hope.

“Nothing can stop me.” – Yvette*

Kayonza is a sleepy town in Eastern Rwanda, though it maintains a solid supply of milk and bananas, so long as the harvest is good and the cows are healthy.

IMG_1582Last week, I zipped on a motorcycle across the small town, towards the bus station.I passed the internet café that I spent hours at for correspondence when I lived without electricity. The old coffee shop I frequented is now re-constructed into a larger hotel development. It seems the only thing that has remained the same is the dinky ATM I withdrew cash from (when it worked) and the large cow statue in the middle of the town’s roundabout. This part of the Eastern Province is nothing special to most, but for me, every time I pass through, there is something that buzzes inside of me.

Last Friday, I meandered through the Kayonza bus park to find a ride to my nearby Peace Corps community. This is my fourth, possibly fifth, visit to my village since I completed my service at the end of 2013. I’m fortunate, blessed, and simultaneously, recognize the unique opportunity I have been given.  With each time that I do return, my neighbors exclaim proudly, “wibuka ni wacu” (you remembered us). I nod with gratitude, humbly agreeing that returning means a hell of a lot to people, no matter the background, culture, or geographic location.

I hop on a bruised, dented bus that is, quite literally, falling apart. The motor, it appears, will die at any moment, and there are at least three extra people stuffed inside. The man in front of me is holding two chickens. The driver is desperately smoking a cigarette. There are numerous older women grasping their walking sticks as we roll along the hills of our town.

Standard situation.

I shift my backpack so it does not hit against the person next to me. As I re-organize, I hear a meek, but enthusiastic call for “Heather!” I turn around and behind me, waving joyfully, is a student that I taught English during both years of my service. We shake hands, laughing, and I tell her that I’m on my way back – but first have plans to stop and pick up Yvette. I’m staying the weekend at her house and I can hardly wait to see her again. This student smiles and shouts, “Yego! Karibu teacher!” (Yes, welcome, teacher).

I take a deep breath as I call for the driver to pull off at my stop. He looks at me quizzically. I smile, and assure him, that yes, this is where I want to be. I am meeting Yvette at our main junction before we continue to her home where I will be spending the weekend.

The first thing I notice is her hair. My sweet Yvette, who I began teaching when she was 16, now has a thick, long, black weave in a multitude of braids. This is an outward sign of mobility; paying to have your hair done  is not a frequent occurrence where we lived. I let the braids fall through my fingers as I shout loudly, and with so much happiness, “Yesu we! My dear you have become mature. You are looking so smart.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Yvette is 20 now, and she’s completing her student teaching at a school adjacent to the start of our long, dirt village road. She’s teaching nursery school students while taking courses on educational psychology and teaching methods. I literally could not be prouder.

I am visiting my community again, but things are different than visits in the past. My students are beyond their coming-of-age; they have either dropped out of school or graduated. Most, I learn, have not finished their secondary education, however. For the few that have, the reality of finding a job feels ominous in a rural community sustained through subsistence farming. Harnessing an income feels overwhelming without existing purchasing power or economic capacity. Now, instead of questions about how to finish school, the girls are asking questions about budgeting, planning, and thinking through exactly what they want as young women – not as students. This “new life” as one of my girls calls it, “is not easy.”

Yvette and I ride in unison on separate motorcycles to her family home. I pass through the banana trees, knowing that once again, I am home. I soar on my moto, it seems, hearing mixed shouts of “Julia” (the newest Peace Corps Volunteer in our village), “umuzungu” (white person), and “Impano” (my Kinyarwanda name). The older kids tend to know who I am; the younger ones are now using umuzungu. So goes the passing of time. I notice that the bananas, beans, and cassava have all died. It’s a stark sight to see; a plethora of plots, yet all with an empty harvest. I would find out later that it didn’t rain in this village from April to December last year. Hunger, scarcity of resources, and food security are now even larger, more pressing issues.

IMG_1555Yvette’s mother holds her hands high with kwishimira (praise to God) for my arrival. She hugs me tight and she smells of sweat, firewood, and soil. Her day has alternated between the land, the kitchen, and the road. Yvette’s  grandmother does the same. I smile because I realize that after all these years, I don’t even know Yvette’s grandmother’s name. Rather, I call her mukekuru (grandmother). That’s it. We share a moment and there is a glimmer of joy and appreciation that strikes me; I’m so happy to be back. Mukekeru jokes that she is still alive for my current visit. We giggle because the woman is now 85 years old. I jokingly tell her that she has at least six or seven years left, and snarkily, she tells me that she’ll stay alive until I come back with children. We laugh some more. Touché, mukekuru, touché.

It must be said: life in Rwanda is not easy. Perhaps for some, but not everyone. Life in Kigali can mask the deep divisiveness of inequity that persist in this country. I am unsure if I became numb to the hardness of this life over the years in which I stayed insulated inside the community. Perhaps my time living back in the United States tainted the hardness of what poverty in Rwanda is like. Either way, what I saw in just the first few hours of my return was intense. It shocked me. It awoke me, once again, to the raw realities of deep, deep poverty. It was painful, but also necessary.

Yvette and I left her cemented house before dusk to go and search for a couple of beers for her family. My return, they said, warranted a celebration. As we roamed the village terrain, we stopped by her aunt’s house to say “hello.” As we did, she confronted Yvette with news of an intense infection growing on her foot. Her leg was swelling, she couldn’t walk, and I could hardly believe what I saw was real. It was night by then, and so Yvette used her phone light to examine the injury further. My stomach dropped; I knew immediately that this woman urgently needed to go and get medication and treatment. Otherwise, she would lose her leg.

We left, and instantly, I felt sick. As we entered a small center of shops and bars, I began to see old friends, old neighbors, and old church members. They greeted me, smiled, and continued to proclaim, “uri inkumi” (“you have become a woman”). Considering that just a couple of months ago I had my age checked while seeing an R-rated movie in Denver, this strikes me as wonderfully reassuring.Yvette briefed me on more news from the community.

She pointed to house after house, noting that various young girls that I used to teach have gotten pregnant and are now mothers. The climate has also been harsh and food has been inadequate. Theft has increased, and a feeling of distrust has grown. She reports that her mother, aunt, and uncle have all had thieves steal crops, food, and pots from their homes.

When we arrived back at her house, I stopped and gazed at the sky. My overwhelming feelings of melancholy seem to subside for a moment. The stars are ominous, beautiful, and vast. I said a quick prayer, asking that God would reveal Himself in this place. And that for myself, and for this family, we would remember that God is  still so present through all of this.

We ate dinner together in the dark. Yvette and I talked for three hours about what she has learnt at school and why she believes so passionately in education. As she spoke, with sauce dripping from her mouth in extraordinary excitement, I became suddenly, swiftly, and deeply moved at how much investing in one life can make a difference. I can’t always answer big questions of poverty, inaccessibility, or oppression, but I can be assured that there are bright spots everywhere. Yvette is one of them. She passionately remarks, “the two things I must always remember: a good future and self-confidence.”

Late into the night, she openly shared about other things too; things like politics, social movements, and her past. I was amazed at how well-informed she was – especially about the growing activism in the United States. She admitted that she cried when Donald Trump won the election. When I asked why, she said simply, “I can’t imagine a leader acting or talking like that. It made me sad for America.”

Enough said.

I woke up to a rooster crowing. Already, at 6:00am, Yvette’s mother was cooking tea. I stretched my legs and visited the latrine for a bathroom visit. I used to be an expert at using these things, but with passing time, my squatting abilities have faltered. Let’s just say it was a bit messy. As we say in Rwanda, bibaho (it happens).

As we waited for the sun to climb in the sky, we sipped tea and looked at photos of my niece, AnaLynah. Mukekuru is obsessed, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the lovely photographs. She was quick to remind me, again, that I must come back with children.

When we share a mid-morning snack of ubugali (cassava bread) and potatoes with sauce,Yvette’s mom prayed over the food. She commented sheepishly that she had “nothing to give me.” This broke every piece of my heart. I assure her – I don’t need or want anything. Just love, and only love. As we ate,Yvette asks, “Heather, when we tell you that you are a blessing to us, you keep telling us that we have been a blessing to you. How?”

I blinked slowly and scrambled to find the right, adequate words.

You’ve given me friendship. Community. A place to come back to. Purpose. All of you girls have motivated me to know what is important in life. If God gives me the opportunity to support others, I must take it. And, with all of you, you have demonstrated what it looks like to be welcoming and loving to anyone.”

We walked dusty trails in the western part of the sector, towards Liza’s* house. When I saw her, I gasped, amazed at how “grown” she has become. Liza detailed what it felt like to finish her schooling. She talked at length about representing her school at a national debate, and how she overcame her fear of pursuing her coursework in the sciences. She wants to go to university, but she doesn’t know how to proceed. The national government will announce scholarships in the coming months, and if she doesn’t receive one, she can’t continue. We prayed about this together, in her small, musty living room.

We also visited Yvette’s uncle, all with more food and more questions. Families often ask. “where is your husband?” and now, being in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend, I feel stuck in knowing what to answer. I can’t tell them the truth, and I also hate to lie. I feel in a different kind of a “closet” than I did before, and this is stressful. I get flustered and simply reply with a coyness, “God will give His answer.” This seems to be enough, at least for now.

The hard part of coming back, I realize, is that my new life doesn’t easily integrate with the old. I must grieve this and be patient with this, too.

One of the hardest part moments of my trip was seeing a baby with a disability going untreated. One of Yvette’s family members brought this baby to the house. I assumed the child was only two or three weeks from its birth. When I realized it’s actual age (9 months!) Yvette’s mom unwrapped the child from a small, blue blanket. As I tenderly held the small, floppy limbs in my hands, I fully grasped the limitations in each part of its body for this little one.

The child went to a hospital, but was referred to a specialty clinic. Because of transport fees, the family hasn’t yet gone. With urgency, I insisted that they must go soon. If the baby can access some physical therapy, the body can still develop some muscle strength. I excuse myself to the latrine, again, but not because I need to relieve myself.

I stand on the wooden logs, with tears in my eyes, unsure of what to do. Why God, why God, does this happen?

On the final day of my visit, I met the current Peace Corps Volunteer, Julia, who is simply, a gem. She’s connected strongly with Yvette, and her family too, and we share stories about teaching and what it’s like to live inside of this part of Rwanda. We walk to her home together, and I squeal in delight when I see my timeworn painted walls of turquoise. My old home looks largely the same, and with all the other stressors I experienced, this was comforting.

IMG_1586Yvette and I walked the five kilometers out of the village so I could soak the place up as much as possible. I was sad to go our separate ways, but we quickly made plans for her to visit the bakery in Kigali the following weekend. I thank her for all that she has given and shared with me. I thank her for being her. She shyly thanks me too, and she goes.

Then, like magic, I’m back on a bus, surrounded by colorful fabrics, women with babies, and bible-carrying men, to return to my current life. It feels like I took a step out of time and went somewhere else. I’m processing these experiences, people, and stories still, and it’s challenging.

It’s hard to reconcile our lives with one another sometimes. However, even in the difficulty, it’s a worthy process. I’m learning a lot from this visit, feeling affirmed in my work, and considering what it means to resist, persist, and keep going no matter what. I am thinking about those kinds of things, mostly, because more than anything, that’s what I want for my girls, my loved ones, myself, and my children one day: that is, to hold both the joyous and heart-breaking pieces of life together, knowing that life is neither one or the other. It is both. Always, both.

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My community, my village, my home always serves as a benchmark for a part of my life that allowed me to understand and know a bigger picture in this world. Life can be immensely difficult for all of us, as we each face unique challenges. I can’t move forward and forget these things. Instead, we are called to hone what we can and advocate for each other, wherever our gaps may be. We all have them. But, we can all help one another, too.

I don’t know what to do about what I saw: the paucity of food; the lack of education; the scarceness of jobs; the propensity of medical issues; there is just so much. Too much.

But, I am assured, knowing that I can continue to stand with my girls, with Yvette, believing that opportunity does provide the most valuable kind of a return on investment: HOPE.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of these stories and the individuals involved. 

Eat Together Anyway

Anxiously awaiting four (yes, you read that correctly) different thanksgiving gatherings over the holiday, I wrote a simple prayer in my journal.

Writing my prayers with paper and ink, for me, gives them fullness because in writing, there is an ease in both articulation and authenticity. With little effort, my hopes, fears, anxieties, desires, concerns, and thoughts rise from my soul and I know what it is I want to speak to God.

Plus, being a vegetarian on a holiday with excessive amounts of turkey calls for extra kinds of prayers (kidding, kind of).

I want to share this prayer with you.

Lord, thank you for this day.

I give thanks for a time we can remember, reflect, and cultivate gratitude.

I recognize that this space is holy. Humble me Lord, and let me honor that today.

I thank you for the humans I will sit with today. Cousins, aunts, step-uncles, family friends, grandparents, dogs, and mom, and dad, too.

We sit and eat with our people whom have both celebrated and hurt us; With our people whom have inspired and disappointed us; With our people whom have defended and accused us; With our people whom have loved and left us.

We are sinners and we are saints. And so am I.

I ask, Jesus, that this day of gratitude looms larger than philosophical, political, and worldview differences.

We eat together anyway and God, that’s the real gift.

Jesus, bring your mercy and bring your peace. Extend it where I may fall short. Thank you, Jesus, for this life.

I love you, this day, and I love this life, too. Amen.

This might be shocking (insert sarcasm here), but I’m actually not an expert on prayer. I don’t know for certain how it works. I think that’s what makes the whole faith process miraculous; we don’t know precisely when, or how, God enters these conversations, but without a doubt, He is there.

I think prayer is a revealing of self before God. Which, seems funny, because God already knows us. Still, like the exchanged vulnerabilities in any relationship we have in our life, it’s our responsibility to reveal the cracks in our perfectly manicured presentation of self and share who we are. Like, for real.

That’s why I think prayer is powerful and, I think it’s why prayer works, too.

As we toss away the layers before God, we also do so with other people. We become ourselves. And with time, we become more comfortable with that, inviting and allowing God’s grace to change us. We’re imperfect (and so are other people), and my goodness, that’s literally okay.

The table of Thanksgiving offers us this opportunity to not only empathize with the imperfection of ourselves and others, but to celebrate the goodness, beauty, and loveliness of ourselves and others, too. No matter the brokenness, the victory, the celebration, or the heartache, we’ll eat together anyway.  

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We’ll eat together even as we talk about religion, politics, money, sex, or the 2016 election. 

We’ll eat together even if not everyone in our family can be there.

We’ll eat together even when someone drinks too much and says something insensitive.

We’ll eat together even if a loved one refuses to accept another for who they are.

We’ll eat together even if forgiveness has yet to be offered, received, or accepted.

We’ll eat together even as family members begin counseling to save their marriage.

We’ll eat together even if someone continues to work far too much.

We will eat together anyway because we are family and these are our people.

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I’m grateful to have this – knowing full well that there are many individuals roaming streets, dumpsters, and shelters, with no place to go.

I’m thankful to have a home and these traditions that have come long before me.

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I’m thankful for this year, because without it, I don’ think I would be able to celebrate love, community, Jesus, perseverance, hope, freedom, and maturity the way that I can now.

I am thankful because it is the love of Christ that allows me to see this world bent towards justice and light and courage.

2016 was not good – for many (think: Syria, the death of Muhammad Ali, the Zika outbreak, racial tensions in the U.S., Brexit, etc.). John Oliver even talked about it being the worst year ever. Historians don’t necessarily agree, but we can all recognize: this year wasn’t the best.

Yet, I’m propelled, encouraged, and inspired to continue to seek all that we give thanks for: community, hope, love.

Our job is to seek, promote, and allow these things to come before the standing world order of power, greed, money, self-focus, and all of the sin that runs rampant to de-throne a different kind of kingdom that Jesus speaks so heavily about.

Until then, as we strive towards this, we give thanks and work that much harder – together.

We can give thanks because we are not alone in these pursuits.

As an addendum to my prayer, I wrote the following words in my journal from a book by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, of House for All Sinner & Saints,

“It is next to impossible in isolation to manufacture the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to God’s broken and blessed humanity.

As human beings, there are many things we can create for ourselves: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, maybe even positive self-talk. But it is difficult to create things thing that frees us from the bondage of self. We cannot create for ourselves God’s word of grace. We must tell it to each other. It’s a terribly inconvenient and oftentimes uncomfortable way for things to happen. Were we able to receive the word of God through pious, private devotion – through quiet personal time with God – the Christian life would be far less messy.

But, as Paul tells us, faith comes through hearing, and hearing implies having someone right there doing the telling…Sometimes, I believe that God’s word of grace can also come through simple, imperfect everyday human love.”

Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber

womanhood.

“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” – Maya Angelou

                               

“You can’t play with us. You’re a girl.”

Girl. It spits harshly off his tongue as though my gender is a direct, detestable offense to his playground territory. Tears brimmed my delicate eyelids and I walked away, sensitive to the idea that inherently, I was an outcast. Undeterred, I secretly brought my Aurora soccer club jersey to school the following day. I slipped the mesh green “28” jersey with “Heather” on my back with pride during our lunch break. Come hell or high water, I was going to play – with the boys.

When recess commenced, like a first class ticket, the jersey bought me leverage and I was suddenly allowed to join the match. Insecure, it was the first time I ever muttered the word, “shit” – largely to fit in with the other 3rd grade posse kicking the ball around with me. Girl, or not, I just wanted to play.

                               

The complexity of humanness strikes me when I watch a homeless man hold a cardboard box sign that reads “needing food.” I’m in the back-seat of my dad’s car, as he drives us home after a long day of school and sports practice. We’re eating the snacks he’s allowed us to purchase at 7-Eleven. Lance even has a freshly-printed pack of Pokémon cards, so you can be sure he was some kind of happy camper. I glance at this man, outside my window, probably even a few years older than my dad, and I ask myself, “who is he?” He’s not just a man. He’s a person, who happens to be hungry.

Yet, for some reason, I, a young girl, got to be in a warm car, with food, on the way home. I realize then that whatever – or whomever – I was wasn’t the full story. We aren’t the sum of our gender, of our incomes, of our jobs, of our status, of our families, of anything. We move between boundaries, definitions, and experiences, recognizing that our lives give expression to whom we become. I think about these things as a young girl because it seems to be the only way I can make sense of the world. What else am I supposed to think, when I see a hungry person on the side of the road?

                               

I hid boxes of Kleenex under my bed. My best friend since the 4th grade was developing fast, already adorning large bras at the age of 12. To keep pace, I stuffed tissue into the small trainer bras that I was able to wear. I was preoccupied with my body and fixated on the fact that I didn’t have the slim, full-breasted look like my friends. Or in the magazines I saw at the grocery store. I was a flat-chested girl, with glasses, and face sprinkled with acne. I thought I was an ugly girl.

                               

Sometime around the age of 16, I heard a sermon about submission. Not through the lens of Christ, but to men, specifically and most emphatically, men. My obedience, to a man, was equated to my reputability as a woman. It didn’t make sense to me. But, the Bible said something like it – so it had to be right, right? The legalistic nature of this, and many other morality clauses of the sacred texts would haunt me for years.

Eventually, the gospel broke through. Eventually, I saw the beauty, strength, and possibility of womanhood because of the message Jesus came to share. Before this, though, I experienced the real dangers that moral extremes bring to the expression of womanhood. Women are not meant to be controlled – but we are. Women are not meant to be sidelined – but we are.

A mentor of mine recently told me that at 83, and over 60 years of marriage, “there is no way in hell that I could have sacrificed my own inner strength for the sake of my husband.” She went on to say, “Our submission and partnership is built on a mutually exclusive commitment. I follow God – not my husband. I honor him. I listen to him. But, our relationship is give-and-take. God did not make me to be quiet. He gave me things to say. And dammit, I’m going to say them.” Her words brought healing. Her words brought permission to give life to the voice inside.

                               

My life changed when I went to Mississippi and Alabama for the first time as a freshman in college. On our trip, to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, I spoke with two women that deeply informed my understanding of growing up and becoming. The first woman provided her testimony of survival at a rural church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Her church had been burnt by the KKK in the 1960’s and she had then spent her life building reconciliation and forgiveness throughout the community – for people of all colors. The second woman was named Roslyn. I met her in Birmingham. I don’t remember much about the conversation other than that she appreciated a warm sandwich more than anyone I had met in a long time. She was in between jobs, trying to make ends meet, and she wasn’t going to give up.

One night, I stayed up late at the church that was hosting our stay. The sanctuary lights remained lit and I entered the sacred space. I stared at a portrait of Jesus for 30 minutes. I questioned everything I had ever been told. Womanhood, I realized, was much like the way God has formed our lives. With clay, He works like a potter, molding us, forming us, building us up. My life was also shaped by my own fingerprints. What did I want my life to say? Who would I become?

I didn’t become a Christian that night – I already was one. I became an independent thinker.

                               

New Orleans, Louisiana is crowded, noisy, and bursting at the seams with fruity hurricanes, mojitos, and Jack Daniels, most noticeably during the long, lazy week of Spring Break. With two car-loads of my college girlfriends, we had made the trip down to the Bayou from Arkansas so I could work on my senior thesis. And, you know, do everything else that comes with Spring Break shenanigans. One night, we enjoyed a drink or two (and perhaps more) and were singing “Tik Tok” by KeSha on a random karaoke stage. I was energized and happy. With some of my favorite people, we were soaking up the last few months of our college experience.

Our show-stopping tune of karaoke finished just after 1:00am and so as I exited the stage, I noticed the drunken stupor of the crowd had risen. A particularly inebriated man, probably in his mid-40’s approached me hastily. He squeezed my butt and smiled. I didn’t say anything. He slurred ,”hi” and then wasted no time to proposition me – not before acknowledging that he had a wife and young baby at home.

I flipped out. Crying, distressed, and visibly upset, I walked back to the open air of Bourbon Street. I was mad he grabbed me. I was disrespected, as was his family, and it left an incredibly foul taste in my mouth. I was infuriated that he presumed he could do whatever he wanted.

                               

I was new to the village, only having had moved to Ruramira the day before as my community’s first ever Peace Corps Volunteer. Successfully, I made it through my first night, and decided to introduce myself to the local government authorities. The office was a mile walk from my blue-green home. Putting one foot in front of the other, I absorbed the rolling mountains, the ubiquity of bananas, trees, and the songs of chirping birds. I lived in a beautiful, breath-taking community in the Eastern Province.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man, Mugabire, joined me abrasively on the side of the road. I would learn later that Mugabire was Ugandan (and thus the reason behind his perfect English) and was often in trouble for causing issues with other individuals, especially women. I was new then, though, and I didn’t know this. Aggressively, he spoke and followed me on the long stretch of rural road.

“Hello, which country are you coming from?”

“Hi – I’m from America. The United States of America.”

“You’re in Rwanda. Why?”

“I’ve come here to learn about Rwanda, to make friends, to support this community, and to teach English at the local secondary school.”

It of course, all sounded quite rehearsed, but like I mentioned, I was a newcomer.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Please. I want to sleep with you. I will marry you.”

Slightly alarmed, I pause, don’t say anything, and begin to look upon the horizon for people who might be nearby. I curse myself; it’s 11:00am and nearly everyone is working their fields, away from their homes. He presses further.

“Give me sex. I want your pussy – “

I interrupt this time and speak with every drop of boldness I have in my voice, “Please. Go. Leave me alone.”

It’s escalating and he calls me a bitch.

I start to run.

When I reach the local officials’ office, I’m crying hysterically. When I tell them this man was Mugabire, the shake their heads. “Oh Mugabire…Oh Mugabire…”

                               

With 30 bright, young women singing self-made songs of hope and autonomy, my body feels out of balance, like I am flying. I’ve taught this girls’ group (GLOW – Girls Leading Our World) about periods, sex, confidence, relationships, public speaking, domestic violence, and identity. I’ve been teaching them for months, and I realize that in the process, I’ve been just as much of a student of them as they have been students for me. As they have worked to establish their voices at home and at school, they have released me of my own assumptions about men, about women, and about the unity of people together.

This group of women has brought together unique forces in our ecosystem of our community (the headmaster, local authorities, fathers, mothers, and brothers) to celebrate their successes as a recognized organization at our school. Their mission is to show that shared leadership is the only way forward in a society.

I close my eyes as the traditional Rwandan beat catches my ears. My soul dances, and I thank God that I was born who I was.

                               

On a date arranged through online networking, I’m propositioned for sex in less than 10 minutes. I’m also asked when I last “put out” for someone else. This excuse of a person asks me three times to sleep with him as I sit across the table. Casually, he admits that he lied about certain parts of his online profile, and quickly, my instincts tell me that I could be sitting adjacent to a rapist.

I firmly respond with a hard “no.” In a flurry of goodbyes he attempts to punch my face. He calls me a “f****** bitch c***.” I run. Around the parking lot, I hide behind several cars that glisten under the night lamps. When I reach my car, I lock the door, and I shake without any possibility of stopping. The harassment continues via text message and I cannot feel safe. I am exposed, as if my dignity is torn apart. I am a woman. A mighty, gritty woman. Yet still, in a matter of minutes, someone else has been given license to threaten every piece that is holding me together.

                               

Recently released from rehabilitation, I’m tasked with spending time with my brother for three days straight. He is getting clean, and to do so, he needs extra support to make sure he gets there. I’m recently returned from Rwanda (read: jobless) and my parents are all responding to their own working commitments and so, voila! Lance and I spend extra time together –more than we had spent together in the previous five years.

We start by doing what we do best: eating. Slowly though, like strangers getting to know each other for the first time, we go on long walks and dig through old notebooks and journals we wrote when we were younger. We laugh hysterically. We also cry together. We discuss hard things. Emotional things.

In the middle of a green belt, on the edge of Denver, I share parts of myself that at the time, I hadn’t yet revealed to other people in my family. My brother asks questions, gently, ever so kindly and hugs me after we finish our walk.

I won’t soon forget the way he looked at me. With the corners of his own pain so fresh on his heart, I could have understood if my own pain would be too much of a burden. But for him, it wasn’t. He listened, acknowledged it, and assured me that I was going to be okay.

Womanhood, in its optimal place, is a kind of freedom to be liberated; to be honest; to be open. My brother taught me that. A man. A gentle, kind, brilliant, passionate, man. That’s the beauty of this earth you know, that we all get to learn together like that. Everyone is a teacher.

                               

It’s 2016, and I’m learning each and every day about what womanhood is all about.

For me, it’s never been dainty or distant. It’s not a journey of perfection or working far too much. Womanhood is releasing the notion that we have to save the world all by ourselves. Becoming a woman calls for incredible grace, a damn good sense of humor, and an ability to listen, see, and celebrate people. Tolerance – of anyone, male or female – is a sad expectation. Celebrate. Exploring my own feminism builds a trust in the communities we become a part of. It empowers men, recognizing that men are equally wonderful, interesting, and capable. Men do not hate women – and vice versa. And so, we must work together, to remove seeds of misunderstanding, hatred, and contempt. We have to call out discrimination, inequality, maltreatment, and hatred when we see it – male or female. And in a world, where women (and men) are harassed, we must do everything we can to stop it. We must be willing to acknowledge the dignity and value of others, even if that scares the hell out of you.

Being a woman propels me forward in this pursuit. For myself, for my future children – for all of us. It’s a worthy, worthy fight, my friends.

                               

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou

A Letter to You, Grandma.

Dear Grandma Genevra,

Sometimes, I imagine you were here still.

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I think about the walks we would take; the honest conversations we would have; the mere joy of the company we would keep. We became close even when I was so very young, but somehow, I think you saw the woman I would be, long before I have become that woman.

That makes me miss you more.

When I think of you, I think of home.

Your home – the one with stale smells of summer lining narrow, beige hallways. The one that was held together by the loose hinges of the faded black door. When opened, between the cluttered garage and crammed foyer, it never failed to screech, announcing our arrival haphazardly. The six floors of your duplex mesmerized my imagination; I could ride the elliptical in the basement; play Oregon Trail in the computer room; smell coffee in the dining area; watch Care Bears in the living room; and try on your array of shoes in your bedroom. You kept that hot pink-striped comforter for enough years on your bed that it began to smell of you; like freshly picked sunflowers with a hint of lavender.

Your home was aged, like a vintage wine. Chips, dings, and stonewashed colors signaled that the walls, wood floors, and pillars had all been well-worn. With life. Good life. Always, and even still, scruffy places with “character” are far more comforting than the sleek, untainted, modern, and untouched lines that are “cutting edge”. Maybe that’s why I like Goodwill so much.

You never needed to invite us in or cautiously encourage us to “make ourselves at home” – it was an understanding – we were home. With you, we were always in.

Without hesitation, we often bounced with our full backpacks to your retro pea-green refrigerator for a snack. Sometimes, in the corner, moldy cheese would be hardened from insufficient closing of the package. I’d bite into the cheddar anyway. You’d store your diet cokes here too, bringing one, two, or sometimes three for our visits to one of Aurora’s many libraries.

You know you taught me to love reading, right?

From Mia Hamm biographies, to stories on the Civil Rights, and re-readings of anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you spurred us to explore and to ask questions. You revealed to us the beauty of libraries, the glory of the Dewey decimal system, and the benefits of unlimited check-out privileges. Even if Lance and I came bearing ten books each, you hardly batted an eye.

Before Garry would return home from his work in the oil industry, we would nibble on ripe, red delicious apples and watch Oprah. She was our favorite. The round, mahogany kitchen table, adjacent to your numerous potted plants, held Oprah magazines stacked on TIME Magazines with bills to be paid chaotically scattered about. The caller ID box for incoming phone calls was buried somewhere here, too. By no means were you an organized woman. But, what you lacked in tidiness was made up for in gritty devotion. So for that, thanks.

Every Wednesday, you cooked us slightly burnt grilled cheese. Then, Lance, you, and I would scurry to your room to explore further our library treasures and bounty. As a young girl, merely five or six, I demanded that when sharing your bed, you were, “not to cross your line,” and stay on your “side” of the bed. I know you found this hilarious. Especially since I would often end up cuddling with you anyway.

You didn’t stop having us over to spend the night. Not when we entered middle school, and not when mom and dad divorced.

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The openness of your heart –and your space – propelled me to be a woman that continues to seek out safety in community and place. I recognize it, largely because you impressed upon me, at an early age, what it means to invest in safe places for people. Thank you for that, too. It took me a long time to realize what you and Garry did for Lance and I all those years.

Space. Breathing room. Curiosity.

You were my angel then, as my family split a part, as you are my angel now.

 *

How can this be? Angels can’t live here.

When you entered long-term “rehab” at the nursing facility, I stepped inside and instantly recoiled. A woman of tenacity and feistiness, I couldn’t imagine your confines to be so limiting. Residents roamed the halls idly, often so heavily medicated that reality had slipped far away from them.

I continued to note the same softness of your skin, the deep blue kindness of your eyes. Yet, your movements slowed, your voice stopped, and multiple sclerosis slowly took you away.

Eight long years of that hellish nightmare.

Occasionally, when I would visit the nursing home during my nights off from Dairy Queen, you would choke on your own spit from laughing too hard. Other times, you barely moved and stared at the wall without the slightest glance my way. I hated these times. I hated them because I knew you were inside your body, but your physical armor had worn away. It was frustrating, confusing, and painful. You didn’t deserve that kind of suffering, grandma. I don’t know why things happen the way they do, but I know that your life was no less important, valued, or meaningful because of the way you ended your years. If anything, your battle with M.S. exemplified the depth of sacrifice and power in what it means to be a woman.

I love being a woman because of you.

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You battled the illness valiantly and I swore that I would never forget the woman who taught me to feed the ducks, pursue kindness, and be myself. I would cast a wide net with my memories, holding them together like gold, honoring all of the ways in which you touched my life.

Now, if I close my eyes, I see you.

But –

More than that, I feel you. In my bones, in my soul, there is still you, cheering me on.

I read a quote the other day in a book that reminded me of you. It reminded me of how you lived out your life, boldly embracing exactly the woman you came to be – even after deep pain in your life.

“Growing up is an unbecoming. My healing has been a peeling away of costume after costume until here I am, still and naked and unashamed before God, stripped down to my real identity. I have unbecome. And now I stand: warrior.” – Glennon Doyle Melton, “Love Warrior

As the words came off the pages, I smiled. Tears poured out of me, without enough time to even attempt to stop them.

I vividly recall the authentic way you presented yourself to the world. I am your granddaughter, and so perhaps my perspective was flawed, but I knew then, as I know now, that your authenticity was genuine and powerful. It’s taken all of my 27 years and just now I feel I am beginning to tear away at the presentation of myself to the world and disclosing the real me inside.

Perhaps I’ve grown up, but you know her, the me that has always been.

You shaped her.

*

It’s been five years since you passed away and each year I reflect on you and your life, desperate to hold the roll of memories that play over and over again, like an old movie on a projector screen.

On the day of your death, I was sitting by kerosene lamp in my host family’s home in Rwanda. Dad called and gently told me, “she’s gone.”

From a small East African village, flashes of you at soccer games, birthdays, and Christmas filled my brain like a water-hose that could not be turned off. Strolls in downtown Denver, road-trips to Chicago, mountain summits, stories on trains…

I said very little to Mama and Papa. As their hands rubbed my back, I sobbed. I mourned. In that little green house, I grieved the loss of my warrior. What I’ve learned since then, in these five years, is that your presence has been unyielding.

You inspired Lance in his rock bottom.

You comforted me in deep heartache.

You remained steadfast proof of what love actually is. What it requires of us. And what it calls us to.

To love is to know.

And, you knew me deeply, even as a young girl. I think you would be proud, today.

I also think you would challenge me to commit to being a warrior, a bulldog, a whatever, never compromising my value as a human-being. I think you would love me for exactly who I am, and so, when it’s scary to be honest about myself, your comfort propels me forward.

Lance has a daughter now – with your name. She smiles, and smiles, and smiles. Her sassiness, sweetness, and amiability remind me, once again, that you are here.

I love you, and I miss you every day.

Always,

Heather

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the urban-rural divide.

Yet you Lord, are our Father. We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

My imagination has frequently run wild as I’ve imagined God’s hand shaping all of us, like a potter perfecting their craft.

I say “all” because without a doubt in my mind, we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The pads of His fingers shape us, smooth us, even as muddy clay gets underneath His fingernails. We are formed, created, unlike anyone that has ever come before or will come after us.

For years, I think, this has given me a hidden joy as I have met and made friends with all kinds of people.

I think to myself, “what can this person teach me?” or more directly, “how did God make this person unique?” These questions have made me a bit gentler, a bit softer even, when a person annoys the hell out of me. Let’s be real, we’re human.

With the same, intense curiosity though, I’ve often also thought about the formation we experience through the lives we live. This references the old “nature vs. nurture” debate in some ways; to what extent are we formed by biology and also by the experiences we have as we age? We are born with a set of circumstances, and our lives ebb and flow differently, based on the culture we are surrounded by.

Culture is a large word – and there is a big chunk of it that is invisible to the human eye. About a year ago, I stumbled upon this chart that outlines the construction of our culture through the lense and degree of visibility.

Foundations of Culture

 

Genuinely, I think this could be a transformative tool in entering conversations this year – particularly in light of political strife, tension, and emotion.I happened to review this chart a couple of weeks ago as I was creating curriculum to use with refugee and immigrant populations in Denver. It also so happens, a week later, that I traveled to middle rural America – seemingly another country, far from my safe haven in Colorado.

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For the first time this year, I saw “Trump” and “Make America Great Again” signs and I got a bit nervous. On the back of my car, I have a couple key bumper stickers, namely one from the Human Rights Campaign and the US Peace Corps. As I sped through vast grasslands and corn fields, I held the steering wheel tightly and thought, “oh gosh, they’re gonna think I’m some hippie.”

I was traveling to Oklahoma to visit my grandparents and honestly, it was a nice, lovely escape from the city. It also, metaphorically speaking, woke me up. 

As I settled into this small pan-handle community for a week, I took lots of walks thinking about what it would be like to live life here (or in any other rural community in the United States).

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I began to consider the urban-rural divide. Lately, we’ve hyper-focused on the racial, economic, or political divide in the United States, but I would also argue that the urban-rural split is the root of these other fractured conversations and movements in our country. Frankly, living in an urban or rural area can be like living in another country altogether.

The American Communities Project has put together a map that illustrates the divisions of our country and alludes to the potential impact this has on education, age, and opportunities available to different populations.

I took a screenshot so you can get a sense of what they have tried to capture – communities ranging from “Aging Farmlands” to “Graying America” to “Evangelical Hubs.”

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Let’s consider the urban and rural divisions.

In the marked urban areas there are 153 counties with 140 million people.

In the designated rural areas there are 936 counties with 30 million people.

Y’all, that’s a difference of 110 million people!

And that’s not all.

Completion of higher-level education (say, a Bachelor’s degree) is at 35% in the suburbs; 32% in big cities; 20% in rural America; and finally, less than 15% in “working class country. (citation was found via a story by “Meet the Press”)

This results in a proverbial ceiling for higher-paying jobs, resulting in less investment by both the public and private sectors. Essentially, what happens, is that because of a lack in education completion and job creation, economic growth is stunted. Communities are slowly, but surely, dying. And, because they might be underrepresented and also less exposed to other parts of the country (and world), these populations are relatively isolated. This happens in Rwanda too – this definitely, is not just an American problem.

To be sure, this is not my world. It’s the opposite, actually. I live in Denver – perhaps the fastest growing city in the U.S.A. right now. I also went to one of Colorado’s best school districts as I grew up, could attend any college I wanted, and because of the high-attention to critical thinking emphasized by my small, liberal-arts college, I was able to explore and consider issues in the world that others may not have the opportunity to do.

I’m not better, I’m privileged. And there is a difference. Sometimes, it might take some time away from your own boundaries to understand this a bit more fully.

I have really struggled to understand the anger that some Americans feel right now, namely in their preference for Trump in this circus of a 2016 election. It seems many individuals and communities feel slighted in some way; namely in the relation to the economic circumstances of their lives – and honestly, I don’t blame them. So, in turn, this anger is funneled into the hope that a political giant (read: Trump) can “save” them. As I walked, drove, and spent time away from the confines of my American country (ahem, Denver), I can see how people might think differently than me. Look at the cultural chart again: the deepest parts of our formation come from where we live, what we do, and the development of our perspective of the world. And so, perhaps my push for civil rights and human dignity doesn’t strike a chord with other populations because they have been busy trying to figure out how to make ends meet.

It’s not an issue of being more “enlightened” than other people either– it’s just recognizing the opportunity (and yes, privilege you’ve had in your life). Perhaps, we should all step back, and take time to consider the kinds of privilege we carry around with us. We don’t have to always feel guilty, but we do have to be aware.

Because awareness, at its best, should propel us to action. Action means trying to understand each other and developing initiatives, policy, and movements that benefit Americans. All of us. Each and everyone. Not that top 1%. Not the middle class. Not the poor. Everybody, y’all.

I’m privileged in my skin color, in my education levels, in my economic status, in my job, in the family system I have always had, and in my place of birth.

However, because of other areas, like gender, or orientation, I have been slighted or under-represented.

We all have these dichotomies; areas of both privilege and lack thereof.

I’m not saying I agree with the rhetoric of a particular political candidate. What I’m saying, is that our political ties run deeper than just what appears on the surface.

Our country has big problems, y’all. They extend to the tensions we have in race, in money, and certainly, in the places that we live. Until we begin to re-work a system that does not work for all of us, I’m not sure how our country can keep moving forward.

I didn’t leave Oklahoma without hope, however. At the United Methodist church in town, I had the opportunity to talk with church leaders who cared deeply about their communities and how to represent them and serve them – in and out of their church. One woman, an immigrant from Mexico, talked through tears about her journey as an immigrant woman in this country. She alluded to being treated terribly, horrifically, and yet, still believing in what this country has to offer. This, my friends, is what makes America great. When people, different from us, can still hold optimism close to the pursuit of American ideals of equality and freedom. We can do it. My, my, I hope we can do it.

*

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and now, for the rest of the story.

In case you have been living under a rock, it’s an election year. As to be expected, things are crazy. Especially if you have different, opposing viewpoints from your parents, loved ones, and family members.

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Things are so crazy, in fact, that my dad and I had a re-conciliatory moment recently when we both laughed out loud throughout various moments of the RNC (Republican National Convention). When Trump hardly acknowledged his VP candidate; as Colorado delegates walked out of the room; and when reporters remained obsessed over the Trump family – we found this all to be rather, I don’t know, hilarious.

This struck me as pleasant surprise. You see, my dad is an unapologetic Republican.

I am not.

From the time I was a young girl, sitting in the back of his truck during traffic, I would hear Paul Harvey‘s famous segments called “The Rest of the Story” in between “thought-leader” radio-talk such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Indeed, Republican rhetoric was a part of my upbringing.

Grandma threw her curve balls as we grew up, however, when we would spend the night at her house each Wednesday. Unlike dad, her newscasts were usually NPR related programming. Interestingly, progressive talk radio had little national exposure in my childhood (read: the 90’s). It wasn’t until later in the 2000’s that “Air America” and shows like it really held any potency.

Political news updates in her car were interspersed also with frequent commentaries on how Reagan had changed her politics from leaning “right” to the heavily liberal part of the spectrum.  Without a doubt, if grandma was still here, she would be giving a big “thumbs up” to Hillary Clinton.

Jokingly, I remember her once commenting on her three Republican-voting sons, “I’m not really sure what I did wrong..”

*

This election has felt different than any of the other elections I can remember thus far in my life (2012 (Obama), 2008 (Obama), 2004 (Bush), 2000 (Bush), 1996 (Clinton), 1992 (Clinton)). The Bush election of 2000 conjures images of deflated Florida ballets; Bush’s second run kept me up all night – I had wanted him to win. Badly. Obama’s election in 2008 reminds me of the screaming, crying crowds of Hendrix College in our school ballroom shouting “Yes We Can! Yes We Can!”. The 2012 election was welcoming simple; I heard campaign updates on BBC Radio while in my small Rwandan village.

Elections seem to really just take on a life of their own.

Perhaps, as my dad and I sat together, in a country poised for economic development, racked with violence, advancements in social policy, foreign entanglements, and a need for a massive overhaul in education, tax, and gun issues,  we both needed a moment of reprieve.

Politically, we don’t agree on much, but we did manage to have relatively reasonable civic discourse because we are able to recognize the validity of our viewpoints and ideas.This doesn’t always happen – I’m sensitive, he’s stubborn. But on this day, it was okay.

It’s helpful, I’m learning, when conversing with a person with a varying viewpoint, to have a mutual recognition of knowledge resources. My dad has been a high school educator for nearly 30 years – he knows his stuff. Alternatively, I am well-read, active in the civic community, and have been intentionally engaged with American policy during my young adult years (this is the benefit of being an American Studies major, I suppose).

Between the both of us, we have been blessed in our education, and this can greatly affect the political efficacy of a person – good or bad.

It’s also critical to respect the arrival points of an individual’s politics.These are heavy, meaty issues. Between the nuances of economic policy and the pursuit of individual rights and liberties, politics is personal. Belief alone doesn’t necessarily make something right (i.e. I think Chipolte is better than Q’doba – does that mean it’s a better company? Maybe. Maybe not.) but belief does imply a need for respect. Frankly, when it comes to your parents, it can be hard to do, particularly if you are stepping outside of their constructs and viewpoints. But do it. Please do it. Engaging in a diverse political conversation enacts what really does make this country great: diversity. Listen. You might learn something. You could teach something too.

Finally, ask questions. Not with a smart-ass, pompous attitude, but in a genuine desire to understand the construction of a person’s ideology. Honestly, it’s insanely interesting, and it shows that you care.

Asking questions necessitates listening which involves respect which invites knowledge. 

Politics, I don’t think has to tear us a part. We can remain vigilant to the relationship itself. Love, I think, should and ought to come before our political views. Ultimately, it’s healthy, helpful, and encouraging that we have the opportunity – especially with our parents and elders – to engage in a dialogue about the frameworks of our society.

Veer away from the sensationalized articles promoted by the media. Grab a drink, sit, and chat. Maybe it won’t be so bad as you think.

Because, I promise, if dad can laugh at the Republican National Convention, anything can happen.

*

 

ubukwe | wedding

I’m not too good at singing; nor am I capable of discipline when eating ice cream, but, I can say with certainty that I have a strong knack for getting invited to Rwandan weddings.

This, literally, is what I do. Even in Denver.

When I attended a 300-guest East African wedding last week, I expected the small nods to Rwandan culture. You know, the traditional dress of umushanana (fabric draped over the shoulder in all different styles; a dress central to the heritage of Rwandan social ques). Maybe the proper foods (I’m thinking plantains, rice, and beans) would also be present, as well as demonstrations of Rwandan-style dancing.

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Plantains, Potatoes, Cassava Leaves, Fruit, Chapati, Rice, Cassava Bread, Doughnuts, Beans – just to name a few. 

I expected these things, but what I also (wrongly) assumed was that a glass-like wall would separate the nuances of an East African wedding in the United States.

I was incorrect to think that geography can mitigate the love for culture and tradition. Geography, I learned, has very little to do with the identity of the heart.

In fact, in the nearly 50 Rwandan weddings I have attended (yes, I have a “wedding tracker list”), this most recent wedding in Denver might have been the “most Rwandan” of all.

So, that begs the question, what makes it “Rwandan” exactly?

For 15 hours, I observed, took part, and engaged in conversation that re-aligned my original thinking. You see, this family and larger community were committed to creating a Rwandan ceremony because they are so far from home.

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“I do.”

My brain could hardly handle the layers of culture, connections, languages, and traditions played out in front of me.

The smells of the room; the accents of language; the babies wrapped in loud fabrics on the backs of many women; the selections of beer; the handshakes of new friends – all of it. It felt like I was in a world not here, and honestly, not there either. It was altogether new.

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Moreover, I realized how malleable culture can be even in a determination to stick closely to it; I met young men and women who could speak Kinyarwanda, but do not have memories of living in their home country. Instead, they grew up in refugee camps and have a deep longing to return home someday. They asked me about what it is like to grow up around cows and banana beer and Sunday church. Y’all, it was weird. Talk about a new kind of culture shock!

One gentleman, Mugema, shed tears as he explained the way he carries Rwanda in his heart here. He lives in a more rural part of Colorado and he doesn’t know many people. His community places identifiers on him – “Tanzanian” or “African” – but he insists, “Through and through, I am Rwandan.”

I came to see that the purest expression of our culture is extraordinarily natural. Numerous individuals approached me and asked, “are you Rwandan?”

They asked this in spite of my skin color. And, this wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing. It was a real question.

They said that, “We see you interacting with our family, our friends. You know how to do it! Sure, you speak our language, but somehow you are one of us.”

The things is, I wasn’t really trying that hard. It was natural. It was learnt. It was exposure. It was what is inside my heart.

We can’t explain how these things happen. How people’s lives and journeys cross and align and create this amazing mixture of life. Culture is life, and honestly, I can’t get enough of it.

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Waiting for the groom and bride to arrive. 

My feet were sore as I drove home. I turned off my music, preferring silence in the twilight hours of morning. I prayed a prayer of gratitude, feeling as if I had returned to a really special place in my identity. I let the thoughts flow freely from my mind – I was overwhelmed by the number of stories I had heard about moving and finding oneself in a new place.

I’m excited to be a part of this. Whether it’s here or there, it doesn’t really matter. Because who we are is not bound by the lines we have placed in the world.

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The getaway vehicle. It’s Colorado, so clearly, a Jeep.