Sunday, June 26, 2016

Paradise Lost


I am feeling the need for some grief work.

Rambo - the body of a Rott, but the brain of a happy Black Lab

It was only three years ago.  We finished our term of teaching.  We packed our bags to go back to the States for our ‘home assignment’ of visiting our donors and friends, of reporting on what the previous two years had been for our ministries.  We lined up people to stay in our home while we were gone, made sure our dogs were taken care of.

Our Cottage - How things looked after I first arrived in July 2008.

Our house was rather shambolic and small, but it was home.  The glory of the place was the garden.  Building on the efforts of the families who had lived there before, I had made our garden into a little paradise.  Beds with beautiful flowering shrubs and succulents, forty or more hibiscus of different colors and sizes, beautiful ferns in huge pots.  But the wonder of my garden (or the garden whose stewardship had passed to me) was the trees.  There was the huge mugumo tree on which we hung our swing.  I put a bird feeder underneath it and was in constant awe of the ever changing variety of birds that passed through.  We had a patio just outside our door, facing the mugumo tree, on which we put a table with a shading umbrella and chairs.  I would sit at that table and pretend to read, but really I was looking at the birds, at the flowers, at the huge poinsettia trees.  A blue (Sykes) monkey would sometime pass through the stand of huge trees that lined the fence by the main road.  And when the Tree Tomato fruits were ripe he would come and sit in the top of the little tree and help himself while my two dogs Cinnamon and Omega nearly went wild underneath.

What one does in the garden.

There were other huge trees over past the tin shed that served as my carport.  One of them, my favorite, towered at least 120 feet and its bark was covered by thousands and thousands of sharp, Hershey kiss-shaped and sized thorns. These thorns meant business as I discovered one day when I tripped and fell backwards onto one of the thorn-covered radiating roots and sliced my forearm up nicely.  One of the fantastic things about this tree was the colony of weaverbirds that lived in its top-most branches.  Always garrulous, always busy, their bright yellow feathers always made a splash at my bird feeder when they decided to visit, which was regularly.

The Hershey Kisses Tree trunk

Up close!
There, in the back right, the Hershey Kisses Tree in it's glory

My garden had a grassy lawn where children could run barefoot and where we could play boules.  We had parties where we ate out under the stars, under the stretching branches of the mugumo tree.  Our best friends would come join us for a pot-luck Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners to die for, and we also tried to make sure that colleagues or students who didn’t have a place to go could come and feel at home and celebrate with us.  Such good, good memories.

Christmas dinner!  Kids outside, grownups inside. Everybody happy!

There was sadness in my garden, too.  Rambo, the part-black lab and mostly Rottweiler that I inherited from the previous occupants, was not just in charge of our security, he became my friend.  But as is often the case with big dogs, he developed an increasingly debilitating case of hip and elbow dysplasia, until I knew and he knew that he just couldn’t get up and do it anymore.  With a lot of grief, I called the local vet, who came and put Rambo down.  I would say in my arms, but Rambo was a giant of a dog.  And his head lay in my lap as he breathed his last.  I buried Rambo in my garden.

Rambo  love.

The aforementioned Cinnamon and Omega were the dogs I got to replace Rambo, as we needed to have dogs as a security deterrent.  I got these two dogs from the local animal shelter intending to get only one.  But they were in a pen together and it turns out they were litter mates. Their previous owner had to leave the country and return home unexpectedly, so they found themselves at the shelter.  I really liked them and they came home with me.  Turns out they were rather eccentric.  I took to calling them Thing 1 and Thing 2.  They decided that our huge garden was not big enough, so they took to working their way through the wire fencing along the road and having a nightly jaunt to who knows where.  Every time I patched a hole, another appeared somewhere else along the one hundred meters of fence.  After a while, I gave up and decided not to notice.  It was one Thanksgiving when we were all abustle getting things ready for our midafternoon feast that I noticed the dogs were unusually excited.  So I walked through the garden to discover what all their fuss was about.  Turns out they had dispatched a huge bush rat and were about as proud as they could be.  Had I left it there, I’m sure they would have dragged the thing up during our festivities to impress the guests.  I made sure the bush rat had a more private ceremony and burial.

Playing with Omega under the Mugumo tree.

When I sat reading under the big canvas umbrella, I would watch as the tiny iridescent sunbirds went from hibiscus flower to hibiscus flower, sipping nectar.  Bee eaters would zing about.  Male Flycatchers, with their ruffled plumage, were constantly trying to impress their would-be mates.  And on special days, there would be a glorious red-winged turaco in the tops of the trees.  In the Hershey Kisses tree, a Kite and her mate built their nest and for five years returned again and again to raise a new brood.

Hibiscus flower just waiting for another Sunbird.

When we left in June of 2013, I assumed we would be back as usual in September.  I had no idea that as I walked through the garden and said goodbye to the dogs on the way to the taxi waiting to take us to the airport, that my stewardship was over.  I would never call this little paradise home again.

With family enjoying breakfast in the garden in 2012.

Meanwhile back in the US, it became increasingly apparent that our time in Kenya was over.  Even worse, it became increasingly apparent that my marriage had died.  Because we left all of our things in Kenya waiting for us to return, we had to make a difficult trip back to Karen in February of 2014 to break up our old home and sell off our things and make an end to what had been our life there.  That was really hard.  Because I was staying someplace else, I never made it back to our former home, except a rushed trip to make sure the things that needed to be sold were out of the house.  I noticed with gratitude that Alfred the gardener had managed to keep things going in my absence.

My garden in bloom.  Poinsettias in the background.

Since those sad days, I have managed to return to Kenya.  It feels strange to be here alone.  As an Orthodox Christian, I would not be welcome to teach at my former school or to live at my old cottage with its astonishing garden.  So I’m living in a different place.  And my busy schedule has meant that I have not had many opportunities to return to the campus that I called home for six years.  I have heard that the school administration is experiencing a financial crisis.  And then I heard that our former neighbors who lived in other sections of the house where we lived, were ordered to leave because the school was selling the property in order to raise money.

The glorious mugumo tree (aka Strangler Fig), which is actually many trees
growing around a long gone host.

This past Thursday I was tired of the challenge of running through the neighboring slums and decided I would go back to Karen, back to the campus where I had lived and worked, and run one of the routes I used to take when that was home.  I parked at near my old driveway and ran seven therapeutic miles through the surrounding neighborhoods.  I got back from my run, and I decided to visit my house and my garden and see what had happened.  It has been less than 2 ½ years since I was there, but I couldn’t recognize the place.  Our driveway and our gate were gone.  In its place was an ugly cinder block wall built much too close around the old house.  And the house itself was being gutted and rebuilt.  But the garden, my garden, is gone.  The beds have been obliterated, with only a few overgrown succulents to suggest that anything beautiful and cared for had ever been there.  The hibiscus were gone.  The poinsettias were gone.  There is a naked, bleeding gash all the way to the fence where all those towering trees had been.  I looked in vain for the Hershey Kisses tree.  And then I saw the huge piles of cut up logs, and then the huge stump, and the vast emptiness of sky where the kites had nested and the weaverbirds chattered.  Only the mugumo tree remained, but in the midst of the desolation it looked shell-shocked and exhausted. The place was unrecognizable.  There were two large standing pots of uncared-for ferns standing forgotten under the mugumo tree, bearing mute witness that something else, something better, something beautiful had been here before.  But it’s gone now.  A paradise that lives only in my memory.  I grieve that others will not ever share the quiet joy I had in that place.  But I am grateful that I could take care of it for a time.

Sisel in my garden.


Sometimes it seems that this life is just one loss after another.  My family, my home, my garden, my former life – gone so fast and so completely I can’t breathe.  But that little house, that little garden, they were never actually mine.  I was just passing through, trying to do the best I could, to nurture the plants and trees and birds and animals into something pleasing.  And I think I succeeded while it was in my power to do so.  Turns out my family was never mine either.  And now the garden serves as a parable to me of all the time and energy and quiet desperation I poured into somehow making my family work.  And to my utter disorientation, it wouldn’t.  And then everything was lost.  I may wish I could go back home, but that little patch of paradise exists only in my mind now.  That home, that safe place, that family, that garden I poured my life into exists now only in my heart.  I feel, I grieve deeply the losses.  The beauty that was, that so delighted me, that I could reach out and touch and which touched me in return, has vanished, never to return.  Whatever happens from here will be different.  I understand a little better why all creation is yearning for God to bring His salvation project to completion and finally make all things new.  And somehow, along with Paul, I can only hope that all of this will work out for the good of those who love Him and who have been called according to His purpose.  But sometimes, when one is standing in the midst of all the destruction, good is hard to see.

My driveway, lined with blue fireworks flowers and several large
avocado trees the monkeys would visit in season.  I left down this driveway
in May of 2013 never to come back home again.