Stepping Back

Three and a half weeks ago, I stepped back from the day-to-day pattern of life, and hopped on a plane to Rwanda.

Three and a half weeks ago, I said a drowsy, tearful goodbye to my husband at being apart for the longest since we first met nearly two years ago.

Three and a half weeks ago, I turned off my phone and instant messages and constant access to email. I set aside the deadlines and half-finished projects and word count goals. The only personal indulgence I allowed myself was a history book, which I would read for a few minutes before dropping off to sleep by the flicker of a bare fluorescent light bulb.

Three and a half weeks ago, I gave up any private moments to share a dormitory with 12 other women of all ages from DRC and Rwanda, with a bucket for a shower and a hole in the ground for a latrine.

And tonight is the first time I find myself alone. With a strong internet connection. And hot water. And clusters of softly glowing light bulbs.

And I’m not quite sure what to do with myself.

This hiatus from the page has been both frightening and freeing. The incessant mantra I hear from writers is “write every day”, “a writer writes”, “it isn’t LIFE that gets in the way of writing, it’s priorities.”

And yet, I decided not to write for three and a half weeks because I wanted, for a while, just to be present in this time, without allowing the anthropologist to creep into the equation. This has been a time of learning, of experience, of growth. Yes, I was invited here to teach; we discovered language together and played with numbers and did science experiments. But as in any act of service, we learn more than we give. It’s not by design and it’s not what drives us, but it seems to work out that way in the equation, even in the most difficult of experiences, if one has a mind and heart open to learning. This is what I wanted to work on – which meant cutting myself off, for a while, from writing.

Reflection is a necessary stage in any learning process, and for me writing is my primary tool to translate vague sentiment into tangible thought. But writing can also let my ego play some mischievous tricks on me, as it filters new experience through old lenses.

The first time I came to Rwanda a few years ago it was, indeed, on an anthropological research assignment. Every word and nuance documented and analyzed, the record more prized than the experience. Months later, midway through my 200-page long thesis, countless hours with no one but myself and my computer to negotiate with, I began to fear my worth lay in the mere interpretation, rather than the participation, in that experience I feel is most crucial to the needs of the age in which I have the chance and bounty to be alive. I spent the next three years trying to undo this self-assigned position of documenter, while at the same time being tasked again and again with the task of writing. It was what was needed and what I could do, and in fact what I loved to do and what brought me joy. It was in me, not to be abandoned, but rather a balance to be discovered and wielded.

But I loved that my work was also paired with action, with teaching – the chance to be with incredible people, to learn with and from them, see the world around us with the new eyes that come from learning from others. We learned and lived together, as we nurtured concepts into action. And as long as I remembered that we were one and left the anthropologist at home, the gate of the heart remained open.

Tomorrow I get on a westward-bound airplane that will take me home. I am awaited there by the arms of my husband, by the deadlines and to-do lists, the ping of incoming emails and instant messages.

And tomorrow I will pick up my pen again, and write.