Twenty-seven years ago, I was a girl bouncing along a rutted road in a station wagon surely held together by strength of will. We clunked over holes large enough to swallow a less determined car, and I watched red Kenyan dust settle on the windows, tainting my view. Children appeared from nowhere, lining the path on both sides of our car, dancing, singing, and waving. For a moment I wondered when the queen was arriving — such a parade must mean important visitors. Then our friend at the wheel turned and gave a wide grin. “The children are singing for you,” he said. “They’ve never seen a white girl before.”
I only remember singular impressions of that day. Opening the car to a swarm of small ones circled around me near enough to get a good look but not close enough to touch me yet. Later, gentle pats of my strange blonde head, and hands stroking my fingers. We were visiting a school supported by the church my father pastored in America — a place that seemed far distant from the exuberant welcome of these schoolchildren. When we left their school that day, my father and I were presented with the fine gift of a live chicken to take home for our dinner — a gesture of immense respect and generosity. I froze in near panic as a beaming teacher pressed the frantic bird into my arms, and I collapsed with relief into the back seat of the car as soon as we could press the squawking bird into a crate in the back. The waving children disappeared from our rear view quickly, but the picture framed by hand-cranked windows made an indelible impression on my heart.
Later that day, I was again in the back seat of the car, waiting outside another school. The window was down for air, and I leaned drowsily against it while Dad had another lengthy adult conversation. I must have been too worn out to leave the car. But the world came to me again in the face of a teenage boy who rapped on the glass with a wide smile. “Hello-hello, how are you?” he lilted, making a song of the question.
I managed a weak greeting, and he continued, “Are you saved?” At first I didn’t understand the question, and he repeated with insistence, patting his heart. “Jesus, Jesus. Are you saved?”
“Oh, yes!” I understood now. “I am saved,” I nodded.
“Good, good,” he sang, “I am also saved!” He thumped his chest with joy and pride and walked on, leaving me at the window to mull. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” Yes, I believed. Yes, I was saved. But never would anyone in my hometown come to the window to ask such a question. Are people in this country so much less inhibited than we are? Perhaps.
Or maybe that boy just truly cared about the soul of the girl behind the window.
I felt my heart crack open just a little, and a ray of wonder slid inside.
Decades later, I drive a big car through the suburbs like every other mom around, taking people places, running errands that make up the stuff of life. I watch the world through tinted glass — and often don’t really see it. I close the windows to control the climate and keep the gnats — and the world — at a distance. I drive past the same homeless woman walking our sidewalks several times a week, and have I ever stopped the car to chat? Only twice in nine years. My car is large and strong, and it insulates me from the world like an armored vehicle.
Yet somewhere within is the fifteen-year-old girl who stood outside the car those years ago grasping a chicken, the girl who talked to that boy at the window. These days, I’m finding it hard to roll down the windows of my walled existence and let the world inside. I’ve got airbags and automatic locks and can hardly control the windows myself any more — the “smarter than you are” car does that for me.
A month ago, after years of dreaming and planning and saving, my husband and I stepped out of a plane into a rainy Nairobi night. We climbed onto a crowded bus with our five children, pressed uncomfortably close to strangers, while another stranger drove us into the darkness. This was not a safe place to be, in a country heavy with unrest and security threats. I was glad for sealed windows to keep out unseen things in the damp night — but I wondered if my heart was sealed as well? Have I grown too protected? Do I remember how to let strangers in? What about our children? Have we raised them with bulletproof hearts?
Mercifully, our children are less guarded than their mother. They, especially the younger ones, seem to live with doors thrown open. We had beautiful opportunities in our weeks in Kenya to climb out of our van and be with people. We sat in classrooms and drank tea with students and teachers. We weeded gardens and milked cows. We sorted beans and cooked pumpkin greens. We held wiggling babies and learned their names and kissed their faces. And once again, tiny dark hands stroked my pale, freckled ones with something akin to wonder. Our youngest, a stout seven-year-old with dimples, made fast friends with a Masai Warrior named John who taught him how to build a fire with sticks and shoot an arrow straight. The memory of their two figures sitting fireside in the dark is a picture of eager, open hearts. John, tall and strong as an acacia tree, leans in towards our small son, and they gesture and laugh, sharing stories in the darkness. I watch and listen and can hear the wind in my ears.
We stepped out into the world on this journey and got red clay so thoroughly in our shoes that our feet became red as well. But everywhere we went, we rode in a white van. We sat in a funeral procession for a stranger in a slum for an hour because there was no other way in or out — and we kept the windows and our shoulders hunched up tight. We stopped at a checkpoint entering the Masai Mara game preserve and beaded Masai women swarmed the van, knowing we were willing tourist targets. Strong fingers pried our windows open and thrust jewelry inside, insisting “It is blue like your eyes” and “Yes, you take this!” We were visitors caught in a place with no exit, and I instinctively resented the invasion of my personal space.
Our children watched with questioning eyes, as their windows were pounded. “What’s the right thing to do here, Mom? Dad?” We didn’t want or need these trinkets. But these women walk miles every day to sell their wares to tourists so they can feed their own children. What is the right thing to do? I’m caught by the bones through your ears and the dust in the creases of your face and I can barely look you in the eye for fear you will reveal things you see in me that I’d rather not know, and I’m not sure what to do.
Later — away from the crowds, deep in a game preserve — we opened the van windows to breathe. We lifted the roof to stand with our heads out and feel the clear air wash us. We were no more safe on safari than we’d been in the city or at the gate swarmed with people, but I felt relief at the distance from humankind. Baboons will jump into your van to steal your food (and they did!) — but they won’t look at you with a piercing gaze and ask without speaking who you really are and why you’re here.
A safari is a journey, and the best of journeys are not meant to be safe. They are meant to shake us up, to crack the windows, and to roll down the panels guarding our hearts. I thought that we were an adventurous family, setting out with five children to the far side of the world. It turns out, we’re not, really — or at least, I’m not. My deepest instinct was to freeze in place when I felt uncomfortable and protect what’s mine. My children, my dignity, my personal safety. It turns out, what I really wanted was a safari salama — a safe journey — into exciting places but with no discomfort or courage required.
I found out that I am far less brave than I thought I was. I guard my heart from the whole of humankind. I go into the world — into places that are new or different, or even places I call home — but I keep things at a safe distance. What I really am is self-protective…and fortunate. Fortunate enough to make a trip like this in the first place, but also fortunate to see my true self in the reflections of our dirty windows. I saw the world around me, and I saw myself. My own guarded, protected, little heart, still touched and moved in tender ways by these people in this place, perhaps loosening with wonder once again.
A month later, I’m at home watching the mist rise over the Virginia mountains out this familiar window. Here, the clouds rock back and forth over the hills in a way that makes me feel I’m swaying on a porch swing. Gently. On the other side of the world, the sun is higher now. Girls use sticks to brush gathered dirt out of aloe vera plants while boys herd cattle and their mothers thrust laden arms in windows of other people’s vans. Perhaps today they will make a good sale. Perhaps today, from here, I can still reach out to the hands that push their way into my world, with less caution and a more willing spirit.
My old suburban is parked in the drive, windows shut up tight against forecasted rain. And my heart, it’s a little bit more open than it was. I want to live with it thrown wide. So I reach out and crank the bedroom window open, waiting for the rush of air. And I’m fifteen again in an ancient Peugeot wagon. Expectant.
Allison Gaskins writes beneath a window in her Virginia home. She is the author of several books, mom to five. and wife of a patient man. She works for Mantle Music and Art House North when she is not gazing at the world, gathering words. Currently, she is practicing living with windows thrown wide.