(the beginning of November 2016, flashbacks to fall 2015)
The other volunteers and I walk down a long drive surrounded by bushy land and brilliant bursts of flaming bougainvillea. I’ve just arrived, and we’re on our way to Mary Coulson’s house for lunch. I make small talk, though my mind is churning with memories of my first encounter with the lady of the woods.
I’m seventeen, and in the throes of anorexia, still half-believing that I’m disordered no more than I am enlightened. My worried parents are desperate, though they don’t even know how far my disorder has eaten at me. After my standoff with an eating disorders specialist, my mom takes me to visit Mary.
I’ve heard about Mary, a naturopath, for a while now. Obsessed with alternative medicine, I’m naturally curious about her. And with curiosity comes an open mind, however slight.
I stroll into Mary’s clinic, not sure of what to expect. We take a number from the receptionist, and wait. The harsh laboratory lights flicker overhead. Finally, it’s our turn. We slip through a narrow entrance into a screened-off corner.
And there she is.
Someone is asking how long I’ll be staying in Gilgil. I’m vaguely aware that I’m covering the tracks of my uncertainty in being here, at Restart. Yet, through the autopilot of my disguise, my mind is still elsewhere.
Past the screens is one of the most beautiful beings I have ever seen. She is both mature and ageless. With wide features and angled cheekbones, she radiates grace, poise, and power. Yet, it is her eyes that capture the soul. From behind the palest blue orbs, surrounded by dark kohl, streams an energy, a presence, that recognizes something within me and makes it tremble.
We near an tall gate with horizontal metal bars. The askari opens it for us, nodding his head. We start down a long driveway. At the end is Mary’s house.
“Hello,” Mary says, turning towards my mom. “I’m going to ask you to leave now.”
My mom leaves quietly. I am left with this woman, this immense presence, feeling like I’m about to cry out of sheer emotion.
We approach the front door. Mary’s house is old, draped in the branches of trees, caressed by years of vines and indigenous flowers.
“Right, tell me about the problem.” she states.
Unsettled, I’m not entirely sure if she means what I believe she means.
“Well, my parents seem to think I’ve lost too much weight.” I try to hide behind my first line of defense, hoping to protect my disordered mind.
She blinks once, obviously not taking the bait. Her eyes penetrate my soul. My hair stands on end. I am both terrified and rejoicing, retreating to the shadows and venturing into the light. The silence stretches a while longer, and then –
“Sweetie, how long have you had bulimia?” I freeze for a moment. The emotional barricade gives way to a thunderous river.
She knows, I think. She knows my secret. And a hibernating part of me awakens, ever so slightly, a seed kindled by rain, one last spark from a dead fire.
We walk into the house, through the wood-paneled halls and floors covered with Persian carpets. I still feel disoriented, unsure, unsteady. Why am I really here? I ask yet again.
After turning into a courtyard, I’m aware of piercing blue eyes watching me from somewhere. And then I see her, Mary Coulson, the lady of the woods. Galadriel in her garden of mysteries.
“Hello, darling,” she says. “I’m so glad to see you.”
She embraces me, and I feel strangely grateful, like I’m breathing into an elusive dream. I think back to who I was a year ago, with so many mountains to climb. And now, I’m here, in Gilgil, on the other side of the great mirror. I’m still confused about why I’m really volunteering, and how I can possibly help these children. Me, volatile, unsteady, standing always on the shifting sands of self-doubt. I’m afraid that I will only disappoint. Yet, in the light of the past, I find refuge.
In taking a gap year, I wanted to be able to understand myself better. We all have dark things in our pasts, just as we have the promise of new beginnings. I can listen to these children, acknowledging both the darkness and the light in their stories. In so many little ways, I can ask them who they really are, behind the storms of life. Beyond different languages, backgrounds, traumas, and heartbreaks, we can all unite under the complexities, the yin and yang, of being human.
If I share a mirror of truth, of identity, maybe I will accomplish something good for those not only at Restart, but for all other lonesome wanderers I will come across.