I traveled to an HIV and AIDS camp for girls in South Africa in 2006 as a volunteer Life Skills Specialist. My mission at the 10-day long camp was to empower the girls, aged 5 to 15, with the tools they’d need to make informed decisions about sex, drugs, and alcohol in an effort to help eradicate the HIV and AIDS epidemic plaguing their country.
Before I left for South Africa life was pretty awesome. I had just graduated college, got a full-time job working as a reporter covering an internationally-known planned community in Northern Virginia and was living back at home in the familiarity and comfort of my childhood. The icing on my Life Cake came when my mom told me that my cousin and her kids were moving in with us for a few months while her husband tried to figure out if leaving corporate America to work for himself was the best decision for his family.
When I came through the immigration doors at Dulles Airport and saw my mom, dad, sister, aunt, cousins and lots of babies awaiting my arrival I had no reason to think I wouldn’t ease back into my daily life. But only hours after getting home I started to have a lot of trouble readjusting. I’d lived with, talked to and read journals written by little girls who had been severely abused in every way imaginable. For the first time, I met, interacted and shared a living space with someone with AIDS, and I often felt lost among a culture and people that I didn’t understand but wanted badly to help.
Back home, I went through the motions of working and catching up with friends, avoiding questions about my trip from well-intended, curious folks. If you’ve ever visited a developing nation or witnessed poverty at its core then you know that those images are haunting and lasting, and take a toll on your spirit.
While I thought I would be happy to be in a house full of people I loved, all I wanted was to be isolated. I had unresolved anger, frustration, sadness, and deep guilt that I couldn’t shake. I cried a lot, sometimes by myself and sometimes at random and inappropriate times like when my cousin’s daughter, Little BFF, told me funny stories over breakfast. She’d fall silent as she watched me melt from the chair at the dining table into a ball on the ground, my eyes fixed on blank space.
I tried to move back into my regular routine doing the things that made me the happiest, like my ritual morning workouts. One afternoon on my cousin’s short visit in July I somehow ended up taking care of her infant daughter, Little Punk, for about an hour. I’d just gotten home from the gym, dying to take a shower and eat a sandwich.
I’d been in the house just a few minutes when Little Punk started to cry. It was time for her bottle, but I was hungry and sweaty. Any normal adult in a stable frame of mind would feed the hungry baby and tend to themselves later, but my mental capacity had been overfilled for weeks, and with every loud, shivery baby cry I was hungry and sore and sad and needed a new job and pissed off and hurt and my editor at the paper who’d become a dear friend was moving away for graduate school and my stupid bathroom still smelled like stupid cotton and sunshine!
Somewhere between frustration and fury, I shook together a mix of dry powder and water to make baby formula, and also slapped together a turkey and cheese sandwich. My plan was to prop the bottle into Little Punk’s car seat while I ate, but after three tries at propping her up and helping her latch on, I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t do anything any more. I collapsed onto my mom’s bed, put my sandwich down on the covers, and lifted Little Punk from her car seat. I cradled her head in the bend of my left arm and let her body curl into the cusp at my waist. She latched onto the bottle immediately, took a few giant gulps, and then looked dead in my eyes and smiled.
My heart swelled so big it ballooned out of my chest, beyond my house and floated somewhere to a land imagined by Dr. Seuss.
That smile and those eyes were full of calm, gratitude, purity, love, relief and somehow brimming with understanding of everything I’d been through. It was like she had pulled a breath out of me that had been suffocating on itself for weeks, and that ocean of pain I’d been feeling was swept away by her tiny hand on my hand and her healing gaze.
I gave Little Punk a squeeze, pressed my nose into her cheek and inhaled her tiny breaths taken between swallows. Several minutes after she finished her bottle, I couldn’t put her down. I just wanted to hold her there against my heart forever, because she had done in moments what I hadn’t been able to do for myself in weeks: acknowledge the deepest part of my hurt, while finding a way to move forward with humility, gratitude and certainty in God’s justice even when living among His unjust creation.
I believe there is a strong correlation between comfort of spirit and physical beauty. And while there are things that make me feel this way (a good workout, a leg wax, a great haircut, a well-executed meal, reflective meditation) I’ve learned that the most beautiful moments in life aren’t things you have for a long time. They’re just moments, fleeting and few intimate moments that give us a chance to to feel all the things we want to feel – comfort of spirit, physically beautiful and understood.
I was grateful for those moments with Little Punk then. I’m grateful for them now.
Little BFF and Little Punk, 2006
Little Punk, 2012
This post is part of BlogHer’s My Beautiful Moments editorial series, made possible by Olay.