Book Review: Leaving Before the Rains Come

Five Starsleavingbeforetherainscome“‘The problem with most people,’ Dad said once, not necessarily implying that I counted as most people, but not discounting the possibility either, ‘is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live.'”

Alexandra Fuller learned from her parents how to live. She has lived enough to write four memoirs and that’s only up to this point. Leaving Before the Rains Come is her fourth. In it she focuses on her marriage and its dissolution, a story that cannot be told completely without reference to her unconventional upbringing and her complicated family. She dissects her family history, uncovering the strengths and weaknesses of all her forebears, especially the women, and wonders how much of what made each of them tick, for better or worse, has been genetically encoded into her history.

“…although we had all lived inarguably interesting lives, few of us could afford exotic travel, and, surrounded by enough unbidden chaos on a daily basis, we didn’t go in search of it in our free time. No one had written much about us or made movies about our adventures, in part because there was no beginning or end to our undertakings, no way of knowing the arc of our narratives. We were less the authors of deliberate derring-do than victims of cosmic accidents, political mishaps, mistaken identities.”

Alexandra Fuller tells complicated stories using the most compelling language, several examples of which I have chosen to include within this review so her words can make the case directly. My words will never succeed better than hers.

Having been raised in Africa, Fuller met her American husband, Charley, in Zambia, where he worked at the time guiding adventure tours. Charley held out the prospect of being adventuresome enough not to be frightened off by her parents as well as offering a solid future 22-year-old Fuller thought she wanted. But instead of staying in Africa as Fuller’s parents did, willing to tough it out no matter what obstacles appeared on the horizon, Charley took Alexandra and their infant daughter to America, where the two tried, but never found balance.

“It wasn’t so much that we weren’t right for one another, but rather the ways in which we were wrong were so intractable and damaging that nothing–however profoundly accidental or deeply deliberate–could fix us. His flaws and my flaws didn’t weave together or tear us apart; they enmeshed us.”

They remained together nearly 20 years, raising three children, one African-born and two born in America. But for all her independence of spirit, Fuller didn’t truly know how to live on her own, and she failed to pay attention to the warnings Charley tried to impress upon her about the fragility of their financial situation. By the time she understood, there seemed to be no way back and no way forward, at least not together.

“It’s not anyone’s job to make another person happy, but the truth is, people can either be very happy or very unhappy together. Happiness or unhappiness isn’t a measure of their love. You can have an intense connection to someone without being a good lifelong mate for him. Love is complicated and difficult that way.”

  • Print Length: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 22, 2015)
  • Publication Date: January 22, 2015
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Divorce; Biographies and Memoirs, Women

W is for Weehawken

It was the summer that changed my life–1968. I spent it in New Jersey where I shared a house in Union City with seven other young women, all college students, while we volunteered in an interdenominational arts/crafts/recreation program for elementary school-aged children. The church where I volunteered was in Weehawken, just a few blocks away from the house where we stayed.

Pastor Hank Dierck showed us the place in Weehawken that provided the best views of Manhattan, probably right where the photographer stood when the above photo was taken. It was also where Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President, shot Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury, in a duel in 1804. Both men had been involved in duels in the past, but by then dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey. Hamilton died the next day in Manhattan. Burr was charged with murder in both New Jersey and New York. Burr was either acquitted or the charges were dropped. The rivalry between the two men arose from disputes in a number of elections going back to 1791. Let us be thankful dueling is no longer legal in any of the United States.

About 50 college students, most of us from the midwest, took part in the summer program. The organizers provided us with a week of orientation to the area which included suggested recreation and arts activities for the children. Most of the 50 volunteers were assigned to work in Jersey City churches where the majority of the children were African American. But those of us in Union City and Weehawken had a completely different mix of children. Most of ours were the children of Cuban immigrants.

I was shocked by the amount of litter I saw on the streets in Weehawken, even in the residential areas. So I devised an arts project I hoped would help the children realize they shouldn’t litter. First I made two copies of a list of things I knew they could find on the street that I felt should be tossed into waste baskets or garbage cans. I broke my class of 8- and 9-year-olds into two groups. We went outside, and I gave each group one copy of the list and a large paper bag. I sent one group east from the church and the other south so they wouldn’t be searching for the items in the same places. Once they had found and picked up each of the items on the list and bought them back in the paper bag, we went back inside to talk about how easy it was to find everything.

One boy told me it wasn’t easy. “I had to go all the way to the corner to get the gum wrapper,” he said.

I then asked them to draw a picture of their homes. When they were done, I told them they should glue at least one of the items from the bag to their pictures, in front of their houses. One boy must have figured out what I wanted. He said he didn’t want to mess up his picture, so he drew a waste basket to one side of the picture and glued his piece of litter into it.

Seven weeks after arriving in New Jersey, I flew back to Minnesota with tears in my eyes. Those seven weeks had changed me. When I left Minnesota, I had been looking forward to entering my junior year at Concordia College where I was majoring in German and minoring in Russian. I knew I wanted to travel, even live, overseas, and I thought being able to speak foreign languages would make that possible. But in the summer of 1968 I met a group of people, the parents of the children in my class, who needed to learn English as their second language. And I realized I didn’t need to study another language–I already knew one that was foreign to others: English.

Once back in college, I changed my major to English. I stuck with my Russian minor because I didn’t have time to change that, too. My German courses filled the number of credits I could devote to electives. And I set out to take every English course that wasn’t dedicated to literature. Because I wanted to teach the language–how to understand it, how to speak it, how to read it, and how to write it.

It took me a few years to complete my goal of learning how to teach English as a second or foreign language. Seven years later, in 1975, I was ready for that foreign living experience. I set out then for Iran, the first of 10 foreign countries I would live and work in before I retired.

V is for Virginia

One of the original 13 colonies, Virginia became my home state when I joined the US Department of State in 1985.

For the first six months of my career as a Foreign Service Officer, I lived in a studio apartment at the top of a hill overlooking the Iwo Jima memorial in Rosslyn, an area of Arlington, Virginia. Arlington is a city, but it is not part of a county, a geopolitical oddity referred to as an independent city. Virginia has 38 such independent cities. There are only three more anywhere else in the United States: Baltimore, Maryland; St. Louis, Missouri; and Carson City, Nevada.

During those six months, I completed State’s orientation course, referred to as A-100 because that was the number of the room where the first such course was taught. I also completed the Foreign Service Institute’s ConGen Rosslyn, a simulation of the work I was expected to do when I arrived in Stuttgart, Germany, and took up my position as vice consul at the Consulate General; and 14 weeks of German to brush up my college German and bring it to the level considered adequate to conduct visa interviews.

But a conversation a year later in Stuttgart made me realize I hadn’t yet accepted Virginia as my home. I met an American woman in the US Army in Stuttgart who told me I looked familiar to her. After we listed all the places we had each lived, without discovering any in common, the daughter of the Consul General mentioned that she thought I had lived in Virginia for awhile. I admitted I had been there for six months in 1985 while I was a student at FSI. The American woman’s eyes lit up at that. She had worked as a security guard at FSI in 1985. I looked familiar to her because I walked past her each day when I entered the building. Two insights hit me then. First, being somewhere for six months is living there. Second, I needed to pay attention to people I walk past each day.

I spent another six months in Rosslyn in 1987, after I completed my first assignment in Stuttgart. During those months, I completed more training at the Foreign Service Institute–area studies, budget and fiscal, personnel, and general services training. All that training was to prepare me for filing the administrative officer position at the US Embassy in Doha, Qatar. I would be the only American responsible for all those roles in Qatar.

Seven years later, in 1994, I finally accepted I was a true Virginia resident when we bought a townhouse in Arlington. I loved living there.

But then again, I loved living everywhere I have lived. There is no better way to live.

S is for San Francisco

From January 1973 through March 1975, I lived in San Francisco while studying at San Francisco State University. Before I enrolled, a package from the registrar’s office arrived with a list of what I needed to bring with me on the day of registration. One requirement: the result of a chest X-ray not more than 6 months old. Since I hadn’t had a chest X-ray in several years and I received the letter in Minnesota, I had to schedule one before I returned to California.

I made an appointment at the Fargo Clinic where I had been a patient as a child. When they finally called my name, the nurse told me I needed a doctor’s order to get a chest X-ray. I showed them the letter from the SFSU registrar that said I would not be allowed to register unless I had the report on a recent chest X-ray. I didn’t have enough time to schedule a doctor’s visit. They relented and for about $80 (a near fortune at the time), I got my X-ray.

But when I arrived to register, I saw a sign that directed those who didn’t have chest X-ray results to join the line to the left. Those with results were directed to the line at the right. What was the first stop for the line on the left? A free chest X-ray. So much for not being allowed to register without one.

The letter from the registrar also spelled out the order of priority for registering for classes, depending on one’s major, minor, and years remaining to complete a degree. Seniors, for example, had priority for classes in their major because they were in their final year and this was the last opportunity to complete all their required classes. For graduate students, the course of study was the most important. From 8 a.m. to noon, for example, I had priority to register for English classes. After noon, I could try to line up classes in other disciplines.

So I headed to the line for graduate level English classes.

Once I had signed up for a number of English courses, I headed for the Psychology Department. There I discovered the rules were quite different. The doors to the registration hall were closed, with a teaching assistant blocking the way to prevent everyone from entering.  Every half hour, someone came out and taped sheets of paper with two or three letters on them to the outside wall. Those whose last names began with one of those letters would then be allowed into the registration hall. It didn’t matter what the person’s major was, or how close he or she was to completing a degree.

I needed a psychology class to meet the requirements of the masters program. I didn’t need a specific psychology class, just one would do. But by the time the W went up on the wall outside the registration hall, none of the courses that would meet the requirement were available. With a last name that began with W, I was used to being among the last called on, but that wasn’t an excuse this time. The letters were being drawn from a hat to ensure their order was entirely random. But that random order had absolutely nothing to do with the instructions in my letter from the registrar.

A few years later, when I was teaching at Southern Illinois University, a cartoon in the local paper showed two boys walking across the campus where a sign on the lawn said “Wipe out illiteracy.” One boy asks the other what the sign says. The other responds, “I think it says ‘Keep off the grass.'”

My first thought on seeing that cartoon was of my registration experience in San Francisco where what was written wasn’t followed. Little wonder that students didn’t bother reading, if they could.

N is for North Dakota

One of my favorite posters during my college days was a white background with a single black line drawn across it from left to right. It wasn’t a straight line, but almost. It ran parallel to the bottom of the poster for about two thirds of the way and then bumped upwards and back down again, returning to parallel the bottom again. Something like this:

MSG 1

Across the bottom were the words “Ski North Dakota.”

For so many years, North Dakota seemed to be the butt of jokes.

I was born in North Dakota. I never lived in North Dakota. And I’ll admit it. Most of the time I considered it space I just had to get through to reach where I was going.

But that’s changing. Slowly but surely people are beginning to hear of another side of North Dakota.

There’s the Bakken Formation, the geological structure holding oil and gas deposits that offer the promise of wealth and work. The deposits have been known for decades, but getting the oil and gas out hasn’t been technically and financially feasible until recently. And considering the controversy around hydraulic fracking, I had better stop saying anything more since some will claim the risks of fracking outweigh the benefits which calls the feasibility conclusion into question.

But the Bakken Formation put North Dakota onto the map of some, including television producers who decided to set a prime-time soap opera theoretically set there last season, Blood and Oil.

And that wasn’t the only North Dakota TV series last winter. Fargo, the TV series, ran its second season at the same time.

North Dakota is also making headlines in other entertainment areas as well–the North Dakota State University Bison football team is the only college football program ever to win five consecutive NCAA national championships. I know this not because I follow football; I know this because I am on Facebook and my friends and family from back in North Dakota and Minnesota make sure I know how well the Bison are doing.

Am I trying to get you to consider North Dakota for your next vacation? Probably not. I just looked over the list of 73 things to do in North Dakota with free admission on the North Dakota Tourism website, and I can’t say that any of them screamed “Come here right now. You can’t miss this one.”

So what I guess I am trying to convince you is that next time you hear a joke where North Dakota comes off looking pitiful, stand up and say “Now wait a minute. Don’t you know . . .” and then follow up with one of these little known facts about North Dakota:

  • In 2012, North Dakota had the lowest unemployment rate in the United States. In 2016 it dropped to third lowest, but it is still below three percent.
  • Also in 2012 North Dakota was the fastest growing state in the United States.
  • North Dakota has the highest percentage of church-going population in the country as well as the highest number of churches per capita.
  • Milk is the official drink of North Dakota.
  • North Dakota grows more sunflowers than any other state in the United States.
  • Most of the pasta in the United States is made from durham wheat grown in North Dakota.
  • North Dakota is the third highest producer of sugar in the United States.
  • North Dakota is the nation’s highest producer of honey.
  • North Dakota is the only state that has never had an earthquake.

Does that sound like a place to make fun of? Really?

L is for Lake Winnibigoshish

I thought I was too old for family vacations. I wanted to stay home, alone, while my parents took my five siblings. Dad wouldn’t say where we were going. He had never done that before–not told us.

But Mom insisted I not stay home alone. I don’t think she thought I was going to do something stupid–I wouldn’t have dared do anything I knew would make Mom and Dad angry. But to me it was a matter of whether or not they trusted me. I would turn 16 in the fall. I had been babysitting for my brothers and sister for six years. Surely I could take care of myself for a few days.

But Mom insisted.

Somehow we squeezed all eight of us into the car. Mom and Dad and my youngest brothers, the twins, in the front seat. The rest of us kids–all four of us–filled the back seat. There was no room to spread out. We were shoulder to shoulder, me at one end, sulking.

Every summer Mom and Dad took us on a camping vacation. It was the only way to afford putting up two adults and six kids overnight for a week at a time. Because we filled the seats, Dad built a box for the car top carrier to stow the tent, stakes, camp stove, and other items that could survive both rain and sun beating down on them. After the first trip, he modified the front of the box so that it slanted towards the back, to improve its aerodynamic qualities.  A single-wheel trailer held whatever clothes we needed. Food–prepared at least a week in advance and much of it frozen to keep from spoiling–stuffed in freezer boxes and thermos containers filled the trunk.

We almost never went the same place twice. And that’s why I was sulking. We had already made a trip to Lake Winnibigoshish, Lake Winnie for short, at a time when my mom’s sister’s family was also there. That meant I was able to spend my time with my cousin Lois instead of my younger siblings. Lois’s parents and a couple of their neighbors had bought an old school bus and transformed it into a camping van. The families that shared the ownership also shared the use, one family at a time. But even with those constraints, many times the bus was not used. All the owners were farmers who didn’t have the luxury of being able to pick any week to go off fishing. The cows and crops needed tending on their own schedule.

That first week at Lake Winnie, Lois and I also spent time with Dale, the son of the family who owned the resort where we rented camp sites by the week. Another teenaged boy worked at the resort, too. In the evenings, the four of us played cards in the A-frame building that served as the office as well as the summer home of the owners.

I wanted to go back to Lake Winnie. I told Dad that’s what I wanted. But Dad wouldn’t tell us what his plans were. The direction we headed out and the highway our trip started on weren’t clues either, unless we headed west into North Dakota, which was not a destination but rather just a state we had to get through on our way to somewhere else.

Dad headed east and then north. I’m sure the boys–two in the front seat and two in the back–found some excuse for poking one another, provoking a response to which “he started it” could be declared. And still I sulked.

An hour passed and still Dad kept driving. We were deep into Minnesota lake country by this time. With more than 10,000 lakes in the state, I still didn’t know where we would end up. Dad could turn off the highway at any time. But he kept driving.

Another half hour passed before Dad headed off the State highway down a county road. At that point, things began to look familiar. We had been here before. And it wasn’t long ago. Dad had turned down the drive leading to the Lake Winnie camping area we had been at earlier that summer.

I smiled. Dad smiled. Mom smiled. I may even have thanked Dad. I hope I did.

F is for Fargo

I arrived in Fargo by way of St. Luke’s Hospital, my birthplace. While I never lived in Fargo–my family lived across the Red River of the North in Moorhead, Minnesota–there is no denying that Fargo had a big impact on my life. And initially, all I wanted was to get away from it.

Fargo may be the largest city between Minneapolis and the West Coast, but it was still too small to be called a big city. And I knew I wanted to live in a big city.

My first foray outside of the reach of Fargo was the summer of 1968 when I spent seven weeks living in Union City, New Jersey, while I volunteered at a church in Weehawken, New Jersey, in an arts, crafts, and recreation program. Each weekend I traveled to the biggest of the big cities–New York City. And that’s where I wanted to be.

But the summer ended, I returned to Minnesota, and I continued to dream of ways to get out.

At the end of college, I headed as far as I could get from Fargo without having to get onto a plane or a ship–Berkeley, California. A couple of years later, I traveled even further west to San Francisco. And that’s the big city I chose for the rest of my life.

But that didn’t work.

Instead, I’ve been traveling ever since, spending a few months to a few years in different countries, on different continents, in different cities.

Still, there is no denying that I come from Fargo. If it weren’t for the cold and snow of winters, I’d probably be back there now. Over the years, Fargo got a little bigger. It got a little more cosmopolitan. It got more diverse. And I got a little older so that I don’t need so much variety. And Fargo is still one of the best places in the world to come from. People in Fargo trust one another and anyone else who comes to town. And that just plain feels good. I probably wouldn’t have been so successful at moving around from place to place and culture to culture if I hadn’t had the solid grounding that just comes with living in Fargo and Moorhead.

But don’t take my word for it. Marc de Celle brought his family to Fargo from Phoenix and found so many examples of how people in Fargo made him feel at home that he wrote a book about it: How Fargo of You