When I was little, I had this theory that “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me.”
It mostly applied to the monsters living underneath my bed, the murderers and robbers that might walk into the room, and the scary shadows of ghostly kings that the curtains left on the walls – but I applied the theory to everything in my life by day as well.
At night, it meant that I would “protect” myself by curling up into a little ball and tucking my blanket around me until I was completely encased in a comforter shell. Making these preparations against the night demons required very careful and thorough measures. One unsecured corner of the blanket and the tiniest monster would be able to peep in and see just one toe to know that I was there.
By day, the theory translated more into “If you can do something, I can do it better.” Time was the only limiting factor – nothing was beyond my grasp given enough time.
I still sleep curled up in a little ball, but over time my day-time theory has changed somewhat to “If you can do something, I can and will try to do it better.”
It never occurred to me that some things are beyond my reach. Or, more importantly, that perhaps some things are not worth pursuing even if they are within my reach.
Croissants and Bruschetta
He hates the word “Awesome” more than any other word in the [American] English vocabulary.
“Do you realize that in our first conversation, you used the word “awesome” three times?” he asks me. When I laugh, he shakes his head disapprovingly. “You are such an American sometimes, you know.”
I remember that night.
It was my first evening back in Kigali, and the DJ had invited me out to dinner with friends. And, of course, where else would dinner be but at Papyrus? (Truly, in Kigali, all roads lead to Papyrus, not just on Friday and Saturday nights).
My friend G parked the car across from the bar. From the front seat, I could see Alex standing behind the counter of the newly relocated patisserie. He looked the same – he was wearing a white dress shirt I hadn’t seen during the summer, but still the same white Givova cap.
As G and the others headed into the restaurant, I told them I’d say hi to an old friend and join them soon. G glanced over at the patisserie and laughed. “A friend?” he said devilishly, “Hm hm.” I pushed him into the car and then ran off.
I stood breathless at the top of the stairs and watched Alex take an order from a customer. He turned to grab a pizza and when he turned back he finally saw me. I smiled and waved. He smiled his big smile and finished his customer’s order as I walked down and went through the back entrance into the patisserie.
“How are you?” he said.
“I’m good. How are you?”
“Same same. Nothing change,” he said and laughs, “Papyrus – always the same.”
“Well, it’s a new bakery,” I said. I peek over the new array of food displayed at the front. “You sell hamburgers now? And brochettes? And fried chicken?”
“Yes, but you know, not good,” he said, using the tongs to prod one of the brochettes, “These people, they like meat when they drink, so – I make meat. Business.”
“The croissants look different. And what happened to the cookies?”
“Cookies are not good. All burned. You see, new staff, have to train. They get it all wrong.” He shakes his head and then laughs.
A lot can change in three months.
Few things in life are static – people least of all. People are constantly in motion, changing and tuning into the stimuli of experiences and circumstances around them. Nothing is stable. Nothing lasts forever. Change means that sometimes people grow closer, and other times, they grow farther apart.
I told Alex it was nice to see him and that I probably had to join G and my friends inside Papyrus. I think he understood. I left the patisserie and Hassan behind the counter, but not without wondering whether the croissants were still as sinfully sumptuous as before. Not sure if I’ll ever know, but it’s hard to ever match up to that incredible first time.
Back inside the Papyrus restaurant, slow laid-back service makes for long, laid-back meals. The candle barely lasts through the night, flickering and twinkling lower and lower as old friends reconnect and new friends meet in the midst of a crowd that cycles in and out even as it grows larger in the restaurant bar. Deep inside Papyrus in the new club, a girl displays her vocal prowess, crooning and belting out the lyrics of classic oldies.
Our food had just arrived when he walked in.
I remember the sharp taste of mozzarella on the bruschetta as vividly as the fitted gray suit and crisp British accent. Serge, the owner of Papyrus, had just joined our table and two others walked in with him, but I don’t recall their names. Then, my friend nudged me and I looked up.
“Daddy, this is Lydia,” she said, “Lydia, this is Daddy.”
We shake hands. “Call me Kivu,” he says. His poise and demeanor are very polished, and his smile short and curt.
“Oh, okay. Kivu, nice to meet you.”
He bows his head slightly and walks into the restaurant. I lean toward my friend and whisper, “Did you really say his name was ‘Daddy’?”
“Yeah, but apparently he wants you to call him Kivu. Not sure what’s going on there,” she said with a shrug, and returned to her pasta.
If someone had told me that two weeks later Kivu and I would be friends, I would have laughed in disbelief. He was the first Rwandan I had met who seemed so cold and disinterested in conversing. Most Rwandans seem warm and friendly, hospitable, easy to know, easy to talk to – he seemed not only disinterested, but also not thrilled that I was sitting with his friends.
I’d already proven my childhood theory wrong at this point, but somehow still forgot that just because I “saw” something, it didn’t mean that it was truly the case. A week later, when we met at my housemate’s warehouse party, we’d realize how much was miscommunciated.
As I was to learn, Kivu is a writer and filmmaker. But not just any writer and filmmaker.
Kivu dropped out of school when he was little because he felt it was a waste of time. He hated being told what to do and what to learn, and felt that his time was better spent learning things on his own. He taught himself to be fluent in French and English … and his English is better than mine. Even now, he is opposed to formalized education and refuses to work for anyone. He tells me that he “works” 30 days out of the year to make enough money to do what he wants. Apparently, he is the liaison for BBC, CNN, National Geographic, and whatever film companies that want to come in to produce something on Rwanda. They pay him the big bucks to do all the logistical planning. After one or two gigs like that, he’s set for the rest of the year.
He travels around the world, finding studios in which to reflect, create, and write. For the holidays this year, he’s staying at a monastery in the south of Rwanda.
He is a paradox.
He lives his life from moment to moment and describes himself as “impulsive and spontaneous.” We will be sitting and having a deep conversation in a cafe, and suddenly he will spring up and ask me if I want to take a stroll to Serena Hotel. At midnight. Or he will randomly decide that he wants to spend the months of February and March in Cambodia and Thailand. He gets bored easily and likes to try new things, but at the same time, only wears white dress shirts (he says he has fifty in his closet) and is determined to order the same thing every time that he goes to Bourbon “for health reasons” (he always orders salad “with extra anchovies”).
His is the life I have always dreamed of living, but have never dared to embark. I’ve had small moments of rebellion against organized education – skipping class to spend a day walking through the entire Art Institute, lying on the lake fill and listening to all of Rach. 2 instead of writing a looming ten-page paper due the next day. I grumble all the time about school work and will declare about a class, “My time would be better spent oil painting in a field!”
I often tell people that “In the grand scheme of these things, grades don’t matter. When you’re eighty years old and you look back on your life, you’re not going to remember the hours you spent studying for orgo or the lectures you attended – you’re going to remember the times you spent doing absolutely nothing, breathing, reflecting on life, laughing with friends, building relationships.”
Still, I can’t help but obsess over grades and fall into the mentality that if I spend X amount of time doing A, then sometime down the line, I will have Z amount of time to do what I really want. I push myself to do things so that I can later do other things. And I find that this is the mentality that so many of my peers have – that if they force themselves to labor through med school or do consulting or investment banking – that their hard work will pay off and they will achieve “success” or finally open up the door to the life that they hope to have. One of my friends recently told me that she has always been told that life must be lived in thirds – one third spent working relentlessly in order to enjoy the other two thirds.
This makes sense to me. But at the same time, I wonder whether we – or let’s just say, I – would be so much happier if I just pursued what I wanted from the get-go. What if I had really spent a quarter oil-painting in a meadow instead of attending classes? It disheartens me to ride the metra every morning to work and see so many tired, drawn faces. Why do we force ourselves to do things that we do not enjoy?
Perhaps it is because we believe that the dream is worth it. Or perhaps it is because we do not know what we want so we aim for the dream of comfort, financial security, and stability, thinking that these things will make us happy.
I’m not sure.
But when I look at Kivu, I envy him. I envy his ability to throw everything into the air – commitments, responsibilities, obligations, the heavy weight of the future – to not be obliged to anyone or anything, to be a free spirit drifting around the world exploring, meeting, experiencing.
To be done with doing, to just focus on living.
However, a part of me still believes that we each have a purpose for living, that each one of us has a responsibility to humanity that is greater than our individual needs and desires. Finding that purpose and uniting it with our strengths and passions seems to be the challenge. Perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to oil paint in a meadow, or write in a cottage in the south of France, or publish a novel that leaves a lasting legacy – but have I truly lived if I have not maximized what I have been given to give back to the world?
My hope is that teaching will balance out this responsibility while still engaging me in doing what I love. It may not be the most glamorous occupation filled with luxury, extravagance, and comfort – and, at this point, I know that if I truly want to pursue these paths, they are within my reach. But teaching, as one of my professors once said, is “sacred work.”
To be honest, at this point there is nothing that I want to do more. I’m not sure where teaching will take me, but I am more excited than anything else to see where I will embark!
Thank you for following me on this adventure 🙂