Very Far From Home (In Two Acts)

WEEK ONE

I am at home in Lilongwe for 48 hours between two week-long trips. I walk into the kitchen, exhausted and sunburned, to find the foster cat rolling around in a pile of dead insects.

“A massacre.” I think. The cat looks pleased. As I get closer, I see that there are no insect bodies on the floor, just their iridescent little wings, dozens and dozens, dried like beige rose petals. They are flying termites. Upon the first rains they rise from the grass and fly for a few short hours before their wings fall off and they return to the earth. I decide I like these Icarus insects, losing their wings after a few moments of flight. I sigh to myself.  In this room of bugs carcasses, I am exhausted by my own emotionalism. Why do I insist on trying to make poetry out of such banalities?

I get out the broom and sweep up these tiny propellers of flight. I’m a little worn down from the depth of need I witnessed on my trip. The inequality of the world is staggering. There is more suffering and greed and apathy than I could have possibly imagined.

“Your color means money here.” My coworker reminded me before the trip. For a second I glanced down at my dress to see what color he was referring too. Then I realized: Only a white person could forget about race.

During the trip, barefoot children come up to me and say, “Give me money! Give me money!” Young field officers say, “So you must be very rich back in the states, right?” I laugh and try to explain my student loans. But, this is a fruitless and slightly crass thing to do. My student loans are immense, but the opportunity to take out those loans existed. I’ve been on five international flights this year. I have 10,000 Kwatcha ($13) in my purse. I could go on. I’m rich.

Diminishing these differences doesn’t make them go away. Diminishing doesn’t erase these accidents of birth that enable some to so much, and more to so little.

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WEEK TWO

My dad is having heart surgery and I am doing financial audits in a hot room with no electricity.

It’s actually ideal; this tedious and manual work requires my absolute focus. Still, I can’t shake the one thought that keeps skittering across my brain: “Do the surgeons understand what they are holding in their hands?” Then my eyes well up and I hastily brush my tears away with the back of my hand. I don’t want to alarm my coworkers.

Here is the kind of dad I have: when I was five he created a story about a curious red headed girl and her pet dragon. He told me nightly installments of this story for six years. He gets obsessed with projects. One year he decided to build sheds, and then he built four on our property alone. Then he started building boats, then bird feeders. He’s read every science fiction book in our local library. He always knows when I’m lying. He tells the same jokes so often that even my friends can (and do) recite them.

I’ve been calling home every day for a few weeks to ask, “How are you feeling?” as if these words substitute for my presence. As if, “Any updates?” is the same as running errands, cooking meals, giving him a hug. “There’s nothing left to say,” He says to me, trying to relieve some of the guilt he can hear from 10,000 miles away. “We just need to get it over with.”

So now the day has come. My father is cracked open in an emergency room. My mother and brother are sitting next to each other in the waiting room. I am in a city I didn’t know existed last year,  trying not to google, “Heart Valve Replacement Surgery.” Instead, I’m googling, “Do termites have hearts?” Turns out, they do.

Exactly one million hours later, my brother sends a Facebook message, “He is doing well…nurses are all smiles with his current state. So am I.” He continues:

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The phone lights up. The camera turns on.

I cried.

Mango Season

The road to Nkhata Bay is not two lanes. Sure, there is a faded white line down the middle. Sure, traffic is heading in both directions. But this main thoroughfare that connects Lilongwe to Lake Malawi is the width of a narrow driveway. The edges of the road have been eroded by floods and the absence of drainage canals.  There are no sidewalks, just dirt paths filled with people: professionals in suits riding bicycles under the midday heat, Muslim men in thwab, groups of Anglican women wearing impossibly white handkerchiefs, drunk men who smile sideways and wave, older children holding younger children’s hands, and women in bright kitchenge selling piles of  mangoes. Wheelbarrows and wheelbarrows full of mangoes.

To avoid an oncoming car on the road to Nkhata Bay, you must ferociously pump your breaks, steer off the road,and hope to avoid the people and the dozens of goats that seem to wait on embankments to jump in front of cars. I am not doing the driving on this trip.  I still have crippling anxiety from my car accidents. To survive today’s five-hour drive, I’ve eaten a pill that an apathetic teenage pharmacist said would “relax me enough.” Now I am staring dreamily out the window.  “How beautiful.” I coo to the car full of new friends, who must regret inviting the drugged American on their nice vacation. And then, “Donald Trump is the worst.”

We arrive at our destination, Kachere Kastle, at dusk. By then the landscape had changed. Gone are the dusty plateaus of Lilongwe, replaced with the rippling waters of Lake Malawi, the second largest lake in Africa. I am a West Coast American (I remind everyone, constantly) so I’ve never seen a lake this big. It is like the ocean. On the shore you can’t see the edge, just the shimmering point where the sky and the lake meet. It is like the ocean…but with crocodiles.

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“Oh don’t worry, there’s no crocodiles on this beach.” My coolest, calmest friend Abbie says. “They’re down there.” She gestures, vaguely south of us, before turning away and running towards the water.

Earlier my friend Becy had gone into gruesome detail on how crocodiles prefer to eat just part of you, hide your body, and return to finish you off weeks later. “I think I’ll just swim in the pool!” I yell to Abbie’s back as she trots confidently into the water.

The next day, I am lounging nonchalantly in the pool wearing SPF 55 when a woman approaches us. “Just so you guys know, there is a plague of Lake Flies coming at us right now. You may want to go to your rooms  or at least cover your faces.” Intrigued by the calm delivery of the craziest sentence I’ve ever heard, I clamber out of the pool and onto the beach, where a small group of people are staring at what looks like a cloud of grey smoke on the horizon. “That’s them.” The woman says. “The wind seems to be blowing them this way, but it could change course.” The grey shape shivers in the distance. It is explained to me that Lake Fly larvae are laid on top of the water, and in a fascinating, yet horrifying example of the power of nature, the eggs will all burst out at once and the swarm will commence, often suffocating poor fisherman whose boat has unknowingly wandered into the wrong area of water. After a few minutes of watching, everyone declares that the wind has blown the plague away from us. We return poolside.

About fifteen of us are staying at Kachere Kastle, a concrete hotel that hugs the beach. We have come to the castle (Kastle?) to celebrate the birthdays of three of my new friends.  Kachere Kastle is remarkable because it has all the fixings of a real castle: a draw bridge, turrets and a courtyard. The building is made more exceptional by a very old mango tree that sits between the castle and the beach. There is a bench, hammocks and swinging chairs. It is an idyllic spot for serenity: the lakeside breeze, the shade, the lingering smell of the fruit on the wind. Or it would be. But it is mango season. The towering tree is heaving with hundreds of pounds of ripe mangoes. With a rustle and a crack, mangoes can come tumbling out of the tree at any moment. Each mango  weigh a few pounds. If one comes careening  from twenty feet above you and hits you on the head, you’ll notice.

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Castle, mango tree, girls in a boat.

Despite the imminent threats, the shade of the mango tree becomes the place where we congregate.  We drink cup after cup of coffee and tea, talking to each other about politics, life, reality shows, love, and our goals for the next year. There is a semi-permanence to this ex-pat life that I am just starting to understand.  One of the first questions you are asked is, “When did you arrive?” and “How long are you here for?” For some, like me, they’ve just touched down in Malawi, but others have been here for years, and before that lived in Goma, Lusaka, Bangkok, Yangon.  Some leave next week, others plan to live in Malawi for the foreseeable future. It’s a type of life that is new to the world, being able to travel so quickly to so many places, to set up a home and life in such a wide variety of countries that aren’t your own. It’s a privilege that comes from our backgrounds: our native countries, our socio-economic situation and the opportunities available to us. It’s an immense privilege. It also speaks to who we are as individuals.What drives us to live far away from our families? What kind of difference do we really think we can make?How do we build lives when our future is built on the shifting sand of the next emergency? These questions, that sit heavily with me every day, start feeling lighter around these people. They understand. Throughout the weekend we swim, we dance, we play a strange English baseball game called “Rounders” and we sit under the mango tree.

As the weekend draws to a close, I sneak back to the tree to steal one of the fallen mangoes. I intend to take this back to Lilongwe and eat it standing up at my kitchen counter, letting the sticky fruit and the sweet smell take me back to the shade, the lake breeze, and these people.

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Fever Dreams

“Lilongwe is a fever dream this time of year.” I text my friend back home.

I’ve only had two light beers at an outdoor bar tucked into a shopping complex, one of the three places my date and I could think of that would be open after 7 pm. Two beers, but already I’m feeling poetic, amazed, entranced and terrified by the world around me.  I want to jot it all down. I want to ditch my date so I can write.

In this moment before the rains, the city is pregnant with anticipation. Small, sporadic rain showers mixed with humidity have caused the the mammoth jacaranda trees to burst forth with bright red flowers.  Dusty blank hillsides are transformed overnight into grassy fields.  I awake to find that my nasturtium seedlings are now adolescents, pressing their green flat faces to the kitchen glass pane, hungry for light. How was all of this energy hiding before now? I wonder. How can the city look so desolate one day and like the Garden of Eden the next?

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With the explosion of plant life comes the bugs. I left my porch light on last night and came home to find hundreds of termites and mosquitoes swarmed on my door, a maelstrom of tiny wings and needle-thin legs. I have a bottle of natural no DEET bug spray in my purse. It is useless. The insects are apathetic to the spray, continuing their lives around my door frame without a glance. My foster cat earns her keep by killing cockroaches that she proudly deposits at my feet. We make a good team.  She kills the bugs and I let her stay in the air conditioning.

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Sweets, a portrait

 

 

The power cuts continue to challenge the city. In some areas, the energy is now rationed even further: 48 hours off, 8 hours on.  Food rots in fridges. Phones croak and die. Hospitals rely on power inverters and old backup generators.

People are exhausted from the sporadic, unreliable system. My French tutor, who is from the south of Malawi, said to me, “Everything about this country is getting worse. Ten years ago we didn’t have these problems. Ten years ago we had a much higher standard of living. Thirty years ago was even better. Sure, we didn’t have democracy, but we had basic services, a surplus of food, and education.” This is a sentiment I’ve heard before: What is the point of democracy in Africa if it means people starve?

In Johannesburg last week, my two colleagues and I stepped off a plane into O.R. Tambo International Airport. The airport is a behemoth: all white, multi-floored, hundreds of white lights sparkling from the railings. I was a little overcome at first.

“So much light,” I said. I stood still in the center of it, squinting up at the ceiling of fluorescent bulbs.  “So much light.” My Malawian colleague was unimpressed. “It’s too much.” She said, grabbing her rolling suitcase and heading toward the exit. “Unnecessary.”

The Absence of Light

Maybe that is the starkest difference: how dark the nights are.

It is the lean season here in Malawi. Eighty percent of the population are subsistence farmers, and in this languid stretch of October and November, before the relief of the rainy season, food reserves are empty and the new crops cannot yet be harvested. Money is short. People are hungry.

The national electricity company, ESCOM, has instituted a new system of energy rationing for Lilongwe. We are on 24-hour cycles with power, and then without. I say “we” but that isn’t really true. My home is on the street that leads to the President’s house. We almost never lose power.

This rationing system means that the few areas of Lilongwe that do have street lights are dark. So dark that almost everyone drives with their high beams on, blinding me as they rush past. Even with high beams, it’s hard to see the people on their bikes, who rise like ghosts out of dirt paths that merge with the freeway.  I say freeway, but the M1 is a simple, old, two-lane road.

That is my life in Malawi, saying one thing to try to make sense, but meaning something totally different.

I’ve been wrestling with words lately. I write out full 2,000-word blog posts and then delete them, frustrated and overwhelmed by the impossibility of explaining myself, of getting it right. I edit reports and write technical proposals at work and find myself misspelling words and misusing adverbs. I am learning French and after every hour lesson, my jaw aches from trying to shape my voice to another language. I have so much I need to say. So many moments I want to bring to the light, but the words do not seem to fit.

Here are some of  the things I struggle to describe:

  • How to explain the beauty and loneliness of a single ancient Baobab Tree, standing firm and alone on a red earthen plain?
  • How to describe how nsima tastes, the maize meal porridge that people eat with their hands, forming into smooth balls and dipping into greens, beans, and meat?
  • The utter joy of meeting a new friend you really, really like
  • The release of tension in my neck when it rains
  • The way my heart creaks open when I find photos of my family I’ve never seen, on my father’s old cellphone
  • The relief of a clear WhatsApp call
  • The instant bond of a book club, when everyone hated the book and there is plenty of wine.
  • The anxiety as the front page of the New York Times loads on the screen

I’m starting fresh with the blog. Aiming to write once a week.  I hope these new entries can serve as a liberation, a way to say the messy things I need to say.

Be warned: I write like I speak. Expect long train-car sentences twined together with commas, too many adverbs, a lot of feelings, a lot of questioning, and nothing exactly right. All I want is for this to sound like me.

Can you hear me?

Transitions

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My first trip to The Field leaves a fine layer of dirt covering my entire body. My teeth are gritty. The insides of my fingers and crevices of my elbows are dusted with brick red dirt. I stand in the shower and watch the dirt run off and pool at my feet, revealing a sunburn that blossoms down my chest and forearms. When I look in the mirror, my cheeks and forehead are red. There is no SPF in the world high enough, I realize, as I turn left and right surveying the damage, to protect me from a day in the Sub-Saharan heat.

A sign of transition: new skincare routines.

“The Field” is a ridiculous international development term that means everything and nothing. An example: at my California graduate school, it meant “anywhere outside of the United States.” In Malawi, it means, “Anywhere outside of the office where we have a project.”

This is a sign of a transition: definitions change.

I’ve been in Malawi for three weeks. Malawi, a little sliver of a country in Southeast Africa, sandwiched between Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania. This area of Africa was known as Nyasaland under the British, who ruled until 1964. Then, an American-educated Malawian named Hastings Banda took over, declared himself, “President for Life”, and proceeded to run the country with an iron fist until 1994. He lead a repressive, violent regime supported by Western governments who feared the spread of communism. Once the Cold War ended, it was only a few years before international pressure and internal protests ended his presidency.

This is a sign of transition: a new history to learn.

The last vestiges of the Brits still remain: English is spoken at work, cars drive on the left, everyone drinks earl grey tea, and the biscuit aisle in the grocery store is massive. When I say hello to people on the street, they often respond: “Hello madam!” This makes me feel simultaneously very proper, and very old. Often they follow up with, “You are very welcome here.”

My home and office are in Lilongwe, Malawi’s dusty and languid capital city. Lilongwe has no city center. Instead, it is like a flat village that kept expanding outwards, its two-lane roads like arms, connecting each area of the city with roundabouts

I learned to drive on a left-handed stick shift and promptly got lost, circling Lilongwe for forty-five minutes as the sun went down, my palms getting sweaty and my eyes filling with tears as I realized that I was lost and alone on a continent I didn’t know. I finally stopped and asked a man selling newspapers. “Just there Madam!” He said, gesturing to a road I hadn’t noticed in the dwindling light. I was 800 meters from my house.

A transition is a new geography.

This is the fourth country I’ve lived in this year: Bolivia, Ecuador,  and seven weeks in the U.S. I’ve been zipping and unzipping luggage, shoving heavy suitcases full of trinkets into overhead bins, scattering bits of myself across the hemispheres.

All of these moves have created a folder in my brain titled, “Moving: Again.” Here is where I store my list of necessary items to pack (french press, floss, ciprofloxacin, my niece’s drawings), rules for a new country (only get into yellow taxis, don’t drink the tap water, never offer up that I’m a single woman living alone), and self-care tips (pack the yoga mat, don’t sleep in contacts, stop reading so many news stories).

As I transition I notice my brain trying to make sense of so much movement and change. Our brains, when confronted with new contexts and cultures, often search for broad commonalities between cultures to understand them.  In cultural competency literature, this is called minimization. Minimization means, “An orientation that highlights cultural commonality and universal values and principles that may also mask deeper recognition and appreciation of cultural differences.This can be helpful for a framework but gets dangerous when we start making false equivalencies so that it fits our own mental framework.

I’ve been trying to be aware of this here. I’ve never lived in Africa before. I’ve never worked in Africa before. Africa is an enormous continent. Not only is Malawi new to me, this entire part of the world is new to me. My American education has not prepared me well for the intricacies and complexity of Malawi.

A thought will skitter across my brain, “Oh some groups here practice religious syncretism just like in the Dominican Republic,” and I’ll chide myself. This is not the Dominican Republic. This is not Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, England, Spain, or the United States. This is Malawi.  This is Central Malawi. You have never experienced this before. It is okay to be uncomfortable. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.”

I’m here because I love to learn. I’m here because I love transitions. I love feeling the axis of the earth shift around me and settle. I love the exploration: what is this new neighborhood? Who are my new friends? How can I learn about this country, and these people, who have existed for millennia before my arrival, and will continue to do so after I leave? This seems like such a simple worldview, but the more I travel the more I see people who mark their arrival to a country like Columbus. “I am here!” They cry. “I have the answers!”

I have no answers, only questions.

…and a french press, floss, and a few of my niece’s drawings.

Breakfast in Tonchigüe

The vultures strut around the beach in the morning with their black wings outstretched, bobbing their wrinkled, grey faces.  They’re big. They’re the size of terriers, and there are so many of them, digging in the trash, scaring off street dogs, sitting menacingly on the telephone wires. I wrinkle my nose in disgust.

“I know vultures play an important part in the ecosystem,” I say to Nick, my friend and co-worker. “But god they’re gross.”

A vulture near us tears into a plastic bag, revealing thick cuts of fat from the butcher next door. A flock of birds descends and the street dogs come running. Suddenly there is bird squawking and dog snarling and bits of meat flying through the air.

“Welcome to paradise.” He says, taking a sip of Nescafé.

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Nick and I are both interns working on an emergency response program. This morning, we are where we always are: Doña Veronica’s, a tiny cabaña restaurant that feeds our staff every day. In the mornings we sit and stare at the ocean, drinking instant coffee and eating hard boiled eggs.

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We’re here because on April 16th, 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through the coastal provinces of Ecuador, killing over 600 people, injuring 230,000 and rendering 170,000 homeless. It devastated an area that was already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. Many of those affected didn’t have proper roads or sanitation or electricity before the earthquake, so the disaster laid bare a heavily underserved population with needs that extended far beyond reconstruction.

Our office is a three-minute walk from Doña Veronica’s, in an old house with air conditioning on the bottom floor, and a subtropical climate on the second floor. Nick and I work on the second floor. Staff sits hunched around plastic tables, typing furiously on their computers, slurping black coffee so thick a spoon could stand up in it. Maps of the province are taped to the wall, mock-ups of our shelter and latrine designs sit on the old kitchen counter. It is our base camp. The coffee machine and the printer never stop humming. People are always coming in and out, tracking in mud from the field, running up and down the stairs, and someone is always frantically looking for someone else. Emergency response is different. The needs are more immediate, more urgent. For staff here, this is not a 9-5. This program is their life.

So the program has become my life. There is so much to learn: the history of the province, the culture, the details of the disaster, the immediate response, the organizations that responded. We are the last NGO still in the area.

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Not only do staff work long hours together, we also live together, in small wooden cabañas fifty feet from the ocean. We eat all of our meals together. It is like summer camp for very stressed, chain-smoking adults.

One night I suggested to Nick and Anais, our program manager, that we have a bonfire. They glanced at each other. “No, I don’t think we can do that,” Anais said slowly. “The only people who have bonfires here are narcotraffickers signaling a drug drop off.”

We didn’t have a bonfire.

As many coworkers keep repeating to me, “There is no such thing as a perfect emergency response.” We’ve faced our own set of challenges. The rains have gone on unseasonably long, we can’t reach some of our communities because of flooding. A few families still live in the temporary shelters from last May using emergency tarps and eucalyptus to construct homes. Funding for emergency programs in Latin America is scarce. Staff has been working 13 hours a day since last summer. We work in the most active subduction zone in the world. We have a team WhatsApp group and we get notifications of earthquakes regularly. To signal we are safe, we have to send an emoji of a person with their hand raised.

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The stress gets to us. For example: because I am a 28-year-old-woman with pride and dignity, I spend at least part of every day pretending to be a vulture. I stick out my arms at demented angles and hop down the street.  I think this is hilarious. The program manager thinks this is hilarious. We’re all very tired.

But the work is satisfying. I’m in front of my computer for hours every day, but I’m also out in communities. I ride in dirt covered pick-ups to communities that the government doesn’t even visit, crossing rivers in canoes to evaluate the program. I meet new people and capture their opinions and ideas to better inform our future programming. I use appreciate inquiry to lead focus groups.

It those days, when I return from community visits covered in mud and sweat and (always) sunburned, with a half eaten cacao in my backpack and ten pages of barely legible notes, that I am satisfied. I am satisfied with my decision to spend my last semester of graduate school as an intern. The last six months I’ve been stumbling through La Paz, and Quito, and now Tonchigüe, learning about development and this career path I’ve chosen. Grad school gave me a base. Information, books, mentors, a cohort of intelligent, ass-kicking social justice warriors. This experience pushed me out of the comfortable bubble of grad school. Here I’ve seen a slice of development reality: the ethical pitfalls, the enormous need, how hard everyone in my organization works to help the most vulnerable people. It is overwhelming. It is exhilarating.

For Brian Doyle

No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.- Brian Doyle

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The ring feels forced, as if it is stretching and pushing its way across five thousand miles of ocean and rocky mountain hillsides.

“Hello?” She says, uncertainly.

“It’s Lizzie.” I say. “I had to call, I just saw.”

In my hand is my still-lit phone, a Facebook post, “Celebrated Oregon Author Brian Doyle Dies at 60.” Above the post, Molly’s one word: NO.

“I just wanted to call.” I say. Now that I have her on the line, I’m not sure what to say. It is her 28th birthday. Our favorite author has just died.  The day before two men were stabbed and killed on a MAX Line we both ride because they defended two Muslim teenagers.

“I know,” She says. “It is so sad.” I start to cry, and so does she. I am crying because if life can take a man like Brian Doyle, what does that mean for me? A spark, a half lit match. I am crying because the most alive human I’ve ever know is now dead.

“It is a hard few days in Portland.” She says.

——-

My last year at the University of Oregon, I was in a year-long specialized fiction writing course called The Kidd Tutorial. It was a pre-MFA, workshop style class that met twice a week. We read, we wrote, and we edited.

I was a lost kid at 21. I was spending a lot of time at Rennies, the local bar, drinking pitchers of bright gold Ninkasi IPA. I was chasing a boy who wouldn’t love me. I was skipping my classes to sit by the river and smoke cigarettes, even though I hated tobacco and wanted to swim. I never wrote. College felt like I was wearing a turtle neck in two sizes too small.

Then I met Molly. Molly was one of the other three students in my class. She was tall like me, redheaded like me, but effortlessly cooler with double nose rings and bigger tattoos than I could commit too.  Molly loved to write like I did. Molly loved to read like I did.  Molly loved people like I did. We were matched and fated by our lankiness and our obsessions.

When Molly and I loved a short-story, which was often, we would bring the text to class underlined and circled and highlighted and trembling in our grateful hands. Did you read this line? We would gasp breathily at each other, amazed at the creation. Our love for it sometimes embarrassed us, bringing us to fits of giggles around the big square table when one of us went on an impassioned soliloquy.

We are taught in writing workshops that sentimentality is to be avoided.  Show, don’t tell.  Lead readers to the trough, but don’t drown them in it. This was challenging for two young girls marveling at the sharp blade of life. All Molly and I had were our feelings. They consumed us, drove us mad, made us write 20-page short stories about death and carnage and love and things we hoped one day to understand.

Then we read Brian Doyle.  Joyas Voladoras.

“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight… as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”

He was sentimental. He wrote without remorse about those moments in life that tremble with emotion, with long-winded phrases pock-marked with commas, that threatened to bring you to your knees if you weren’t careful. His lyricism was magnetic. He was an Oregonian. He lived in Portland, worked at the University of Portland. He was a practicing Catholic. We could meet our hero.

We saw him read at the Eugene Public Library on an over cast Wednesday night. We sat in the front row, shaking with excitement, my clammy hands staining the copy of Joyas Voladoras I had brought with me, hoping he would sign. We were the only women over the age of 7 and under the age of 50. Then, he walked in. Brian Doyle was short, with brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, a graying beard, and bright eyes that roamed the room. He read a short story called, “What if God was an Otter in Ottawa?” The 7-year olds swooned. He talked about God like an old friend, like a wise-man at a bar. He read a short story about a mother dropping her daughter off at college, how she implored him to take care of her little girl. His voice swam through the words, cracking when he hit a particularly emotional part. He cried while he read. “All legs and curiosity” he wrote about the college-aged daughter. Molly and I were overcome.

We saw him again after the Newtown Massacre, at McMenamins in Southeast Portland and he read, to a rapt-audience, a prayer for the parents and the children who had died. Again he cried. Again, we all cried. His presence felt like pure light: a man who wrote so honestly and openly that he brought you into his circle too. You could stand and marvel with him.

His writing was against everything I had been taught: how beauty is created when you allow yourself to be cracked open, to let words pour out of you like a stream, to weep openly at how fragile and tragic and incomprehensible life is. To write train-car sentences if they capture a feeling.  To read half-finished pieces.

Joyas Voladoras has become my prayer. When I crashed my car in 2015, I sat in the wreckage, waiting for the EMTs and repeated, out loud, “You can brick up your heart as stout and tight as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant.”

When my friend died of a terminal illness, I escaped to a back garden in Otavalo, Ecuador, stared at the hummingbirds, thinking: It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”

When I walked across the stage to accept my Masters Degree, a hundred shining faces of people I loved staring back at me I thought, “So much held in a heart in a lifetime.”

So today, to honor a man I met but did not know, but whose words pierced me and became the soundtrack to my life, I will walk to the park. I will stare at the towering eucalyptus and the panoramic views of Quito. I will be in awe. I will marvel. I will cry on the phone to a friend I wish I lived closer to. I will let myself be overcome.

When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall.