M is writing a novel, is passionate and committed. Every free moment that opens up she runs to the computer, dives back into her world of ghosts and empresses, translates French phrases, asks for help with spelling. I watch her devotion, jealous and amazed. Following all the advice of the best writers, she puts me to shame, has become my role model.

At the Indian Ocean, I watch Phil and the girls floating in the wide blue water. Their laughter carries across the wind, the sand, as they wrestle, splash, hold slimy sea cucumbers in their hands. There is no one else in sight, only their four dark silhouettes changing shape in the sparkling light.

We play volleyball in the living room with the red balloon J got from the dentist, set our dining room chairs in a long row to be the net, tease each other about our skills.

The girls have started making perfume. They pick flowers, rosemary needles, mint leaves, crushing each combination into colourful pulp. They gather all their most beautiful containers and jewelry boxes, fill them with the murky water of their concoctions, label them with poetic names. We smell each sample, buy them with one shilling coins, dab their earthy scent on our wrists. Weeks later I find containers of old flower petals in the fridge, being preserved for another (forgotten) sale.

J wants to bake meringues, flavour them with rosewater and lemon. She moves carefully through the kitchen, but I am impatient as I wash dishes, wipe up spilled egg yolks, watch my morning slipping away. Tears slip into the dishwater, and I don’t know if they are my frustration or my guilt at being frustrated. Later we savour the meringues, perfect, pale yellow and pink.

I am driving with a friend after dark when we see an animal, a mongoose maybe, but longer and fatter than any mongoose we’ve seen, run across the road through the beams of our headlights. It has the rich black and white stripes of a zebra, moves like water low to the ground, disappears in the bushes. We are both stunned, stumble over the words to best describe the mysterious creature.

I reach to turn on the shower water and jump back when a tiny baby gecko, shorter than my thumb, drops from the tap and into the bath. I try to direct the water away from it so it can scramble to safety, but a moment later am distracted when another identical gecko jumps from the curtain above my head and narrowly misses my shoulder. I laugh at my tiny scurrying shower mates.

Truth telling

I am paralyzed by own search for meaning, by the need to draw out conclusions, maybe even (dare I say) truths from my words, my experiences, my stories. I walk over the damp cushiony dirt between the roots of trees with peeling bark, and at the same time I wonder what I could learn from trees, if there is a pattern in the growing of things, why I’m so lucky to afford this luxury in the first place, this walking and meaning-searching.

Which leads to the other paralysis, the one of my own privilege. I am so aware that everything about my life, the freedom to walk in safe green spaces, hours to sit at my computer and craft sentences, even my ruminating over the cost and responsibility of privilege, is somehow enmeshed with my rich, white, Canadian place in things. Knowing that I can tell my story only because someone else is unable to tell theirs, leaves me floundering, desperate to write, but paralyzed by the ability to do so.

All of these heady internal conversations, my analyses, guilt and defensiveness, they render me motionless even though I’ve spent decades pouring my life behind the imperative to write and tell stories. So I turn instead to the one truth that— I don’t think— can be denied. The facts of my experience. My uninterpreted life. I spend hours at this exercise, recording the details of my days, my young daughters’ words, movements, the flight of the birds above the tree line:

A sunbird lands on the ivy climbing up the stripy bark of the banana tree. Its feathers shimmer in the morning sunlight. It chirps, hops over to reach its curved beak into the open purple petals of the agapanthus. The flowers tremble with the bird’s deep drinking.

J wakes early, slides silently down the hall in white soft cotton pajamas, sniffles in the silence. She sits down beside me, wipes her nose with an old baby washcloth, reads a fairy book in the dim light before dawn.

The girls squeeze into the bath tub, scrub dirt from their foreheads and feet. P makes soup in a cupcake lining and bows as she serves it to me. Water splashes on the floor as J makes explosions with a small shampoo tube.

A brown hadada ibis struts across the lawn.It pecks at the grass with its preposterous beak, watches me with a round leery eye. I remember when M was two and stood at the back door talking to the ibises, loud, screeching. They answered her with their caws just like she assumed they would.

Today we argue. About new cars versus old, about where to sit at the dinner table, about how to argue. We each retreat to nurse our wounds, emerge cautiously from bedrooms and books, try again, argue again. I go to bed early and wait for morning.

I write these stories, the truth of my days, with relief and gratitude, but still with an underpinning of fear. Even the facts of one’s life can be judged. They may have happened but that doesn’t mean they should have happened. Maybe we are too insular, insulated, shouldn’t spend so much time safe in our four walls, doors shut, suffering ignored. We have our own pain of course, our own suffering even, but it doesn’t touch the bigger broader sufferings, the ones named war and rape and racism and abuse and famine and incarceration. Those stories are theoretical to us, at least now, sad and sorrowing stories, but abstract.

The trail of slug slime on the sidewalk, the sharp smell of the first rain, the arguments over Lego, these are the concrete experiences of our bodies, our breath. I don’t know how to hold all of it, how to tell my own stories without devaluing others. I want to search for meaning but am afraid I must relinquish that privilege to other voices who have not yet experienced that luxury.

I am a writer afraid of writing. I hold my small truths in my hand like wounded butterflies, sad and unsure what to do next, willing them to fly.

Roots

I leave my house in the damp
blurriness of morning, walk until
the city cannot reach me.
Stepping out of my shoes, I press
the warm soles of my feet
onto wet stone, damp leaves,
but still the distance between me
and the roots of things is too great.
So I kneel down, dig my fingers into
the blanket of dirt, peel open
crinkly seed pods,
the ideas of so many trees lined up
inside that brown dying skin.
I put a seed in my mouth, taste my
longing to enter the humus,
to close all the gaps between me
and the ground of all growing.
When it starts to rain, I lift my face
toward the downpour, willing
the moving sky and the wet earth
and the tall trees to swallow me
inside themselves, wash away
the boundaries of my skin,
plastic beads, synthetic clothes.
Kneeling with the devotion
of a thousand desperate
saints, I ask the earth to absorb
me with gulping love
into her ripe
rolling body.

When the Moon Fell in the Desert

Tonight I watched a star slice through the dark
Turkana sky, so bright I thought the
moon was falling, and I realized it
was the first thing I’d seen in this
wide country that made me gasp
for the beauty of it. But this place, too,
is beloved of the earth, this place, too,
holds the million miracles. I suspect it takes
a learning, a leaning into this life, to see
its small offerings, an intimacy with
the blazing heat, the endless sand,
the sharp clarity of no water, no food,
no crops, before your heart can open
wide enough to receive the gift of the golden sun
laying its heart across the lean acacia. Before you
smile to hear the black bird with the caw
like a creaking door and the dove
with its watery whooping. And then,
if you are lucky, you will find you love
the immense courage and artistry of a people
choosing thousands of beads, startling
against the endless browns of this place,
who wear as much beauty as their necks can hold
when beauty seems to have no meaning.
Who find time to attend to the stringing of necklaces,
hard silver bands bent around wrists, tiny braids
against smoothly shaven temples when water itself
is unassumed, when life this week again
is tenuous. When did I learn that beauty
was a luxury? What have I ever known
about survival?

A Confederacy of Flight

Maybe it’s middle age,

all the talk of joints

and life insurance, but

my envy has shifted

from the lovely

polished humans-

whatever it was that

once looked like success,

that tenuous beauty-

to the preposterous

hornbill, the beige

and ruffled mousebird,

all those flying things

with their sharp purpose,

those magnificent wings.

I dream of decomposing,

feeding my tired skin to

an earthworm, just

for the final hope of being

swallowed by a bird,

of joining the swooping

confederacy, the hope

of all that air

lifting me.

When the Time Comes

To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go. ~Mary Oliver

These daughters pressed against my side,
their hair smelling like the warm earth,
the one on my lap, all squirming limbs and softness,
they will die soon- maybe in one year or seventy-
there’s no use denying it, trying to forget.
Like the agapanthus,
all life and exuberance, pressing colour and
movement from every cell until the day when
life begins to wear out, the leaves start
to curl in on themselves, the petals loosen
their small grip, or the fine white butterfly-
how does a butterfly die?
I watched one being eaten this
morning by a swooping green bird,
it fought its sudden demise with fierce flapping,
holding on to life till the last dive
into darkness. But others must fall
silently in the trees, or lay
their tissue wings across warm stones
letting the sunlight swallow them, the wind
lift their papery bodies after they’re gone.
I press my mouth against my daughters’ hair,
the skulls that grew beneath my ribs,
I lean into their aliveness.

The girls draw portraits of faces over and over, piles of paper faces growing on the dining room table. J has drawn me, though my eyes and hair are black and unfamiliar. I wonder at her image of me. P’s girl is crying and colourful, like a sad Raggedy Ann. M’s face has eyes at the top of her head, stylized and funky. They draw and colour and argue over pencil crayons.

I give up my conviction to not buy hard plastic and buy two shiny new plastic buckets for the drought. A basin for dishwater. Two buckets in the bathrooms. We collect bath water, sink water, dip into the brown soapy water with a plastic jug to flush the toilets, water the plants. We still have more water than almost anyone in the world. I am puzzled at the memory of flushing without thinking.

We play Sleeping Queens on the back porch. J always wins. We play Spot It and Shut the Box and King of Tokyo and Deer in the Headlights. These are the games of choice these weeks, though I can’t always muster the energy to play them. I already regret the chances I’ve missed.

The girls watch my play practices, know the lines better than the cast, skip behind plants and boss the middle schoolers around. We string stars between branches, tape long leafy vines to a gold moon, wrap delicate wires around fairy ears.

I wait for reports about my aunt dying on a far away continent. One day she has stopped eating,the next, she’s revived,is walking. We watch her totter on the tightrope between worlds.

M and J decide to make mango pudding for our tea time, want to do it on their own without a recipe. They stir sugar and flour, puree mango pieces, pick small mint leaves. They pinch chocolate shavings from the bottom of the chocolate chip bag and argue over whose turn it is to stir. We eat the cool sweet pudding out of small bowls on the back porch, the girls eyeing us with pride.

I watch a bee eater snap a bright blue butterfly in its beak, carry it back to a branch of the potato tree. The butterfly is big, too big for the small beak. The bird works with determination, trying to somehow shove those fluttering wings into its own body. I am struck most by the colours, the metallic green of the bird’s feathers, the shimmering blue of the butterfly wings, am amazed to watch the one colour disappear, become a part of the other. Now, incredibly, the bird holds the fragile blue of the butterfly in its own green body. I notice I’m not sad at the butterfly’s death, more amazed at the fusion of life.

Phil calls us to the backyard. It’s raining. We all stand on the brown grass, look up at the clouds, darker than we’ve seen in months. The rain falls in small individual drops, not enough to make us wet, stops before it really begins. We set a purple bucket in the yard, an overly optimistic gesture. The bucket remains dry. We keep waiting.

I sit on the Lamu couch and fold gold embossed origami paper into lopsided peace cranes, trying to conjure hope with each careful crease.

P has propped a small note up on the coffee table “I lov you, famale. You mak me smuyl.” Under the note is a brown envelope full of carefully folded drawings. She pulls them out one at a time, hands them to each of us, pictures of flowers and sunshines and trees in bright marker colours.

I carry a plastic bucket of bath water across the lawn in the early morning to water my favourite palm tree. I notice how wet the grass is and wonder where all that moisture comes from in this time of drought, heat. The ground is hard, the dirt in the flower beds cracked and dusty, but the grass is cool and wet beneath my bare feet. It’s the first time I remember being deeply grateful for dew.

J and her friends decide to institute International Baby Day. She wraps the doll M made for her in a sweater, the doll with the orange yarn hair, the purple bonnet, the stuffed sock body, and tucks her into her backpack, secretly when no one is watching. Later after her secret plan has unfolded without a hitch and she no longer has to worry about me interfering, she tells me about the day, the baby, the way the girls played with their dolls during recess. Her doll is still strapped to her back with a green cardigan like a Kenyan mama.

I read Peter Duck to the girls before bedtime. The words are difficult, the sailing lingo tedious. But the girls don’t complain as they colour pictures of Harry Potter wands, draw trees with curlicue branches. P has been drawing guinea pigs on all her pictures for months, small round creatures with curved legs and small smiles, her signature work.

I duck my head as I hang laundry on the line, hoping no one will see me, notice that I used my washing machine during this time of so little water. Each clean piece of clothing feels decadent, a luxury that I’ve stolen.

After supper the girls beg for a Family Game, something involving hiding and chasing around the yard. We decide on Big Black Bear, Phil gives into the pressure to hide because he is scariest, fastest, loudest. We run around the house, hold hands, shriek into the fading evening light. I remember playing this game as a child, running through the farmyard with my cousins, scared of older brothers, the thrill of danger.

The Sacred Ibis

There was a time when the Egyptians worshiped Thoth,
the god who gave them writing, wisdom, words,
their god with the head of the ibis,
all beak and no forehead.
They worshiped the ibis itself, too,
not the loud squawky hadada,
but its silent cousin, the white sacred ibis,
collected their bodies for great burials,
painted, in faith, their avian portraits over temples.
Every morning I watch a flock of sacred ibis
float across the valley behind my house,
their black curved bills, their white bodies
drawn like thin gloves
against the grey fog of those early hours.
If I were writing my halting poems
in another time, an ancient place,
I suspect I would fall on my knees
each morning at this sight,
press my forehead into the damp grass,
thanking the benevolent Thoth
for considering me worthy
of this divine visitation.