided it according to his patient instructions, but it isn’t working. The dough is sticking too much, as if the braid is melting into itself, and he tells me to start over. I knead it back together and he shows me how to use the whole weight of my body to press the dough into the counter. I separate it into two pieces again. He watches me roll, careful to point out the uneven parts so that I end up with something uniform from end to end. I lay one piece across the other and gingerly make my braid once more. A brush of egg wash and a sprinkle of sesame seeds later, I stare at the challah in near disbelief. It looks just like his. He is, in spite of my stubbornness, an exceptional teacher.

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The challah is baking in the oven, and I sit with a cup of steaming tea in hand, breathing in the heady scent of my favourite bread. I glance up at a photograph hanging next to the pantry that shows my late Granny Rae’s hand on a piece of kichel dough, gently pulling it through a rusted metal pasta roller. Our parents ate her kichel with the traditional chopped herring, but my sister and I snatched them up plain, all sugar and delectable crumb. As my dad showed me how to braid the challah dough, my mom might have said that it seemed as if Granny was back in the kitchen, happy to see us baking again.

Tonight, in a place that is much too far from where I sit, my sister is busy baking her own challahs. She called me earlier this evening in a slight panic over the state of the yeast. Having thrown out two batches that failed to proof, she was about to embark on a third attempt. I told her to use a different kind of yeast, and after consulting with my dad, she started over. We chatted while she watched and waited, until it finally began to bubble. She’ll be busy kneading now, and in an hour or so, she’ll fashion her braids the way dad taught us to. I imagine her standing at a counter dusted with flour, working the dough, just as our granny did on countless other Fridays. Her hands are younger, but they carry a timeless wisdom. It is a wisdom spun from a generation that survives in photographs and recipes scribbled on yellowed paper. Years from now, when my sister’s hands are lined and worn with age, I know that they will still be consumed with the same task – creating that which fills the belly and the heart.

We want to learn to make what they made, and when it isn’t quite right, we are grateful for the kind father who shows us how. For all the Fridays I missed – for all the help I neglected to offer – for all the hours and days I fear I’ve long forgotten – I will commit at least this lesson in bread making to memory. I will remember to pause each week, to knead, turn, and honour with some small act the treasured traditions and beloved hands whose palms fell soft upon my young shoulders.

Food, love, etc.

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The evening after I left Botswana for good, my aunt pulled the loveliest loaf of sourdough bread out of the oven. It was the simple and perfect combination of rye flour and her home-grown sourdough starter. I ate it hot, toasted, and slathered with butter and the creamiest honey I’ve ever sampled. We sat on the couch savouring slices for dessert, while watching Ina Garten bake a three-tiered chocolate buttercream cake. We laughed together at the delicious excess, and I forgot for a moment or two the previous afternoon’s goodbyes that had left my eyes red.

I had two slices for lunch the next day and savoured each bite, until it was time to drag my duffel to the front door. I closed the gate behind me and prepared to bid South Africa farewell, the unmistakable taste of home still lingering on my lips. Two long flights later, I walked into a much colder house. For the first time in years I did not have to face the prospect of leaving after a few weeks of long-awaited hellos; I was a permanent resident again.

Jobless and directionless, I found myself slightly terrified.

There were countless things that needed to be done – unpacking was certainly high on the list – but there was only one thing I felt like doing.

I started to bake. I spent my first Saturday back in Canada whipping up a pumpkin pie, a sweet potato pie, and a large batch of granola. I restocked the pantry with flour and sugar, and started buying an abundance of unsalted butter sticks. I became an avid Smitten Kitchen follower, and this resulted in my first chocolate babka attempt. I was too intimidated to go it alone, and was grateful for a wonderful friend who spent six hours teaching me to proof, knead, and turn. Our efforts were more than rewarded. It was as if chocolate and butter had married to produce a sweet and fluffy dough baby, with a heavy sprinkle of sugary crumble on top for good measure. If you think I sound crazy, I assume you’ve never tasted a great chocolate babka, and would suggest you do so as soon as possible.

There were adventures in cookies, chocolate ganache, and apple crumble. I made my first batch of cinnamon buns, going through several sachets of yeast before I was convinced they were activating properly. I made pie crust after pie crust, willing the flutes I shaped to stay in place when they baked. There was a failed experiment in royal icing; my distaste for the flavour was compounded by an apparent inability to pipe the stuff onto Martha’s sugar cookies. My cupcakes are not fantastic yet, and I suspect I’m about ten years away from tackling anything with tiers.

I possess no culinary prowess – I follow recipes to the letter and hope for the best. How then, can I explain that I am happiest standing at my counter with a rolling pin in hand, covered in a fine film of flour? Perhaps it is the same joy I imagine we all experience when we create something with our own hands that might be offered to those dear to us, whether or not the edges burn or the icing melts.

Soon after I came home my mom had to undergo major surgery, followed by a long and tough recovery. Not a night went by in those first few weeks that we did not share a meal that had been delivered to us by family and friends. They organized a supper rotation and made sure that our fridge was never empty. When I think about our little community, I realize that this is how it has always been. Wherever we are celebrating life, struggling through illness, or mourning death, there will be an abundance of food. Without knowing what to say, we can still show up, armed with sustenance.

I have been told that we must avoid confusing food with love. Even as the food itself nourishes, real fullness cannot be found on a plate. I suppose I see truth in this sentiment, but I would also argue that while food might not be love, making it is certainly an act of love.

A hearty meal is a gift that heals. The right cookies will put a smile on a friend’s face. I will even venture to tell you that a slice of homemade bread can ease the pain of difficult goodbyes when words really won’t do.

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Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.
– Mary Oliver

Little Boxes.

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I put it off for a good two weeks, until my floor was barely visible. I might have left it longer, but suddenly I was flying to Vancouver the next day to visit my sister and I could not pack until I tackled it. It was the mess of stuff accumulated during three years in Africa that I had casually left scattered across my desk, and on the floor in several bags and piles. Hours later I had succeeded in cleaning the space, and in finding a place for all the odd items I had been hesitant to sort through. A lot ended up in the trash. I let go of tickets, receipts, and old baggage tags. Whatever I planned to keep fit into a single tin box that used to contain assorted chocolates. I placed it gently atop one of several boxes that line the bottom shelf of my bookcase, under a stack of mostly empty diaries, and rows of texts I have admired more than read. The whole room seems to me an homage to false starts and lofty dreams that were never fully realized.

I used to call them my “memory boxes.” As I grew up it seemed foolish to keep so many scraps of the past, be they ticket stubs or notes passed in class, but I could not throw them away. Each adventure brought me new bits and pieces to save. High school and summer camp each had a box. My first trip to Africa had one too. There was a place for four years of university and a nook for the year spent studying afterwards in England. The collection has grown over the years and can no longer be arranged in as organized a fashion, and some have been relegated to the floor. I doubt I’d save them first in a fire, but so they remain after all this time, collecting dust.

Three years of swamp adventures (with a few sand dunes thrown in for good measure) were safely tucked away. Now was the time for fresh ambition and new goals. I would order more books! I would take up spinning and yoga and maybe run a half-marathon! I would find a new job, of course, and a perfect apartment that was really a small house, because I’ve always imagined having my own backyard and front porch. Once I’d ticked X next to all of these items on my not-at-all naive to-do list I would be able to get the thing I’ve wanted since I was old enough to conceive of my dreams in the first place: a puppy.

It will probably come as no surprise that my initial excitement and decisiveness has faded significantly since I arrived home last month. The only thing I am sure of is the name and breed of said puppy. I plan to have a boxer, and while I paused for some time considering the name Henry Higgins, I am now entirely committed to calling him Captain von Trapp, for obvious reasons. I might even take up sewing and fashion him a winter sweater out of curtains, because even dogs need play clothes!

Apologies for digressing.

Today I sat down to come up with a suitable name for this space, and to write about more immediate experiences. I’ve been home for a while, and life has gone on, albeit at a quieter pace than I’m used to. Frustrated by a lack of inspiration, I found myself with a chocolate box open next to the computer. I glanced gingerly at a few visible items; there were handwritten letters, postcards and photographs, and a note fashioned from dung and earth that welcomed me to the place where I touched the soft skin of an elephant for the first time, feeling the weight of ivory and wisdom in my hand.

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This blog needs a makeover – a spring clean if you will. I am no longer in Africa, and that will certainly inform my words from here on out. It also occurred to me today that I do not wish to add to my collection of little boxes. A tin container cannot hold the breadth of an adventure or the impact of wide-eyed discovery. There are too many stories enclosed to leave them shut. While I’m attempting to find a new place and function in my old stomping grounds, I want to record what I can of my most recent journey before it becomes too difficult to remember the more minute details, like the way the black and white feathers of my beloved pied kingfisher catch the light of setting sun over delta channels.

It’s often trying to focus on a place you still miss with large parts of your heart. Boxes don’t help much, but words do.

“Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.”
– Mary Oliver

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Favourite photographs.

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There are two small pictures tacked above my desk that were taken in a mall photo booth on a day I still remember well. It was summer and my sister and I had nowhere in particular to go. We raced to Storybook Gardens an hour before it closed, to revisit the giant shoe belonging, of course, to the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. We swore the peacocks were giving us menacing looks. At some point we went to the mall and took silly pictures. I know my sister drove, because I have no sense of direction and need to be told ten minutes in advance whether I will be turning right or left. Understandably this annoys her slightly.

For two years I have glanced up at these photos during odd moments, reminded of a distant time and place. I was (I am) living amidst undeniable magic, but that did not always diminish the pull of home. I was sitting at my desk the day I learned that B was having a baby and I felt it. I was perched on the worn wicker chair when I opened photos of my sister’s graduation and I felt it again. A few weeks ago I listened to the voice on the other end of the phone and wished I could just close my eyes and be there. I’ll come back soon, I thought, but tonight it hurts to be so far away.

In just over a month I will be there. My time in Botswana is winding to an end and I wonder if I will recall all the days that passed as clearly as I remember laughing with my sister in a dusty photo booth. Each time I look up and catch a glimpse of our faces, eyes scrunched tight because we were overcome with a serious case of the giggles, I am both painfully aware of how rarely I see her now and also smirking at the ridiculous melody of our happy adventures.

Tomorrow I will look for my name on the plane schedule and pack the remainder of my things into a canvas bag. Before I leave the office for the last time, I’ll carefully take down my treasured photos. They are torn and yellowed at the edges now, but I cannot go without them.

I try not to dwell on what comes next, fearing it might lessen the joy with which I plan to inhabit the next four weeks. Yet, despite my best attempts, I sometimes allow myself to doze off dreaming about what the future contains. I envision a desk in an apartment somewhere, scattered with papers and unfinished stories. I imagine lifting my eyes from the keyboard to see a framed photo of a lion cub trying to stalk a mongoose on a fallen tree. I will immediately hear the sound of a camera clicking furiously under the glare of setting sun. The sensation of delight that comes from watching a young hunter at play will return to me and cause my heart to swell at the memory. Then I suspect tears will sting my eyes, because it hurts to be so far away.

For George.

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I was yawning and hiding from morning under thick blankets, dreading the cold I would feel upon removing my precious wool thermals, when C called. I gingerly reached through the mosquito net for the radio, assuming she would be reporting on a disaster of epic proportions. Had a rogue baboon pilfered the wine store? Had the ants progressed from attacking the contents of the tea station to preying on humans? I am going on leave in a few days, and owing to my impatience, have resigned myself to the tedious and illogical anticipation of the next crisis. I was thus both surprised and overjoyed to hear C’s answer: “George is back.”

I’ve said before that we do not name animals here. We are told to avoid such a practice, lest we give the impression that this is some sort of zoo. These animals are wild. There are no fences or borders, and they wander freely, driven by hunger, fear of predators and the quest for dominance. We will name prides and packs for the sake of identification, with titles that are normally derived from geography or visible physical marks, like torn ears and crooked teeth.

It is easier to remain distant from a nameless beast. We quietly mourn the loss of new lion cubs to hyenas, and the sad end of a wild dog puppy at the jaws of a lion, but we are also aware that these deaths are tethered to the natural ebb and flow of balanced existence. I will celebrate if an impala deftly avoids the leopard’s claws, just as I will be overwhelmed by excitement when privy to a cat’s successful hunt. All of it, the bloodshed and the quick escape, is survival. I am an avid observer, but I try to remain unattached to the fates of the animals I meet, accepting that they are destined to fall before they even grace us with their presence. Then, of course, there is George.

George is an old bull elephant who has been visiting this camp for over a decade. He bears the unmistakable mark of injury: a deep hole in his forehead above his left eye. He will spend hours half-submerged in the lagoon in front of camp, eating the soft reeds that thrive in the water there. Elephants grow up to six new sets of teeth as they mature, and George is using his last. His teeth are weathered and he eats with painstaking effort in an attempt to take in the nutrients he needs. One day his teeth will be so worn or damaged that he will become malnourished, and this is likely what will kill him. Even the mighty king of the wilderness cannot withstand starvation.

For years guides have predicted his death. When I moved to the camp, I heard about him and wondered if I had arrived too late. It was summer and he was wandering amongst far away trees, perhaps taking a path he has known all his life. In May the earth began to dry and I was grateful to witness his arrival. He spent his days feeding in the water and sleeping against the giant Mangosteens that shade our boardwalks. Sometimes we watched him pull down branches as the other bulls did, but it always seemed that most of the leaves fell to the ground. His movements were laboured and he rarely broke a railing or disturbed the humans who surrounded him. Weeks passed and the distance between us lessened. I addressed him by name and as the words danced in the cold air before me I understood that I was no longer an observer. I cared deeply about his survival.

The October heat descended on a scorched landscape of brittle branches and dust and George departed. I thought of him often, and hoped that despite his age, he would return when the seasons changed. In April the elephant bulls took up residence in camp and we stopped to examine each grey face that passed overhead in search of our old and tired friend. A month went by and I had to consider the likely possibility that this time, he was gone forever. That is, until I woke up to hear C’s voice on the radio.

“George is back.” I wrapped the camera in one of my winter scarves and rushed to work happier than the day before. After the meeting I went to find him. I followed an elephant traipsing through the brush by the outdoor sala of room one. He was walking towards my house, and I waited for him on the balcony, and then on the floodplain past my water tower. I greeted him and wanted so desperately to gaze into those eyes, but he never turned his tusks towards me. While I cannot be certain that it was George, the news that he is here is comfort enough.

I left him standing alone against a backdrop whose beauty I had nearly dismissed in my rush to go. I will leave this place soon. It is a fact I can no longer deny as it creeps through the floorboards of the tent I call home. When I imagined goodbye I was heartbroken. Today is different. Today I thought I saw George again and I remembered that farewells are not finite. In my dreams, words, and imagining, I will find my way back.

A few years from now, someone will ask me what it was like to live in Africa, and the question will evoke the memory of early morning mist over the banks of the Linyanti, the soft footsteps of giants, and the expanse of a magnificent space that cannot be broken by time or death.