go home, sister

When I went away to university, the first friend I made was a sweet, goofy girl named – well, let’s just call her M. She was a small-town girl from rural Iowa, and the first in her family to go to college. Her main subject of study was French, of all things. She had even visited France itself on a high school study exchange, lodging with a family in Paris and soaking up the cosmopolitan vibes of continental Europe. M’s personality was delightfully dissonant with that Parisian chapter: she was playful and silly, unsophisticated and about as stylish as K-Mart’s top line, but also hard-working and loyal. Too loyal, I thought.

She had left an older boyfriend back in her hometown – no, not just a boyfriend: a fiance. In his mid-twenties, he had apparently proposed to her 17-year-old self as soon as she stepped off the plane from that trip to France. None of her college friends ever met him, we just saw photographs and understood that he was there in the background, waiting impatiently for her to stop wandering and settle herself down as his wife.

M’s family leaned on her too, I recall. Perhaps not deliberately, but certainly their financial instability weighed deeply upon her; she came from a working-class family for whom an academic degree in French must have seemed a bewilderingly pie-in-the-sky aspiration to chase with good money. M struggled to keep up with costs, working a 30-hour-per-week job at a local fast food restaurant, on top of her full-time course load. But it was all too much. After a mere single term at university, she gave up. She went home at the Christmas break and never came back.

I wrote to her repeatedly; so did her roommates – they even sent her a we-miss-you care package full of gifts and treats – but not once did she reply, to any of us. We never heard from her again. She had simply disappeared.

I’m thinking about her now, because this morning I learned that my friend E has a similar story. She shares it in this passage from her wonderful Surviving Work blog:

Twenty-something and smart as boots, Yasmine and I worked happily organising stuff. Mediation workshops in the diamond mines of Congo to gender awareness for the pharmaceutical workers in Nepal. She had a natural political mind …

We worked quietly and steadily until her father died. She quickly got married to a man recently returned from an Islamist camp in Jordan and over a period of six months she covered up everything that distinguished her. Her grief and anger vibrating under her hijab. The last time I saw her she turned up at work wearing a niqab. This was before the time when I’d had the chance to think through how to work with women in veils, now mainstream if you work in HE in the UK. I remember locking myself in the lavs and sweating – how to ask her if she’s OK?

She didn’t turn up for a week. So I asked HR where I could find her. Without skipping a beat they said Maalbeek, in an ‘are you stupid?’ tone. I ended up going to her apartment block and when nobody answered the door sitting on a bench outside for six hours. This wasn’t because I thought it would work, but because it took me six hours to process what was happening both for me and for her. In hour six a woman in a niqab came and brought me a cup of mint tea and said, in English ‘go home sister’.

There is a place in my heart reserved for these disappeared young women. These bright sparks, swallowed up by pressing obligations to family and culture. These intelligent, capable women cut off from any ties outside a closed circle of expectations. When I was younger, I felt aggrieved by the sudden dumping of my friendship by M, her lack of response to my reaching-out letters. But deeper still, I felt worried and frightened for her, and imagined her cornered and pinned down by an oppressive marriage, by the curtailment of her personal dreams. I still think of her, and wonder where and how she is in her life. I wonder if she remembers me at all. I wonder, would she think of me as an old friend, or as a forgotten stranger, or as the middle-aged soul sister I imagine myself to be?

In her well-regarded Women who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes devotes a chapter to a woman’s experience of returning home. In this case, home is “the soul-place,” the source of instinct and inner strength – not the place of familial duty. Our true home, she says, “is an internal place, a place somewhere in time rather than space, where a woman feels of one piece. Home is where thought or feeling can be sustained instead of being interrupted or torn away from us because something else is demanding our time and attention.” She also reassures us that “We all know how to return home. No matter how long it’s been, we find our way.”

Yes: go home, sister. Rentre chez toi, ma sœur, mon amie.

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