Your profile, more beautiful than I had ever appreciated, growing sharp and waxen, the contours of your cheeks hollowing out.
After years of staring at the empty, abandoned tree pit in front of our apartment building, I decided to stage a guerilla gardening coup d'etat and take over the public space for myself. I had visions of lilies and dahlias and wild flowers, and was prepared to hold my ground with trowel and shovel in case anyone on Montague Street got lippy.
I imagined confrontations with smug Brooklynites ("Is that fertilizer ORGANIC? Pookie only pees on organic!") until I realized, halfway through the excavation of Brooklyn's vile exoskeleton, that the only thing that really pisses off New Yorkers is when someone upstreams their cab.
"What are you doing?" a woman stopped to ask.
"Planting some stuff," I answered, my hackles rising in defense.
"Oh," she said, considering the crust of lead and asbestos I was steadily forking into the ground. "That's so nice. Can you help me identify something in my backyard? I think it's a cactus."
After convincing her it was most certainly not a cactus, a delivery guy wheeled his bike up to the tree pit, chained it to the iron railing and took out smoke. I ran through a list of things I would say if he flicked his butt into my radioactive tree pit.
"What are you doing?" he asked, in heavily accented English. "Do you live here?"
It turned out the dude was the owner of the sushi joint five floors below me - the restaurant whose backyard I had repeatedly hosed while watering my balcony garden. Shit got hectic one day when I inadvertantly sprayed a table of German tourists and then hid before they could properly ID the perp.
"You have the garden! The crazy garden!"
BUSTED. The day of reckoning had come, and I was trapped in the tree pit between a bike and a car, with nowhere to hide. I considered throwing my fifth floor neighbors under the bus by attributing the "crazy garden" to them, since they were stupid enough to call their dog "SO-CRATES" in homage to "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."
"Yeah, but I have the watering system under control now, so...that's good," I trailed off.
The restauranteur, who introduced himself as Nathan, was concerned about his backyard.
"I want to make it garden paradise!" he exclaimed. "How do I make flowers everywhere?"
I told him about the farmer's market, what plants he should buy, how he should plant them. Nathan listened carefully, looking nervous.
"Don't worry," I said. "It's going to be great. Give me a shout if you need help."
Two weeks later, I looked down from my balcony and saw Nathan's planters full of flowers. He'd jerry rigged an insane irrigation system which was flooding half of his newly constructed backyard, but the meditative task of deadheading had put him in a trance-like state of obliviousness.
"Lookin' good!" I called down, breaking the spell. Nathan smiled proudly and gave me the thumbs up. Elated, I responded with two thumbs up and an ill-advised fist pump. For a moment we both stood there waving dumbly - two city gardeners in our gardens of crazy.
It's taken me seven months to write this post. I'm staring at these final photographs of my time in Mali and I still don't know how to tell you all the things that are in my heart. Will pictures and poems suffice?
It it this deep blankness is the real strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can't
Tell or remember even what they were.1
My head swims with memories of Tuareg tents, stringy goat roasted over a fire, nomad children selling silver trinkets from their pockets.
We are in Timbuktu again. The Festival Au Desert honors the annual gathering of the Tuareg tribes
who still convene from all over the Sahara once a year to socialize and share information. The Festival is about Malian and West African music, but the Tuareg are still in evidence, perched on sand dunes and guarding their camels, looking on.
The days are searingly bright and hot, best spent in what little shade is provided by our four person tent. I share this small space with a slightly unhinged German whose hair-raising stories of motorcycle rides across Africa with compound fractures make the rest of us lily-livered mortals blanch. The transplanted Texan, the disgruntled Brit and I circle around each other sniffing, noses twitching. Something is off. Do they detect fear? Eagerness? Or - God forbid - ENTHUSIASM? We are not off to a good start. I am determined to be liked god damn it all! and by sundown we are as thick as thieves.
The music starts - the vast majority of the acts are brilliant and inspiring, and a very few are fucking awful (harmonica guy from Connecticut or wherever, I'm talking about you. Stop embarrassing me with your pretend New Orleans bit - it gives me eczema.)
We sit atop the dunes and listen until we are moved to dance. The Tuareg children join us, showing off their moves while simultaneously trying to pry cadeaux from our hot little hands. The crowd, full of Malians, is ecstatic, rapt, full of unbridled joy. When Oumou Sangare comes out, it's like the second coming of Jesus.
While the German is off breaking his neck somewhere, we three laugh and play and roll down giant sand dunes. All deeply miserable in our own ways, this unexpected lightheartedness is a salve for invisible sores.
And the night shall be filled with music
And the cares that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.2
The Tuareg men are dandies. They wear six foot lengths of fine cotton cloth wrapped around their heads and faces, the color contrasting with their indigo robes. Some of the more benighted gringos mimic the style, which is, let's face it, Fucking Embarrassment Number II. Leave it for the Tuaregs, bitches! They're harder than you are, and much better-looking. I say this with my inside voice, but with great emotion.
While the Tuaregs race their camels, I watch idly as two boys play with a rusty razor blade in the sand. Hey look! Kids playing with a rusty razor blade! Do they cut themselves? No. Do they get tetanus and die? No. Does someone lose an eye? No. Neurotic mothers of the United States, please take note.
Three nights of belly laughing, goat carving, sand dancing and star gazing seem too few. It is over before it ever began. The adventure has come to a close, the day is done.
Sprawled out on a far dune staring up at the night sky, I think about what Achilles said to Briseis in Troy, perhaps the worst film ever made: