Nonexistent Lines

“We operate under the illusion that we are separate – individuals proudly defined by flesh and values and our differences from one another. And I think that’s how we got to this point.” Her words – her reaction to the collection of words I had shared with her the day before – suddenly injected new meaning into my own. What I had initially written as a direct expression of my physical surroundings at the time became, through her reframing, a larger commentary on the underlying essence of something at play in the turbulent social context in which we now find ourselves. It also reminded me of the beauty of art as something inherently relational, something that acquires endless variations of meaning in its capacity to be shared. Through this act of sharing, the creator in a way relinquishes ownership over the art and the meaning attached to it, whether or not intended, and therein creates the space for new dialogues to emerge not only between artist and audience but between artist and his or her own art.

I don’t write poetry. I am not a poet by any measure. But there are some experiences that feel only appropriate to express in an abstracted form. And as poets like Rilke have counseled to aspiring young writers, poetry should in fact be reserved for those things that you need to say, that you feel you would die if you were forbidden to say. If something “spread its roots into the very depth of your heart” and “commands you to write,” then you should write it. That is probably the best way to describe the sensation I felt when I had the privilege a few weeks ago to be standing in the most hauntingly beautiful landscape in Ireland. There was a point where I literally felt as though my own being was indistinguishable from my surroundings – a sense that I was seeing the reflection of my own soul in the things around me. The earth felt like a living being in every respect, one with a message that drew you in and made you listen with all of your faculties. It was a message I felt compelled to try to capture however feeble my attempt…

When I exhaled I felt the strong breeze let out its own breath
Melding with mine and carrying it across the soft copper horizon
Slanting the blades of green yellow purple red gold into a gentle curve
A suggestion of a question mark in their ever present slant.
The mist covers the horizon
Pleading with you to stop searching for edges and endings
Rendering everything into one endless expanse
Grass and boulders, heather and wildflowers, fern and moss, mountain and sky.
The sharpness of the individual parts fade into one soft blur of copper and grey strokes
Extending beyond the exterior
Denying you even those fleshy boundaries you take to be concrete
Blurring the lines between skin and air, the inhales of the earth from the exhale of your lungs.
The lines of the hills, the curve of the grass, the roughness of the stones
They define the contours of your soul.
The gurgling undercurrent of the streams that run beneath the ground
Invisible beneath the thick yellow cover but constantly carrying forth secrets
Working in unison with the wind
Leaving its trace in the tilt of the trees and the slant of the hills, the endless bow of the grass.
Concealing a desperate yearning to be heard
But reserving its utterance only for those who seek it
Letting out only whispers
Except
For those dark tangled roots that emerge between the soft brush
Unable to contain their desire to be seen
Jutting out sharpness, demanding your attention
Adding depth and contrast to the expanse of soft copper
But at their tips, nothing more
than pale pink buds.
The land is content in its solitude
But reverberates with a silent outcry all the same
The restless winds that call out for more,
The rough silence soothed by the echoing of birds’ songs
of origins untraceable
And by a conviction
In its own expansiveness
Not allowing high peaks or horizon lines to feign separation
That does not exist.

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While my poem (if it can be considered that) was more reactionary than intentional in its message, it is interesting to place it in the context of the confusion of emotion resonating throughout the world at the moment, as my friend had done in her interpretation after the elections. As I look at my own words now again with new eyes, I want to draw from them the essence of what I felt not only in the raw material of the physical earth but in the social material that surrounds me now: evidence of our interconnectedness with each other and the earth at the deepest of levels.

And, just as I felt in the Irish landscape, the interconnectedness I see evidenced by the cries of the global community now is not one of an abstract idealism but one of a concrete reality. It is a thing at once so brazenly visible and yet at the same time, persistently suppressed into a false obscurity. Paradoxically, many even use the evidence of its existence as proof of the contrary. For this interconnectedness is perhaps most visible in the pain itself — even in the seemingly conflicting forms of pain that manifest in clashes between those who perceive themselves as existing on opposite sides of socially constructed divides. Underneath it all, the responses by all sides speak to the reality of our oneness as human creatures with the same fears and concerns, irrationalities and inner contradictions. It is a truth that, when ignored, allows for ‘othering’ based upon these self-created distinctions. It allows us to forget the humanity in those we feel most different from.

The visceral quality of the collective emotional response – the fear, the pain, the hopelessness, the desperation, the anger, and for some, the elation or new hope – emotions not just felt within the U.S. but in every corner of the globe, particularly underscores the recognition of the deep and complex ties that define our current world order. They reveal a comprehension of the stakes at hand for everyone, whether positive or harmful; of the way the outcome of one country’s election implicates each individual in one way or another, whose ripple effect goes far beyond the sphere of politics and national borders.

The reality of this fact is both beautiful and terrifying: terrifying in the implications of just how much our own actions affect the lives of everyone else on this planet, but beautiful in the implication of how much our actions have the power to affect the lives of everyone else on this planet.

In drawing light to this positive aspect, even opportunity, granted by the current moment, I do not want to minimize the validity of the pain and fear felt by anyone. At the same time, I do want to shift the focus of the conversation. I want people to engage with their pain and fear in recognizing the roots of the same emotions felt by the ‘other side’. I do not want people to condone behavior or views that are objectively racist, bigoted, or full of hate, but I do want them to recognize the beauty and hideousness we are all capable of and the very different contexts and realities that shape the lens through which each person comes to see the world. I do not want people to resign themselves to tolerance for the sake of some kind of utilitarian existence amidst insurmountable differences, but to strive for empathy and its inevitable aftermath – love.

Ultimately, I hope that amidst the hatefulness and destructive divisiveness, people come to recognize the reality of the interconnectedness behind it, and to translate this comprehension into something fruitful. While the conversations all come back to the politics or words and actions of one political candidate, it is equally evident that so much of the fear and pain surrounding it is not merely linked to this one public figure but of what the support for him implies of the values of the society more broadly; of the potential normalizing effect his position might have on racist or violent attitudes. This is also in a way empowering because it points to the fact that our fears are directed at things in our power to change, regardless of who is in power. And, whilst obvious in one sense, I also think it is critical to remind ourselves that such feelings don’t emerge overnight. Sometimes, certain events help symptoms of much larger issues rise to the surface and force everyone to confront them head on. Much of the shock surrounding the prevalence of these attitudes as embodied by the election result may also be said to speak to the suppression of critical voices among us – the voices of those who were not at all surprised by the results, of those who have long been the targets of these aggressions, of the voices listened to but never really fully heard.

Hopefully now we will actually start to hear each other. And hopefully our politically-charged dialogues can give way to greater recognition of the reason we care about politics at all: to collectively create a community that we all want to live in. No doubt, the actions of one person in power can have very real and direct effects on the society at large; policies can change and the institutions they shape can render the achievement of equality that much more challenging. But in the end, the underlying cries for change and reform are at their core cries for reforms of the heart, for empathy and understanding. And I wish there was a way to express this that didn’t come across so idealistic and light-hearted, because I think it is something that we all too often cast aside as less weighty than real ‘political’ issues and that so many still struggle to envisage in the same concrete, practical terms, and so I am saying it anyways, as deceptively simplistic and reductive as it may sound. Because really, how can we possibly hope for a better future, for any different outcome than what we are seeing now, if we aren’t engaging with the emotions and spirits of the individual humans that shape the institutions that represent them? And how can we claim to embrace diversity as a progressive society if we don’t humble ourselves to the fact that maybe the so-called diversity we claim to embrace is still primarily confined to those who hold the same values and world-views as ourselves?

I myself am still grappling with the dimensions of my own initial reaction of shock, of what it implies of my own ignorance and of the voices I am yet to fully hear out. All I know is that the strong ties that hold us all together, while painful at times, are more visible now than ever.

“Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious.  Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.” – prayer excerpt from the Bahá’í writings

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“…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Anything. Or anyone. That does not bring you alive.

Is too.

Small.

For you.

I’d once heard poetry described as language against which we have no defenses. It is a language whose words at times bring with them truths we didn’t want to hear, didn’t feel ready to hear. They render us unable to deny or hide from some reality we felt hesitant to confront, because confronting new truths usually means confronting our own vulnerabilities and the uncertainties we all possess as humans.

These brief, poignant words from one of David Whyte’s poems had seared themselves into my consciousness since I’d first heard them. Some words are too significant, too evident, too loud to be ignored.

Equally so, some experiences are too loud to be ignored.

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A few weekends ago, I had a chance to briefly visit Johannesburg, the city I had called home for two years before moving to Zimbabwe some months ago. The moment I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, it was as if I had breathed in new life. As I rode the train into the city, the outlines of familiar shapes blurring past my sight amidst the evening lights reflecting off the large glass windows, I continued to inhale the strangely satisfying air. It was as if my lungs were just now able to fully take in the air necessary to expand to their full capacity, whereas for the past months they had only taken in what they could to sustain life, unsatiated yet laboring on in their capacity.

This fullness literally felt in my lungs continued to define the rest of the two days spent in that city. One day felt like a week – from driving through the city centre and taking in all the beautiful grittiness I had always loved about it, even amidst the very real danger and need to remain alert in turning each corner; to revisiting the familiar artsy spaces carved out throughout the town, in the hipster cafes and markets and in the fashionable and unavoidably cool youthful city residents who occupied them; to catching up with familiar faces and friends whose vibrancy, intelligence, and beauty I had the privilege of appreciating anew, the way periods of absence always seem to re-introduce us to the things we come to take for granted in others by way of familiarity.

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Our experience of time is so deeply intertwined with our experience of people and place; of the emotions and diversity of experiences we allow ourselves in each moment of each day. This could not have been more evident than in that one Saturday in Joburg. One day can easily assume months or even years of meaning and depth, depending on how we fill it and what we let in. It is both frightening and liberating to realize the extent to which we control or relationship with time – the way in which one day can seem to pass by in a second, accumulating to months or even years of fleeting empty moments, but equally so, how one day can be filled with so much life that the concept of time in itself seems to become irrelevant and meaningless.

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Relatedly, it is both a deeply beautiful and yet in some ways painful phenomenon to be reminded of the manifold ways our existences depend on our connections with other people. Such reminders may come in the inevitable moments where we find ourselves kept afloat and able to keep at this business of living simply by the grace of those in our lives, but they may also come in those moments where we think we are fine, living, moving, but then jolted suddenly more alive by the influence of another.

I am all for learning to love oneself, or at least learning to be at peace within one’s own self – to recognize the wholeness that is already there, and find a sense of grounding in that alone. It is no doubt dangerous and unhealthy to expect that anyone else can complete us or to rely on someone else to build up those things we must ultimately build up in ourselves. But I’ve also found the beauty and mystery in the power of another person to sometimes expand our sense of completeness. It is not that this other comes in and fills some hole we thought needed to be filled in our lives, but rather, that he or she literally stretches the space that once represented the totality of our identity and human experience. Inevitably, this may end up leaving a sense of loss or incompleteness once that individual is no longer in our lives, but not because we had relied on him or her to fill a certain absence. Still, in stretching the canvas of self we started with, that person ends up leaving some sense of emptiness in the stretched out space they had made for us, but a space whose emptiness is only an illusion – one that, with time, we find a way to fill with our own color, adding ever more shades of beauty to our existence.

It is this sense of expansion I had the privilege of experiencing on multiple occasions throughout the course of that Saturday in Joburg – in the unexpectedly diverse and profound conversations had with both old friends and new. While naturally not all conversations in life must serve to elevate or inspire, I find that for me personally, I rely on such conversations for sustenance. Lately, I’ve come to realize that maybe bringing up my confusion over the nature of reality with random colleagues on a coffee break or delving into the meaning of life with drunken strangers at a party or discussing colonialism and racism on a first date may not be typical contexts associated with certain types of conversations, but I’ve also realized, why not. More often than not, regardless of the context or ‘norms’ for discussion topics in certain settings, simply allowing people the space for expression on those things that matter most creates an instant connection and opportunity for something meaningful to emerge.

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In many ways, these moments transform mere conversation into a form of art: a molding of two or more experiences into some new idea or expression, something never before revealed into the world in that precise way. Simply by nature of the uniqueness of the elements – of the perceptions and experiences and personality of each person – brought together to produce the interplay of thoughts and meaning making in that specific instance, the conversation unleashes something that ripples out in tiny invisible ways into the ocean of meaning that shapes the world.

While the following quote from Rilke was written in the context of marriage, I think it also applies to the beauty of connection, facilitated through the types of conversations had between people in any context: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

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When reminded of the immensity of depth and wholeness embodied by each and every individual in our midst, it is that much more incredible to imagine what is possible by the interactions between them. As Rilke articulates, the point is not a merging together, for such a task is impossible in light of the infinite distances between any two people, but rather, an appreciation of the distance in itself. Conversation is one means of delving into the depths of another person’s immense sky and in the process, finding the horizon of your own sky shifted into ever-farther expanses.

I’m not sure why exactly the conversations in Joburg stood out so much as compared to the ones I’ve been having in Harare. It’s not that I haven’t come across moving people or interesting things worth reflecting on here, but maybe it is also that my excessive focus on work has left me more closed off to the influence of these conversations. And then, there is also the fact that some people just have a deeper effect on us than others, who make us feel more alive for whatever reason. As with most things, this reality becomes more evident in the absence of it. In this case, my experience of leaving those individuals who had been a part of my life in Joburg made their uniqueness and inspiring qualities that much more worthy of appreciation in having the opportunity to once again feel a unique kind of alive in their presence.

These moments of heightened aliveness in the past few months however have by no means been confined to my weekend in Joburg. They’ve appeared in countless and usually unexpected ways throughout my time in Harare, yet often in short fleeting bursts rather than in a sustained and embedded way.

One day, in returning from a work trip to the field, I had been driving back to Harare from Mwenezi, a dry, dusty rural district in the southern region of Zimbabwe, at dawn: the sky was painted with a deep red along the horizon, as the rays of the luminous waking sun pierced through the dust, casting shadows of hazy pink brightness in every direction. The vibrant red horizon softened into lighter shades of pink, mingling with strokes of blues and wispy forms of white, eventually settling on a bluish grey expanse as the eyes journeyed upwards. The reddish pink horizon rested along the outlines of ridged mountains in the distance, appearing in layers of various depths and darkness, broken only by the rounded outlines of trees in their midst. Something about the way the dust from the rocky dirt road we traveled along filled the air around us, lit up by the warm hues of the morning sun, seemed to encompass our vehicle with an inexplicable warmth. This combined with the thick morning soundscape of nature’s silence – rooster calls, cattle bells, and singing birds – felt almost like a warm embrace by the earth itself. Breaking my attention from my concerns of the work awaiting me in Harare, of the millions of things I thought mattered here or there, the embrace brought me into my surroundings, reminding me that all that mattered was what was there, then in that moment.

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Why do I bring any of this up in the first place – this concept of feeling alive, and of allowing oneself to be drawn to those things and people which bring us to feel this way?

Preparing for grad school and working through all the confusing and necessary life lessons and growth that comes with the early career experience, I’ve spent much time reflecting on decisions over the past few months, thinking such reflection necessary in setting a fruitful path for whatever is to come next. But really, I don’t know what the future holds, whether it be 10 years from now or even 10 seconds from now. It is a futile and vain human imagining to think we have any control over our futures – that the decisions we make now will determine exactly where or what we will be doing later in life. I do not know what decisions now will put me in the best position to achieve what I want to achieve in the future. I don’t even know what it is I want to achieve in concrete terms. Or whether I should care about ‘achievement’ in the first place.

What I do know is when I feel alive, and when I don’t. I know what beauty feels like and what the absence of it feels like. I know that beauty – in the world, in other people, and in contributing something meaningful to both – makes me feel alive. I know that I do not want to live a life devoid of actually feeling alive.

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This may all sound extremely basic and simple, and in fact, it is. But how often do we abstract ourselves from those evident truths that are so deeply obvious and glaring in our lives that we forget how important they are to begin with? Amidst so much uncertainty in life and the paradoxical necessity to continue making big decisions anyway, it seems that a useful guiding force (which could be what some already define as ‘intuition’) should simply be whatever makes us feel alive. In making a decision affecting our life context or path, the question to self should always be “does this bring me alive?” and take it from there. This is the accumulation of what the past few months have taught me, and, for the moment, is probably the only basis upon which I feel I can stand firmly with any choice I make affecting how I live my life.

Goodbye to 2015

Sometimes I wonder if I too readily apply the adjective “life-changing” to experiences – particularly in thinking back to the amount of times I’ve used such a description over the past year. And each time, with the same conviction and depth of meaning attached to it as the last.

Perhaps if I had to give one overarching theme to 2015 and the underlying lesson of everything it contained, it would probably be the ever-present, profound reminder that the concept of self is nothing but a set of ever-evolving experiences – that ultimately, we are the accumulation of every experience, person, and interaction we’ve had with the world around us – both physical and spiritual (a sentiment I’ve previously expressed but seem to have constantly reaffirmed in new and evolving ways). And on this basis, it follows that just as our experiences can drastically shift over the course of a day, month, or year, so too do we.

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(first photo of 2015)

2015 was by far the most challenging, most perplexing, and most life-altering year I’ve had to date. But the thing I’ve realized is, I would have said the exact same thing at the end of 2014, and the year before that. This year, more than any other, has brought me to see just how false any expectation of finality is in life – the [often unconscious] expectation that something will be the hardest thing you ever face, that this is the best life moment you’ll ever experience, the closest connection you will ever have to another person, that such and such thing is the most important thing in your life and will always be that way, that this is how you cope with certain situations, that you know yourself.

As I sit here writing this now, amidst the hazy heat of summer instead of biting cold and snow on New Year’s Eve in a quiet house in Harare, I feel the need to somehow force my mind to acknowledge that this is even the end of 2015. At first I thought to try to summarize some of the highlights of the past year, but then, in reflecting even on the past two months and how many “life-changing” things have happened in just this one small chunk of it, it seemed a futile effort. In fact, with all that has changed so drastically and suddenly over the past months, without break or pause, I feel like I haven’t even had time to actually absorb or comprehend what my life is at the very moment. So maybe just these short few months are the perfect starting point for appreciating what the year in it’s entirety has been like…a recurring cycle of reaching points of conviction, only soon to be broken, that life can’t get any weirder, any less expected, full of any more emotion, or more introductions to new emotions previously incomprehensible, any more possible to feel or not feel so much or so little to nothing and everything, any more ‘adult’, any more real, any more surreal, any less definable, any more awe-inspiring, any more heart-breaking, any more full of life in all its shapes, forms and definitions – beyond definitions previously known – ever more expansive.

For just over the course of the past couple months:

…I came to know the deepest, most piercing and all-consuming, indescribable and crippling feeling of hopelessness in the face of depression – the kind that in the moment, leaves you unable to even imagine the possibility of feeling better again

….soon after, I find myself in the Democratic Republic of Congo – wondering at the strangeness of being perceived as a nutrition advocacy expert as I sit in meetings, conversing with donors or people leading nutrition programmes in the government, surprised that I am even able to understand them in the French, much less that they are taking me seriously as someone qualified to be sitting in the same meeting room as them and helping to provide strategic guidance to anyone. Most importantly, I find myself actually living again and feeling capable of something – a feeling that felt so completely out of reach only a week before and for so many months prior, and then

…a week following my return home to Johannesburg, I find myself suddenly closing up my assignments for a job I was still supposed to continue for another two months, and packing up two-years worth of living, friendships, and memories over the course of a few days to take up a new position in a new country that I had only barely come to realize was really confirmed

…after which, I find myself living in Harare – and only about a week or two in, suddenly realizing that I am now a manager, a donor relations officer, a ‘diplomat’ working for the UN in an African country, and that I live in Zimbabwe – not to mention actually living out the exact kind of job description I remember once envisioning for my future self while still an undergrad; the exact kind of career ambitions I would vaguely articulate whenever forced to write out my five-year career plans or long-term career goals in the context of fellowship programmes or other college activities. But strangely enough, now actually living out this idealized future career and life abroad, that felt more handed to me than deserved in any concrete way, it has become somewhat of a hazy alternate reality in which I am still unable to connect the image I supposedly assume on the outside in the context of my status as a fully fledged, working, independent adult, with the amount of confusion and uncertainty and immaturity I continue to feel on the inside (although confusion and uncertainty I am also aware is felt by all ‘adults’) – while at the same, struggling to find the conclusion to what feels like one long, drawn-out interior battle between choosing to make the most of the absurd amount of opportunity that continues to be granted to me with the reality of my unreadiness for it – or what’s more, simply having to figure out what it is I actually want in the present moment against the backdrop of previous years’ obscurely formed ambitions.

But in writing all of this and speaking of the major life changes, the real underlying life-changing aspects contained in all of it has been the people. In many ways, from all the confusion of the past few months to the past year in its entirety, I can’t help but think that much of it actually served as the basis for being more open and susceptible to the influence of others – and therein, having that much more opportunity to be witness to the incredible beauty and spirit of those around me: from the people physically present in my daily life to those whose connections never fade regardless of time or physical distance to every stranger, acquaintance, and potential new friend I cross paths with. If nothing else, I want to take from this year an even deeper appreciation for human connection – not only in the form of best friends or people we’ve known for significant periods of our lives, but in the incredibly powerful potential latent in everyone to make a deep lasting impact in another’s life, whether it be through a fleeting interaction with a stranger who said something to change the way you looked at some piece of the world, or with a new friend who is able to guide you through rough times as if he had been a part of your life all along, or from coming across a natural mentor – a person who by nature of being his or herself is able to inspire and lift simply from their example and kindness.

This year taught me that best friends, soul mates, and life-changing individuals do not come into our lives in limited numbers – and that each and every one may be as deeply and uniquely moving as the other. And by virtue of our capacity as human beings to ceaselessly expand our understanding of the world and what it means to be human, we are ceaselessly subject to the opportunity for another person to come through and widen our own world vision and definition of self.

So rather than closing this with a New Year’s Resolution, I want to only end with an Ending Year Thank You – a thank you to too many to say, as well as to many that may not even know the depth of gratitude I have for you. To every single person that impacted, shifted, uplifted, or restored something in me this year, and to those that continue to inspire and shape my way of being in the world.

And here’s to a few more pertinent take-aways from 2015:

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1385238_10153385981285430_919363978_n.jpgI had a love affair with a city that I came to call home on the other side of the world from the country I am expected to call home – the kind of love grounded in a slow, gradual, and deep appreciation for all the beauty and ugliness it has to offer to the world and the raw, vibrant, gritty, and beautiful life evident in all its streets, corners, and surfaces.

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11112717_10155456363855430_407259587272068630_nI had my life changed multiple times by multiple people – in inspiring as well as excruciating ways – all of which I wouldn’t change for anything.

11102702_10155456370195430_2872859962626385320_n11018127_10155456368035430_1724531961010940277_nDSC_0719.JPGDSC_0458From being lost in the sound of wind-strewn sands and loud silence embodied by dawn amidst a rising desert sun in Senegal, to finding serenity in a setting sun behind the contours of all expansive earth in the mountains of Lesotho, I experienced so many occasions of nature’s power to envelop all the senses and bring the mind and body to be fully present in its life.

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DSC_0561.JPGAnd perhaps most importantly, I had my perspective stretched or shifted on just about everything and anything that one could have a perspective on in life.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meaness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whomever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~Rumi

So here’s to 2016 and the all the new guests it will inevitably bring.

Travel Adventures Part 2 – Rwanda’s Haunting Beauty

I was recently struck by a comment I read on Humans of New York: “One day you lose something, and you say: ‘Oh my God. I was happy. And I didn’t even know it.'” It prompted me to ask myself, does this apply to me? In searching for the answer, the first thing that came to mind was an image – surprisingly crisp in its detail and still fresh with the feelings associated with it:

Me on the back of a boda (motorcycle taxi), my head starting to throb from the slightly-too-tight helmet around it, my eyes straining to stay open against the strong wind gusts that press against them as I hold up the helmet’s plastic visor in order to gain an unobstructed view of my surroundings: pure vastness. Green hills that extend far into the distance in such a way that even in viewing it in person, my eyes somehow struggle to comprehend that it is not a painting or a photograph – something about the way the mountains in the distance fade into perfect bluish-grey outlines, emphasizing the full depth of the landscape and standing in contrast to the bright green sculpted hills in my more immediate view and the long swaying grasses along the sides of the road. Passing so quickly before my eyes, it all begins to blend into one beautiful blur of greens and greys and browns and yellows…. a mud house, some goats and cows, children waving, people staring, my friends zipping past us on the backs of their bodas, and the varying contours of the mountains as we head ever higher up the hill. The ride is fairly long – at least a good 45 minutes. Even with the entrancing scene before me, my eyes slowly tire of trying to maintain their focus on any single object. With the strong wind gusts still wrapped around my body, its constant pressure beginning to feel like some sort of strange, cool blanket against my skin, my mind finally begins to drift away from its current surroundings and into a state of introspection. “This is beautiful. The world is beautiful. People are beautiful. I am happy.” The words begin to repeat themselves slowly and clearly in my mind. Once they’ve materialized, they remain stamped in the back of my head, softly continuing on in the background of my thoughts, eventually becoming blurred and intertwined with the scene itself…

It was one of those moments in life where I was keenly aware of my happiness. The kind of awareness that actually manifests itself into expression…in the moment. It took place during my trip to Rwanda, when my friends and I decided to take bodas up this road on the outskirts of Kigali – which our amazing friend who lives/works there suggested we do during our short stay in the city. The road led up to this giant regal tree, which is mythicized to have some link to the origins of the country itself…something about a king coming to this spot, throwing a seed, and declaring that wherever it landed would be Rwanda…or something. It was also super interesting because, despite its mythical status, well-known by locals, there was nothing physically there to identify the tree as anything out of the ordinary – no plaques or world heritage site or means of preservation. It was just there. Only to be discovered by word of mouth and some knowledgeable locals to show you the spot. As my friends brought up, it in a lot of ways reflected the general feeling we got from the country as a whole – a place full of incredible history and cultural significance, but a lot of which seemed hidden in relation to those countries where everything of cultural significance seems memorialized into a statue or museum or world heritage site. Although, Rwanda is a unique case of course…and still seems to be re-building and re-creating itself according to a very politicized and specific government agenda. (But also note that I was only in the country for less than a week and in reality, have no basis to make any valid commentary on most things there due to my lack of deep knowledge — but still, these were just some interesting things brought up while I was there).

Anyways, this was the tree:

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And the surrounding area:

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…and a cow:

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But back to the original question about happiness. The moment on the boda also made me aware of the fact that I’ve had a lot of these moments this year – mainly due to my extreme privilege to have had the opportunity to travel a good amount. But when confronted by sites that are new and foreign to your eyes and fueled by a heightened state of curiosity and alertness as a result of different surroundings and new people, it is no doubt much easier to instantly recognize your current happiness while you are feeling it. In those settings, you often feel a range of things along with the happiness – thrill, excitement, awe, wonderment – and a lot of the times it is those other feelings that prompt you to step outside yourself for a moment and acknowledge the fact that you are happy and that the world is beautiful.

But then there are those long, calm, extended periods of time when you are truly happy but not really experiencing any mind-blowing, life-changing experiences – times when, for many, you are less likely to spontaneously articulate your happiness (for the HONY lady who had spoken the quote, it had been her years of working in a local coffee shop and not realizing just how happy she was there until it one day closed). And I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but just that, for me at least, the act of actually stopping and recognizing the happiness in regular day to day events and general life circumstances is something I think I’ve gotten better at and found to be really useful. And I think having at least some of those out-of-body, life-changing experiences every now and then (which for me, just happens to be through travel) also helps you to become more aware of all the things that bring you happiness during the more mundane moments in life. So I guess I am just grateful to Rwanda for granting me a little more insight into happiness and beauty in a way I hadn’t experienced it before (which is kind of how I feel about each new place I get to see).

As much as Rwanda’s sheer physical and natural beauty captivated me from the beginning, though, there was also something so haunting about all of it – about the sense of peacefulness in the city and villages, of the cleanliness and orderliness of Kigali, of all the things unspoken but clearly still present. From going past the large, simple flat gravestones at the genocide memorial centre in Kigali, literally walking above the bones that testified to the atrocities of only 20 years past, to walking around the beautiful, peaceful streets of Kigali just outside, it was all just so mind blowing. To realize just how many people were directly affected by the genocide, and to recognize the fact that most people I spoke to had actually been in the midst of it and had their lives changed forever because of it…it was simply incomprehensible. Beholding something which from the outside appeared so normal – a bustling city with people just going about their day to day lives – and reconciling that image with scene of chaos and brutality that took place only two decades earlier was something my mind simply could not arrive at.

The role of silence in the midst of some of these transitions was another factor that seemed to contribute to the chilling aura around all of it. Something I honestly didn’t know much about before going there, there is a government ban on “genocide ideology” – which, while clearly a restriction on freedom of speech and likely difficult to enforce in a just manner based on the vagueness of its definition and the overall complexity of trying to enforce any law on speech or thought – in theory, still made sense in the context. I didn’t have a chance to actually ask anyone what they thought about it or how it impacted discussions surrounding the past (nor would it probably have been appropriate to ask anyone about it), but I did have one rare and unexpected interaction that I will never forget…

While sitting at a bar in Musanze (apparently one of the biggest cities in Rwanda but with not a whole lot going on) with two of my friends, this rather drunk-looking guy finally comes up to our table. He attempted to buy my friend and I drinks and then seemed rather perplexed when I told him I didn’t drink, and continued to ask me why I wouldn’t drink. We all began to talk some more – your average, rando-at-the-bar kind of interaction – we asked him about Musanze and Rwanda, to which he openly talked on in a slightly slurred manner. After some time, he suddenly expressed how happy he was to have met us: white people, and how much he loved white people. Clearly intoxicated but still also clearly stating his thoughts in a serious and matter-of-fact kind of way, he continued on to say that he hated black people (he was black, just to be clear) and that black people were all killers.

Still in mid-smile from whatever light, casual topic we had just been on a moment ago, we all just paused for a second to assess what had just passed. Finally, half-smiles still plastered on our faces in an attempt to lessen the awkwardness of the conversational turn of events, we attempted to negate his high opinion of white people – entering into a discussion on how white people are not that great either, how there are plenty of white people who kill as well, and how there are good and bad people of any color. Our words were going nowhere. Instead, we attempted to delve into the logic behind his strong, black-and-white thought process on the matter.

“But you’re black – do you think you are a bad person then?” my friend asked. This eventually led him to explain that it was not all black people he felt this way towards. He finally told us that he was a Tutsi, and that Hutus had killed almost his entire family – leaving only him, his brother, and his mother. They had killed his father and his nine siblings as well as his mother’s ten siblings. After that, we stopped trying to convince him to change his views on black vs. white, Hutu vs. Tutsi. We simply listened, and let him show us the pictures he had on his phone of him with his mother, and of him with his son. We discovered he was 23.

…23. My age. There’s just something about hearing another’s story and realizing that that person is the same age as you that makes their experiences that much more piercing. You inevitably start to compare your life to theirs, to try to imagine having gone through what they have – only to realize you have absolutely no basis to even begin to compare your experiences to theirs. It was also that realization that I think led us to halt our feeble attempts to change his views on people – when you have no point of comparison in something so completely traumatizing and life-altering, particularly when it happened during their childhood, how do you even begin to convince someone not to think a certain way?

After that interaction, I couldn’t help but look at the people around me and just wonder what they had gone through…how many people in their lives have been killed, how many people they have had to forgive. While I’m sure there are still many people with similar sentiments to the guy we spoke to in the bar – who’s feelings typically don’t emerge in day-to-day conversations given cultural and legal speech restrictions – there are also clearly so many who have forgiven. There is no way that any society could continue on in any kind of cohesive, functioning manner after such events if forgiveness was not somehow at its core.

I had spoken about forgiveness in a previous post – in the context of friendship and depression and misunderstandings. Arriving at forgiveness in that context was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But in having even a tiny glimpse into the aftermath of forgiveness in the context of what occurred in Rwanda, I am truly humbled by the strength of so many of the people there. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly suggest you check out this “Portraits of Reconciliation” photo series recently published in the NYT. Its photos and stories capture what I’m trying to express so much better than any of my words can, so I will just leave you with that for now.

 

March Travel Adventures. Part 1 – Uganda

This is one of those times where I force myself to blog against my will. Not because I have nothing to blog about but because there is just way too many things and I can’t even begin to decide which are the most worth mentioning. But, so I won’t hate myself for it later when I have no recollection of the things I’ve done this past month (since I’ve discovered that I don’t have that thing that most people have [a memory] and I only remember things that I write down..but like actually. it’s kind of a problem), I will attempt to record at least something – as haphazard and un-elegant as it may be (and it will be. so deal with it. it might also involve a lot of parentheses. you’ve been warned):

So March was an interesting month. It started with a 3-day, fully-paid-for (did I mention how much I love my fellowship programme) retreat to Jinja, Uganda which basically packed in like a year’s worth of deep conversations, good feels, and life reflections into the tiniest time-span possible. It was truly impressive. …like probably good enough to be ranked in my top 15 favorite moments in life.

And you know what, as one of my top 15 life moments (even though I completely just made up that number and I can’t actually think of 15 life moments just in general), I probably should at least mention some of the reasons. The first would of course be the other fellows. Each time I’m around any of them – which is not very often since we are all in different countries – I am just overcome with feelings of awe: Awe that there can be so many incredible yet humble people with so much passion for what they do. Awe that I can so easily relate to people who I barely know and constantly forget the fact that I barely know them. Awe that being around people who make me feel inferior can somehow simultaneously make me feel more confident in myself…like seriously, it is just so much awe that half the time I’ll be in the middle of talking to another fellow and realize I’m barely even listening to what they’re saying because I can’t stop thinking about how in awe I am (yeah, I should probably work on my listening skills).

The other reason I loved the retreat was in its ability to make the most-cheesy-seeming activities some of the most profound and memorable sources of insight. Take, for example, the skit. Probably the cheesiest form of lesson-conveying known to man. And yet, the skits we did on the ‘challenges of international development’ were some of the most scarily accurate representations of troublesome aspects of development that you could imagine. And since then, I’ve several times found myself in situations unable to control the laughter in my head as I realized how much my actual real-life situation resembled those skits. I guess it’s just helped me become more aware of the ridiculousness of a lot of things, some of which you can’t easily control or change, and maybe even come to find the humour in some of it (where appropriate of course)…if nothing else, so that you don’t go crazy from trying to work in a field where you will inevitably be faced with plenty of absurdities and frustrations as a result of the way most of the world still views things like aid and development.

Every conversation I had that weekend yielded some interesting new insight from the really diverse work and living experiences of the other fellows. Most were conversations that could have (and should have) gone on for many more hours…or days…but I am so grateful that our programme understood the value in that kind of meet-up and made it happen.

…and that they made it happen in this place:

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Then.

Kampala for a day.

I figured since I was already going to be in that part of the continent, I might as well take a few extra leave days and do some traveling. It was the kind of traveling where almost nothing was planned out beforehand (believe me, I tried to plan things. but there’s only so much that google can tell you about about where to stay and how to get around a lot of these places. unless you’re rich and fancy), so I took it as an opportunity to embrace my ‘adventurous’ side. Luckily, it was also one of those trips where everything just seemed to fall perfectly into place…so much so that even when things went wrong, they ended up being kind of perfect in their own way. For instance, in Kampala, one of the things at the top of my to-do list was to see the Baha’i House of Worship (there’s one on each continent and the one for Africa is in Kampala). Fortunately, two other fellows decided to join me. Which was awesome. Because it turns out that it’s extremely hard to find…despite being all the way on top of a hill and clearly visible from a distance. We decided to take moto taxis and, being only my second time to ever be on a moto, I was still in that phase of clutching and clenching everything as tightly as possible, not yet having realized that sitting like a normal person actually doesn’t cause you to fall off the bike. Of course, our bikes first took us to a mosque. Not exactly the Baha’i temple. On the second attempt, they decided to to go off the main route and drive through a neighbourhood with no real roads, using uphill as their only real directional indicator to get to the temple. Didn’t work so much.

With a sore butt from the long, bumpy [but albeit, kind of scenic and lovely] drive and some minor leg scratches (from our slow-motion fall backwards off the bike when our driver had a little too much confidence in his moto to make it up the steep slope near the top), we did finally make it to the temple. And it was so completely worth it. I’ve been a Baha’i all my life and I just happened to go to school right next to the temple for North America – which is in Wilmette, Illinois – and I’d seen pictures of this temple before, which made seeing it in person just such a wonderfully strange feeling. It felt so familiar and foreign all at the same time, which is kind of also one of my favorite feelings at the Baha’i Faith in general. As a religion which promotes the oneness of humanity, there is always this sense of familiarity with the new Baha’is I meet or activities I see, regardless of where I am in the world – that knowledge in talking to the other person that there is a strong bond of unity in your vision of the world but also so much uniqueness in your backgrounds and the ways you see the world. Or that sense of recognition in the common purpose and spirit behind any devotional gatherings, fireside, or children’s class you see in any part of the world but the very different cultural traditions incorporated into each activity depending on where you are and who you’re with, highlighting the beautiful diversity of the religion.

In any case, not as good in picture-form, but just to give a little taste (and you didn’t even have to struggle your way up a hill to see it. you’re welcome):

 

After Kampala, another fellow and I were off to Kigali – for the even less-planned-out part of our trip. This, again, was mainly because googling things to do in Rwanda yields the saddest, most boring results ever…unless you want to pay $750 to hang out with gorillas. And Rwanda is not a boring place (..it could also be that I’m just really bad at googling). So, I once again decided to embrace the spirit of ‘adventure’ in my Rwanda travels (really just a euphemism for I don’t have a f*** what I’m doing but whatever).

Either way, as we neared the end of our surprisingly fast 9-hour overnight journey to the land of a thousand hills, I knew from the moment I was jolted awake at the border and groggily stumbled off our absurd country-music-playing bus into the cool, misty morning air, my eyes greeted with the most refreshing backdrop of vibrant green hills (behind the not-so-scenic border control office), that I had made the right choice of vacation destination. It was love at first sight. Not even the fact that I hadn’t peed in 10 hours and couldn’t use the one available bathroom at the border because it cost a fee, or the fact that the baggage inspectors confiscated the majority of my beloved plastic bags (plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda…kind of really cool from an environmental perspective. but also kind of annoying if you were using plastic bags to organize the contents of your bags while traveling), could diminish the instant love I felt for this beautiful country.

To be continued….

(just decided to split this post into multiple parts. because I’m tired of writing. and because there’s a lot to say.)

More of this to come in the next post: