Monday, May 11, 2009

The Ninth Addis Herald

The Addis Herald, Final Edition From the Field

In This Issue:
On Being Back
New Standards
How to Improve Your Posture
Pithy Ethiopia
You Can Go Home Again (Sort Of)

Greetings from U.S. soil. Yup. I'm back. But I still have two newsletters left in me. For one, I haven't told people much about the trek through Africa—and people are still asking. Why is it taking so long? Because a lot happened there, and life "keeps happening" elsewhere. There has been too much to do, process and type—and the fact it could all be chapters long requires me to pare it down. A lot. :-) It will be my next, and final, issue.


Ever wanted to run away from home for a few days? (Not that I've had a stable home in years.) You know, to think. Pray. Be by yourself with God. Sort things out.

You, too, eh?

That's why I spent a few days at the Oregon Coast earlier this month. My friend Greg said last week that he goes to the coast "because it makes everything better." I understand this. The Pacific is so beautiful and massive that it dwarfs the rest of life—including problems that feel huge. And God, not oceanographers, tells it where to stop with His hand. If He can control an ocean, He certainly has control over our lives.

So every couple of years I go there to walk on the beach until my face feels chapped. Then I watch the sea lions (grouchy, chocolate-colored blobs with fins) burp, sleep and gripe at each other. After that, it's mandatory to feed a seagull—which I am convinced is a bag of poop that's held together with feathers. But one seagull usually turns into 20.

And then I sit in a café overlooking the beach. For hours. (This is the benefit of being single and childless.) I read, nibble on something, write, check e-mail, pray, ponder life, scratch out to-do lists and notes. The waitresses fill my glass of whatever four times an hour and usually tease me about how I should get a "real" job. But the eight-to-five routine will happen soon enough—let me be on my own time for a few more days.

I need to ease into it while I still can … coming back isn't always simple.

On Being Back
The Pacific Ocean around Oregon and Washington is cold. Year-round. Inland it may be 104 degrees, but the water at the coast is still shocking on the ankles, even if you think you're prepared for it. No matter how hard I try not to, I gasp when my feet get wet the first time. It's kind of like how it feels to come back to the United States. Even if you think you've got it covered this time—it does get easier—something always catches you off guard. This can take any number of forms. Lately it's been our liberal media, our country's adoration of meaningless celebrities and how bad Americans' spelling is (it's gotten worse, and seriously, teens, here is not hear, too is not to and you're is not u r or your).

But the one that's hit closest to home this week is fashion.

In order to appear normal in Western offices again, I've had to go clothes shopping. Cleaning toilets is more fun in my opinion, but the now tattered African "eternal spring" attire just doesn't cut it. So I've forced myself on search-and-destroy missions to find wardrobe staples. And because there are so many stores I've never heard of nowadays, occasionally I wander into the wrong ones. You know you're out of place when the only sizes are 0 through 6. (Why?? WHY must we have size 0?? Most women weren't a 0 in fifth grade!) The clerks scope you out before you even walk through the door, starting at the torso and moving up and down subtly and efficiently. Then there's an obligatorily blasé, "Good morning. If there's anything I can help you with, let me know." But the vague hostility is my favorite. It's the "I'm wearing Chanel and you're clearly not" attitude that's the cherry on top.

One clerk feigned interest the other day just as I was figuring out that I couldn't afford or fit into much of anything. She was in her 20s and looked amazing in a miniskirt. She slinked up and said, "You are a woman who's looking for a new style [brilliant slam]. These are yummy shirts, and they're on sale. Now, what are you thinking?"

Poor girl. Little did she know this is the killer question and reason people can't take me anywhere. But she asked. So I grinned and told her. "I'm thinking it's asinine to pay $300, on sale, for a simple red shirt that's worth 20. Why is a label our self-esteem? Why are people so … crazy?"

Her face melted into something that said "rude, psycho freak." That was my cue to thank her and walk out.

And it was rude of me. Sometimes it's hard to contain the emotion that comes from seeing such extravagance and the people who don't even recognize it. I should have apologized, but didn't.

Beyond fashion, though, it's American excess in general that's hard to get used to again. Out of curiosity (it kills cats, you know), the other day I walked into a "Doggie Day Spa" complete with lingerie, meowing alarm clocks, facials and genuine leather jackets for dogs. I nearly puked. I've been told that people who have seen death and suffering don't deal well with doggie g-strings afterward. This may be self-righteous—and I may have to fight that on some level—but I just don't understand why we need or want these things. What are we thinking? We are blessed to have disposable income and freedom to use it, and long live capitalism! But … but … doggie g-strings??! (They're bad enough on people.)

And there's more. A few weeks ago I was looking for a flat iron (after five years of wash and wear, I should start doing my hair again). I asked the two trendy girls next to me if they knew which would be best. "This one," the Paris look-alike said, very confidently. When I asked why, she named several features and said, "And because it's made overseas, and other countries make better things than America does."

Her disdain and irreverence flipped a switch in me that I didn't know was there. (Seriously, guys, don't take me anywhere for a while.) The words spilled out before I knew what I was saying, so strong was my reaction. I looked directly at her and said, "You know, I lived overseas for several years and have seen a lot. You're wrong. And you have a frighteningly poor opinion of this great country." Then I walked to another aisle, sans flat iron. They thought I was psycho, I'm sure.

Yes. Reentry shock is interesting. It will be a few months before I feel normal again—if I even want some of this to be "normal" again.

But I promise that someday you'll be able to take me out into public again. :-)

New Standards
There's something about the Third World that changes your perspective. Yes, I sound like a broken record here, but I can't stress it enough. My whole take on life has changed—somehow it's become more … no-nonsense. Here's my rough, new system for handling most of life's problems. Hey, I'm not saying I'm right, I'm just saying this is part of reentry shock. Maybe someday I'll draw you a flowchart of questions to ask yourself:

1. Are there flames?
No. Then what's the problem?

Yes. Then stop griping and put them out or move. Good grief.

(Three random minibuses I took in Ethiopia caught fire. The Ethiopians just sat, passively waiting for the floorboard to stop burning. Because I didn't know where the fuel lines were or have great medevac insurance—people, it was FIRE even if small—I ran off the busses like a rabid goat was chasing me. Man, I was entertaining to the locals.)

2. Is there blood?
No. Then what's your point?

Yes. Then stop screaming and mop it up or get a tourniquet! Good night! And you should have upgraded your travel insurance because, m-a-n, are you are stuck now.

3. Is your government truly screwing you over? (A good one, for example, allows you to own land, bear arms, get a fair trial, vote, say your peace and use your freedom to improve your country.)
No. Then thank God, quit whining and sacrifice to keep it that way! Freedom isn't cheap!

Only a little. Then stop your moaning and work hard to improve it! You have the freedom to do that! You have no idea!

4. Did you have to wait an hour and fill out a lot of paperwork to see a doctor who saw you for 15 minutes?
No. And was it at least somewhat affordable (you didn't go hungry or lose your house) because you have insurance or found financial aid? Woohoo. You are among the privileged few in the world.

Yes. Well, big whoop. Your doctor is qualified well beyond what most of the world considers qualified. You should see hospitals and patients in parts of Africa and Asia—and even parts of Europe. And again, you have the freedom to work to change system!

I should probably be more sympathetic. Occasionally a friend who has also gone through reentry will ask how I'm doing and offers to act as a sounding board. I haven't needed it, but it's nice to have the option. And if I need to be kicked in the butt at some point, they'll help me there, too—so you don't have to. :-)

How to Improve Your Posture
Five days before I left Africa, the embassy called to say that Ambassador XXXX wanted to meet my fellow fellows and me. (Um, in our thinking, it would have been more useful if he'd checked in eight months ago …) Though all four of us wondered why, we went gladly because: it was a chance to sit in a civilized place, it might have meant a very nice (and free) Western dinner, and it isn't every day peons like us get an officially signed and sealed invitation from the XXXX.

So my friends and I got cleaned up—hard to do during mud-luscious rainy season—and met on base. We admired each other's best "Africa wardrobe" selections before walking to the mansion, where we felt a bit intimidated. A state dinner had been set up for foreign ambassadors in the cavernous dining room—which is why we got banana bread and macchiatos that late afternoon instead of chateaubriand that night. (But we went out for Thai afterward, which was just as nice.)

Before XXXX came in, we tried to sit properly on sofas that were too low and soft to balance on. (This is often the case in such places and, because the person of honor sits in a stable chair, I wonder if it's an attempt to make people feel the status difference.) We juggled saucers, coffee cups and official napkins on our knees. The men wore ties, and Alice (yes, my dear Alice) and I crossed our legs gracefully at the ankles, which we do only under duress. Later we laughed because we'd each sheepishly taken a napkin for posterity (hey, they're cool with an official gold seal).

Then XXX walked in and we stood. I had to strain to keep from gasping when we shook hands because I tower over him even at 5 feet 5 inches tall. After introductions, we sat awkwardly and chitchatted about African politics, current events and our fellowship projects (I was cryptic and tactful enough—Alice said so). But there were so many completely politically incorrect—that is, true and realistic—things that Alice and I wanted to say. We did not. It wasn't the time or the place. Who knows if it ever will be.

And this officially ended my fellowship of not accomplishing a single thing academically or professionally, but of growing tremendously spiritually.

Pithy Ethiopia
Before Jamie went back to New York in June, we had to express our distaste for several things that occurred during our stints in Addis. Jamie did this in the form of possible titles for her future memoir. Soon I joined in. Some may sound cruel (which is not our intention), but you'd have to live in Addis to understand why they're so fitting. May this give you yet another perspective on life:

Ethiopia: Lund thatt speeling, gramer an prunoonsiashun fergutted
Ethiopia: Land that customer service never knew
Ethiopia: Ten trillion sheep can poop wherever they want
Ethiopia: Where mediocrity is usually an achievement
Ethiopia: Logic? We don't need no stinkin' logic.
Ethiopia: Where perfectionists and OSHA inspectors may commit suicide
Ethiopia: Second only to China in donkey population (it's true)
Ethiopia: Bob Marley lives. Jah man.
Ethiopia: Ten-million-stop shopping
Ethiopia: Having a stroke here at some point is probably inevitable
Ethiopia: Where, when all is said and done, more is said than done.

We've not yet decided which will be our respective titles. We're still just trying to recover.

You Can Go Home Again (Sort Of)
(Note: Names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

The first week or two I'm back in the States I typically contact no one, form a terrycloth cocoon around myself and hibernate in front of Fox News until I feel human again. It's less shocking to the system this way. TV commercials and the election are enough to adjust to without having to be in public as well. But the other Sunday I forced myself into something besides sweats and a bathrobe to actually join the human race. (The light was blinding. My eyes. My eyes.) I went to a church in my hometown of 8,800 people. When I lived there the population was 7,500, so we're coming up in the world.

I was nervous to go in alone. This is a fairly conservative, traditional place, and the last time I visited a church other than my parents' it was less than welcoming. Several of the women scowled and said, "Well, where is your husband?" (Certainly, not everyone in the town is like this, but even one congregation can do serious damage.)

I was nervous for other reasons, though. I wasn't sure if I'd see anyone from high school. Typically, I wouldn't share this, but it helps me make a future point …

I was a train wreck as a kid—except train wrecks came from tracks and therefore have had more direction at some point. It's a good thing Goth wasn't popular in the '80s, because I would have mastered it. I enjoyed subcultures and black clothing, all while hating most of the world. (Anger and stupidity are synonyms for teenager.) I looked innocuous to people, but HA. You can seem sweet and still rage inside. Why? Because school was so awful that former classmates are still apologizing for things they did to me 25 years ago. Several of them were haunted by their behavior, and, until about a decade ago, so was I.

But I didn't help matters then. In a logging town where football games and big hair bands were the norm among teenagers, I was one of four kids (possibly adults, too) who knew about and enjoyed Monty Python. I could—and can—recite almost every Beatles lyric written. Metaphysical poetry was an obsession (John Donne's conceits still rock). I thought it was "gnarly" how Shakespeare mocked the establishment. I painted satirical cartoons and pictures that no one else got. I sat in the backyard painting, reading The Catcher in the Rye and writing very, very bad prose (which I still do). Reptiles had more standing in my eyes than volleyball players, cheerleaders and jocks. (To this day I don't understand the purpose of volleyball, but I've made peace with its players.)

My condition was so disgusting that I occasionally looked for metaphor in breakfast cereal. There are only three outcomes for such melodramatic figures:

1. Crime

2. Dinner theater

3. Becoming an English major (Obliterating hit, did not pass Go, resistance was futile)

Anyway, there I am. Sitting in a church I'd never been to before, wondering if I'll see a former classmate—sweating, squirming and scouring the bulletin from cover to cover. It took about 15 minutes, but sure enough, the homecoming queen came in. She entered from the far side of the sanctuary, but I recognized her immediately. I don't understand it, but the people you grow up with, though they look older and are more mature, are still exactly the same people you grew up with.

All I said was, "Heather Kincaid. How the heck are you?" Then she smiled like she'd found a long-lost diamond ring. And she hugged me. A hug. From a person I tangled with in high school. And I felt like hugging her back! It was real!

We talked after the service, about the standard things: who's doing what and where, who's struggling, people who have achieved a lot, people we've seen recently. We laughed about her little sister, our grade-school years and how we used to ride her horse for hours in the hills. But then we talked about high school. She said, "You know, Meredith, our childhood is this tiny portion of our lives, but the wounds stay with us forever. We seem to spend our adulthood fighting to grow out of them." Then she shared some of her struggles.

I don't think I showed it, but I was gobsmacked. She of all people is telling me this?? This woman had had everything together as a kid. She was everything—champion volleyball player included. But now she's telling me she was hurt? That she's still hurt in some ways?

The older I get—and the more I am healed—the more clearly I realize that we usually wear a veneer of togetherness, despite operating out of some of our deepest and oldest wounds. Typically, we don't even see this until something knocks us on our keisters and out of our comfort zones. But God doesn't leave us in pieces. He glorifies Himself by making us more beautiful, and if we ask and allow Him to, He will heal. It doesn't happen overnight—when was the last time you saw an apple grow in a few hours?—but it happens. I can't explain this either, but one day, after you've suffered a lot more than you ever bargained for and have been stretched to the point you didn't think you could stand, you eventually say, "OK, I get it. I give up. And You are all there is." The freedom and healing are in realizing He is everything.

So ends this edition of pondering life after Africa. And again, to those who keep asking me for trekking stories, I promise they will come. That will be my final edition. :-)

Thanks for reading.


1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to stop in and say, "Great blog!" I've been trolling through it and you've lived such an interesting life!! It's always good to catch up on people and what they are doing, but you have provided a great read!!