In the late afternoon, I stood at a window looking out over the city. The street grids lay before me, and the tops of buildings whose lower walls I see every day. There were more parking garages than I thought possible. Far off in the distance, I could see my building.
Things made sense from up above in a way they don't from the ground. Things I've been learning slowly, day by walking busing training day, were suddenly clear. I could see where that bridge comes into town, and the planes landing out at the airport, descending slowly into the trees. I could see how the land curves around the water, and the water around the land. I could see where the flat becomes hill, and how the houses rise precariously from the tilt.
I wish I could see my life as clearly right now. I have to make some decisions, and any one could be right, and any one could be wrong. And most of them depend on the decisions of other people, first. I want to see it laid out like a grid before me, like my resume does, now that I look back at the jobs in Rwanda, in Tanzania, in Liberia, in South Sudan. Except that grid has nothing to do with the world around me now. The map I have in my head doesn't transpose onto this life I'm living, and the choice I want most is something completely unexpected and, just maybe, completely perfect.
And then there is the health insurance desperation, hanging forever over my head.
Well, well, well. Here we are. A. is in bed reading my book, the counter is covered in glasses and boxes and jars, and an oatmeal cake is baking in the oven, just beginning to give off that delicious baking smell.
My sister is here, and she has gotten me out of the little box that my life had become in the six blocks between work and here and the grocery store. We borrowed cars, yesterday and today, and went to the beach and the mountains. We sat at little cafes eating melts of avocado and spinach on seven grain bread. We laid on the sand reading books and talking. We clambered over mossy rocks and picked out smooth pebbles from the freezing water to roll around in our hands. We strode up the path just behind a woman talking about her experiences in South Africa. (I was eavesdropping. Blatantly.)
I feel almost human. "I'm so glad you are here!" I kept telling her today. "I feel free again!"
My friend S. works on Saturdays. I'm beginning to wonder if she'd lend me her car some or every Saturday in exchange for a weekly filled gas tank. Sitting alone beside a mountain stream once a week could make me a much happier person.
It's been a long week, and I woke up this Saturday feeling like I was teetering on the edge of okay. It could go either way. I put Wilbur on repeat on a song I love, a song I need, and I talked to some people I love. Then I set out for one of this city's myriad Public Events. I have somehow managed to move to a city full of people like me, people who never quite left behind their eight-year old selves, which means lots of Public Events that would be called nice for the kids elsewhere but here we call them awesome for everyone. Heh.
I was supposed to ride with some friends, and then plans changed and I was supposed to take the train and meet them there, so I walked a long way in the shriveling heat from the train to the park. Fortunately, I learned some things in Southern Sudan (and don't whine to me, wimps. this 100 degree weather is nothing. try walking for an hour under full sun at noon four degrees north of the Equator in a tropical swamp and then we will talk). I learned the following: take water (although usually I disobey this one, myself, so maybe I haven't quite learned it yet), wear sleeves (nothing like a blistering shoulder sunburn to make life suck, as I learned first on the Equator in Kenya in university. 36 hours home on the plane resulted in a t-shirt that was stuck to my festering blisters. yum), put sunscreen on your head where you part your hair, seek out every bit of shade. That's pretty much it.
Come to think of it, it's not even that hot here. When you are comfortable sitting in the shade, it's not really that hot.
So, Public Event. It was fun. My inner eight-year old was delighted. But after a while, when my friends had left for other activities, I got a little tired of the crowd, and I wandered off to sit alone under a tree. I got bitten by a tiny white insect, a bite that itched for quite some time, and I had to kill a very large bee out of fear of being stung. I wrote for a while, and I watched people climbing past me to the main event. I listened to the cheers from afar. All was right with the world. I had forgotten how I need trees, and how sometimes seeing only the same six blocks over and over starts to get to me.
On the way home, I stopped at a coffee shop to borrow their bathroom and procure something involving ice. (This is another thing. Do you have any idea just how lucky we are to have ice readily available? Nothing, nothing, nothing is ever cold in a place with no electricity.) I had forgotten the cardinal water rule, even though I had a water bottle with me, and I slumped on the counter and said, "I am too dehydrated to think of what I want to drink."
There is something every so comforting about tea. Coffee is tasty but, I'm sorry, not comforting like tea. You never find yourself thinking, "What I need right now is to sit down in a corner with a nice cup of coffee to cradle in my hands and then I will feel better." At least, I don't. When I need comfort, I turn to tea.
Good thing I found the tea shop.
On the bus on the way home, feeling slightly carsick because some annoying person had taken the ideal front-facing seat on the passenger side, I remembered how, back when I worked with kiddos in MI, we the staff had a team-building exercise once in a park. The boss asked a series of questions intended to help the college-aged group of us "get to know ourselves" and one of the questions was, "Where do you sit on a bus?" I always, if I have a choice, sit in the front on the opposite side from the driver, because it is the ideal place to look forward and therefore not become carsick. According to this personality test, however, sitting in this spot means you are self-centered because you don't want anyone blocking your view. "Hey!" I said, "I sit there, and it doesn't mean I'm self-centered!" [Okay, maybe a little.] "I get sick sitting anywhere else!" Fact is, I am still kind of annoyed by this little self-knowledge quiz of six years ago.
If something major happens to me and someone else has to deal with any part of my life for a while, I have to say that the most embarrassing part will probably be the stack of unopened letters from the loan companies who gave me the money for law school. In general, when I get such a letter, I toss it in the corner by the door, unopened, and hope that whatever I put on top of it will hide it from view. Good plan, self, good plan.
I'm disappointed at a grey Saturday. I don't mind clouds so much during the week, but I want brilliant sun on the weekend so I can go on a long ramble in the afternoon. Those long walks keep me sane, even better when they bring me to new places. I'm getting weary already with the same blocks I see every day. I walked last night from the train to a park, rather than take the bus. I walked through neighborhoods like so many close in to Gone West: houses a random collection of styles from the first half of the last century, little square yards with large flower beds and very little grass, dogs staring out from bay windows. We all shared my gabi from Ethiopia at the park, sitting and lying on it in grass that looked deceptively smooth until one sat down. S. brought her brother and a friend, who I had never met, and I thought again about how I expected, when I moved here, to be outgoing and take initiative and I thought that by seven months in, now, I would have a whole crowd of friends. But I'm the same person here as I ever was, it turns out, and I feel shy and a little turtley at the prospect of charging into new groups of people, of calling people I've met once or twice or even a dozen times.
In December of 2003, I came back to the US from Rwanda after 13 months. Just for a few weeks. My sister and I went to a W@lgreens with my camera's memory cards, and I printed hundreds of pictures. It took a long time. It took hours. During these hours, A. and I wandered around the store, contemplating purchasing... something. Some sort of snack. Except that I couldn't handle it. There were just too many options. I walked back and forth along the snack aisle, just staring. And I didn't buy anything.
This is a problem I normally have only for a few days after I come back from Africa, although it was somewhat exacerbated on return from Liberia and South Sudan, which are virtually completely lacking in amenities like, oh, supermarkets. Liberia has grocery stores but no supermarkets and South Sudan has, um, hole-in-the-wall dukas. Nada mas. (When I worked in Rwanda, one of my colleagues working in Mali came to Nairobi for a meeting and went positively nuts at the supermarkets. "There is nothing like this in West Africa!" she kept saying, "Not even in Dakar!" as she bought more and more to carry back with her on the plane. I keep wondering about Lagos, though. Surely there are supermarkets in Lagos. Also, this was five years ago.)
Anyway, I can handle drugstores now. Also supermarkets. I march on through and buy salad dressing and toothpaste and my favorite cheese. The only time it gets to me is when I try to buy a snack. Even gas/petrol stations overwhelm me when it comes to snacks. I cannot buy snacks. I cannot buy chips/crisps. I cannot buy candy bars. I cannot buy cookies/biscuits. I just can't do it. I wander down the aisle, and then back, and then I leave with nothing because there are just too many possibilities. I did it again today.
Speaking of language idiosyncrasies (note use of multiple possible words up there) and how my brain is confused, here is something that happened to me a while ago:
Me: Can I have some of your chips? Friend: Only if you call them fries. Me: ... [thinking] ... Oh, right. Can I have some of your fries?
Quote of the day today: "Community living is only okay if everyone is smoking the ganja every day." (ID of quoted person withheld by request)
I waste most of my weekends, but I was determined to make something of this Sunday afternoon. I set off to my usual park, where I wrote for a while and nearly fell asleep in the grass with my top half under the gentle shade. I rolled my jeans up to my knees to get a little brown on my legs where they tend show under skirts. Time passed. Frisbee and soccer players came and went. The sun chased me further and further under the tree.
At last I got up and walked again, somewhat aimlessly. I finally headed in the general direction where I thought there might be a gelato place. There wasn't. Instead, I ended up on a street that I would have said was far too far away for walking. This city often surprises me that way. Things are more compact than they seem.
I didn't find gelato there, either, but I did find a tea shop. I have a strange reluctance to go into new restaurants by myself, as if they were intended for someone other than me, but enter I did, to find a wonderful world of tea that I have been missing since New York. "Is it as cool as Nearby Little Tea Place in New York?" my sister asked later. "No," I said, "because they have more of a menu, so you don't have to be quite so in the know." But they do have almost as many lovely teas, and it has that lovely smell of tea when you walk through the door.
I got a latte of black tea with roasted coconut pieces and sat in front of the window, reading the New York Times in hard copy. Happy.
On the way home, I succumbed to my new laziness of housekeeping and bought dishwasher powder. Until now I've been washing dishes by hand and using the dishwasher as a drying rack, but my laziness has now exceeded my cheapness. That and I heard that dishwashers use less water than washing by hand. That was all I needed to let the lazy win.
Sitting in the park, listening to Wilbur, playing Sudoku, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and glanced over. It was an Aimless Crazy Man, of which there are many in Gone West, and he was standing in the shade with the hood of a winter coat over his head. I accidentally met his eye. "It's hot!" he said. "I need the shade."
A few minutes later, I saw the way a woman on the sidewalk looked at me as she walked past, and I knew he was standing behind me. Right behind me. I'd seen him do it to other people. I turned around and looked at him, a foot or two behind me as I sat on the ground. "Use the sixes." he said, "I like the sixes."
"You know," I answered, as kindly as I could, "I came here to be alone."
He flared up, angry. "It's a public park, b%^*&! I will kick you in your back and break every bone!"
I continued to stare back at him. If I have learned anything in the years of my life, it is that the anger and the crazy do not mix. I stared at him for a while and then I turned deliberately around, put my ear buds back in, and continued the Sudoku.
The next time I saw him, he was standing immediately next to someone else.
Now Gone West. Also featuring: Liberia (1980-1990, 2000, 2006), Honduras (2000), Rwanda (2002-2004), New York (2004-2007 - unfortunate choice for law school), Tanzania (2005), South Sudan (2007), Michigan (the rest of the time).