When a Piece Reads You

It has now officially been over a year since I graduated. May 26, 2011 seems like a lifetime ago on some days, and on other days I can remember distinctly the way the sun felt on me as I posed for millions of photos as if it were yesterday. For the majority of the past year my life has been shaped, often erratically and forcefully, by my time abroad. Perhaps it is better to say that so much of my daily thoughts and actions have been sprinkled with the magic of times spent on distant shore. As I type these words with a blanket wrapped around me on one of the couches in the living room of my parents’ house, I can’t help but think of how different my life is now. Not different in a bad way, but rather just another type of exploration and a calmer source of adventure. But everything I experienced I carried back with me. I would never stay within the baggage allowances of my flights if they had to measure my heart, heavy with the mixed feelings of departures, or my brain, bursting through my head with new ideas and pictures and ways of living. I have been sorting through them since I returned to America.

About a week ago I read an article online entitled “What Happens When You Live Abroad.” There were so many parts of the article that I found myself nodding along to that I felt as though the article was, in fact, reading me instead of the other way around. I wanted to pull out some of the passages I especially felt connected to:

But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.

I remember before I left for Ghana, I had a conversation with my friend Roxanne, who is often on the move, about how she coped with the feeling that even though she was having her own adventures, that the lives of those she is not with are going and moving forward without her. I did not live abroad for several years, but still there was the feeling of missed connections and missed events. For me, four of my five college roommates moved to New York City and the other moved to a city where we had other friends moving there as well. They often run into other friends we made in university, and through photos and anecdotes, this fact is chronicled for me. And a small part of me worries that I will become the stranger at group gatherings. You know—the one that everyone vaguely knows what is happening to or where he or she is in the world. But I keep in touch and get better with each month at ‘being there’ even when I can’t be there.

Still, the last line of the paragraph rings truest. The greatest change that happened during my fellowship year was the changes that happened to me and not just the world around me. On a smaller scale, I recall having these thoughts when I came back from my semester in Madrid. I was back at Harvard for the spring semester of my junior year. The parties were the same, the workload was the same, and almost everything was as if I had left it in a time capsule. I had changed, but I had come back to a place that was vastly unchanged. The new and challenging environment had forced me into a new stage of my life. Those new stages can happen anywhere, but for me, it was stretching the very core of my being. I have probably only spoken to three close friends in depth about the type of living that requires you to spend hours contemplating thoughts and getting to know yourself in new ways. I have discovered much of what postgraduate me is capable of doing and being. This passage speaks to how I feel:

Walking streets alone and eating dinner at tables for one — maybe with a book, maybe not — you’re left alone for hours, days on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You start talking to yourself, asking yourself questions and answering them, and taking in the day’s activities with a slowness and an appreciation that you’ve never before even attempted. Even just going to the grocery store — when in an exciting new place, when all by yourself, when in a new language — is a thrilling activity. And having to start from zero and rebuild everything, having to re-learn how to live and carry out every day activities like a child, fundamentally alters you. Yes, the country and its people will have their own effect on who you are and what you think, but few things are more profound than just starting over with the basics and relying on yourself to build a life again. I have yet to meet a person who I didn’t find calmed by the experience. There is a certain amount of comfort and confidence that you gain with yourself when you go to this new place and start all over again, and a knowledge that — come what may in the rest of your life — you were capable of taking that leap and landing softly at least once.

It is time for a new phase of my life to begin. On Friday I leave for Miami. Another move to another new place where I will know less than a handful of people. There will be more meals alone and more building new relationships and meanings to the word ‘home.’ These two sentences in the article are probably the ones that struck a sharp chord in my heart when I read it. I cannot think of truer words to share to summarize what my mind has processed during my time in the town where time does not reside. They are the words that remind me how much potential Miami has for more journeys, more loves, and more events that remind me just how durable faith is.

It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family, they aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.

 

A Return to the Town Where Time Does Not Reside

“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.

 For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I’m feeling most ghost-like, it is your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I’m feeling sad, it’s my consolation. When I’m feeling happy, it’s part of why I feel that way.

 If you forget me, one of the ways I remember who I am will be gone. If you forget, part of who I am will be gone. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” the good thief said from his cross (Luke 23:42). There are perhaps no more human words in all of Scripture, no prayer we can pray so well. ”

–Frederick Buechner

 It has now been a week since I boarded a plane at Kotoka Airport and pressed my face against the airplane window until I could not see the lights of Accra anymore. I am not particularly fond of airports and Kotoka falls near the bottom of the list of comfortable journey facilitators. Its cold walls, though, seemed the perfect setting for the rushed send-off of a shared bottle of Coca-cola and a quick kiss and hug before the waves of travelers pushing against a small door leading to immigration swallowed me whole. Even the inevitable tears felt rushed by angry security workers. But unhappy traveling aside, here I am snuggled on the living room couch of my family home, trying to put words to the feeling of beginning again.

I have been met on all sides by the familiar questions about how it feels to be back, am I going through culture shock, and if I miss being there. I think some of my friends have been surprised at how easy I find it to talk about adjusting back to life here or wrapping up things in Ghana with my project. The fact is that it has not been difficult. My close friend Matt thinks that some might view how he and I live as being emotionally detached. I could see how one could come to that conclusion. But it would not be anywhere near the truth. I love and care very easily and very deeply. However, I also treasure the curious beauty of an ending, as my friend Roxanne so beautifully blogged. I savored the last days in Ghana with visits to my favorite parts of the city, eating all my favorite foods, and spending as much time as possible with loved ones. I savored and I memorized and I remembered.

I have always found a special truth in Buechner’s words about remembrance. I especially love the part where he writes, “For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost.” When I remember the people who have touched my life, I feel as though they will never be lost to me. I hope they feel the same way about me. I want to believe that I have left my mark on my patch of red dirt in Ghana. Even if just for a little while, I want to believe that my fingerprints have imprinted the hearts of those I met. My students kept repeating to me that they would never forget me. I hope they never forget what they learned. And I know that I could never forget them, because in that small classroom all 38 of us embarked on a new journey together, one in which I hope will last a lifetime. I don’t think forgetfulness can easily take over, though. Anytime they act out their lessons, they will be remembering me.

Sometimes when I reflect at the end of a journey, I come to the conclusion that I am the sum of all the places I have been. I think that if I forget the memories created there, that like Buechner wrote, part of who I am would also be forgotten. So I am treasuring the start and the end of my time in Ghana, and memorizing the details of a fellowship year filled with love and learning. And there were times that it was so hard and nothing like what I imagined it would be, but as I learned to ride the rollercoaster, there came a time when I could throw my hands up and smile in anticipation of the drop ahead.

But I also have something else to thank for this ability to seamlessly transition from one place to another. The other factor is that I returned to Belleville, my home, and a town where time does not reside. Here, time freezes and I am able to soak in the sun of the countryside and breathe the comfort and relaxation into every pore of my body. It would be impossible to not embrace this bubble of rejuvenation. And I am grateful to it once again. I know it will massage and comfort me as my body and my mind begin to unpack everything from the last journey. And I am sure some writing and photos will come forth as well.

Azonto

Since I arrived in Ghana there has been one dance craze that has dominated the music scene. Music is even made specifically for the dance. It’s called azonto, and most Ghanaians can barely remember what popular dancing looked like before it. There’s a bit of controversy over the origins of the dance. Guys in Tema and guys in Accra both claim to have started it. Formerly it was in the form of dirty dancing, but not known as azonto until the artist Sarkodie’s song ‘You Go Kill Me.’ Sarkodie is originally from Tema, but the guys in Ashiama originally did the dirty dancing, which is a part of Accra. The dispute has yet to be settled, but all agree that azonto’s roots are 100% Ghanaian. It has since evolved away from dirty dancing, and is mainly danced solo. It is so mainstream that it is even danced in churches. Because of the type of moves involved in azonto, it can be adapted to almost any type of music beyond just those created as part of the dance craze. There is also certainly an attitude involved in dancing azonto, from facial expressions to a message one might want to send, such as a guy asking a girl to dance with him. The craze even spread beyond Ghanaian borders to countries with a strong Ghanaian presence, such as the UK. While I was in Ethiopia, I met a girl at our hotel in Addis Ababa who asked me if I knew how to azonto when she found out that I was living in Ghana. I was so surprised!

I am proud to say that I have mastered a fair share of azonto moves myself and immensely enjoy the music associated with it as well. Here are some videos of dancers and the musicians showcasing the moves and the music:


 

 

 

“No Scars, No Story, No Life”

A man in Afghanistan once said to me, “No scars, no story, no life.” Sometimes, the best story is in the space between the words—a space that is a window onto a different way of seeing. And when there are no easy answers, stories are all we have.

-James Orbinski, An Imperfect Offering

 Oftentimes when people ask me a question, I find myself answering them with a story about my life. Ask me what I think about forging one’s own paths, and I may tell you the story about how I somewhat ran away from Corsica to Paris and stowed away with friends studying abroad there. Wonder out loud about how we can’t buy as many things with our money as we used to, and I’ll probably share the ‘Amazing Race’ type 6-day trip into Morocco that cost my travel companions and I less than $300. Ask me about my faith and I will share any number of stories of how I have seen God’s providence and miracles transform my very world. It is easier sometimes for a story to speak for me. The ways in which I can vividly recall an event forms a picture that gives the answers that will not or cannot form in any other way.

Today while I was standing waiting for a tro-tro with my friend Emma, he saw me picking at a small scar forming between two fingers on my left hand and he commented that I would have many stories to share when I return home at the end of this week. I have my share of scars. Some are very tiny and others are more noticeable. They come in all shapes and sizes, and even feel differently. Some are physical and others cannot be seen. What they all have in common though, is they contain within their marks a story about my life, just as Emma noted. They are one of the ‘space between the words’ as Orbinski describes it. Scars are a different way of seeing things, remembering things, and oftentimes we go out of our way to get rid of them or to cover them up. But using a laser to get rid of a scar does not mean its effects are no longer there just because no one can visibly see it anymore.

When I was seven I got attacked by my neighbor’s dog and received thirty-two stitches. That’s a lot of stitches for anyone, but especially when you are that young. I used to be very conscious of those scars. I would hate to wear tank tops or wear a swimsuit. I didn’t like being asked where they came from over and over again. I refused to let the multiple scars from the attack be the space between the words of my story in which people could learn something from me that the words failed to convey. Years later, though, I don’t mind wearing tank tops or swimsuits and sometimes offer the story of the attack myself before someone can ask about the scars. In time I found that my scars helped to tell unspoken stories of courage and self-confidence in my life. The event had permanently changed me. Donald Miller mentions in one of his books that there are many moments that hurt in the present, but we will love it in some way, shape, or form later. Scars remind us that change is a natural part of life. Rarely do you receive a scar and not change even in the smallest of ways, even if that change is simply physical. Scars also remind us that the type of living that makes us truly feel alive means taking chances and fully examining life’s mysteries and opportunities. When we put ourselves out there, damage can be done. But I truly believe that there are no scars too big that will not fade given some time. To me, the best stories are the ones that leave their mark on me.

It makes me recall what the man sitting next to me on my flight to Ghana said to me about how I would be making enough impact if I was simply willing to go and share in the stories of others. For a while I would step inside their shoes and walk around their life, appreciating and better understanding the scars of their life. Life hits us all in very real ways whether we care for it to or not. I believe that it is only when we fully embrace the scars of change—beautiful in their markings—that we can begin to see the depth of who we are as the scars begin to fade.