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(This was the first place Mother’s Day essay contest winner in Austin Parent Wise Magazine, May 2010). http://www.parentwiseaustin.com/Archive/2010-05/Geisha

I am having a bad morning after an even worse night.

My daughter, whom I care for alone and drive to daycare alone every day, is having a tantrum and screaming so loudly the neighbors can hear. The neighbors I never invite over, because I don’t want them to see how empty my house is, how I can’t afford to buy a steamer and paint to cover the ugly wallpaper my daughter compulsively rips off, how collection agents call me every few hours and leave angry-sounding messages on my machine. I am alone in this chaotic mess my life has become, because I am a single, alone mom of a restless four-year-old, working overtime to keep us alive.

I am ashamed. Of all these secrets. 



But let’s put all that aside for a moment—because I am going to work.

When I drop off my daughter at daycare, I return to the car and drive the 20 minutes back to my job at a local spa, where I work as a front desk receptionist. When I step out of the car, I am a different person. I have applied a coat of fairy dust to my ruffled feathers. I have put on my smile. I have perfectly tied my imaginary kimono and tucked my obi into place. I am ready to serve. 



Everything is clean, pristine here. The lighting is perfect. I am suddenly someone else. Someone who is happy all the time, who is gracious and fluid, who creates beauty.



When I answer the phone, I say, “How may I serve you?” When asked how my day is going, I smile and say “Excellent, and yours?” When a plumpish 60-year-old guest comes out of her facial appointment, I look at her as if she were the only person alive on earth—as if she is my best friend. “Wow,” I tell her. “You’re glowing!” And she is. 



The skincare therapist is busy cleaning her station, so I offer to do the guest’s makeup—that’s part of my job. Slightly nervous, as I’m still new at this, I assess her face and pray to God, Krishna, the Virgin Mary, all the Muses and Kevin Aucoin: please let me show her she’s beautiful. And she is.

She is a talker, so it’s a little tricky to work on her. Her fine lines (which I will never in a million years refer to) pose a challenge as well: makeup tends to collect in them if not applied carefully. I explain to her what the primer does and how it is enriched with seaweed extract that will hydrate her skin, create a base for the orchid-extract-fortified foundation to adhere to. I ask her what look she usually likes. Peachy, sun-kissed; shiny lip gloss, no foundation, bronzer. I can see that she’s outgrown this look. I don’t tell her this. I’m thinking she could do something a little more glam, more regal. I ask her if she’s with me on that. And she is.

I am going to give her a new look today. Her face, only more stunning. I can see that her dark eyes have a wonderful Egyptian look. I explain to her after applying powder and concealer, that I’m going to use this gold eyeshadow with a little olive green in the corners, to make her eyes stand out and look glamorous. I use lash-lengthening mascara, smoky umber smudge pencil along her lids, and a very subtle cream blush in a bronze hue. I finish that up with a subtle look on the lips: I want her eyes to do all the talking. Just a little lip gloss in a sheer rusty hue is all she needs. The shimmery colors help add a glow that smooths fine lines, but the colors are stately and do not pretend to be teenaged and foolish. She is curious about every step as we go—what is this for? Can you write it down for me? She tells me about her granddaughter’s soccer tournament, her renovations on her deck, and I listen and comment approvingly. It is easy to win people over when you listen and care. It helps make sales as well, but it’s not about selling to me anymore. Sure, I need to make more than the pathetic $8 an hour I’m making here. Sure, I need your commissions. But I am not fishing. I am acting. I am forgetting my pain by creating joy in others. And I am believing. When I show the woman the mirror, I ask if she is happy. And she is.



I know I will go home tonight to an empty house, an empty refrigerator, a crying child who is ready to finally unleash her pent-up aggression on me and only me. I will hear the phone ring and know it’s about a bill. I won’t answer it. I will drive to Taco Bell and sit in front of the cold blue flourescent light of the drive-thru, and order some .89 cent bean burritos fresco-style, because I’m worried we’re not getting enough vegetables anymore. I will sleep alone on the couch or put my daughter in bed with my ex in the middle of the night, and take over her bed—which is already drowning in Care Bears. I will sit in front of my computer because I’m too tired to clean the mess in front of me, and dream. Converse. Plead. Write poetry. Bleed. Try to remember what it is like to have real flesh-and-blood friends around me, to be held, to be talked to with a live human voice. To live in a house where I feel myself spread out like butter, that I am proud to inhabit and maintain. To live in beauty, feeling my power and my tribe of friends encircle me snugly like a hug. To give gifts freely in abundance, and feel that the ground under my feet is my own.



But until then, I struggle. I know I will get to this place of peace—one scraped handful of bricks at a time. Until then, I have this discipline, this practice to help me imagine. For the space of today’s work, I am creating luxury and graciousness. And as easy as it’s become to put aside my problems in the morning, it seems to get harder and harder to put away that grace at the end of the day. Sometimes I find my kimono is still tied, my obi still fastened, my hair still lacquered into place as I set down my daughter’s homely Taco Bell burrito on a plate, discussing the nutritional benefits of beans and tomato salsa.

And I wonder if this practice can become a calling. If somehow, this mood of service is sinking into my bones. If I am learning that through pleasing others, through transforming them and helping them see their own inner beauty through new eyes, I am doing the same somehow to myself.

And I am.

© Sarah Noack 2007

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Original version of shorter piece published in Road Tales, ESCAPE magazine June 1999 (see cover file in folder)

As I’m watching an ancient X-files episode in the Lamashegu hotel courtyard in Tamale, northern Ghana, a rock sails past my head.

This has been going on for three weeks now. In a bizarrely punctual evening ritual, every night at 8:00 PM sharp when the X-files begin airing, large rocks are thrown from somewhere behind the roof. This goes on sporadically during during the show until 9:00, and no one can ever find the culprit. The hotel staff has been a little evasive about the matter; most likely they don’t want to draw too much attention to it and scare away potential guests. And all in all, it’s a good hotel. For four dollars US a night I have a small veranda to call my own, under the shade of a large almendra tree. And the terrorism is oddly predictable; it’s easy to stay out of the courtyard for an hour every night.

Ibrahim, the hotel’s proprietor, looks out from the kitchen with a dishtowel over his shoulder and sees the rock, which has added to the collection of dents in the cement floor. “I am going talk to the chief.” he resolves, storming out of the compound. Ibrahim rarely “storms”; he spends his days quietly scrubbing other people’s dirty laundry, manually flushing broken toilets, and praising Allah. In Tamale, an arid, sleepy, largely Muslim city where I’m studying batik with a local artisan, contacting the police is not a possibility one considers immediately. Tamale is a place where ten-year-olds fast during Ramadan, where you’re considered selfish if you don’t invite beggars in for dinner and put aside five percent of your money for the poor, which by our standards would encompass most of the town’s population. So in Tamale, things like throwing large rocks into hotel courtyards don’t happen too often. And when they do, one consults the local chief.

The chief comes by, dressed in a traditional Dagomba indigo tunic and cap, sporting eyeglasses and a beard – for some reason I still haven’t figured out, Tamale is the only place in Ghana I visited where men sported either. That particular combination – billowing shirt, beard, andretro-chic black spectacles – seems to be a sort of unspoken chief’s uniform in Dagomba country. With his deadpan demeanor and rakishly embroidered white leather boots, he’s a monolith of cool. So when Ibrahim return to the courtyard with the chief peering in his chiefly way up at the tin roof where these rocks had emanated, I expect something important to happen. After scratching his beard for a few minutes and adjusting his glasses, he turns back to Ibrahim and says,
“This is not good.”
I could have said that.

The X-files drone on, an ironic commentary on our current enigma. Muldor has fallen for a woman who turns out to be a vampire. Ibrahim’s 14-year-old brother Alhassan is engrossed and giggling, oblivious to the dangers of getting his head bashed in. “The woman, the this one, she likes the blood,” he informs me gleefully, pointing at the screen. Alhassan speaks hardly any English and uses every possible opportunity to demonstrate it, speaking in laborious, cryptic monologues studded with compound articles – especially when he sees me writing. But he’s a nice kid. He shares his boiled yams with me. I don’t want to see him hurt.
“Alhassan, they throw tonight,” I say, motioning to the tin roof. “You must go inside.”
Alhassan smiles confidently. “The chief,” he points, as if everything will get fixed now. “Now I will pray.” he decides, but not before approaching my doorstep and, as he does every evening, painstakingly arranging my sandals so they line up. “They are not correct,” he informs me solemnly. Alhassan, anything but fastidious by nature, has an almost obsessive-compulsive fascination with arranging my shoes. My dirt-encrusted sandals are always playfully kicked into the air as soon as I enter my veranda. It’s considered rude in Ghana to wear shoes inside anyone’s house, so I use their removal as an excuse to throw something. I secretly resent having my inner chaos ordered by a pesky, occasionally lovable boy with no sense of personal boundaries. However, whenever I consider updating him about our cultural differences, I decide against it. Between the vastness of that divide, my status as guest in his land, his limited English and my limited Dagbani, it would be an exercise in futility. Besides, whenever Alhassan is just on the verge of making me scream – listening for hours to rap songs with elephant mating calls, the daily shoe arranging, swatting flies by my head while I’m writing – he’ll always do something overwhelmingly kind. Like sharing his few yams with me when I’m sick, going into town to get me medicine – or the fact that whenever I try to tip him, he buys me fish. What could I do?

Ibrahim, concluding his conversation with the chief, decides it’s time to join his brother in the evening prayer. The rock thrower, probably intimidated by the chief’s presence or maybe just by the fact it’s 9:00 PM, has not thrown any rocks for a few minutes. Maybe he too, full of praise for Allah at his successful destruction of our courtyard, has gone to pray. We still haven’t caught them, but the chief has vowed to make an intimidating announcement tomorrow on the radio.
The courtyard empty, I climb to the roof terrace, watched by two iridescent blue morning doves. Lying by the water tank there, I listen to the crickets. They aren’t soothing and mood-making like the ones back home; their wings screech tormentedly like fax machines in the night.

I never sleep well here. The days are hot, monotonous, and almost postapocalyptic with their pink haze, like an Islamic version of Mars. Only at night do I really feel energized. I toss and turn under the hum of the ceiling fan, unwanted now in the Harmattan night cool. The Ramadan prayer calls wake me before dawn, a surreal pocket of longing in the stillness. When the rooster crows, Alhassan and Ibrahim return from morning prayers. Energized by their morning Lipton, they begin their train of Dagomba wake-up greetings.
“Desbaa!” I waved. Good morning!
“Nnaa!…numasim?” Fine, how is the morning cold?
“Nnaa!”
Ibrahim goes into the kitchen to resume sleep, while Alhassan enters my veranda and fixes my shoes. I can’t help but notice how he looks at me when he does this; it’s become almost accusatory. Why is he so compulsive? Softened by the pre-dawn reflection, I decide to get to the bottom of this.

“Alhassan,” I ask, pointing to my sandals, “Why is it that every morning and every night, you must make these correct?”
He looks puzzled. “It is not correct,” he says, looking at me as if he’s stating the obvious.
“I know, Alhassan,” I say. “I know they are not correct. But, it doesn’t matter to me. They’re not bothering anyone here.”
Alhassan looks pensive, then urgent. “Maybe,” he says, “maybe you no understand.”
He struggles for words. “The this mans,” he says, “they come look at room. Then go away. Why?”
After a rhetorical pause, he shrugs. “Shoes not correct,” he concluded.
“What do you mean, Alhahssan? My shoes?” I ask, confused.
“He think bad place,” he explains, “then go away. Then,”– he points to the tin roof – “They throw. Bad things. You see, shoes not correct.”
What is he talking about? “Alhassan, boliballa? What do you mean?”
He sighs. “Shoes.” he states curtly. “Shoes like the this one.” He points to his pants pocket, turns it inside out. “This one hold money. You turn not correct, money go away. They see you in market and go away, no buy.” He points to the roof. “Then the other one throw the rock. Shoes not correct, very bad. Good thing run out of house, bad thing come.”

Something clicks. I’m suddenly recalling a museum in Kumasi, where I’d seen an exhibit about sandals. The sandals worn by Asante kings were considered sacred, and much attention was paid to their care, because they were believed to house his soul. Perhaps this was somehow connected to what he was trying to tell me; now that I think about it, Alhassan paid far more care to his own ancient rubber flip-flops than to other aspects of his wardrobe – rinsing them every night with water, bringing them indoors, chiding me if I walked barefoot through the courtyard. Alhassan was trying to tell me that my careless treatment of footwear was bringing bad luck – not just to myself, but to the hotel. I can’t deny that we’re currently experiencing the cartoon-anvil variety of “bad luck”, and I don’t need a scientific explanation: in Africa, anything is possible.

“Alhassan, why did you not say anything to me?” I ask him. “I had no idea I was doing this bad thing.”
He shrugged. “I do not know.” he says evasively, looking downward. I didn’t want to hound him further; he’d obviously been showing respect by not calling attention to my ignorance. I’m embarrassed – not at having mistreated my sandals, but at second-guessing this kid.
“Alhassan,” I assure him, “I am so sorry about this. Garafa. From now on I will always put my shoes correct myself. OK?”
“Toh,” he concedes placidly. “Now I go sleep again.”

It’s 6:00 AM; the sun is rising, heating the air. Alhassan has forgotten to turn off the radio, and the Dagomba and Gonja news broadcasts have given way to the English one, which I listen to idly as the day billows into its hot air balloon of eventlessness. The local happenings – a marriage of a local chief, a birth of twins to another, pass through my ears until one announcement grabs my attention.

“A young vandal was apprehended early this morning on the the new Cadbury Ghana Headquarters rooftop in Lamashegu district by local police following last night’s call to action. She had gone mad after being sacked from her job at a local hotel three months ago for pilfering. Found barefoot in tattered clothes after a long pursuit in the night, she confessed to weeks of destroying hotel property with her rock-throwing antics. She has been sentenced to seven years of labour in Tamale’s public works department. This of course is a horrid portrait of how our youth are becoming preoccupied with the cares of the modern world and neglecting their duties to Allah, from which we should all take grave heed.”

The announcements go off, giving way to the impeccably timed second morning prayer interruption. Small childrens’ ardent, staticky voices fill the air, belting out praise to the previously neglected Allah. I look over to the kitchen, where Alhassan and Ibrahim are fast asleep on their straw mat, unmindful of the growing shapes of sunlight, worn flip-flops neatly tucked into a corner. What were those two doing last night? I need to wake out of my stupor and take a bucket bath. I’ll walk into town today and buy them a special gift, something they can’t piously trade in to buy me fish. As I head up to the water tank, I’m thinking about the cool new leather sandals they’ll be wearing tonight.

© Sarah Noack 1999

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NA Jan 07 Cover

Restaurant Review NA 1-07

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Boulevard 136 Cover

BanquetsCateringPage 1

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(July 2007)

http://www.narichmond.com/exploring_complementary_and_alternative_medicine.html

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http://www.beonliving.com/global-good/article/231-lost-crops–real-incan-gold

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Article on catering I researched and co-wrote for Boulevard Magazine.

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BanquetsCateringPage 1

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