Photo by Claire DeBoer
She drew on my skin. Quick, clean lines forming intricate patterns up and down my arms and then my hands.
I was mesmerized by her henna handiwork, my eyes glancing between the design and its leopard hijab adorned creator. She spoke little English and didn't ask what I wanted. She simply grasped my right arm and went to work.
While my friends teased about how long mine took, I smiled and shrugged. She was the expert, after all.
It was our last full day together. Kelley surprised the women with a henna party. A way of marking our time together and remembering all we'd shared. Nicole left us earlier that morning and tomorrow Claire, Fiona, Hilary, and I would start our journeys home.
But today was about sisterhood and life-giving conversation. About dancing at a well and speaking Amahoro. About Uganda and Burundi and our respective hometowns. About the bond that occurs when friends do life together.
Afterward, I held my arms at my sides, allowing the ink to dry. Each woman took a turn and we marveled over the Arab and African designs. We laughed about everything and nothing. My God, how we laughed, celebrated, and cherished our time together.
Once the henna ladies were done, we gathered outside and Idelette popped a bottle of champagne. The dried ink flaked off my skin and I could finally hold a glass without concern of smearing my hennaed fingers. We toasted to our time together and to each other.
We drank and we did our daily check in. "I feel sassy," I declared and they hooted and hollered in affirmation.
I felt more like myself than I had in a long time during those two weeks in Uganda and Burundi. Hell, I hadn't felt so loved and accepted for longer than that.
Photo by Idelette McVicker
We're sitting down to dinner, the whole lot of us, when Idelette shows me the picture she uploaded to Instagram. It's a candid picture of me, freshly hennaed, laughing.
I cringed inside. "I look like a dork," I said and tried to laugh off the tears forming in the back of my throat.
"No, you look happy," Idelette countered and it's as if she can see deep down what I'm feeling. Her phone made its way around the table, while everyone denied my self-criticism. Cute, happy, sassy, they proclaimed.
The conversation turned to other things and I silently wrestled with why it always came back to this. Why, after all these years, was it hard to recognize my own beauty?
An hour later I crouched next to Tina's laptop and she showed me pictures from that afternoon. I beheld the images in awe of her talent. We talked about her photography and about how I love having my picture taken even while being critical of the results. Idelette joined us and before I knew it, I sat next to my open suitcase in tears.
I told them my struggle to believe people like me, really like me, even though there's a wealth of evidence of how liked and loved I am. I talked about the ways my self-esteem ebbed and flowed and how every time I think I've tamped down the last lie, another springs up in its place. I believe I am fearfully and beautifully made until I see a picture and focus on the wrong thing.
"I didn't look dorky in that picture," I told Idelette. I tried to focus on my laughter and how there's no denying my happiness.
Photo by Idelette McVicker
All eyes turned toward me. It was time to share the story of my life.
Where to start such a tale? How to gather up the strands of narratives and put them together cohesively?
Each woman had heard bits and pieces of my story during our time together. They knew I'd experienced depression in junior high and that I'd recently started seeing a counselor again for a tune up. They knew about my current writing project and how I really, truly felt about living in Nashville.
It was late and we were tired but they wanted to hear my story. A hushed and holy moment.
They knew me and I felt safe spinning out these words. For the first time in a decade, I cried while talking about that past depression and almost suicide attempt. I cried for that 13 year old girl so filled with self-loathing and I cried for my 19 year old self who waited so many years before seeking counseling. My friends cried with me and gathered closer around.
There was a release in the telling and afterward they prayed over me. Tina gave thanks for the minor chords in my life and Hilary asked for the release of blessing and each one gave me some new insight about how God might use me and how the strands of my life are weaving into something beautiful.
This was my experience of Uganda and Burundi. I cannot tell you the stories apart from these friends.
I hope some day you sit in a room full of kindred spirits and rest in the knowledge of their love. I hope you share your story and have it mirrored back to you with grace and understanding. I hope you have a glimpse of the saints spurring you on.
I hope you have people who remind you of who you are when you've all but forgotten.