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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Unbearable Sweetness of Being Human

I’ve been kind of blue this week. Actually, that’s inaccurate. I’ve been red — beet red with eyelids that look like obese shellfish — but blue is more descriptive of my mood. A red mood sounds angry. I haven’t felt angry. I just enjoy vision. Apparently swelling up like a prizefighter after a really bad night plus a nasty rash is my new reaction to tree pollen. Although I could barely open my eyes, I decided it was a good time for reading, and my friend Liz from the greenhouse had recommended Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

The protagonist of the book (called “One of the best, most charming, honest, hilarious and life-affirming books to appear in years” by The Plain Dealer in 1998), is Mma Ramotswe, and she is my kind of girl. Matter-of-fact and practical:
Everything, thought Mma Ramotswe, has been something before. Here I am, the only lady private detective in the whole of Botswana, sitting in front of my detective agency. But only a few years ago there was no detective agency, and before that, before there were any buildings here, there were just the acacia trees, and the riverbed in the distance, and the Kalahari over there, so close.

In those days there was no Botswana even, just the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and before that again there was Khama’s Country, and lions with the dry wind in their manes. But look at it now: a detective agency right here in Gaborone, with me, the fat lady detective, sitting outside and thinking these thoughts about how what is one thing today becomes quite another thing tomorrow.

The book, written by a professor of medical law who was born in Zimbabwe, has been a bestseller and a television series. I was oblivious to that fact, but even if I’d known, it wouldn’t have been a draw. What drew me was the look of glee on my friend Liz’s face when she said, “You’ll enjoy this.”

I love Mma Ramotswe, but what makes this book really wonderful is Smith’s deceptively simple depictions of all people. With a light, nonjudgmental hand, he depicts with equal simplicity Mma Ramotswe’s heartbreak and her practical solutions to her own and other people’s troubles. Mma Ramotswe is very fat. That is not a problem, it’s just a fact. She had an abusive husband, lost a baby and then her beloved father. Again, it’s just a story. She opens an office with a secretary, and at first there are no clients. Then the clients come, and she solves their mysteries with simple, sensible investigations. She rejects love. She accepts love. And by the end of the book, I had the feeling that I was seeing Mma Ramotswe and all of humanity the way I would if I were God. I felt like God seeing God’s babies. Dear little creatures who struggle and fall, pick themselves up again and toddle on.

After a week of cold compresses and antihistamines, I can now open my eyes, so this morning I looked in the mirror. My eyelids are very fat. It’s not a problem. I lost my job and income. It’s just a story. Every day I send out resumés, but there is no work. Things will change and I will work again, and I will do a good job. I’ve rejected love, and I’ve accepted love. I’ll probably do this for the rest of my life. I’m just a dear little creature like everybody else. We toddle on.

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