Whatever happened,” she asked, “with that whole business about the trip to the dry cleaner? The story about the money left in the wallet? Remember the cats, all sprawled about? We’re still waiting, you know,” she said, picking a stem of bougainvillea from a vase on the table. “We’re still waiting for the ending.”

She paused. “And don’t think we have all day.” Her grey eyes settled like moths on my heart.

August in Dakar, we have succumbed to the most oppressive heat. Humidity descends with a sort of miasma of despair. For months, we have moved through each day weighed down by an ocean; people practically lay in the streets. But this morning something is different, a breeze softens the stillness. There is a sense of forgiveness. The garden’s blood lilies and staggering red stalks of canna, trellises of bougainvillea and mango trees create an oasis on the edge of the Sahel. A fountain beside the swimming pool gushes like youth. Three embassy peacocks, having examined the guests upon arrival, retreat to the hedges with pristine arrogance and five women, as slender and elegant as kelp beneath a slowly retreating tide, are gathered around a table laid with white linen in the shade an ancient baobab. Dutch trading vessels and men smoking pipes decorate the aobana china plates. (She, a Norwegian raised in Japan, married a Dutch Ambassador). Chocolates are moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.* We drink espresso and talk about the summer’s personal trials—behind us now—and the drought in Europe, refugees in Libya, rents in Dubai and Ulaanbaatar, upholstery, a recipe, a child’s scores… the patriarchy, and its decline. The wives of ambassadors, the mothers of diplomats—artists, professors, translators, doctors—have nowhere to go until noon. Conversations begin, digress, lull and sweep back in generous feminine circles as a stream of life meanders into a thousand valleys of all that was or might have been

 or is to be—**

Rare are the moments when I find such peace in Dakar, when heat, solitude and memory have not conspired to finish me off by noon. But this morning, despite life’s errands and reports, despite the unwritten books and brittle bones, despite my first child’s imminent departure for an adolescence abroad: in other words, despite the indifferent passage of time (that impenetrable tyrant, that unflinching bureaucrat), despite all this—this morning’s little breeze, the friends, the coffee and the way the sunlight diffuses through emerald-green mango leaves brings a lingering harmony, a sort of heaven on earth, and I dwell in its realm.

And now this. Whatever happened…? she had asked. The two words linger, floating on the surface of the ocean-air, waiting in abeyance to secure my orders and proceed. I consider my reply command. They’re not exactly a threat, these words, I don’t think. Perhaps more a snag— a tear in the tranquility. Whatever happened, I wonder to myself, with that book you were going to write? Whatever happened—my mind kept meandering—to that friend you were going to visit in the hospital? To the child you were going to cherish the time with? Whatever happened to reading the Russians, my dear? Or to prayer—to all those prayers you were praying? To reckless laughter? To meeting for lunch and drinking wine and sneaking back to make love all afternoon? Whatever happened to learning French, for chrissake? Weren’t you going to learn French?

Whatever did happen to all that? I asked myself in an attempt to distract my mind from the scene that it truly yearned to probe—for in the midst of the beautiful garden with the gentle friends, a situation was beginning to intrude: a vehicle on the way to the dry cleaners was stuck in traffic at a roundabout. The road that swerves through the valley between the deux mammelles toward Almadie was teeming with  people and taxis and horses pulling carts. Dogs lay emaciated in the shade; the gendarme wore helmets and mirror sunglasses; vendors sold coat racks and miracle cashews among cool sufi marabout, lime-sellers, slender surfer and  barefoot talibe begging for the mosques. Nestle coffee carts were being pushed up to the scene, and so many women with buckets of mangoes, bananas, fish or a leg of some beast balanced on their head. All of this was beginning to swarm the traffic because one day two years ago, a bunch of cows had meandered into the roundabout beyond the African Renaissance Monument and stopped, indifferent and unflinching in their separate, bovine schedule.

To be fair, the cows had not so much wandered into the city and blocked the road as the city had wandered out into the desert and blocked the cows. There was a stalemate and all involved seemed to respect it as yesterday’s provincial Dakar turns gently, almost in the palm of one’s hand, into a West African urban metropolis. In the rising tide of traffic created by the cows, a spontaneous village had sprung up as always happens, and I—annoyed, bored, impatient and stubborn—had lifted my pen from the paper, left the car in a huff and walked home.

But the scene, I confess, hovered in my mind for years—years, mind you. A source of unfinished business as distracting as an abandoned child or an unpaid debt. And here’s the truth: I had left the whole mess at the roundabout when I rose from my writing one morning, defiantly gathered my things, put on a hat and returned, quite simply, to work. Because as it turns out, poetry is a fool’s endeavor. Who mourns the unfinished sentence? Who gasps when the pen lies abandoned on the writer’s desk? No one. And anyway, there were applications to fill out. There were flowers to grow, eggs to boil, egos to soothe, wounds to suture and a God to worship. In other words, dear reader, there was life to live. The children arrived home from school each afternoon and filled the rooms with delight. I submitted some reports, I gazed out the window. The summers played out. An ominous shadow descended an escalator one day in Manhattan and the world was thrown on its hinges. I checked the news. I checked the news again. I did nothing but check the news. I stood by the pool; I snuck a cigarette. It’s with regret to report that cats died—the first by a car; the second for love. I crossed the sea, coming and going like the days, like the months and eventually like the years. One morning amidst the ghostly trees of a past life, an owl flew up from the edge of the woods and trees crashed down, flash floods swept through and creatures emerged from the bushes and the trees and the gardens. I went into a trance. I tried to be patient, I tried to forgive. I tried not to panic most mornings. Time unfolded. I went to Paris. And through it all the unfinished story loomed, haunting me the way conversations with an old love continue in one’s mind years after he has left you forever.

Oh but Paris! Let me tell you, I’m a sucker for that lost-time feeling. That winter, the Seine had flooded over its banks and was rising up the stairs to the quay where the Parisians had put a strip of yellow tape at the top of the stairs to warn others of peril. The trees along the banks were submerged in the rising waters and their branches dragged along the river like fingers skimming the current as it pulsed past. I woke early in the mornings and walked down the Rue de Seine to the river, buying a coffee at the only open café, passing plaques on the walls about Voltaire, Sand, Montesquieu and the composers, poets and adovcats who created academies or were born in Rouen or died in a war, and I wondered what my life would be like had I been bold enough to move to Paris after school.

It was so quiet. It was not the 21st century. Across the river, the imposing Louvre was an elderly tyrant in the silent morning. The sky was stone grey, the river’s current was very strong. Ducks twirled merrily down the river’s current like businessmen at a carnival. Occasionally one passed by sitting smartly on a scrap of wood, joking around with his buddies who were being traditional on the cold water. The first day, before the others arrived, I had stood at a window next to a green Picasso at the Musee d’Orsay and watched three massive swans surge down the river when suddenly, dramatically—with incredible power and spirit—they lifted as they approached the footbridge and flew off.

That night, having dinner alone at a restaurant, I wondered if the swans had been a hallucination and googled Swans in Paris? After the museum I had walked back to the hotel and thrown on a sweater, boots, grabbed a pack of cigarettes and tied back my hair while I waited for the elevator. Outside again, I walked a few blocks, the street was already quite busy, and entered the small restaurant, one I have frequented now and then over the years. The few empty tables were reserved and so I sat at a stool at the end of the bar next to the yellowing Parisian mirror on the wall and took out my book. I felt a little self-conscious as I opened to the page I had been reading—perhaps, I wondered, we don’t read books at bars anymore? In the years before smart phones or internet, the years of roommates, I often went to quiet bars alone to read. I read or wrote letters in long-hand sitting at a quiet bar for dinner alone on a weeknight in New York. But the world has changed drastically since then, and I have often stepped aside from its pace for long stretches, and there’s the threat, I sometimes sense, that I have become an anachronism.

I asked the bartender about the menu. He replied with a strained kindness, as if addressing an older woman. He leaned toward me for a polite moment among his real tasks, and extended his ear in case my voice might be weak with age, or my request too curious or meandering to follow in the frail, dim light. There was a sense of obligation attached to his gesture and as he turned back to the others, I—having been myself since forever (loose, effortless, as eternal as you, taking everything for granted, steeped in folly and whim) suddenly felt awkward, self-conscious and stiff. My sweater was too big perhaps, maybe shapeless; my hair neglected, maybe gnarled. I may have forgotten to put on lipstick. My effortless presence, in other words, no longer lent elegance to the room. But wait, it’s me! I almost called after him, but my bag was clumsy on the barstool beside me, and I worried I might lose my place in my book. It was better to stay still.

I turned and looked at the diners at the tables. They were talking together, and quite engaged, having just negotiated some deal or penned a libretto, no doubt, as it slowly dawned on me that I was a middle-aged woman sitting alone at a bar. It was early February. The occasion of the weekend was my fiftieth birthday, my husband and friends would be flying in soon. Up to that point, I had been pretty cool, pretty fucking cool for the last four or five years about this impending deadline. But the the days had conspired regardless, and time caught up to even me, and now no amount of Paris or swans or rivers or Picassos or floods could assuage the shock of this sobering moment.

Whatever happened to the quick and earnest attention of bartenders? Whatever happened to effortless ease? So this was it: goodbye youth, I thought. Goodbye beauty, goodbye to being listened to at the dinner party. Goodbye cherry red lipstick—I never even got around to wearing you—goodbye to smoking hashish with rock stars on the Mediterranean in a bikini, on a yacht, eating rabbit for lunch and drinking rosé. Goodbye too all that. No more cliff diving; no sweet-talking my way out of speeding tickets; no joking about masturbation, that would certainly be considered horrendous and scandalous now, coming from the pale lips of middle-age. Damn, I thought. Fuck. And so what’s left to talk about? What’s left but to say things like, I’m grateful for my health. Which I am. I am grateful for my health.

Oh look! someone exclaimed and I was startled from my thoughts. My daughter had arrived and was walking through the ambassador’s garden toward us. She had returned to Dakar from the summer resplendent in beauty, rejuvenated and calm and peacefully remote, ready to soon embark on high school and life abroad. She smiled at the familiar women who had helped raise her. They sang her name in surprise and raised their arms and stood up and kissed her cheeks which were flushed in the heat. She joined us at the table and reached for the chocolates. She could eat one-hundred of them and nothing would ever happen to her. Across the table, my friend’s beautiful grey eyes were alight with joy. Her question to me had dissolved, unresolved, into the sweltering sea as the conversations swelled and rose and broke and dissipated, incessantly flowing against the shore.


To be continued, in time.

*references to Proust are not coincidental. 

**Where did I read this? I have no idea.

This piece is a continuation of the three “chapters” posted— confusingly, in blog fashion— underneath it. This piece should stand alone, but you are welcome to scroll down to Chapter 1 to read the whole story. 


Some time ago, when we lived in Nairobi, I was standing in line at a butcher’s shop in an upscale, outdoor mall. There were two janitors leaning against the wall near me, talking. One was telling the other about a wonderful new development in his life. After years of working nights, he had been promoted to the day shift. He was so pleased. He was telling his friend how amazed he was by his great fortune. Years of darkness and loneliness and now suddenly he was surrounded by people and warmed by the sun. There was more work of course, but it was pleasant and the hours passed by. It was a miracle, really. He had dismantled his old life of nights and solitude, and rebuilt a new one around crowds and light and action. He had been naturally a little worried at first by all the change, you know, but it was fine. Fine, fine fine

The line at the butcher’s shop moved slowly but I didn’t mind. I was lulled by the janitor’s speech. I sensed he had delivered it before. His friend was half-listening, nodding a little as the janitor talked melodiously for many paragraphs about this bewildering news, the marvelous changes. When he finished talking both men paused and gazed through the distance, reflecting on life’s wonders. Then the janitor smiled and threw up his hands and in his lilt-y Kikuyu accent he concluded, “Eh! But I am still just myself.”

His beautiful conclusion returns to me now, ten years and a lifetime later in Dakar, as we ascend the Corniche between the Deux Mamelle hills, the Atlantic sweeping out to the west and the African Renaissance Monument towering above. Ahead of us, the dry cleaner, the jacket with the money in the pocket, and our fate awaits. Below us, abandoned in the weedy dirt above the sea, we pass the vacant shell of a massive, unfinished hotel. This abandoned hotel disturbed me so when we first moved here, as all the ravaged construction projects weirdly did. There are plots and neighborhoods all over Dakar half-built with shoddy investments of laundered drug money, or abandoned because of corruption and litigation, or languishing for years because the money simply ran out. Concrete skeletal cathedrals of ineptitude, dark vacant holes for windows, stripped landscape and squatters’ clothes drying on a chainlink fence—there are places that we pass through daily that feel like post-conflict war zones, like Somalia, or Beruit in 1980s.

There is a fine line between construction and destruction I have grown to learn. Construction: put together by arranging an array of parts; destruction: rendered nonexistent, useless, unsound.  When we first arrived it was sometimes my life, and not just Dakar, that felt poised between the two. (The two processes can look the same, and of course can happen simultaneously.) When I arrived so disoriented, the life behind me in New York suddenly rendered nonexistent, I perceived only abandonment, loss and failure manifested in the architecture around me. But today, as we pass the hulking shell of the luxury hotel, something stills in me. After a painful year of trying to process the dust and coastal desert, the seasonal monotony, the brutal landscape—trying to arrange the parts and adjust to the fact that this is my life now—perhaps, I wonder quietly, Dakar has begun to break my resistance. (A white butterfly flutters against my lip, I puff it away.) Maybe an arrangement is happening; a new perception of beauty begins to inform the abandoned structures. I see amid the debris moments of hope: a child imitating her mother’s prayer, or a woman’s translucent blue veil lifted by a breeze against a dirty lot. Maybe after the freakiness and disorientation, the dismantling, shock and horror of this move… well, here I am. I am still just myself.

The butterfly flutters against the window. When I open the window to release it, another comes in instead. They are everywhere recently—one of those crazy bug migration stories—millions of them crossing the goddamn Sahara to Europe or something. All week they have been fluttering recklessly through our garden—gossamers of pure and demented instinct—stoned (I have read) on pheromones. I smile thinking of my favorite piece of writing ever: an account by Lewis Thomas of the silkworm moth’s pheromone, called bombykol, having its effect on the male:

“The messages are urgent, but they may arrive, for all we know, in a fragrance of ambiguity. ‘At home, 4 p.m. today,’ says a female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bombykol, a single molecule of which will rattle the hairs of any male within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor.

But it is doubtful if he has an awareness of being caught in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the old wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: ‘Bless my soul, what have we here!’

It has been soberly calculated that if a single female moth were to release all the bombykol in her sac in a single spray, all at once, she could theoretically attract a trillion males in the instant. This, of course, is not done.*


“Mum, they’re all over the place,” the child in the backseat says and indeed when I turn to look, his hair is simply alight in white wings.  Five or ten little white butterflies have come in through a vent or something, congregating like polite parishioners. “Oh darling, how wonderful!” I say. But the child from New York City is not amused with so much nature, so I remind him of the wedding toast I made in New Hampshire in 1998.

“The one about the butterflies?” he asks.

“The very one,” I reply. “You see, there were these people… these two people,” I begin. “One was my lover… And one was my friend.” I wink and the child smiles conspiratorially at the Great Quoting of Film. “I was the maid of honor in their wedding,” I add, and turn back in my seat to look forward.

“It was a beautiful wedding, held on the porch of the old summer house with Mount Monadnock glowing in the distance each dusk, and the sunflowers bursting against the brown wood house, and the posse of sisters sitting on the deck chairs bitching about everything. But it was the late summer of a difficult year. I was presently without a home, as I recall. I did not have a job, or money, or any plan. I had returned from Rwanda (there was that composer) after the incident in Tanzania, which happened before crossing the Serengeti to Kenya with A., and by the time the wealthy recluse artist sped off in his goddamn silver Audi with his dog named Modigliani, raising the dust by the cabin in the Blue Mountains—Oh, I had lost my apartment in the West Village during this ordeal too—I was quite depleted. I had lost my way, shall we say. I lost everything really, and somewhere in the chaos of that time my life was felt to have been made unsound.

“But that’s another story,” I sigh, waving it away. “The evening I arrived a few days before the wedding, a terrible storm happened. The bedroom doors were banging and the shutters outside were too. It was a real old house and you could feel the spirits and the bones of New England’s granite history in the wind and in the rooms that night. My friend and my lover’s Black Lab, his name was Fish, got spooked or disoriented maybe with the travel and the storm. He ran off while we were sleeping, was hit by a car a few miles down the road in the middle of the night, and he died.”

“Oh,” says the child. The moths had finally settled around him; the child, a patient boy by all accounts, had resigned himself to their presence.

“We were calling for Fish to come back when the police came up to the door in the morning. It was a horrible shock for my friends. That dog was such a sweet and good dog, and he was their greatest love. They were devastated.” I watch the white butterflies out the window doing their loopy-loops in the brush along the road, beautiful white against the dirty landscape, they are caught up by an invisible breeze and spin away.

“Like all storms, this one too passed and the summer returned—cleansed, blue, shimmering. But of course a vaguely sinister shadow hung over my dear friends. They were commencing a life together, but they were mourning the loss of this love separately. I think they worried that Fish’s death was an omen. They seemed to retreat from each other, steeling themselves to face the frenzy of a wedding. The guests began to arrive a few days later, everyone from everywhere—just the most wonderful people from our lives—and the mood lifted. And it was a great and loving wedding, a real celebration of life, because a storm can obliterate much, child, but the love… the love always remains. We tried to remember that.” I feel from the backseat the child’s eyes roll. “Anyway,” I sigh, “It was all very tragic and dramatic and loving and wonderful, all at once.”

“Like those Pokemon Go players when they fell off the cliff,” the child mused.

“Just like that. Naturally, amidst all this I was expected to make a wedding toast. Despite preparing for months, by the morning of the wedding I hadn’t a clue of what to say. I woke early and went for a walk through the woods to conjure something up. A monarch butterfly was resting by the side of the dirt road on a stem of Queen Anne’s Lace as I left the house. A few yards down the road, there was another. There was one, then another. I knew then what was happening. It was like the baby was finally coming—or like soldiers, our boys! rising over the horizon returning victorious to their little town after the war. My heart leapt into my throat! It was the arrival of amazingness.

“The monarchs were so ethereal, such filigree, so unlikely in the New Hampshire woods, the way a cat looks out of place on a beach. They’re totally insane, you know. They flutter along on breathing wings made of hair and veins and scales, over rivers, highways and cities and through woods, heat and rain. They cross thousands of miles to Mexico—I’m not kidding—where they assemble in the pines of the Sierra Madre Mountains and swarm together, they say for warmth but I imagine (for what else inspires such flight, such insanity?) it’s truly for love.

“Well, my darling child,” I continue, “I knew where these beauties were heading because I had passed right by their Mexican Santuario Mariposa years before, with the very man to whom I would be toasting that night. I winced as I recalled our night in Quauhnahuac—our last romantic one together—drinking anis del mono until our throats burned and our lips slurred and our resentments surfaced and yes, finally, the last connection of our relationship severed. Our journey together had ended, right down the road from where these monarchs would soon convene. We could stand each other not another moment. The next day he went to the coast and I continued alone to Guatemala on a bus… Another story. Time passed, and with time came forgiveness and reconciliation and even friendship. And now the lover I had once left in a hacienda in Mexico was to marry my best friend, and I had about eight hours to think up a fucking wedding toast about it.

“With the monarchs alighting on the ferns all around me, I recalled the day two years before, that my friend had telephoned to tell me they were engaged (he had proposed to her on a trek in Nepal), and to ask if I’d be in the wedding. I was staying in a house on the coast north of Boston, and as I talked on the phone to my dear friend, hundreds of monarchs were coming to rest against the ivy on the stone wall out the window and all morning as she and I talked about the trek and the wedding and all the things happening, I watched the monarchs warming their wings in the sun, their wings gently pulsing, so beautiful and so creepy. My friend and I didn’t talk about migrations that day, or treks or journeys to Mexico or anything, but I was thinking about it as we talked.

“And now, genius that your mother is, I had my wedding toast.”

I lift my hand, three moths are resting on my fingers. The driver had been listening. “We make the road by walking it,” he says enigmatically. The traffic slows by the roundabout where cows often stop in the intersection. The car comes to a stop. Outside the window, clouds of white moths have begun to gently swarm, rising and falling, expanding and concentrating like snow falling in powdery confusion. Hundreds of white butterflies: silent, focused and totally deranged. I confess that I envy their mission, I envy their purpose. Because—and let me insert here that I’ve been making all this up deeply tinged with mysticism and embellished with visionary episodes, but this I know—one of these white butterflies will someday arrive, having crossed great African landscapes on wings made of breath. True to his instincts but honoring the current—trusting when to struggle and when to glide—he will reach his destination. The nights will have become days, the parts rendered useless will suddenly come together. He will realize that he is still just himself, when it will seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: ‘Bless my soul, what have we here…’’

to be continued.


*“A Fear of Pheromones,” Lewis Thomas in The Lives of a Cell, 1974

This piece is a continuation of the two “chapters” posted—confusingly, in blog fashion— underneath it. If you are just arriving, please scroll down to Chapter 1 to begin. 

the map of my dakar

The Corniche is a road that winds along the western coast of the Dakar peninsula with the unquestioning, unwavering, almost-blind devotion of a younger sibling. It is on this length of road and its little neighborhood-y off-shoots where I spend my days, and thus my life, in Dakar. Today is no exception. We leave Point E, incrementally cross the intersection where six roads converge without a street light, continue through Fann and turn onto the Corniche by Sea Plaza Mall where snipers stalk the roof and men in black search for terrorists in glove compartments, and we pass the pyramids of limes and oranges for sale, and the man sitting patiently, selling the limes and the oranges, and we pass the art shacks with the two-ton stone head sculptures that perch on the dirty expanse like tortured giants buried to their necks and writhing up from the sand.

The child in the back seat, himself a younger sibling and inspiration of much analogy, is chirping on about sunny things. My husband and I are listening, but not speaking. A mature silence fills the ether around the boy’s words as we drive along the Corniche, along the compound wall of the embassy fields, and the smooth mauve wall of the international school compound, and pass the bilingual school with its controversial traffic issues and the villa across the street with the lazy patio festooned with Louisiana vines (someone feels at home here, it always reminds me). The grip of silence loosens a bit, however, when the unfettered expanse of Atlantic Ocean opens before us, as if life’s big picture suddenly reveals itself and the stupid details fall away. The towers of the Mosque of the Divinity, built down in the cove, rise up to the Corniche from the beach below where fishermen and pirogues gather on the beach, and athletes leap like crickets, and where the women come to slaughter goats for the sake of the ill. Before and above us, the great African Renaissance Monument rises, massive and obscene.

Beyond the monument, Almadie’s diplomatic and humanitarian riches. And beyond that, the fishing village of Ngor and in Ngor, nestled beside Grand d’Or patisserie, where the talibe scuttle for coins and bread & old men in wheelchairs lift indifferent palms & SUVs pull in and out in a sort of perpetual ballet for croissant, poire caramel and hundred dollar gateaux, by the Miss Kya Spa and Kodak AMA photo, next to the Western Union Money Gram and Exotica Restaurant Rapide de qualité noiveau concept “Restaurant Exotica”, past the work horses tethered to discarded bathtubs in dusty lots, settled by a broken sidewalk, dusty steps, dangling chords of electrical wires and rusty gates is my true love—my blanchisserie, my nottayage—my dry cleaner, a boutique of serenity and kindness, within which hangs one Burberry navy-blue linen blazer with its blue pocket, its little secret and this story’s eventual fate.

And that, if you are still reading—if you even care (and why you might I do not know)—that, my dear reader, is the map of my Dakar.

I never meant to cause you any sorrow

On December 28, 2014 at three o’clock in the afternoon, several hours after our flight out of JFK landed on the tarmac of the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport, a taxi came around this bend above the Mosque of the Divinity and below the African Renaissance Monument. It was driving from the other direction, from Almadies and heading to town and in it, we came for the first time upon the expanse of sea brushed with turquoise, the dry dirty cliffs crumbling into the burgundy Atlantic. I had prepared for many months for this move to Dakar, and yet (I knew already) nothing had prepared me. Within a few hours and I knew I was doomed in this semi-arid Muslim, French-speaking region. A five year contract and no house back home, my shock and panic was mounting. The taxi came around the bend and before me lay the source of the familiar lull and hush of the sound of ocean waves breaking throughout the rooms of my childhood, and here I encountered my first deceit. It was like running into 100 ex-lovers at a nightmarish party. The shock and disgust of meeting my intimate companion in this harsh, alien setting was not a reassurance. I felt no connection, no love, and the rejection felt worse than the alienation of the desert that surrounded me. It took months to process how an ocean can be as multifaceted as the human character: one shore delivering while the other deceives.

Past the cove, the coast continued wavering down to Plateau, the old city, in the distance. This was not Dubai nor anywhere in India; it was not the cities in films I had seen about Beruit, Jerusalem, Mogadishu. It was perfectly Africa, yes, but not my Africa—not Kampala, not Kigali. Perhaps Mombasa—of course, Mombasa. The port, the smell of stagnant water in the gutters, the call to prayer and the Muslims robe’d in the sweltering heat. But so close to the United States, it was not Mombasa either. It was more dainty, and certainly French.

We turned the bend and came upon the landscape of Atlantic against the brittle coast, the dirt cliffs slipping into the sea. The old city in the distance shimmered in the dusty heat. Our luggage had been delayed and I was still wearing my New York clothes from my previous life—from my life that was just the night before, when we had climbed into an Uber on 67th Street leaving the apartment empty, the still-lit Christmas tree, the abandoned cat and the kind grandmother who stood on the sidewalk as we pulled away willing to take care of the million overlooked details. My breath had been white in the cold air. The holiday streets had felt intimate all week, I had run into friends in the shops and at the park. I had run into my old high-school friend on Madison who was returning from the show at MOMA. My friends from church were back in their apartments decompressing from the holiday, having changed out of their choir robes and fancy clothes. Their children were watching cartoons. The church was dark and quiet the day we left. The streets were quiet too, but the skating rink at Central Park was teeming with skaters. That had all been yesterday.

It was three o’ clock in the afternoon Dakar time when the taxi turned the bend above the Mosque of the Divinity and something solid fell away beneath me. I entered a severed life. It was that moment, when we turned the bend onto the expanse of blue and I saw the coast running down to Plateau and I tried to place the city into some sort of context, that I entered a state of shock. I became an exile, a voyeur, an observer and a judge. From that moment on, I looked through kitchen windows at the broken lot of revving cars and bony children; I caught glimpses into squatter’s rooms along the highway; I watched the older French men with their breathy African wives push carts in the grocery store. I watched mouths speaking French at me and watched the lips move making sounds; and I slept. I slept for three weeks. When I woke up, I pushed through a daily, alien landscape that was not my life but a constant theater to observe and, apparently, to judge.

Characters from history and culture haunted me like spooky opium-addicted aunts (child brides in India, the Madoff son’s suicide, Ada McGrath landing on a 19th century savage beach in New Zealand, her chiffon dress and tightly-wound braids). My previous life haunted me too, dwelling in memory pockets along the Corniche were the industrial stairs at the Asphalt Green gym on a blustery grey Tuesday at 4pm, after a cab-ride rush uptown, watching the traffic on FDR creep downtown as I talked to friend about the CDC estimates of Ebola deaths that day. The path around Central Park Reservoir where, through the magnolia and the rhododendrons around 90th street, I once saw James Gandolfini throwing a ball to his dog. Beyonce on the car stereo and the Dakarois driver in the front seat with his fine, polished shoes. My husband at work, my children at school, I filled each hour drifting into my imagination and my past, desperate to extract a familiar out of this new alien home.



I am simply drained by writing this. It’s taken everything out of me, I assure you. Just thinking of that time raises complex issues— because who am I to complain? Who am I? Was I not, there and then, nestled in that taxi with my lovely children and doting husband? Was I not sheltered by love, was I not the most fortunate woman on earth? Is it not enough, dear reader, for a woman to pull her child’s warm cheek against her own? To applaud her husband’s achievement? To relish the adventure? Why must we constantly long for the unattainable? Why must we ask for so damn much? Why, they look at me now and enquire, Why can’t you just be happy? 

Because soon—with time—it would be lemons imported from Morocco, true friends, dusty sunsets, even the occasional cheese fondue, I suppose, and once a blessed hour of afternoon rain when I drank coffee and watched the ripples of invisible drops emanate on the surface of the pool. With time, I would decipher the seasons for mangoes and seasons for goats and seasons when the winds blow in from the desert. With time, the slender men, spectral in white cotton robes, would cross the Corniche above the Mosque of the Divinity on Friday afternoons like clusters of white lilies and with time, my dear reader, my friend, my love—with time, the mosque itself—listen to this—built on the inspiration of a dream.


“Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues and when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed.” A 1954 lecture by Dr. Kalervo Oberg who, based on his doctoral dissertation The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians of Alaska coined the term ‘culture shock’.

This piece is a continuation of the piece that was published before, which is posted— confusingly, in blog fashion— underneath it. It is vaguely influenced by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Own’s Own.


And just how much money, dare I ask, is a lot of money? I wonder this first as I get out of bed, dress and rush out the bedroom door, return for my phone and rush out again, and ugh! return again for my purse with the car keys. No, I decide, descending the stairwell. From the basement below, the swimming pool’s engines hum and click — a janitor, a submarine, the murky depth of ancient earth— No: I dare not ask. There was a lot of money in the wallet, he said. Did you get it? he asked. No. The jacket did not hang in a way that suggested weight in its pocket. I was distracted. It was a gesture of love bringing those jackets to be cleaned, was it not? How could I be so stupid to not check the pockets! Anyway, the last we spoke of money there was not a lot of it, so how much, I finally reason, could possibly go missing?

Downstairs, the living room is empty, vast and bright. The cats sprawl across the chairs like exhausted porn stars. Last year we found them living out of rusted garbage cans and sleeping under broken-down cars in the back of our temporary apartment. When we took them across town to our new house I was sure they would scratch our arms, shred the furniture, piss and puke everywhere and rip out our eyes while we slept. But quite the opposite. These days, complete hysterics ring through the house at exactly 5pm if the two old alley cats, ripped ears and blood-stained fur, haven’t been offered their evening portion of liver-flavored pate. I remember now how they sauntered in that first day, appraised the swimming pool and the cool shade under the bougainvillea, how they stretched out on a goose feather duvet and commenced the endless act of preening. As far as I can tell, they have not looked back since.

Some day I will leave Dakar for New York or Lilongwe, Paris or Ouagadougou and I, too, will not look back. Years later I might return to Dakar for a conference or a funeral, and I will feel nothing. I will not weep with nostalgia; I will not yearn nor bleed. Descending the steps from the airplane to the tarmac I might reflect, “It’s still hot here in October.” As we reach the Corniche, I might inwardly cringe and think, “Godforsaken statue. Shame.” Some places simply resist you, I won’t elaborate why.

But I know the opposite too. I know when a place opens itself to my soul; I know the whisper, the lull, the seduction of a city I will never want to leave. And such was Nairobi so many years ago. And such was another Saturday morning much like this one: peaceful, dreamy, expansive. And then, much like this one, not. The aimless mid-morning reverie— reading a little, remembering the funny thing he said, tidying the room on the way to make more coffee… when suddenly the click, click… Click! of my mind (what triggers it? Tidying the room? Arranging the papers, annoyed by the clutter and thinking of the office I will soon have in the garden…?) Yes, suddenly bolting from my reverie: the money?! Oh my God the fucking money! (I once witnessed a dog whose puppies had died all at once run frantically in circles around a house for hours— searching, searching, absolutely insane.) To this husband, this same one with the wallet, I eventually confessed, “It seems I may have accidently—perhaps, one could argue, even foolishly—left the bag of money in the car last night… Yes, the money to build the shack in the garden. Yes, the bag of money. The one you handed it to me as we left for dinner? I know, a lot of money,” I agreed, gritting my teeth. “Yes.”

Ah, the garden in Nairobi—eight years since we left Kenya and it still resides in my heart. White blooms of moonflower trees nodding over the rainy-season streams; massive jacaranda trees carpeting the ground with lilac blossoms. How, after weeks of rain and chill, the sun tenderly made its way out through a yellowish gauze-y sky and how crazy purple agapanthus responded, blooming like mad, their Dr. Seuss flowers floating just above the children’s little heads. Bougainvillea, avocado trees and huge pots of lavender; tortoises, birds and monkeys. One night, I happened to see a rare wild cat slide down the back door’s wrought-iron gate like a bulb of slick petrol while I talked on the phone inside.

How much, dear reader, is a lot of money? A month’s rent, a $3 glass of water? The cost of a flight to New York, a $10 box of Cheerios, a private education? I have seen millions of dollars come and go through people’s lives and what strikes me, always, is simply this: for even the most bankrupt, one breath always follows another; and for even the most destitute, there is always the capacity to love. Haven’t you seen millionaires in Central Park stoop to pick up their dog’s waste without a touch of resentment, even with tenderness. There is money, and there is love. “Mes amis,” I whisper to the cats. “You have survived on sand and garbage. And now you lounge in a sun-drenched villa kneading your claws on Persian carpets. Dites moi,” I whisper into their rough fur, “How much money, would you say, is a lot of money?”

One afternoon, a few days after the money was stolen from the car in Nairobi— after I had filed a police report in a barren police department with a desk without a chair, and a policeman with a fake Rolex, and a window through which I might as well have slipped the report out and watched as it sailed down into an abyss of corruption, injustice, indifference and poverty— one afternoon, a detective arrived at my gate. He was middle-aged, tired, tubby but solidly good with a slightly muted twinkle in his eye. He reminded me of Columbo. He asked; I replied, and soon we were unlikely partners. With my resources (a car, and shillings for tea) the detective had the means to pursue justice for the first time in a career of bribes, setbacks, frustration and manipulation. Within days he became alive. He told me his story. I told him mine. Soon, it wasn’t the money I wished to retrieve so much as this man’s faith in humanity.

The mystery that surrounds a foreigner in Africa is not always ethereal or spiritual. An invisible but real world surrounds your every move too— streams of language you don’t understand, gestures you can’t interpret, glances you never notice. The subtle interactions of an ancient society, you haven’t the slightest idea of its nuance and mechanisms. You think when you go to the market that you are a stranger walking through the market, but you are not. Your maid’s cousin raises his head a half of inch to indicate to his friend she’s that lady who stands on her head (yoga). Everyone knows something. Nothing is as it seems.

And so you can not imagine the details of the story, for I can not imagine them and I was there. They are far too intricate and unbelievable to relate here, but suffice it to say that it was raining the night we caught the thief three weeks later which was, by all accounts, a miracle. It was raining as we drove to the Kibera slum where our night guard lived. I followed the detective down a narrow muddy path bordered by shacks made of debris, tin and mud. Filthy water rushed down the path, faces peered out of the candlelit chambers and retreated. It was dark and, except for the rain against the tin roofs, silent: rare even for a rainy night in a square mile of slum that housed a half million residents and not one building with a second floor.

The guard’s shack was clean and spare inside, a swept dirt floor, a candle. A young woman was sitting on the edge of the only furniture in the room as if she had been waiting for us. It was the careful cleanliness of the room that got me and her simple, apologetic resignation broke my heart. A sister, a girlfriend or perhaps the wife of the guard. An innocent bystander in the story, whose life could soon become unbearable without an income. She and the detective spoke in Swahili and then she stood up on the bed, reached to where the tin roof met the mud wall and retrieved the bag. It was curious to see my familiar bag in this unfamiliar setting. The detective turned to me, his face at peace with rightness.

I was quiet as I drove my partner home through the pouring rain. His apartment was in a complex that would be a tenement in New York City, the new Kenyan middle class. He was jubilant, elated. He slapped the dashboard as he rehashed the story again— the money buried in the yard, the second guard’s betrayal. But this moment of justice, so precious in the bowels of this land of survival and corruption, was tarnished. A higher injustice weighed in on me, that of life or of God or of the world. I don’t know. But I felt it descend as we left the shack with the bag, and it filled my bones to my soul.

We live in Dakar now, where I stand in the living room with the cats and the sun and the thoughts of the past. Waiting for my husband to gather what remains of his things, I recall the detective’s triumph that night, the secluded garden that still resides in my heart and the shack that was built with the bag of money. I feel the curious way time eclipses, becoming again its accordion self. A whole era has passed since we lived in Nairobi. The children have long legs, IQs and secret ambitions now, but I could step over a summer stream and be back in that garden in an instant, my friends laughing and talking, smoking and drinking beneath the fire-lit torches on a crackle-y night, sitting beneath the bony magnificent branches under the infinite sky.

I worked in the shack every day for two years before we left Nairobi. I made money and wrote freely. It was a room of my own, and that— perhaps along with a little bag of money— that, my dear reader, is how women write fiction.

(to be continued.)


nairobi garden

 Haraka, Haraka Home, a children’s book about home,

illustrated by Georgina van Hasselt. (Click to read.)

This morning my husband came into the bedroom and asked if I had seen his blue jacket.

The one on the bench? I asked, procrastinating the next question.

Yes, there were two.

Those two blue jackets, on the bench by the door—?

Yes, he said, a little nervous.

I took them to the dry-cleaner yesterday.

One of them, he said, had my wallet in its pocket. With a lot of money in it. Did you get the money?

And here, reader, I stand at a crossroads. There are 15 directions I could proceed with the narrative. Do you laugh, or get a divorce? Are we in this together, or will this be the thing that tears us apart? It’s Saturday morning, 10am. I was lying in bed when he came into the room with the slightly-nervous tone in his voice. I was gazing out the window, thinking about all the hours in my life I have spent gazing out a bedroom window. My childhood bedroom window that framed elm branches that drew the shapes of sharks against grey winter sky. The Nairobi bedroom window with the crazy-ass flame tree on the other side of the fence, and how it always reminded me—every day for four years—of a time years before in Nairobi, in another part of town, in another life, with a different man, no children; of the cigarettes and safaris. The bedroom window of the New York landscape—hours and hours and hours gazing out that window, wondering what the hundreds of other people in their windows were doing, and how. And now, 10am Saturday morning—-this bedroom window in Dakar. It’s cooler now, not unbearable at all. There are so many birds! They land on the security grill of the window and peek in. None of them stay for long—on the window grill, or in the yard—they are migrants too, passing through. A birder friend tells me that birds have been tracked in the swamps of Dakar who have come and gone to Europe and back five times. Give me break that’s amazing.

Lately, with the cooler weather, I have had ideas on how to enrich the landscape of our bedroom, and for a moment I imagine the Moroccan theme. My eyes wander over to that chair I hate—would it bring joy to have it reupholstered? Would it bring completion to my life? That corner of the room would become something else again. We’ve had that bad bad chair for 15 years now, is that possible? Why did we even bring it to Dakar, I wondered, and recognized at once that it earns its keep as the resting place for worn-but-not-ready-for-the-laundry clothes. I turn back to the window, the neighbor’s water tank, the doves always perch on the tip of their roof. Has anyone I know, I wondered, spent this much of their life looking out the window? I thought of my friend, an artist in L.A., who has. We talk about it. Sometimes we fear that we might be wasting our lives but we’re pretty smart and funny, so what the hell. I bet Hillary Clinton doesn’t gaze out her window on a Saturday morning though, not on a Saturday or ever. That’s the difference between her and I.

A few years ago I was looking for a friend at Bemmelman’s Bar in the Carlisle Hotel. We were to meet there, I was early. I entered from a side lobby through a side door, a modest entry into the bar, no hostess—and looked around the dimly-lit bar, the little lights on each table, the famous, fading murals. No friend. As I stepped back into the lobby through the nondescript door—almost a speak-easy type door—-a woman passed me. We both turned sidewise to slide past each other. It was not rude; an efficient New Yorker’s management of limited space. We both smelled good as we brushed against each other, no waiting, no harm done. I was wearing an elaborate muff that night, made of soft grey feathers that reached out like delicate tentacles in the static dry-heat of winter. Instinctively, I put my hands on the feathers to hold them so as to not tickle the passing woman’s. It was just a gesture. Pardon, I whispered as we passed, and I received a mutual, though silent, response.

With another step I was back in the empty side lobby. Bill Clinton was standing there, alone. We nodded to each other, I pretended not to know him to be polite. A moment later, Hillary stepped out through the speak-easy bar door—whoosh rose up the mingle-y warm chatter and music of the bar, shush it went as the door closed behind her. It had been Hillary who I had passed a moment earlier, who had brushed against my soft feathers. She said, “They’re setting up a table in the restaurant. We can wait here a few minutes.” And she started working on her Blackberry.

Sure. Ok, Bill said. And went back to his standing there and his smile, his hands in his coat pockets.

The three of us remained in the lobby for several long quiet minutes. I couldn’t measure time, I was frozen in a bottomless pit of potential. I felt, oddly, that I was suddenly in a parallel life: I felt in the presence of gentle Mid-western parents. Hillary’s get-it-done attitude. Bill’s ease. Me. I looked out the window at the black cars and the men in the black suits and the little radios in the ears. I leaned my face against the glass, to see if my friend was coming. It would be hilarious if she arrived and found me with the Clintons, but more so, if she arrived it would justify my waiting there. I didn’t want Former President Clinton to think I was lurking. He was still standing there, gazing. See, he was gazing. Hillary was texting Sarajevo and China. I was waiting. He was gazing out the window. Then the secret door from the bar opened and a pack of little Lily-clad ladies came out, breathless, arms outreached in a way that reminded me a little of Caravaggio paintings of desperate people pulling at each other to see Jesus, or maybe like children rushing out to recess, pulling each other back. Word had spread about the Clintons. The women rushed toward Bill Clinton to whom they wonderfully professed their love, and he clicked on.

Other people who gaze out windows, let’s see. Let’s see let’s see.

I was thinking of all this—thinking about my friend and that wonderful winter night, just after Christmas in 2010.  My friend did arrive. We got a table and against the piano music in the bar, the hush of warm voices, the strands of pearls and the breath on the bar windows, we drank three martinis and neither of us remember the rest of the night. We still laugh. I was so young then.

And now too, gazing out the window in Dakar. It was time to get up—past time to get up—the day was wasting. The birds were singing. The sun was shining. Africa, Bemmelmans, the bare trees against winter sky. Does life not keep offering its glorious self? Does it not? Get up and enter the day, babes. And that was when my husband arrived with the issue of the blue jacket, and the wallet, the dry-cleaners and the rest.

The way one’s mood will sway—like water sloshing up against the harbor’s wall, the gentle swell of panic, the retreating wave of dread. The turn of the stomach, the bruise of the soul. I brought it to the dry cleaners yesterday, I said. No, I didn’t check the pockets. Calmly I said, Let’s drive over there now and I roused myself from bed.

(to be continued)

These three interweaving little stories were once inspired by three pieces of gorgeous music, written by the composer Jonathan Romeo: Entrance, Duet, and Cathedral. Perhaps they are now lost recordings.



A mother and daughter spent a summer on an island of birds and deer and wind and memory. A pale, light, blue summer, with sanddollars and starfish drying on the back porch and sometimes a crab caught and saved in a bucket by Sarah, the daughter, who was eight years old that summer and would never be eight like this again.

Ella was a painter who appreciated—no, who worshiped—-the colors of everything so brilliant, suffused in ocean island light. A painter who could spend an entire morning studying and painting sunlight against a potted plant or a bowl of lemons. She painted not objects so much as the difference between objects, the space between. She was fine. She listened to her daughter. She listened to the stillness in a painting. She listened to the stars. She was young too, in a different way.

The back window of the house on the island framed this: a sloping yard, the grass tough with harsh ocean air; a band of coastal bush; a blue band of sea; then, far out, a strip of sand bar; and over it, a block of sky. Cousins and aunts lived next door and down the road, and the uncles flew in from the city for the weekends and for two weeks in August. And the matriarch, Gana, who was still alive then and did not bake cookies nor smell of antiques or lace, but did tell fine stories—her theater-practiced hands shaping the words and framing the scenes by the fire on certain exclusive evenings.

Sarah was eight years old and would remember the summer—the stories, the stillness, the blue—not specifically, but as a feeling that once, as a child, had entered bloodstream and continued to flow through her life.


The moon had been waxing and now it was full. The sky was indigo and their two moon-y shadows were elongated like fingers across the yard, then the road, and then the field as they walked. Orion, paled by the moonlight, was barely aware. A white lawn chair glowed like there was a spotlight on it and the two went out to the woods at midnight—crossing yard, the road, the field, and then struggling through a border of brambles. Then, like entering a realm of imagination, they were in. And they were silently welcomed. And he made a fire and she gazed at its light, and the trees stretched into the full moon sky, breathing and speaking, thinking and listening. The sounds of trucks passing in the distance on route 29 were like whispers. The trees bent and loomed and one curved away as if trying to flee… “Like life,” he laughed. “We are rooted and sometimes we try to get away from those roots, but it is impossible.”

The space between two trees; the space between two words; the space between two bodies when they come together.

The fire was small and contained and secret that night in the woods, but it roared too. Before leaving, he dug a moat in the dirt around the fire’s embers, and hoped that it wouldn’t spread out of control.


No one died entirely during the quick war in that little country. You can still see them—the dead—drifting down the dirt roads, bent over in fields, in the branches of the avocado trees picking the fruit and sometimes laughing. They are like the reflection of a soaring bird on a window pane: an image caught in the periphery of vision, but when you turn to look, they are gone. In this country that does not exist in our world, the dead are half-alive, and the living are half-dead.

But there were times. After the party just before dawn, flood lights of a half-ruined city glittered across the valley below the house. We walked down the driveway to the car and stopped suddenly outside the gate. “Listen to that?” her friend whispered. Dogs were howling. A chilly breeze rose—the weird kind that feels like a solar eclipse or a nuclear bomb. “Listen to the Muslims praying,” she said.

Perhaps it was the prayers of Muslims that filled that pre-dawn valley, that’s what it seemed. It was not desperate, nor haunting, but there were no Muslims, and it was not present either. It was the voices of the past—-the threads of a thousand souls woven together—-whispering, gentle—a tapestry of another world that lives beyond our own (the way constellations are invisible in daylight, but there). It was the murmur of the past. It was the ghosts of a genocide, stained against the dawn.


There were no doors between the rooms in the house, and the windows were left open all summer. Ella hung the clothes out to dry on the line by the barn. Sarah, embarking on a project of crickets and moss and rocks and roots, felt, from the corner of her eye, the white sheets grow with the breeze and then settle.

The air doesn’t smell like the ocean in the dock/sailing lessons/yacht club way—Ella clipped a shoulder of Sarah’s little t-shirt on the line—which (her thoughts continued) is brackish and snobby. It is a democratic sea breeze, treating everyone equally, and (concluding her thought) she smiled a little, dropping the remaining laundry pins in the wicker basket, lifting the basket against her hip. Really, sometimes they way her thoughts unfolded was itself enough to amuse her.

She entered the house and entered the smell of wood and sand and beach rose and garlic lingering from last night’s dinner. Dinner. Dinner! It was Friday already! It was Friday, no? She looked around the room. She had had dinner with her sister on Tuesday, and Wednesday morning was the sailing lesson… but the memories of the afternoons blurred since they had arrived on the island. She furrowed her brows, adjusting to thought like a raft on a suddenly choppy sea. She stood for moment suspended, a feeling that no longer estranged her. She knew to just wait it out.

Yes, she concluded. It was Friday. And that meant that the uncles were landing for the weekend, and the cousins and aunts and Gana would all be wandering in, one by one, two by two, three by three, for dinner. She started to sift through the possibilities in her thoughts… Was that blue fish still in the freezer?

Sarah—with crickets, with moss and rocks and various roots—rushed in the door. “Mom,” she declared, breathless, rushing past. “Mom, if I could be any animal, I would be a bird. And”—she was placing her collection, her jar of crickets, on the table—“know what I would do? I would fly up to the blue ceiling and see what’s up there in the other world. And Mom? Mom!” (Ella was listening, opening the freezer door and extracting a white slab of fish) “… then I would… then I would come back. And tell you.”


He took her to a river that cut through a valley; a valley that separated mountains. He carried her across dusk and into the realm of night. He carried her to the crack that that’s through everything—the fissure between joy and demise, where cruelty becomes kindness. He carried her to the place that’s hidden in everything, the place where the light gets in.

Two went out to the woods at midnight—crossing the fields, through the threshold of thistle difficult to cross—the thorns caught her hair which he carefully untangled. And, like entering a realm of imagination, they were in. And they were silently welcomed. And hours later, the dawn broke a rift through the starsl. She heard the whispers and she watched the sky tear the edges off the night.


A boy in the country with the war stood in a school playground looking up into the branches of a tree. It had been two years since the war. His family was gone. He stood by himself while around him the children ran and the girls whispered and the boys who had a ball kicked it into a goal and then scattered. But the one boy stood still, separate, oblivious to the commotion, and talked to himself or to the tree or maybe he was singing. I was just driving by. It was a fleeting moment, one of those rare moments where life truly presides. (The moment between an inhale and an exhale; a pause for thought mid-sentence; the music of silence between two notes of a flute.)

That boy—standing aside, talking to trees—will have a difficult life, seeing things the way he does. That boy will have a beautiful life, seeing things the way he does.


The mother and daughter, Ella and Sarah, took the sailboat out after lunch. Maybe I should just buy lobster for tonight and be done with it, Ella thought, pushing the red dingy away from the shore. Sarah was a life vest with a child’s head on top, sitting upright and looking forward, at once excited by the ocean and lulled by its soft waves. The day wobbled slightly as the wind caught the sail and the boat began to creep out. The girl’s hair—so blond, so delicate—seemed translucent. Please world, love my girl, thought the mother, who was young in a different way, and she turned to the horizon and decided ok she would pick up lobster at the shack and put the pot on at 5:00. Lobster would be fine. With blue fish pate and a few baguettes ready for the hungry uncles. And an eye on Charlie, who would eat bluefish pate until he was sick (and she remembered that night in her sister’s bathroom, the porcelain and the little boy with a green face. No, she thought, he would probably never eat anything bluefish again). The tomatoes from the garden—how they lined the windowsill that morning like little hobbits—so sweet! So warm, bright, and innocent.


Everything was Picasso-blue in the moonlight including the long shadow of their bodies. The trains do not hesitate across the night—do not hurry, do not rest. One long melancholy toll of a horn broke through the silent stars, and Casseopia, forever humiliated, spun between conspiracy and virtue.


“Perhaps God is a bird.” I read that in a poem once and it seemed the next sentence to put down.

Perhaps God is a bird, and flight is the part of Him that is in each of us. The ability to move is a blessing. The ability to fly.


And, with the lobsters steaming red, the tomatoes sliced, the corn on the cob ready to go in and the blue fish pate displayed elegantly—with dinner almost ready and the block of sky beginning to turn the faintest orange, the first arriving cousin swept in through the screen door, looked around for something he didn’t know what, and hugged her.


It is winter, and everything is blooming. It is night, and everything is being born. There is one red leaf on a branch outside my window and sometimes—often—I mistake it for a cardinal.

I get lazy sometimes. I can daydream for hours or months. I am very old now, and finally just starting my life.


Time does not unfold like this in real life. But this is a book, and you are here now. Please don’t leave. Let the water on the stove boil a little longer (it’s only steam). Let the phone ring. Let the hooves of your childhood canter. Let the trees speak; let the constellations sing. Let the wind, and the train, and the stillness. Let the silence between two notes.

Let birds.


Virginia, 1998


One night last week, I went out on the verandah because the moon was so great, and it was rising like an African moon, the neighborhood was quiet except the evening call to prayer in the distance, and the bats were swarming and playing around as usual. They were sweeping in front of the rising moon and it was breathtaking. The feeling was different from watching day birds—no gliding, no goofiness, just stellar shadows and a little fear in me—a little feeling to go back inside. I resisted the fear and the desire to retreat, and soon I noticed something of a team effort happening among the bats. I watched as one returned to the mango tree and another came out, like baton-offering runners, or like ice hockey players as they glide onto and off the ice. It was beautiful watching them… who knew?


So I took a picture. I’ve never tried to take a picture of bats and I had a weird experience. They were pretty close, sometimes close enough that I felt the urge to duck, but when I took a picture and looked at it, they weren’t there. I knew I had caught them in the frame, I was almost certain that I had. I kept trying, and then I went inside to get more sophisticated cameras, and each time the wall, the jasmine, the wires, and the moon came out clearly, but no bats. It was like I held something in the palm of my hand that became a spirit when I opened it. I took pictures for over an hour, taking almost 100 pictures with three different cameras, determined to capture one bat, determined to capture these sweeping spirits.


This morning I was thinking (as I weeded the cactus garden, another new pursuit requiring way more skill than you can imagine)—-I was thinking about how the bats were like God: right in front of me—practically touching my face—and yet still not there.


motion that forces change—this is freedom. This is the force of faith. Nobody gets what they want. Never again are you the same. The longing is to be pure.

What you get is to be changed.

(Jorie Graham, Prayer)

about blue

When my husband’s new job post came through and I was preparing to leave New York after seven years, and I was saying goodbye all the time, everyone—every single one—everyone (even a friend who was a war corespondant for 20 years and should know better) said, Oh it will be such an adventure! You’re going on an adventure! How adventurous!

I suppose they were being nice, as a way to console me. But after a while I grew tired of it. If it’s so great, I wanted to say, why don’t YOU go on a stupid adventure?

Why don’t you pack up everything you own and stand alone weeping in the empty rooms of your home—the bare rooms actually exuding a longing back to you—the ghosts of love, longing and joy, loneliness and accomplishment punching you in the stomach; the grief of departure lurking over every day because no matter how long you’ve prepared—and you’ve prepared for years—the grief will always be almost unbearable.

Why don’t you say goodbye to your children’s teachers, choirs, rituals, classrooms and friends, to the long walk to the school bus and to the true neighbors you’ve loved and depended on since pre-K, who you meet twice a day waiting for the school bus and so you know every innuendo of their days and lives.

Why don’t you say goodbye to the dog you adored and the cat you endured and your babysitters who saved your life every day? To knee-high boots and sweaters and guys who know what they’re doing when they cut your hair. Even if it’s like $10,000. To the view out your kitchen window and to the thousands of pre-dawn moments when you gazed out the window while waiting for water to boil for coffee.

Your parents, and your brothers and sisters.

Your church, which gave you meaning for the first time in your life. Your friends.

Your seasons—autumn and fireplaces—to your English language, your coffee and your snowfall. Say goodbye to the feeling of entering Central Park for a long walk—the transformation of that. Say goodbye to the bunk bed your children slept in together all these years, and to the doormen who watched them grow up and who ushered us into and out of the world each day. Say goodbye to the children too—the little children—because soon after we leave, your son will master the Rubik’s cube in 38 seconds and your daughter will have her first boyfriend, and their childhoods will suddenly seem far away.

So why don’t you have the adventure, and let me be? I’ll stay here. You jump from the ledge into the abyss and see how it feels. You know you’ll have to do it eventually anyway. We all do at some point. Feel how crushing, sad, lonely, brutal and disorienting it is, and think how it all could be avoided if you just had a different life.

Take your little adventure. Take the leap, and let the force of the current carry you. And watch for the angels who arrive to usher you, and watch how you survive. And feel, one day, the way you resurface, and feel the realignment that happens—and see how you have changed, and how you are the same. And how everything is different now, and how it is always the same.

The cats of Dakar are a curious breed—
Imagine a hyena mixed in with a Swede.
They often remind me of guys from The Bronx
Who swagger around in black pick-up trucks
And brag to their gang, She means nothing to me—-
Then weep and go limp when she threatens to leave.

A few cats of Dakar I happen to know.
Two lounge here, supine–intertwined–on the floor
In a slant of sunlight, a fan flutters their fur—
One stretches a paw and issues a purr,
And gazes at me in that “I’m so asleep” way—
It’s hard to believe that three weeks to the day,
Scavenging trash with the punks of Ngor,
We found this big orange cat and his little grey whore.

(It reminds me of another cat’s plight—
who lived alone in house built by Frank Lloyd Wright.
It just goes to show that if you cultivate passion,
you may sleep in a ditch, but wake up a Kardashian.)

Last night we had dinner at a fancy sea place
And I wept for my home, for the past, for God’s grace—
When a cat, a great cat—all fluff and perfume,
Gallant and haughty and Queen of the Room—
Waltzed right over and whispered to me,
There are worse fates, my dear, than a life by the sea.

I’m not sure what next to write,
Except the cats of Dakar just make things right.
Apologies, dog friends, but cats have a way—
And I plan to live with one hundred, someday.


“…The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour… Mariners called this red wind ‘the sea of darkness.’ Red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was mistaken for blood. ‘Blood rains’ were widely reported in Portugal and Spain in 1901.

                                       from The English Patient (Michael Ondaatji)

The dust in Dakar permeates everything, enters every breath, coats every tea cup. It settles on the books, on perfume bottles and door frames, on the floors, the windows. It gathers under eyelids, in nose and ears, and stiffens hair. It settles on the vase and the flowers in the vase, which are frail petals of bougainvillea, imported and tended to with great care—-moistened with eye drops of diluted water, pruned with nail scissors—because no delicate flower could ever root or survive here naturally.

Sandy dust inhabits the car, along the creases in the car seat, the dash board, everywhere. Opening the windows only allows more sand to billow in off the scorching highways and crazy intersections. Dust fills the window screens until it blocks the sun from the rooms. It ruins the laundry as it dries on the line. Every house, no matter how humble, has one or two people who dust all day, from morning to night, because the moment you finish the last room the first room is covered in dust again.

They tell me it hasn’t rained a drop in nine months. I believe it. I have dreams that during the night the sand creeps in and buries the edges and boundaries of everything and we wake up surrounded by dunes; that we have to dig out the swimming pool and the cats, and that the children must slide down the dunes to school where they build castles made of sand instead of studying their math.

And yet—a most curious phenomenon. It took weeks to see this although it’s right before me. It took weeks to believe because it was too unbelievable to fathom: men in blue uniforms sweeping up the sand along the streets. Sweeping the store fronts, sweeping the sand from the cracks in the sidewalk, sweeping the empty lots. Amid a landscape of dirt and dead trees, for a few fleeting hours a street curb becomes defined and clean-edged. I feel almost majestic driving down one of these freshly, hand-swept roads.

Soon, I began to see women in glorious fabrics everywhere bent over, one arm behind their back, sweeping with rough-hewn brooms. In the mornings, they kneel by the front doors up and down the sandy streets, washing away the sand from the previous night. Before dawn, boys wash the cars windshields for a few pennies. All day, the fruit men polish the mangoes. There is an entire industry happening around me—a million gestures a day that make survival possible here. I witness it all with incredulity, however. How foolish, I think. Who will ever succeed in holding back the Sahara? What embarrassing acts of futility.

Or maybe—-I wonder on my better days—I am witness to a million gestures of hope. Acts of devotion, gestures of faith.

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