Saturday, September 8, 2012


Rien: sentences on the lack of words

I can't put goodbye into words. 
I just can't. 

I want to be able to analyze it - to spit out neat packages of summary and reflection. 

I should be telling you what "lessons I've learned," or "what this experience has taught me."
I should be telling you what the view is from the mountain top. 
I should be telling you what conclusions I have drawn.  Or how my life has been forever changed. 
I should be telling you that "even though these poor people have nothing - they are smiling," and how "now I have a true appreciation of what I have."
I should be telling you all the things I have accomplished. 
I should be telling you how it feels to rise up and overcome challenges - what it feels like from the other side. 
I should be telling you about all the things I am looking forward to upon my return. 

But honestly, I can't tell you any of those things.  I just can't. 

This is Africa.
Nothing is simple.
Nothing is easy. 
Nothing can be stuffed into preconceived formulas or boxes of expectations. 

Even the simplest emotion has layered shades of meaning. 
It is impossible to wrap up something like this with a bow and a smile.
I just can't. 

Here: the darker side of triumph

Here - you learn the unexpected about yourself. 
Here -  you can tell your fellow volunteer what a bad person you feel like - how you never realized that you weren't a good person until you came here - and they will nod and know exactly     what you mean. 
Here - everything you did is haunted by everything you didn't do. 
Here - every choice is rife with its impossibility. 
Here - the lines between right and wrong became blurred and smudged while at other times emerging edged and stark.
Here - you can break a person or a culture without even realizing it. 
Here - you will feel more foolish and selfish than you ever have before. 
Here -  you will battle a dark part of yourself you didn't even know existed. 
Here - the things you see, experience, and do mold you deeply on a level that can barely be articulated. 
Here - Africa cuts deep


Fear:  the admission of many wan and silly things

I am afraid of the future. 
I am afraid of the unknown. 
I am afraid that I will make bad choices. 
I am afraid that I will gravitate towards the part of me that was broken here - not to the part that is firm and wiser and stronger.
I am afraid I will be lonely.
I am afraid I will not be able to relay my experiences in such a way that does not betray, cheapen, or demean myself or those involved in them. 
I am afraid I will moralize.
I am afraid I will shut off.
I am afraid the balance will slip away from me. 
I am afraid I won't be dedicated enough to write my book and keep my promises. 
I am afraid the experiences that burn like fire will cool and lose their heat. 
I am afraid I will crumble in the rain. 
I am afraid to start all over again.
I am afraid to stand in front of a row of cardboard boxes and realize that the only thing left of my life is a collection of books, dangle earrings, a nursing degree, and a head and heart full of memories. 
I am afraid that in my absence I have lost relationships. 
I am afraid that I have changed so deeply here that I will have a hard time integrating myself into American culture while not losing myself and soul. 
I am afraid I will succumb to materialism and consumerism with barely a backward glance. 
I am afraid I will become more of a cliche than I already am.
I am afraid of sitting on the back porch of the life I walked away from. 
I am afraid of the picket fence that blocks me out.
I am afraid to leave the continent I abandoned love for.
I am afraid of the grim fact that the person I almost spent my life with is now a stranger.
I am afraid of seeing the person that slipped so effortlessly into the shoes I abandoned so I could be barefoot. 
I am afraid I don't fully belong in any context. 
I am afraid of getting lost
I am afraid of icy roads.
I am afraid.

But I am also committed to walking through the fear.  To facing it.  To stepping towards it, into it, through it.  To letting it surround me. 

I am committed to the realization that if I am not afraid of fear, then I go go anywhere.
    I can do anything.
    I can overcome anything.
    I can walk through darkness.
    I can be alone.
    I can leave.
    I can go.
    I can love.
    I can travel. 
    I can speak my truth.
    I can face reality.
    I can keep dreaming.
    I can start again.
    I can say goodbye. 

If I am not afraid of fear - then even though I face the world with nothing - I have nothing to hold me back. 

I am not afraid of fear.
I am not afraid of fear.
I am not afraid of fear. 

I will say it until it become true.

I am not afraid of fear.
I am not afraid of fear.
I am not afraid of fear.

I will stumble towards the lake of fear until i realize it is merely a mirage.
I will run into its inferno until I realize it is only a flickering flame.
I will walk into its darkness and realize my eyes have adjusted.
I will jump into its ocean and realize my toes are barely scraping a trickling creek.
I will open my arms and square my shoulder to loneliness and realize there is strength and solace there. 

I am not afraid of fear. 

and because I not afraid of fear - I have nothing to hold me back. 

because I am not afraid of fear - I am free.


Journal entry:

Only in Tchad do you find a dead fly pressed like flowers in the pages of your journal.  A journal that is almost finished just like my journey here is. 

I don't know what to say.  Spitting cliches and neat tie ons and wrap ups out of my teeth would just betray the experience.
I don't have  a long list of all the things I learned.  Or all the ways I changed.  I 'm sure I've changed.  I know I have.  But its been so gradual I still feel like me.

And I guess that's how you should feel when you come out of the hurricane.  That even though you were transported and transplanted and your surroundings and material possessions were adjusted, destroyed, or sent flying - even though - you  still feel a small grounded place at the bottom of your soul.

A small rock, a boulder, a pebble even: that undefinable stillness that speaks to you on the level that thoughts and words fail.  That says even if the rest of the world (and to a large extent you yourself) think you are crazy - even if - you are exactly where you need to be, going exactly where you need to go.

And that's how I knew I needed to come to Tchad.  There were strong forces, the the bonds of love, smoldering at me to stay, holding out their arms of oak and telling me i had a place of rest in them forever.  And I almost went into them.  Almost.  And when they all said, why Tchad?  I  gave them my spiel of course.  But the real answer was, beneath all the reasons, heartbreak, leaving, and longing, that I just knew.  And that small pebble of inner knowing grounded me against the madness and gave me the courage to step away from comfort.

It pushed me to exist in this brown and beautiful plot of scorched earth on the edge of the Sahel.  And that same pebble has grown through these hard and wonderful months until it has become a jagged rock.  How  much of a rock i couldn't tell you, but enough of an anchor to tell me I must again go.  That I must say goodbye gracefully, resting on the baseline of relationships, friendships, and work put in already.  Its telling me I cannot stay.  Its telling me to go North.

I have that knowing again, the one whose reasons I can't articulate and who's unspoken arguments are not rational.  I am being pulled to Alaska.  I am entranced and terrified.  But something else is growing - a tiny slim shoot of a wildflower, a sprig of hope peaking curious and spring morning from under the shade of my rock.  A wild blooming hope I can't contain.  And so, I know.

Journal Entry: Sept. 2011, pre-departure

Taking everything familiar - books and colors and car and job.  taking the love of my life.  and then taking a suitcase and packing it with air.  with ideas.  and leaving. 

every woman needs her journey - every woman needs that one time where they struck out, jumped off, dived in, danced free.   I truly believe that. 

And now, after more than a decade of dreaming, of talking big. of scattering my ideas from my mouth like popcorn - after a decade of comfortable rhetoric, here I am - about to leave. 

to leave the words behind
to leave the the love behind
to leave the potatoes and chocolate and creamy comfort foods
to leave google and parents and friends

here I am. 
just me. 
me and the big wide barbarous world. 

And I'm so scared. 
This is faith. 
I never understood it become. 
the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 
Believing that the hoped for, the unseen, will morph into a concrete reality. 

This crossroads is giant.  it's evil and mean and muddy and fuzzy and complicated. 

I have a lot to prove to myself.
I'm chasing the feeling of overcoming.  Of climbing that mountain, scaling that mental roadblock, throwing talents i didn't know i had at a problem.
I'm chasing the feeling of rising above, of doing things I thought I couldn't do, that feeling of growing stronger.

I feel scared and fragile, like a whisper could blow me over. 


i have to go. 

and for better or worse, I'm going. 


Sadness: on what you meant to me

I cried tonight, saying goodbye to Bikaou.  She is leaving tomorrow morning for Cameroon, where she will take the entrance examination for her Masters in Gynecology.  Teskrio is already there, studying.  He thought he would be coming back in time to see me off, but with the flooding and the difficulty and price of the journey, he has stayed there.  They will take their exams on the 15th.  I am so proud of both of them.  They want to get their Master's degrees in Nursing - and that is no small thing here in Tchad. 

I love them so much.  Indescribably so. 

Tonight I lied on the mats in the main room of Bikaou's chambers, the head lamp was hanging on the wall, glowing off the flowing maroon curtains, and i was talking with her as she folded the piles of clothes the children had heaped up on top of the motor bike. 

The little girls were fanning me with flimsy paper fans and Arnou was playing with her phone and responding in Keira when I talked to him in French.  When I got here, he didn't speak at all.  Now, he understands French.  We still have our special high 5 - several high fives, then we bump our fist together, and then our pointer fingers touch briefly.  It took him so many months to warm up to me.  Now, when I'm not here, he will stand in front of my door and say, "Janna?"

And I just started crying.  I couldn't decide if they were tears of regret or not.  I don't have a lot of regrets, but I do feel bad for not spending as much time with the kids as I should have.  When I spent 3 months working evenings I barely saw anyone - I was sleeping when they got up and went to school and they were sleeping when I came home.  Now, I have been spending evenings at home.  We have been watching Disney and their favorite by far is Robin Hood.  They can all hum the intro perfectly. 

Now, we all sit looking at the stars and slapping away mosquitoes - me telling all the girls not to marry until they finish University and making the boys promise that they will learn to wash dishes and never hit their wives.  Last night, we borrowed the neighbor's radio and we danced for almost 2 hours.  We were breathless and barefoot and everyone was deliriously happy.  Music is one of the best part of life here.  Any time a Tchadian hears music, he cannot help it, he dances.  It is lovely. 

And the kids tell me, "now, we know you love us - because you spend time with us and show us movies."  And I tell them, no, I loved you the whole time.  I just lost that relationship we all had when I was never home.  And this last month has been so busy - I have been going hard from morning until night - always having something to do, always going to bed leaving something undone.  I wish they would understand that i loved them the whole time. 

And tonight I told Bikaou how much I loved her.  And how grateful I am for her.  How she was an amazing mother and became even more than that, a true friend.  When-ever I would come home pissed off about something from the hospital - she would listen to me, and give advice, and always supported me and had my back no matter what.  Her and Teskrio taught me French.  They took amazing care of me when I was sick - pounding rice into flour and making me bouillie (rice gruel with rice flour, peanut butter, sugar - about the only thing I wanted when I had malaria.)  They held the hair out of my face when i vomited all over the courtyard (this happened more than once), put up with my crazy horse and love for starving dogs.   She always scoured the market for anything said I wanted to eat.  They always told me the truth and advised me how to behave in the culture.  They were my friends, my confidants, my counselors, and my teachers.  We traded medical knowledge and languages and celebrated our mutual love of Bob Dylan - singing Blowing in the Wind at 7 am across a steaming bowl of rice and black eyed peas. 

Every morning Teskrio would shake my hand and smile his dazzling smile and ask me how I slept.  In Tchad, he said, every good father talks to each of their children in the morning - he has to see them before he goes to work - to make sure they don't have malaria, that they aren't getting sick.   That's why he would wake me up to see if I was okay.  Here, good fathers do that. 

We would walk to work together and if I needed a ride anywhere he would always go out of his way to take me.   Or when I would rattle off in my bad French, angry over something, and he would shake his head and smile is big smile, and say, "kai, Janna, Janna." 

Boule is the Tchadian staple food that most outsiders find the most difficult to stomach on a continual basis.  They have it almost every meal with a sauce that varies.  Well, I went through a phase where I actually like the stuff.  They would make a bean sauce, with crushed black eyed peas, garlic, onion, and tomato: it was delicious with Boule.  You eat boule with your fingers and they would always laugh at me because they thought I didn't scoop up enough at a time. They would think I didn't like it.  And I would say, no, no, "Bikaou, J'aime la boule!!"  And for some reason Teskrio thought that was the funniest thing he ever heard.  So pretty much from there on out, every time we talked, even at the hospital, he would grin and shake his head and say slowly, "Bikaou, J'aime la boule!" 

I just cannot emphasize enough how much they meant to me.  I told all this to Bikaou tonight.  And I told her - it is because I lived with you, in your family, that I had the wonderful experience here in the village that I had.  And its true.  They made all the difference in my experience.  I still maintain that I had a better family than anyone else - and that I got so incredibly lucky. 

Living with Bikaou and Teskrio was the best thing that happened to me here in Tchad. 

I almost didn't.  When I arrived at the airport a year ago - Olen asked which one of us liked children.  I immediately said that I did because I wanted to be with a big family.  I wanted to get lost in chaos and bustle and be completely immersed.  Never mind that I don't actually like children that much.  I mean, I do, but not to the extent that I would go around saying I love children.  And that was the best thing I ever said.  If I had kept my mouth shut a fraction of a second longer, I would have lived with a very small family and shared space and moments with another volunteer. 

And it was amazing living with nurses - living with people that understood the work and frustrations at the hospital.  That had the same coworkers and would stick up for me and explain to me why things were the way they were.  I was also able to teach them more about American nursing and challenge them to do things differently.   Sometimes when I would get upset at some obtuse man or another, I would mutter under my breathe that they wouldn't be able to work in America, so there....  very juvenile I know, but I would not say that about them.  With the right training they could work in an American Hospital.  They are both dedicated to their patients, go above and beyond every day, and have an amazing work ethic and wealth of knowledge. 

I am just overwhelmed with gratitude and love for them.  I can't believe that the last time I see Bikaou for a long time is going to be tomorrow morning.  And that is it.  Our paths will diverge.  I am just sad.  I tried to tell her tonight how much she meant to me - I tell her all the time anyway - but even though my French is insufficient she understood what I was trying to say and told me not to cry.  This goodbye is not forever, she said.  We will see each other again.  The time to leave has come.  We will not forget you.  We will miss you.  We are sad too. 

I love this woman so much.  She probably did more than anyone to get me through the hard times, and was a rock, and oasis of sanity, a voice of reason as we sat outside wrapped up against the mosquitoes just talking about everything. 

I told her that her family is my family now.  Her home has become my home.  And they are.  It has. 

I am so sad.

so so so sad. 

Bikaou, I love you.  I will not forget you.  And I will demonstrate that.  You are not just a year I spent away.  You are not just someone I call a friend in name only.  You are so much more than that.  You are not part of my experience.  You have transcended that.  You are a relationship I want to maintain for the rest of my life.  I love you.  I believe in you.  You are smart and beautiful and are going to pass your test.  One day, I will bring you to America to visit.  One day, we will get manicures and pedicures and I'll get you a massage.  You work harder than anyone I know, and if anyone deserves to be taken care of - its you. 

I swear [fiercely] - I will NOT forget you. 

That's what I told her - tonight - when we lied on the mattress talking as the children fell asleep in mid-sentence. 

And I know she knew.  All the things I was saying - and all the things I wasn't.  She knew. 

But even though I said it all - even though I have a strong friendship to rest my departure on - even though -

I still feel odd and sad like every emotion I have was torn in two and then folded and torn in two again. 

So much for my earlier jargon about graceful goodbyes. 

They are just sad.


Meditations: on redemption and the skeleton jig


I came here looking for it.
Personally, spiritually, societally. 

The word itself is heartrending - breaking with hope and longing.

I came to hell looking for heaven. 

I came here wanting Africa to save me. 

did it? 

thrice blessed
thrice cursed

Its dark casting  healed my fractures

Bones mended
only to split along a different line
only to give me a different kind of limp

Its flames burned the meat off my bones,

they are charred
but their marrow is richer

I don't ever want the flesh to grow back.

I want my soul to do the skeleton jig

for as long as the bones are dancing
then perhaps

I have my salvation.  


When: final day

Ethiopian Air – Sept. 16


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