New Things I’ve Learned This Year (2017)

2017 has been a huge year. There have been momentous times of joy, and also, seasons of deep hurt. Adulthood is showing me this – that we carry these tensions together, often, and that holding both hope and pain at once is completely, one-hundred-percent okay. There have been travels, adventure, and also, writing, decision-making, and new seasons. This year, I’ve learned some important things, and I feel motivated to share. The truth is, we’re all always learning – can you see it? Can you notice it? Do you allow it to change you? It’s in these places that we grow and we can become consistently, fully ourselves. Cheers.

IDINA MENZEL IS THE REAL DEAL. 

Like everyone in the universe, I was a fan of Frozen when the Disney classic was first released. What I did not understand – fully – from enjoying the film was just how much talent Idina Menzel holds.

Luckily, in perusing options for celebrating Chelsea’s birthday, I stumbled across tickets for a summer Idina show. Chelsea once had mentioned that Idina was her “girl crush” and so attending her concert would be the perfect kind of gift. I purchased the tickets and she was delighted. We attended the concert and oh my good gracious – I was absolutely blown away. The cadence of her voice, the intensity of her stage present – it all rocked me. Finally, fully, I could appreciate the gift of Idina. It was easily one of the best concerts that I have ever attended.

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Idina at Fiddler’s Green in August.

NOBODY GRIEVES THE SAME WAY.

Tragically, during the month of August, Chelsea lost both of her grandparents, lovingly called “Omi” and “Poppi.” Simultaneously sifting through photographs from childhood and hearing stories of their life together, I knew this was a major loss for my beloved. As a partner, standing in the grief, I was initially overwhelmed. Ultimately, there was nothing I could do to change what had happened.

More than that, Chelsea was handling her sadness different than I would. She was handling it head on, where for me, I often put my grief or sadness in a box and deal with it later. Bravely, Chelsea chose another way. At first, it was hard for me to adjust to. But, eventually, I came to learn and respect the value of difference and how we each have to take steps in our journey that aren’t the same as others around us. It’s part of being human, and I am grateful that she could teach me this in a genuine and authentic way.

REST, FOR ME, MEANS SPONTANEITY. 

Towards the end of this year, I felt frazzled, overwhelmed, and really, just all over the place. Work was bleeding into my personal life and I felt like everything was meshing together. I was trying to take time to be quiet, to be still, but I wasn’t necessarily re-entering life fully refreshed. And then! One evening, Chelsea and I were discussing the way in which we wanted to live our lives, yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily. A common theme emerged: spontaneous fun. Yes, fun, but fun that wasn’t coordinated or planned or etched into the calendar. Literally, fun for the hell of it.

We have started to do this – whether it means grabbing our favorite sandwich instead of doing laundry, or seeing a movie last minute instead of watching our normal Netflix show – we are learning the value of going against a hard, rigid schedule sometimes. It is reenergizing, surprising, and honestly, so fun.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL (AHEM, THE SOONERS) ARE BETTER THAN THE NFL. 

One of the things that I have always known about Chelsea? She is from Oklahoma.

Because of that, inheriting Sooner fandom was a part of the package deal. Her family loves the fandom of Boomer Sooner and so this year, I had the opportunity to attend my very first college football game in Norman, Oklahoma. Together with Chelsea and her father, we went on a Sunday afternoon to arguably, the country’s epicenter for football. I could barely contain myself with everything – the colors, the size of the stadium, and the adrenaline. Sure, the NFL is fun to watch, but what is better than watching a sporting game with new, enthusiastic family? It’s pretty hard to beat.

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Oklahoma vs. Tulane in September. The Sooners won big, with a score of 56-14.

LONG DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS ARE REALLY (REALLY) HARD. 

Beginning in early January until early March, I was in Rwanda for work with The Women’s Bakery. That meant that at an important time in my relationship, Chelsea and I would be growing together from a distance – a really long distance. When I flew out of Denver, to Detroit, and on to Kigali, I was nervous. I had never done this before, not like this, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I learned is that loving another human from far away is difficult. I grasped that sharing the little pieces of life becomes much more challenging over a screen. We persevered, of course, and what happened upon coming home was that I was surer than ever that this was the woman I loved and the woman I wanted to be with.

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Rwanda in February.

GOOD READERS NEED GOODREADS.

Several friends introduced me to Goodreads back in the day, but truthfully, I didn’t really understand how it worked. I gave it another go this year and it was exactly what I needed to help me read a book at least every 2 weeks. Goodreads is great, and certainly a must-have application for the phone, especially when tracking reading progress throughout the year.

MY BEST FRIENDS ARE STILL MY BEST FRIENDS.

For the first time in my life, I traveled to the state of Massachusetts and Rhode Island this year! With Ali, Michelle, Rachel, and Jordana – my best friends from college – we gathered together, again, to catch up on life and spend time together. We sipped coffee in the morning and wine at night. We went on walks. We told each other stories. I understood from these precious moments that these girls, now women, will always, always, have a special place in my heart. They will always be my best friends – and that makes me immensely joyful.

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Together again this past May! The Hey Girl Heys hit Rhode Island and it was everything.

HOME ISN’T NECESSARILY A PLACE.

I struggled in my early twenties to find “home.” Sure, there was home home back in Colorado, but I was confused with how much I had grown to also love Arkansas. And then, there was Rwanda. For many years, this was my home, a place that I felt most like myself. Yet, as I readjusted in my mid-twenties back to life in the United States, I was confused about where I belonged. Sure, Denver has always (and always will be) my first home. But this year, I learned that home is more about the people than the place itself. I fell in love hard this year. I began to love a woman that saw me differently than anyone ever had. Time with her, and being known by her, this was home. I was a bit surprised by this; I did not know love could be like that.

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Exploring Red Rocks over the summer with visiting family.

PURSUING DREAMS CAN SOMETIMES BE A CHOICE.

For many years, I have wanted to go back to school. Social Work. Education. Counseling. I have thrown many ideas around, hoping that I could land at one that would be the one – as if a diploma could complete or validate me at all (it can’t). In moments of peace, clarity, and quiet, along the shores of Kivu in Rwanda, I re-discovered a deep knowing. More than anything, I want to help people. And, more than that, I want to be a person that can hear the stories of others and help them. I want to be a counselor. I want to be a counselor because all of us deserve to be heard, and all of us deserve to find healing. In July, I applied to the Graduate Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver (specializing in Clinical Mental Health (Multicultural Track)). In October, I interviewed for a competitive spot. In November, I got in. I start classes next month and I could not be more ecstatic. 

PUFFY CHEETOS ARE CRAZY DELICIOUS.

I might be the vegetarian, and thus, have introduced Chelsea to all sorts of ways to prepare vegetables (deliciously), however, she has introduced me to White Cheddar Puffy Cheetos and my life will not be the same. You MUST eat these wonderfully addictive snacks. You won’t be sorry.

PROPOSING IS MORE THAN A QUESTION.

In October, I asked Chelsea to be my wife. Admittedly, I scoured the internet for ideas or stories of how other people have gone about proposing to their significant other. Eventually, though, I had to step back from the noise of others and reflect honestly and authentically. What did this experience mean for me? What did it mean for Chelsea? As I planned, I prepared my heart for this huge step. More than just a question, “will you marry me?” is a commitment, a statement of love, and to me, a promise. More than ever, I know that she is the woman I want to share life with. That deep knowing – that is what proposing is all about. 

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November: Celebrating our engagement in San Francisco, California.

ACCEPTING YOURSELF WON’T HAPPEN JUST BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE ACCEPT YOU.

One of my areas of weakness is that I sometimes do things for the sake of making other people happy. A less nice way to say this is being a “people pleaser.” While looking to others’ happiness can be a nice gesture, it is otherwise unhealthy when it becomes a centering objective in what you do. That’s what made “coming out” so hard – I knew that I would upset people. Eventually, I had to recognize that my happiness, in this case, had to come first. However, I still have a lot of work to do on this. This year, now with Chelsea and fully out, I discovered that even so, I still carry a lot of shame with me. Earning acceptance from others, I have supposed, would allow myself to come around fully to who I am. Honestly, this has failed. I cannot wait for the approval of others so that I have the approval of myself. That must – it must – come first.

WALKING IS THE SPORT OF THE SEASON.

There have been seasons of my life where running – the harsh breathing and flowing movement – has been my main way of de-stressing. Those days, at least for now, are over. Instead, this year, I’ve learned to love the joys of walking. One foot in front of another, looking up and around, I have found a lot of peace in taking morning and evening walks to re-center myself. The pace is slower than running, but for now, that’s what I need. I need to notice. I need to look. I need to take the world in. And still, I must move. That’s why walking has become so important for me.

 

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Walking & exploring the topography in New Mexico, just outside Sante Fe in September.

MIRACLES HAPPEN. 

I have always believed in miracles. However, sometimes the hardness of life stiffens my usually open spirituality and miss the many small miracles happening around us. This year, I witnessed a big one – my brother graduating college. This act, this celebration, propelled me forward to remember, always holding to the truth, that miracles are around us, and they are happening all the time. They don’t have to be dramatic or completely unheard of – they can be small, daily things that prove that we are stronger than we know and that we can do things that we thought to be impossible. I still believe in them, and I hope, really, really hope, that I always will.

It’s been a good year and I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings. 

when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

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That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

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muhabura

On the first day of 2017, Chelsea and I penned (nerdily) “bucket lists”, outlining goals and hopes to accomplish within the year. This is a favorite practice of mine, as setting forth possibilities simultaneously allows us to appreciate our experiences and relationships held in the past.

In this list, I included trips I wanted to take (visiting the East Coast, for example, to reunite with my girlfriends from college), writing projects I wanted to do (beginning a book!), and commitments I wanted to engage with (joining Denver Community Church).

I also jotted down highlights of the past year, grateful for so much that had happened – even in a turbulent year of change and uncertainty.

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I believe in holding loosely to plans, of course, but I do think there is something intentional and progressive about jotting down the pieces of life you are consistently striving and working towards.

This includes climbing insane mountains.

I knew the first couple of months of my year would be in Rwanda since I was scheduled to be with The Women’s Bakery team at our headquarters in Kigali.

Knowing I would have weekends to gallivant the country or do things I’ve left undone in previous visits, Mount Muhabura topped the list of activities I wanted to do. It’s been on the back of my mind for literally, years. When I was in the Peace Corps I often thought about tackling this brute of a mountain, but frankly, didn’t want to fork over the money for it. This actually makes a lot of sense since I was living on a stipend of around $250 monthly and the costs for a permit to hike Muhabura is $100, at least for a non-resident. Regardless, I let Muhabura slip away from me and decided at the start of this year that I would finally, finally attempt this trek.

A dormant volcano, Mt. Muhabura is the second highest point in Rwanda at 4,127 meters (over 13,500 feet). It is also a part of the Virungas, a series of peaks across three countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. The Virungas are made famous for a few reasons, namely, Diane Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist. The Virungas have a more controversial history too, as the epicenter and convergence for military and international conflict between countries in this part of the world.

Muhabura can be approached via Rwanda or Uganda – with the easier side known to be Uganda. With a small crater lake at the summit, the total hike involves over 5,000 feet in elevation gain. Muhabura translates as “the guide” so naturally, when I arrived back in Rwanda this winter, I knew it was time to go and finally find my place. To be guided, if you will.

My colleagues and friends, Meg, Julie, and I initially planned to arrange our permits for two Virunga hikes.  Ambitious and perhaps slightly naïve, we originally intended to complete the Muhabura climb on a Saturday, followed by a hike to the top of Mt. Gahinga the following day. When we arrived at the Rwandan Development Board in Kigali, though, we decided to focus on one hike. After all, upon purchase of our permits, every official seemed to repeat the same thing: “you must be fit.” To be honest, I approached comments like that with loads of laissez-faire, confident that my daily walks and occasional weight-lifting would be enough to get me up (and down) the mountain.

We bought our tickets, packed our car, and left for our short trip away.

Only a 2 ½ hour drive, our launch town was Musanze, in the Northwest corner of the country and a popular outdoorsy stop for tourists. For locals, the North is characterized by the thinner, more brisk air, potatoes, and green rolling hills of tea. The beauty in this part of the country is stunning; in fact, while driving, it’s hard to even absorb the fact that the views are real and you come to the stark realization that no matter how many photographs you take, you will not capture the essence of the terrain.

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Our guesthouse at Kinigi (just outside of Musanze town) was quaint, welcoming, and perfectly simple. Adorned with black and white cow-colored stones and red brick, I appreciated the homey-ness of the place after a trip out of the city in a 4×4. I was ready to relax and mentally prepare for our formidable task ahead. We were welcomed by Faustin, a young gentleman with exceptional customer service. Sometimes, finding accommodating and helpful service in Rwanda can be difficult, however, he not only had our rooms ready, but customized our orders for dinner and was beyond friendly for the extent of our stay. It was refreshing, honestly.

As we settled into our room and ordered brochettes and stews for the evening, the girls and I put our feet up (literally), read our books, and sipped hot ginger tea. I began reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (lovingly given to me by my dear friend Jordana) and I was hooked immediately. We read for nearly an hour until dinner arrived. As the evening slipped away, we were in bed by 8:30pm, anxious for the adventurous day to come.

Sporting my beige Columbia boots and black fleece (acquired 2 years ago at a gorilla naming ceremony, naturally), I was hiking-ready. We packed nearly six liters of water and a healthy load of snacks (Whole30 compliant as Julie and I started the natural cleanse this month) in our daypacks for our day on the mountain.

From snooping on other blogs and doing extensive web searches, we had heard that the predicted time to summit would be around 6 hours. Because of the time-intensive nature of the trail, we wanted to get as early of a start as possible. So, we ate breakfast right around 6:15am. After coffee, eggs, and bananas, we met with our guide, Patrick, and drove to the presumed “base” of the mountain.

“Base” was an overt exaggeration; Patrick claimed that the size of our car (think mid-90’s jeep, Pajero) would be unable to pass some of the steeper, rockier parts of the path. Normally, this would hardly be an inconvenience, however, this created an additional 40 minutes of walking time (one way) from where we parked the car to where the entrance of the trail was marked. Nonetheless, we begun. Stubborn at first, we weren’t entirely sure about hiring a “porter” to help carry our bags. Meg was quick to agree with Patrick that it would be helpful and so for the equivalent of $18 we paid Damascene to join our crew on our journey. In my opinion, it was the best investment of the day – without question.

Along with Patrick and Damascene our motley crew continued to grow. We were also accompanied by 5 military officials, tasked with the job to “watch out for buffalo.” They hiked the entire way with us, usually veering off the path. Even now, I’m a bit aghast that they could hike the mountain with guns (think huge rifles) dangling over their shoulders while wearing heavy camouflage. When in Rwanda, I guess?

At right around 9:00am, we crossed a creaky wooden bridge and Patrick announced, “this is it.” And so, we started the official climb, just past tremendous fields of wheat and the extensive, green forest before us. Reminiscent of Fern Gully, I was slightly full of trepidation as we started. I mean, the first 40 minutes of walking was hard, so what in the hell was I going to be like for the remaining day? I wondered these things as I had a “short call” off to the side in the bush.

Here goes nothing.

The forest instantly captured my imagination. It was like a dream; green forestry surrounded us entirely and though we were already climbing at what felt to be a 45-degree grade, it was beautiful. It was hellish, though, after we acclimatized, because my body was not quite ready for the steep incline. Julie and I had done a relatively intense gym workout just two days prior and so my muscles were already sore.

I focused on my step, my muscles, my mind, and my surroundings. It was kind of a spiritual experience during the first part of trek, actually, because I was absorbing everything around me. The first two hours was brutal. I tried to leverage my body with existing roots of trees and pre-planted steps, but my small legs had to take big leaps at times. We took breaks every 45 minutes or so, ready to catch our breath. I loved having Julie and Meg with me, knowing that we were doing this together helped me stay focused and motivated even in the most difficult parts.

At around 11:30am we reached a point by which we would be taking lunch. We sat on the cusp of the upcoming rocky terrain and looked at the horizon upon us. It was the closest I had ever felt to seeing all of Rwanda – at once. It was a relief – to be sitting, but also to feel like Rwanda wasn’t so daunting, hard, and complicated. It reminded me, again, that Rwanda is also beautiful and expansive and I loved being able to take it all in at once.

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Patrick asked us a lot of interesting questions while we were eating our carrot sticks and previously roasted sweet potatoes.

“What can Rwanda learn from other places?”

“Why is customer service lacking?”

“What do you see in other countries in the region that is unlike what you experience in Rwanda?”

I mused over our answers and tried to breathe as much as I could, as if I knew I would be in short supply as we went up in altitude. At this point, he remarked that we were about 45% complete with the climb to the summit. When I looked up, I didn’t feel assured by this – the next part was completely vertical.

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The terrain switched fast; out of the forest, we were now climbing on grey, volcanic rock. Forget your standard switchback, we ventured straight up the mountain. Meg, Julie, and I alternated carrying our two packs and I was glad for this. We also each had sticks to help us, though one of them was hardly useful. Considering these things, we attacked the incline like beasts. We hit another “false peak” but we were not dismayed – the summit was in sight. Together, we finished the last part of the summit together. I had to take a few moments to motivate myself and to do so, I remembered what I always repeated in my head during field hockey games:

Leave no doubt. The words came from Remember the Titans, and they always inspired me to give my best in everything. I might not BE the best (which is totally, completely fine) but I will give my best efforts. I had a few more rocks to overcome and I was going to do it. I summited, along with the girls, at around 1:15pm.

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Julie, Meg, and I took pictures together at the top. Turns out, per Patrick, in his 6 years of guiding hikes on this mountain, we are the first team to finish together. Usually he leads groups of one or two and in the case of two, someone either takes more time, or turns back. Needless to say, our adventure was a strong team-building activity.

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At 2:00pm, we began our descent. For the lack of a better term, it was hell.

It would take us over 4 hours to get off the mountain, and to be honest, there were moments I wasn’t even sure I could get off. My muscles were so tired that with each step, I wasn’t sure if it would hold up. Several times, my legs completely gave out and I fell on my ass. Tears came fast when this happened. Not out of pain, but out of frustration. I pride myself on being strong and this mountain was making me feel so very weak.

For probably 30% of my descent, I had to hold the hand of our porter, Damsascene. He was kind and gentle, assuring me that we would get down, we just needed to go slowly. I am convinced I wouldn’t have gotten down the mountain without him. I prayed multiple times – mostly that I would be able to find enough strength to finish – and tried to engage in light chatter to distract myself from the pain. We talked about food, Donald Trump, and cultural norms in Rwanda.

The military men behind us snickered at times, baffled by how slow I was going, but I had to ignore them and keep on going. Meg and Julie were ahead with Patrick, so I simply did my best to move quickly, but also move within the pace I had set for myself. I fell at least 6 times and cried at least 7. Turns out, adventures on a mountain does feel like a life journey, full of ups and downs (literally). Julie got altitude sickness on the way down and so she had to deal with an excruciating headache. Clearly, at least for us, the first two hours of the hike were the most difficult, and the entire descent was incredibly challenging – physically and mentally.

When we entered the clearing, after the forest, I was so happy and relieved.

We made it.

I was accompanied through a small village center by Damascene and the soldiers. For a small, remote mountain village, you can imagine the kind of spectacle this created. I encountered plenty of drunk people (apparently, since Sunday is a day off from the fields, many people rest by drinking plentiful amounts of home brew) and was even asked jokingly if I was a gorilla. Sometimes, these things just don’t seem real.

As we got closer to refuge (the car), I shook the hands of an older woman with a stick. We exchanged pleasantries and she asked where I had been coming  from. I simply commented, “Navuye hejeru. Nasuye Imana.”

Translation: I am coming from heaven. I visited God.

It didn’t feel like a smart-ass remark. It seemed appropriate given the fact that we had hiked straight into the clouds and sky. She laughed and raised her hands in humor. In these kinds of situations, if you can simply make people laugh, you’ll be good to go.

When I did reach the car, reunited again with Meg and Julie, I just wanted to sleep. I was so glad we had done the journey, but it was one that I’m not sure I would do again. Scratch that. I don’t think I’ll ever want to do Muhabura again. However, I’m incredibly glad I did it.

It feels empowering to accomplish things that you set your mind to. I didn’t realize how much of my body, mind, and emotions I would have needed for this climb, but luckily, I came ready.

Muhabura, like life, isn’t for the weak. It’s a formidable mountain, one that should be taken seriously. But with grit, perseverance, and strong legs, you can climb it. You might have to crawl up at times, or perhaps slide through mud and rocks on your way down, but it can be done.

Cross that item off the bucket list. Huzzah.

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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.

stand by me

Ben E. King authored (brilliantly) “Stand by Me” in 1960. It’s one of my favorite songs – ever. Always has been. At least since I started listening to music as a young girl. The lyrics are hauntingly stunning and poetic. So simple – and yet they say so much.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

I stumbled across the Tracy Chapman cover this week and it’s been on replay for the last few days. I love her humble renditions; something about her voice brings me to tears frequently.

Always, it seems, I hold tightly to “Stand by Me” when big change and transition presents itself in life.

*

Three years ago, I remember sitting underneath the expansive, starry, deep blue sky at Maisara’s home in our village. I still had 6 months left in my Peace Corps service, but we were talking about the pending change – and what would come after.

“We don’t always know what is ahead of us, Maisara,” I began, “but, you can be sure that no matter the distance between us, I will always stand by you. I will support you, love you, and encourage you – no matter where I go. I want to hold onto these times forever, but don’t worry, even better is going to come. Just you wait and see.”

She chuckled, almost in disbelief, “Yego sha! Turi kumwe.” (Yes my dear, we are together).

I didn’t have to say anything. I knew I would remain true to my word. In turn, I knew she – and her sister – would continue to impact my life in unimaginable ways. They have. They do. They will.

They, along with 4 other girls, are a part of a group of women that have already changed their country. They hail from deep village pockets; from places many Rwandans have never heard of. They went to a tired, resource-lacking public school. Be it sickness, death, poverty, divorce, or hunger, they struggle.

Still. That is only one side of their story. They are writing the next part. They write with their excellent marks; with their leadership positions; with their shifting attitudes; and with their dreams. Always, with their dreams.

We talk monthly, and though they don’t realize it, those conversations are often what propel me to keep going too, to keep my head up and remain open to all that life has for us.  They inspired me when we lived together so many years ago – and even now they have the ability to do so. It’s incredible. They’ve taught me so much about life. They are the great storytellers in my life.

Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school this year.
Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school next year.

When I left Rwanda, that was my dream. That our lives would remain connected; forging together with gusto; and helping pave the way for greater access to education. It’s happening – and we’re almost there. If you want to help the girls finish the sprint to the finish you can contribute to the fund here

I set out to raise $4,000 to make this happen about two years ago, and now, with only a couple terms to go, we’re only in need of $625! Let’s do this. Murakoze cyane. Thank you very much.

*

diaspora, denver style.

Cramped in the corner of a living room in the center of a Denver housing project, I watch 20 Rwandans and Burundians discuss a community wedding back and forth, like a game of ping-pong. Holding treasured blue and black pens, with a tentative agenda, the leader of the family reads necessary purchases to be made: “rice, plantains, meat, beans, cassava, soda, beer…”

Like a quick lesson in school, I learn the various places in Denver and Aurora that members of the African community shop for their preferred items: some consumer goods are available in bulk at Sam’s Club; others are carried at smaller African markets; still others are found at one of the restaurant depots for shop owners. Jacqueline, the wife of the appointed leader of this discussion, explains that because the venue, AfrikaMall will cost the family nearly $4,000, they are trying to discuss how to budget the food costs accordingly.

Everyone will contribute, that much is clear, and I smirk, realizing that culture is so powerful in its ability to take root anywhere even if existing in diaspora.

I lean in close, with a cool beer in hand. The bottles of Heineken, Leffe, and Coke create a centerpiece by which everyone operates. Men, predominantly, sit on the brown, leather couch, while women are stationed in the back of the room. I sit with Terese, Jacqueline, Maria, and Charlotte. They gaze at me – but they don’t stare. When they realize I can understand a great deal of what’s happening (who knew Kinyarwanda could be so useful?), I don’t hear calls of “umuzungu.” Instead, the women nod their heads in agreement, “ari wacu.” She’s ours.

Watching with intrigue, I felt like I was drinking up the culture like a large glass of cool lemonade; refreshing, sweet, and oddly familiar. The movements of arms; the gestures of body language; the smells of food cooking in the kitchen with stuffy air filling the room – it was all recognizable. I could hardly contain myself. I forgot how deeply embedded my passion for Rwanda is.

It smelled like Rwanda. It felt like Rwanda. It sounded like Rwanda.

The accents were like my friends greeting each other with hugs and handshakes; the colorful, traditional fabrics brought back the clothing choices you see on a Sunday morning in Rwanda; and most powerfully, it felt as if I had transplanted another world I knew into the world I had grown up in.

The collision of culture is a wonderfully fascinating thing; I admired the way in which this sub-culture was maintaining their identities in a world so different from their own.

As the family meeting came to an end (with a chosen date of June 26th for the wedding), I had a funny notion that overwhelmed all of my thoughts; what if all of that had somehow prepared me for all of this?

That being my life in Rwanda; this being the life I have now – and the new community I had just discovered.

*

When the formalities of the planning fell away, the questions about my own marital status became the focus of conversation. That didn’t take long, I thought to myself. I explained that I’m waiting and seeking a partner that loves Jesus, is adventurous, loves helping people, and can make me laugh. And, for good measure, I said they would have to have at least 100 cows in their family to give to my father. You see, the sharing of cows (read: money) is an old Rwandan tradition that I knew this family would find hilarious for me to be aware of. They laughed until beer spit out of their mouths. A good joke, indeed. When I mentioned my liking for banana beer, I think one of them might have peed their pants.

Some of the women went to the kitchen to attend to the food for the evening – cassava bread and isombe. I don’t think it was an accident that we would be eating one of my favorite foods (isombe – a leafy dish). I couldn’t stop smiling.

As the room became a bit smaller, I sat with Maria, a 27-year old Burundian mother who moved to the United States 8 years ago, by way of Tanzania. She lived in a refugee camp for 10 years. 10 years. Her family had arrived following the violence and genocide in Burundi in 1997; yet both of her parents died in the camp.

Slowly, but confidently, she shared more of her story. I didn’t have to ask too many questions, she embraced the conversation with enthused openness and interest without much prompting. She had lived in Virginia for a number of years but eventually came to Colorado after she married at 20. Now, with two children, her and her husband work to support their family tirelessly. She works at a nursing home as a cook. She loves the way she can lose herself in the process; it’s freeing for her. Still, she maintains big dreams: she wants to be an accountant. One day, she says, one day.

I asked the family what they felt like when they were in the airplane, coming to America. Some chuckled and said they thought they might die. But, Maria, she shook her head,

oh no, I felt so happy. I felt free. I felt like my life had a chance.”

 As we sat together, ready to share a meal as a family does, I mentioned that I would be happy to be a part of their small, close-knit community and help them in any way I could. Maybe that means helping with English from time to time. Perhaps, it might call for a bit of babysitting, too.

I made it clear: the time I had spent in Rwanda was possible because every day, someone helped me. That is no heavy exaggeration – I wouldn’t have made it in a new place, a new culture, without friends, support, and guidance.

Over these years, it has been brought to me in the deepest of provisions; and so, surely, I could pass it on.

“Ubuzima bwiza!”

Cheers. We clanked our bottles together, turned up the NBA basketball game, and gave celebration to the beauty of freedom and community.

As for me, I drove home that night, almost in tears. I had been praying for this – a sign of real, present community. I’ve been waiting. I didn’t know what it might look like. But that’s the kind of power that God holds; answered prayers often do not look like what we expect.

*

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breathless with bare feet.

Psalm 118:1: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.

My bare, musty feet are warmed by the smoky flames just a few inches away. I hardly notice; I’m focused on the expansive sky above me, glittered with stars, heaven, and just enough glimmer from the moon. I’m in the village, and as usual, my breath is taken away. I know there is no camera that could capture this moment; no words that could suffice; simply one of those moments in life between you, God, and the people there with you. I love that feeling, it’s one of my favorites. For the first time in a few weeks, I feel like I can breathe. No distractions. I’m on the precipice of an exciting transition back home and so I’m perfectly content just you know, taking it all in.

Eugenie is in the outdoor kitchen adjacent to the traditional Rwandan mat preparing rice and a tomato sauce for dinner. Her mother, seated next to me, is telling me about her own parents, and what their life was like in the Northern Province when she was growing up. I love tales from times before now; they feel authentic, genuine, and wisdom-ridden. That’s why I love hanging out with older people, I think. 

When the meal is ready, we go inside. I follow the blinking torch Eugenie holds; I’m village deep, meaning I sure ain’t going to be charging my phone anytime soon. It’s freedom, in a way, because I’m fully present, fully aware. Dinner is uneventful, and soon we are laying our heads to sleep to prepare for the next day. We are meeting the other girls from Ruramira in the morning – a reunion of sorts (the first time in 2 years where the GLOW girls are all together!) – and so rest is not optional. We’ll need it.

The next day is Saturday and it’s beyond full. I wake up to just-enough-sugar tea and warm water to bathe (from a bucket, obviously). When I am perfectly presentable (Eugenie is sure I didn’t miss a spot) we walk 40 minutes to a home not far where I used to take residence, and share fanta, laughs, and stories about school with the other girls. All of them have one or two years remaining in their secondary education and so it seems crazy that I started teaching them when they were just in Senior 1 or 2! …Perhaps I am that old?, I wonder. 

I’ve been back to my village numerous times since finishing the Peace Corps 2 years ago, but this time is special. The girls are all together and so it just proves, once again, that a place is about the heart of those that you love – not even the beauty that surrounds the mountains, trees, and hills. God’s spirit is what makes a place full. The girls cherish this time, but because it’s rainy season we eventually move quickly back to our respective homes; some back to the north part of the village, some far out in the Eastern part of Rwanda; and for me, I’m headed to Maisara & Zahara’s home for the evening. 

We travel there and my! It’s cumbersome. Mud trickles in our toes from heavy rains and once again, I’m barefoot. When we do finally reach their humble abode, Zahara does something intensely intimate and beautiful. 

She washes my feet. As the mud trickles away, I find myself in tears. There is something so personal about this – and I remind Zahara of the way Jesus washes the disciples feet in the Bible. She smiles and remembers too. “No problem, my dear…I’m happy to do it!” Of course she is. We share traditional Rwandan food shortly thereafter (cassava bread, obviously) and we fall asleep under a mosquito net to the noises of frogs, fireflies, and a crying cat. I love it out here. In the morning, it’s time to go. We say goodbye and though it hurts my heart, I feel so fresh, clean, and abundantly joyful. It’s sad to leave; but what a mighty blessing to have come back in the first place. My, my. Once again, Rwanda has reminded me of the deepest provisions He has given me – new life. With beautiful people. With beautiful experiences. I can see Him in everything…and so yes, I’m left breathless. Breathless with bare feet.

In addition to all the fun I have had in this season in Rwanda, God has also provided experiences of deep reconciliation, opportunity, and faithfulness. I can’t possibly recount or describe it all in just a few words. But there are many, many stories. I suppose that’s why I write at all. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead and sharing some of what has happened here. About doors that have opened. About doors that have closed. I have a job that I love and I can’t wait to see the roads and opportunity it brings. I have the world littered with people that I love deeply – and that in itself is such a blessing in these uncertain and scary times in our world. I have a family that is scattered – and that too, is a reminder that as God’s people we are far more united than we think. God is doing something, and that something is very special. And it’s not just me – it’s all of us. It’s these deep corners of joy that God desires for us. Not because life is perfect, but because it’s perfect in its’ imperfections. He is the one constant; He is the great provider and His love truly does endure forever. Shoes or no shoes.

A new season is upon me, and the only way I can describe it as I gear up for a long flight home is simply, breathless with bare feet. I’m renewed, excited, grateful, and just….content. All glory to God.

the beautiful Eastern Province. A home, of sorts.

the beautiful Eastern Province. A home, of sorts.

Where peace transcends all.

Where peace transcends all.

simplicity.

simplicity.