The girls make a boat on the front yard. They gather old two by fours and sheets of splintered plywood, lay them in a crooked rectangle, cover it with blankets. They collect snacks- rice cakes, nuts, unpeeled carrots. M. forms a small mysterious pile of sand in the middle of the blankets. When I come by with a bag of chips for their voyage, their chattering stops, turns to polite thank yous. They watch me till I’m safely back in the house, then return to the loud and serious business of sailing, staying afloat and well-fed.

I sit on a cement step and watch M and J in the pool, two puddles of reds and pinks in the middle of blue water, blue sky. They are in the deep end, sitting on a shared pool noodle, wobbly and determined. It sinks so low they have to turn their faces up to breathe, small giggling islands.

Two African Firefinches land on the terracotta bowl we usually fill with birdfeed, find only the shells of seeds, soggy from the rain. I want to apologize, feel like a bad host, notice their feathers are the colour of the beets I peeled last night, the stew they became. I think of my Russian grandmother having fingers stained the same colour as African firefinches as the birds disappear into the grove of banana trees.

When M recites her Bible Verse on the way to school, I misunderstand her, hear “Blessed are those who grieve for they will be Pumpkin Heads”. We laugh as we walk down the driveway, imagine grieving pumpkins, step on purple jacaranda petals wet from last night’s rain.

J holds a small square of paper in her hand as she waits for her friend to arrive. It is a list of their sleepover activities, written in careful pencil letters: mak pancaks, skip rop, yur choyc. She cups both hands together, protects the paper from the wind, runs to the top of the stairs and listens for the crunch of tires on gravel.

P buys watermelon gum with her allowance money, distributes it by halves to everyone she sees, writes love notes on purple paper and tucks bits of gum into the envelopes.

The Aberdares

On Friday we pack raincoats into old shopping bags, popcorn and cereal boxes into our camping trunk, and drive to the Aberdares, leading a caravan of silver cars along the Rift Valley, through grey skies, past donkeys and wobbly matatus. The pavement disappears and we rattle over washboard dirt, through villages lined with roadside stalls and trees that reach above the walking school children, long rows of wild calla lilies. As we climb higher into the mountains, the vegetation turns greener, denser, crowds onto the road. At the gate to the park we talk to two rangers in a bare stall of an office, old binders piled in the corner, a map on the wall smudged to white by decades of searching fingers. One man sits at a desk and writes out piles of receipts by hand, hands us each a thick stack of tickets.

The land is mountains and moorland, low brush and tall trees, waterfalls slicing the distant landscape with thick silver blades. We drive slowly, waterbucks with long curved antlers stand in the road and watch us watching them. Duikers leap into the brush, bushbucks watch wide-eyed from the shade. There is a hill with wide horizontal stripes in different shades of green and brown. Later, when we are home, the girls will reveal that the striped hill was the most beautiful thing they saw.

When we arrive at the cabins perched in an open space of green at the end of a muddy road, the kids tumble out of cars, run through the rooms, claim beds. After the rooms have been sorted and luggage piled behind doors, we slide down narrow paths made by antelope to the river winding through the forest. The water is icy, rushes over rocks into small rapids. The kids kick off their shoes, wade into the cold river, feel the thrill of the current tugging at their legs. It starts to rain, but no one minds. We’ll worry about drying socks and runners later, about warming up in a cold mountain cabin. For now we help the little ones jump to rocks, warn the big ones not to venture too far.
The next day the river is higher after a night of rain, the current stronger. It is only later that I hear the stories of how little Y. slipped into the water, how M. tried to grab on to her but fell too, how fast the river carried them downstream. When M describes how scared she was, she adds that it was also fun, is grinning as she tells me that she cried after they found their footing, were drenched and shivering.

In the evening we light a fire, huddle over warm pasta, red wine. Some of us eat outside and watch shapes of small antelope, long mongoose, slip past us in the shadows as the sky turns darker shades of grey.

Phil gets out of bed early to watch the world wake up, and soon I follow him to the porch, unwilling to miss his show. We wrap red Masai blankets around our shoulders, drink bitter coffee. The sky grows lighter behind the clouds, rain falls on the trees, the valley. The birds sing over the sound of the river and the rain.

Later when the sky clears, I walk into the brush and startle a wild hare, its tail preposterous and white in that muddy place. It hops a few metres away, then freezes, stares at me with suspicion. There are too many birds to count, to name, they are like the crowds of people in a foreign city, scurrying by, ignoring the tourists.

We climb back into our cars in search of waterfalls. The roads are rocky, muddy, steep, not roads at all. Janey and I walk in front of the cars, throw rocks to the side and try to make a path level enough for passing. In our car the girls have figured out how to lay the back seat down flat and are lying on their backs, then stomachs, laughing and bouncing to the sound of Canadian punk bands. Finally we park the cars, hike down a narrow trail. A small river appears beside us, innocuous and unnoteworthy. Then without warning, the earth in front of us falls away and we are standing at the top of a thundering waterfall. We stand on a precarious lookout- a few two by fours nailed into a railing, which the children promptly climb and lean over, causing us to shriek and grab their shirt collars. The valley stretches out below us, the waterfall roars in our ears, sends huge clouds of mist into the air, filled with rainbows. In the distance there are more waterfalls, the highest in Kenya, and in the middle of it all, huge birds swoop and circle over a million shades of green. We spread a blanket out on one of the rickety lookout platforms- beside the sign that says Watch Your Children, Do Not Lean On the Rail, You Will Fall- pass out trail mix, take selfies.

At night the older kids tell ghost stories by the fireplace. My girls are tense, jittery, addicted to the taste of new fears, the reflection of the fire in the wide eyes of the storytellers. When we finally convince them to climb into bed, they are asleep within minutes, buried beneath layers of wool blankets, thick comforters. The adults stay awake in the dark, watch the fire grow small, talk about books, traveling, parents growing older.

Our last morning we drive to a different waterfall, one hidden in its own rounded jungle cathedral. We stand on the rocks beside the pool carved out by a thousand years of falling water, shout at each other over the fall’s roar. One by one, we walk along the slippery edge till we’re beside, almost behind the thundering downpour. The wind created by the falling water blows so hard we cling to the rocks, are drenched through our raincoats, our jeans. The smaller girls splash in the algae at the edge of the pool, M reads a book. Eventually we climb back out of that tropical hideaway, change behind car doors, lay our wet clothes to dry on the hood. We spread blankets and pull out olives, peanut butter, homemade hummus and melting chocolate. The kids play hide and seek in a field of brown grass, dropping to their stomachs and disappearing like small animals. Later their hands will be covered in cuts from the sharp edges of the grass, but they don’t complain as they play, their cheeks turning pink in the equatorial sun.

(If you’re interested: Aberdare National Park)

The Difficulty of a Poem

The difficulty of a poem
is never the search
for the word
that describes
the morning light
turning metallic green
in the feathers
of a sunbird as it
eats its breakfast
in the long grass
beside glossy
garlands of dew.
The difficulty
is the stopping,
mustering the
cold-hearted resolve
to bring the poem
to a full stop
as the sunbird
leans its curved beak
into the dirt,
seducing you
with the possibility
of an anthology.

The girls are creating languages. M’s are complicated, each syllable transformed into a new sound then rearranged into foreign words. She finds her own language difficult to pronounce, tries again with new rules, fills pages with her slanted pencil writing. J is systematic, writes every English word backwards, amazed at the discovery of each new word. Ballet, Tellab, Amber, Rebma, Tolkien, Neiklot. She reads long lists to us, looks up from the paper after each word to witness our reaction, writes more careful letters with turquoise ink.

At the supper table we talk about biceps, flex our muscles. When I give my best Muscle Woman pose, P exclaims, “Wow! You look like a…a…like a god!” We laugh. I notice how it feels to be admired by my daughter, scoop more pasta onto my plate.

After supper, before baths, J decides to make pancakes. She designates P as her assistant, finds aprons, pulls out the big glass bowl. Phil and I are too surprised to object, watch with curiosity this event with no precedent. The girls move quickly, gather measuring cups, whisks, delegate roles. J is the fryer, P is the ladle filler, the plate holder. It is after their bedtime when we gather around the table, spread jam on buttery pancakes, use our fingers and no plates.

A man with a winter jacket parks his motorbike on the driveway, a precarious pile of cardboard boxes and straw baskets strapped to the back of his bike. He unties the ropes, carries a basket down the stairs to my house, leaves it on my front step. It is piled high with zucchinis, avocados, mangoes, dill. I drag it into the kitchen by the twisted rope handles, smell fresh cilantro. The man’s motorbike leaves a cloud of grey exhaust above my kitchen window.

As I sit on the back porch, staring at the smudged screen of my laptop, a small bird that I have never seen before, deep shocking red, like rubies or blood, perches on the camp chair in front of me, studies me. I swear under my breath, a profane and inadequate response to this surprise gift. My heart races as it hops to the floor by my feet, then flies across the lawn. I thought I knew the birds in this place, am thrilled to feel like a foreigner.

Today M. was sad, tired, weepy, irritated. I wanted so badly to stay calm, to not get angry. So I tried preaching instead, gently of course, leaning in too close, commanding in my fake calm voice that she could choose a different attitude, could choose gratitude and joy. Which may on some basic psychological level be true, but which, if I’m honest with myself, has almost never been true for me. When I am grouchy or angry or sullen, I have never managed to switch over to joy and equanimity because someone leaned in close and demanded that I do it. Even if I were capable of making such a choice in that moment, I surely wouldn’t want to, because when you’re mad at the world, what you want most is to be mad at the world. You’re not interested in techniques for snapping out of it. You want to wallow in it. And what I need to learn as a mother is to give my girls the space to be who they are, to feel all the big emotions that swamp them, to stand nearby and nod with understanding, maybe, or bring tissues or chocolate or whatever it is that I wish people would do for me when I’m sinking under those unnameable currents. And maybe if I’d stop preaching, advising, scolding, I’d be able to see who M. is each moment, what she needs, what she’s afraid of, what complex tangle of factors has brought her to this moment and this state of sadness. Forgive me, Daughter, for trying to fix you, you who are not broken, you who are connected to divinity in ways I cannot see.

The Winding Path

When I arrive at the prayer labyrinth, I step out of my sandals, feel the sharp edge of a branch under my heel, the smooth plane of rock. I walk slowly, try to notice the soles of my feet, the earth holding me up. I wind along the path, feeling like a living metaphor for almost everything, mothering, faith, life. Lost and confused, not sure where I’m headed, I try to trust that the path will lead me to the centre of something bigger than myself. I notice the clover growing in between the stones, perfect and gorgeous, small hearts bursting with the greenness of life. I notice flowers crafted like ornaments, complex red and purple bells, tassels, bulbs. I cry easily, at the beauty of it, the sorrow of it, the images of my daughter alone on the playground, the fears of last night’s headlines. I return to my feet, my careful stepping, suspect that walking in this holy place among these growing things might be the only truth I need. I find my way to the centre, kneel on the stone cross, touch my forehead to the ground and breathe. I lay spotted leaves into a pattern, notice someone before me has left a yellow bouquet. I wonder if spirituality is greener and earthier than we realize.

The Rainy Season

The trees in this place
(this place of trees)
are unreasonable
preposterous
posturing
a parade of unruly ladies (tipsy ladies)
flaunting pink tiaras
purple boas
orangeyellowfuschia costume jewelry
winking at each other
across the so much green valley
daring the staid and stoic elm
the proper poplar
to raise leafy eyebrows
at their (garish) gorgeousness.

P notices patterns. She points at the shadows branches paint on our living room wall at dusk, the ripples in the sand below the monkey bars from last night’s rain. When I call her in after dark, she stops at the front door. “Look at the beautiful pattern!” Her eyes, adjusted to the darkness, see art in the shadows that my evening in artificial light blinds me to.

We are at a small petting zoo, farm animals in a circle of wire fence. M picks up a redbrown hen, places it carefully on the back of a sheep, walks away with a secret smile, her animal sculpture still and resigned.

J wears a blue lycra leotard printed with silver stars over a striped t-shirt. The outfit is ludicrous, bunchy, not really an outfit at all. She runs through the farmer’s market with the boldness of a circus star, licks drips of ice cream from a cone, from her small fingers.

The girls take my best scissors, my treasured Sharpies, behind a closed door. They emerge with small squares of brown cardboard wrapped in bits of fabric, secured with rubber bands. “These are our girls.” I notice careful smiling faces drawn in black ink, am introduced to each one, before they disappear in closed fists, are carried out the front door to the sandbox under the grainy grey of the evening sky.

I read Mary Oliver poems, turn the pages of the old library book like a mystery novel. The suspense yanks me forward, what beautiful word, bare recognition, sweet sadness is waiting on the next page. The dishes wait, dirty and patient.

When I walk in the forest this morning it smells like a different country, sweet sharp scents released by last night’s downpour. I realize I have no words to describe the smells of a a foreign place, of a tree on the first day of the rainy season.

P runs into my bedroom before my eyes are open. “I am drawing you a picture!” She runs back out the door. Later I step out of the shower and she is waiting, holding a paper in front of her. It is a picture of a girl named Purple Berry, butterflies with thick legs and feet, an elaborate flag “for the country where she’s from”. I tell her that the best mornings begin with art. She lays the picture on my rumpled pillow.

A slug slides over the rough stone, graceful, determined. Its back is pale and translucent, covered in grey lines like the shadow of stained glass. I kneel down, lean my face close to the ground, smile at the way it carries its head high, its antennae curved and glistening.

J dresses like a pirate for a school party, wears a black plastic eye patch, big belt buckle, blue jelly shoes. After school she changes into a shimmering leotard for her ballet class, asks if she can keep the pirate bandana wrapped around her hair.

A beetle as long as my pinky finger lies on its back on the tile floor, black legs wriggling, reaching. M and P rush toward it like concerned mothers, peer closely. M picks it up with gentleness, carries it to the door, throws it at the sky. It flies above the potato tree. She giggles at her encounter with this small wildness.

I sit in a noisy cafe and speak French with a blond woman from Montreal. We drink lattes, discuss children’s books and the Canadian election. I make up French words and sneak salted chocolate from my Dutch handbag. She corrects my mistakes, strict and smiling.

The afternoon sunlight falls through the window in long ribbons, lands on P as she collects small Playmobil pieces, arranges them in a cardboard box. There is a dead fly laid out carefully on the miniature table. “I needed a bird. It’s a very fresh dead fly.” She adjusts its crinkly body, moves alongside death with an ease I have not taught her.