I’m Supposed to Be Studying for a Midterm

I’ve been away from Africa for about the same amount of time I spent there. It’s weird. It’s just weird. You get used to seeing people every day for five weeks, and then all of a sudden, they’re not there anymore. Not to the same degree. I mean, the circumstances were unique: Senegal, close quarters, same exposures to culture and language and weather and disease. The same long hours on a bus or in a classroom or the same walk to and from the boulangerie or cybercafe. We all had the same cravings for familiar foods and cold drinks and English anything. A lot of American anything, for some of us. A lot of us came back with stronger convictions or different perspectives. I came back feeling indignant about a lot of things. It’s just weird. Pringles. The sprinkler systems at BYU. Small talk. Mental illness. Child abuse. I came back cussing more and wanting to argue more, about anything. I was on a date the other night, and I bit my tongue to keep from countering everything the guy said. And he was a nice guy, super nice, but I wanted him to stop saying wrong things. I still like talking about Africa to anyone who will listen. People who’ve been there with me, people who will probably never go. People who have maybe distanced from themselves the human parts of humanity. Who knows. I don’t know. I can’t let it go.

It seems silly, but I miss being able to walk into the hotel room next to me and plop myself on a bed and feel comfortable talking about anything. After a long day of long-day things, I miss that kind of decompression, the difference in what I cared about. What I think about. What I want to change.

Just weird. Seeing people out of that context is weird. Not that I’ve seen very many people, but I think about them all the time. All the time. I’ve tried to maintain the friendships I forged there. I’m grateful to have them, to be able to share, to have a way not to forget. I’m back to a school-work routine, but nothing is the same. I’ve wanted to hang on to so much from those five weeks. It’s constantly on my mind, all the stories and laughter and colossally hard times.

So much has happened in the last seven months. I’ve come to accept some pretty hard facts. I’ve learned to let some things go, and putting certain things on that list was not the easiest thing for me to do. Africa is not on that list. Other things are, and I’m finally okay with it. I’ve stopped arguing about those things. They pass; time fades them. It looks different, more manageable, like it’s supposed to be forgotten.

It’s becoming less weird.

Knee-Jerk: A Few Wonderings

“Whether the photograph is understood as a naïve object or the work of an experienced artificer, its meaning–and the viewer’s response–depends on how the picture is identified or misidentified; that is, on words….But one day captions will be needed, of course. And the misreadings and the misrememberings, and the new ideological uses for the pictures, will make their difference.

“Central to modern expectations, and modern ethical feelings, is the conviction that war is an aberration, if an unstoppable one. That peace is the norm, if an unattainable one. This, of course, is not the way war has been regarded throughout history. War has been the norm and peace the exception.”

–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

I have been working my way through this essay for the past year. I’ll pick it up at random and catch a paragraph or two, and if I’m lucky, these moments will coincide with the phases in my life when I’m angry at particular aspects of the world. War photography and photojournalism that captures human suffering: How do viewers react to/experience it? (How) Do their feelings change as this form of expression evolves? What effects does the photographer intend? In what ways do s/he and the audience share a conscience?

“God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not him. God needs nothing, asks nothing, and demands nothing, like the stars. It is a life with God which demands these things.

“Experience has taught the race that if knowledge of God is the end, then these habits of life are not the means but the condition in which the means operates. You do not have to do these things; not at all. God does not, I regret to report, give a hoot. You do not have to do these things–unless you want to know God. They work on you, not on him.

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

–Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone to Talk

I wonder about God as a photographer, if what I see in the world requires anything of my conscience. I wonder whether captions are necessary, or if the experience itself provides sufficient commentary. I wonder how much of the experience I am in control of.

I Should Love Abdoulaye Wade

This thought kept crossing my mind during church today, all three hours, in between wanting to pull my hair out and silently disagreeing with everything everyone was saying. And, in between texts. Yes, during church. Judge me already.

This thought surprised me, and I struggled with it.

I’m struggling with it.

Starting Off

Late Wednesday night/Early Thursday morning I was standing in a checkout line at a major supercenter chain. In Orem, Utah. Just off Exit 269 on I-15. Across from UVU. I was on my way back to my apartment and picked up a few groceries so I wouldn’t starve in the morning. I had arrived from Senegal Sunday afternoon and spent a few days in New York City before returning to Provo.

The cashier greeted me and started scanning my things. Now, she might have had a super long day, and it was close to 1am, but she was complaining about her job.

Everyone has bad days at work, and maybe the timing wasn’t ideal for this particular interaction between the cashier and me, because I had just come from Senegal, where 50% of the population is unemployed, and this young lady has a job in AMERICA during a RECESSION.

I wanted to tell her to get a little perspective.

Instead, I reassured her she had only 10 minutes left on her shift and wished her a good night.

We landed at 0550 on Sunday, May 1. The humidity immediately surrounded us, but I was eager to get off the plane. In great haste, I descended the metal roller staircase then walked toward the shuttle before I realized I forgot my duffel bag. I turned around and let a guy wearing an airport vest know that I forgot my bag.

-J’ai oublié mon sac.
-Quel siège? Quel côté?
-Le droit. Trente-sept.

So, I followed him back onto the plane,  retrieved my bag and jumped on a shuttle bus from the tarmac to the gate. I kept close to some people I recognized as my classmates. The terminal felt crowded that morning. The full flight dispensed a swarm of people – some happy to be home, others respectfully curious – into a hot, dark,  old airport that was named after the first president of Sénégal, Léopold Senghor.

We picked up our luggage from the lone, sluggish carousel. Chatter surrounded us. French and not French. We passed through the border. Customs was a little too easy.

We waited outside. I wasn’t sure for what, or whom. I wore my backpack and held my duffel bag and suitcase tightly. I had noticed that random men were taking people’s luggage, and that didn’t seem right.

Not all of us were on this flight. Others in the class were coming from the East coast or Europe. They would be arriving at other times. We wondered aloud about the girl who had arrived the night before and was told in our prep class two weeks earlier to find her own way to the hotel. That didn’t seem right.

After a while, our group started walking toward somewhere. Our uncertain chemin  seemed to lead toward an old, white Blue Bird school bus. We loaded our luggage and boarded the bus. The engine started and a consistent, high-pitched beep pierced our ears. We soon learned that it would never stop. The bus driver wore a scarf. And then there was another guy. Madame Thompson introduced him as a son of Aminata Sow Fall, and he is probably one of the most attractive guys I have ever met.

Along the way, we were passed 1.5-liter bottles of water. I didn’t really talk. I thought about how I’d brush my teeth and getting along with my roommate and the food and my ability to sleep. I wondered about the culture and the lectures and my anxiety about speaking a language I struggled with. All I knew was that I was with a group of fellow students in a foreign and fascinating country full of people I was a little scared of and with a culture I was eager to discover. We were on a beeping school bus with a surprisingly trusty engine, and our eyes followed much of the passing scenery. We observed old buildings and walking women balancing things on their heads. We noticed the coast hosting the early exercisers who raced the rising sun. We were an obvious displacement, and I felt like an anachronism. But we were headed into the belly of a city of a country of a continent of a world begging to be more fully understood, asking for proper perspective.

We were going to school.

(Unentitled)

I found your letter the other day
My eyes a-round at the words it said
Did your heart pound as you wrote “Dear May”
As mine wound before it dead?

Your sure and steady manuscript
And pen full of ink equipped
Flowed into words of none clipped
While my soul into two, ripped.

Tears plunged onto the folded page
My mind lunged back to a fonder age
Our lives have ranged, as we bask in sage
The wage you won. Are we done?

Are we?

De La Solitude

This  was the last assignment in my non-hard French class. We had just finished studying Montaigne, and the assignment was to write an essay on one of the many subjects about which he wrote. I decided to write about solitude. It’s hard to complain about a less-than-perfect score when the grader says he loved it, AND I failed to follow directions yet again when I used only one quotation instead of two. Oops. I can be such a doofus sometimes. An A is an A, right?  I really enjoyed writing this one. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Il y a un arbre dans un désert lointain. Rien ne le dérange. Il est bien.

Mais, est-il heureux?

Un jour, une araignée seule trouve l’arbre et y grimpe à l’arbre. Elle fait une grande toile d’araignée dans les branches. L’arbre pense que la toile est très belle; elle chatoie sous le clair de lune. L’arbre se sent utile en protégeant l’araignée contre le soleil et les orages de sable. Néanmoins, l’arbre n’a pas besoin de cette araignée pour survivre. Ils ne sont pas amis. Vraiment, est-ce que l’arbre est heureux ?

Certaines personnes aiment avoir beaucoup d’amis. Par contre, d’autres personnes ont peu d’amis. Pourtant, certaines personnes préfèrent souvent la solitude. Il faut décider quel genre de personnes nous sommes. La plus vite on le sait, le mieux notre vie sera.

Comment est-ce qu’on fait cela ? Il y a trop de bruit dans le monde. Des milliards de personnes habitent ici, et leurs cerveaux sont plein de pensées superficielles. Personne ne s’écoute, alors personne ne se comprend. Leurs esprits sont très distraits. Comment trouve-t-on la solitude? Pourquoi est-ce qu’elle est importante?

Au XIXe siècle, l’Américain, Henry David Thoreau, a habité dans une forêt pendant deux ans, deux mois, et deux semaines. Tout seul, il a pensé et a écrit des essais. Il a prié et a médité. Bien qu’il habitait seul, sa mère faisait quand même sa lessive. C’est vrai ! Il était adulte, mais sa « maman » le traitait comme un enfant.

Il a dit, « I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.  We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers ».  Aujourd’hui, on ne peut pas habiter pendant deux ans dans la forêt sans travail, sans responsabilité. Pourtant, on peut trouver la solitude dans une foule, comme on peut trouver le silence au milieu du bruit.

J’ai habité à New York City pendant six ans et demi. Il y a beaucoup de personnes, et certaines d’entre elles sont très impolies. En plus, c’est tellement bruyant. C’est très facile de se sentir solitaire parmi des millions d’étrangers.  Dans un métro plein de personnes, si je voulais être seule, je fermais les yeux, ignorais tout le monde et  respirais profondément plusieurs fois. Je me suis toujours rappelée de respirer. C’était comme une prière.

L’araignée établit une relation passive avec l’arbre, mais on n’est pas comme l’araignée. Comme l’arbre, on a besoin de buts, de se sentir utile, mais contrairement à l’arbre, on n’est pas  une créature passive. Les relations entre les gens sont dynamiques, puisqu’elles impliquent diverses émotions et des personnalités différentes. Parce qu’il y a beaucoup d’éléments humains à considérer en plus de tous les gens, on a besoin de temps pour organiser les pensées de son esprit. Autrement, on deviendrait fou.

Cependant, on doit trouver l’équilibre, parce que trop de solitude ne se satisfait pas. Je ne comprends pas pourquoi Thoreau a passé deux ans seul dans la forêt. C’est bizarre. Il était très intellectuel, et peut-être son intelligence a contribué à son obsession. On a besoin d’amis et de famille. Il faut qu’il y ait l’amour et l’amitié. C’est vrai, il avait sa mère. Je me demande s’il serait rentré plus tôt si sa mère n’a pas fait sa lessive.  Alors, est-ce que c’est la solitude ou les vêtements propres que l’ont rendu heureux ? Ou est-ce que c’est la nature ou sa mère ? Et sa mère ? C’est difficile d’être vraiment heureux sans servir les gens. D’ailleurs, j’étais solitaire quand j’ai réalisé cela.

J’aime la solitude. C’est important d’entendre le silence, de récupérer des pensées, de raviver l’esprit. D’un autre côté, c’est aussi important d’établir des relations avec les autres. C’est pareil.

L’arbre est resté en compagnie de l’araignée plusieurs mois. Il y avait du vent, et il a ramassé l’araignée et l’a emportée au milieu du désert, où le soleil l’a lézardée jusqu’à ce qu’elle meurt. La toile s’est désintégrée et le vent l’a enterrée dans le sable jusqu’à ce qu’elle disparaisse. À nouveau, l’arbre est seul. Mais, ça ne signifie pas qu’il n’est pas heureux.

Est-il heureux ?

Mais non ! Ne soyez  pas fou. C’est un arbre.

From A Notebook Almost Two Months Ago

Right now I’m working on a couple projects not related to my current courseload. Of course I am.

I was flipping through a little memo pad and found some thoughts that once weighed on my mind. The scale still tips, but not as much.

I’ll respond to myself. The now-me answering the then-me.

What differences are there between what I say and what I mean? I try to be straightforward with my feelings, and I am working on being more open with what’s going on in my life.

If I say I don’t need anything, does that mean tangible things? What about time? Patience? An ability to listen? Do I assume those things are understood? How do I react when I feel no one has enough time for me? I like for people to listen. I like people to ask about my life, though I don’t always ask about others, yet I expect them to share. Is that too much?

How do I accept that it’s not all about me? It sort of still is. Working on getting over it.

How do I accept that I’m not the only/best friend anyone has? I don’t know why this was a problem for me. I don’t have to be anybody’s best friend. But I think the times people have called me their best friend went to my head, and then it seemed all of a sudden I wasn’t their best friend anymore. I didn’t understand why. No one explained anything to me. I felt completely sidelined, but now it doesn’t matter as much.

How do I stop treating people like they’re the only ones I talk to? That’s the thing: I talk to maybe a handful of people on any given day. I’m working on getting a life already.

How do I help my friends? How can I be there for them? They could probably answer this best.