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.


For the Telling

How amazing is the power of stories.

Today in my training session we touched on the idea about the power of example in imparting positive behavior in the kids that we work with – this is true, and it is almost a silent teacher that speaks louder than words, as so often the tone for the group is set by our own example.

But we also distill the example of an action or an experience – at least a certain perspective of it – in the stories we tell of them.

Often we relay stories almost unconsciously, as a mere discursive act, but today I paid a little more attention. I noticed that in a few moments I related stories of my own and others’ experiences working with their kids. At another instant, I relayed a story from a book that I read yesterday. I later found myself in a conversation about an obscure BBC documentary I watched last week, which my strange coincidence this friend had also recently seen.

Interestingly, I found those stories from my own experience to be most helpful to people to others, and likewise I was eager to hear their own. They stood for the crystallization of hours and weeks and months of effort and striving to do something that we are all striving together, and reflected back to us all in a mere few minutes – not in fragments, but reconstituted artfully into a coherent whole.

In the telling, it struck me that what we immerse ourselves in rises most closely to the surface of what we have to share with the world, and in fact, it often comes out as if by its own will. It is almost as if we are impelled to share it as a means to process our own reflections and observations on our experience, as we integrate it into our evolving conceptual framework.

And herein lie two reflections.

First, we need to be conscious and conscientious with what we surround ourselves with every day, and also recognize how quickly we can learn things. If I fill my days and hours with advertisements and television shows and empty consumption, that is all that I will have in me to share. But if I really want to become a part of something, to know more about it, to master it, by making every effort to surround myself in it, it becomes part of me.

Second, these are stories worth telling, even if only for our own expression. And always in the process we discover much more, as the very structures of thought appear to transmute under the grounding weight of new words. While my reason keeps refuting this simple assertion, I keep finding my way back to stories, and they to me – because every time, something is found.