He and I have become very good at adding and subtracting 7.

Look, blog post! Please forgive.

More than two months ago — it was the end of August — I was walking home from Sunday dinner at a friend’s, and my ward prayer was happening outside. I had just moved in to a new ward and was starting to get to¬† know people. I turned down a potluck invitation from a new friend because I already told the other friend I’d come to dinner. And as I approached this ward prayer crowd, I wondered if I would see this new friend and ask him about leftovers. I saw a girl I met earlier that day, and we decided together to try to meet new people. I asked if anyone else knew about the potluck, and somebody — I don’t remember who — told me to ask some name I don’t remember, that he was a bald guy standing with another cluster of talking people.

So, I moseyed over to the neighboring circle of strangers and asked the bald guy if he knew about the potluck. He didn’t. But while I was talking to him, I decided to get to know him.

He told me his name is Reilly. We ended up having a decent conversation about books and movies and music. We talked about the Borders going-out-of-business sale, and he told me about the biannual Salt Lake City Public Library sale, where paperbacks are fifty cents and hardcovers are a dollar. And that usually happens in October. He said he’d amassed quite a few books in the past few months, and I told him I’d like to see his book collection sometime. He seemed a little hesitant at the idea.

Recently he told me that he thought I was 20 when we first met.

We went to the Real Salt Lake City soccer game that following Saturday.

And I did go over to look at this books. And the songs on his iTunes.

Over the weeks, I’ve made hints about my age to him, because that’s what I do:

-living more than 6.5 years in New York City after some time at BYU in 2002
-being about 6 years older than my brother
-seeing certain movies in the theater, like Back to the Future and A League of Their Own
-saying that I was in 7th grade when Ted Bundy was executed, at the state prison, about an hour away from where I lived
-etc.

Then a couple weeks ago, we were on our way to stand in line at the Velour for a concert. We ran into some classmates that I know from Senegal, and they were nice enough to let us cut in front of them in line. These classmates are now officially a couple, after quasi-sneaking their way around dating during the last couple of weeks of the trip. The girl was my roommate, and I told Reilly that they happened to put the Floridians in the same room, who also happened to be the oldest and youngest students. Then I remarked that three birthdays of people on the trip were in the month of May and there was a party, and I observed that I was closer in age to the professor whose birthday was also that month than most of the other students.

Except for the Skabelunds. They’re old. ūüėČ

He says our ages don’t matter.

I’m glad for this.

You Can Skip This, Too.

My first actual memory of Jera Gunther was a random spring evening in 2003 in the west foyer of the Inwood ward building. She sat on one of those floral print couches, reading a book. I can’t remember why I was there, but seemingly out of the blue, she asked me if I’ve ever read the Scarlet Letter. That’s pretty much all she had to say. We’ve been friends ever since.

When I walked into Jera and Jordan’s house last Wednesday night, Jera told me that I looked the same. I can’t imagine changing that much in the past four years, and I told her that she looked the same, too.

We played with the kids and toured the town and talked about grownup things like politics and economics. We laughed about old times.

I don’t remember how I met Summer and Joel. I do recall going over to their Manhattan apartment for karaoke parties. It was me and Adam and Sheridan, and we’d choose songs from the computer and sing silliness into a microphone.

We’d also meet at ward picnics and go on bike rides and there was this one time we went to an Egyptian restaurant and paid way more for the meal than it was worth.

Summer and Joel haven’t changed much, either. We remembered when and listened to the kids sing the Beatles and laughed when the older sister dressed her younger brother as a girl in a polka dot dress and purple hair bow.

St. George in August is hot. Around 10:00 one night, I came out of the Gunthers’ house to get something from the rental car and¬† felt the heat from the day and in the driveway against my face and bare feet.

Their house is on a hill. At night, the valley twinkles. When I saw that, I wondered if I could live in the town of St. George, Utah.

This past Wednesday night, I went to dinner with my friend, Angie. It had been four? or so years since I’ve seen her. We met when she moved into the Inwood ward, and we had a few mutual friends. We caught up and gossiped and laughed and talked about important television and people we remember from New York.

On Thursday, my friend Cristi and I caught up over Jamba Juice and chocolate-covered cinnamon bears. I asked her when we first met, and she said that it was probably through Becky. Which: of course. We talked and laughed about everything in the shade of the JFSB courtyard.

I’ve known these cool cats for years, but I’m convinced yet again that time doesn’t always determine quality. It felt amazing seeing those friends, but when I see people I love from Utah/BYU, I’m equally pleased.

The Williams family has been generous to me. I started hanging out with Cynthia in January 2010, and we’d go to the music documentaries at Muse Music, where we learned about Daniel Johnston, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and Arcade Fire. Then she made sure to invite me to everything she did. Potlucks, concerts, family drives, birthday dinners. We went with other friends and her other family members to the Festival of Colors and the Llama Festival, and we have inside jokes about peeing on ourselves and share a few family stories and secrets. I have been able to meet a lot of people through them. My boss knows their dad. They have been a stabilizing force for me here in Provo. I’m truly grateful for them.

Then there are Africa friends. With them, I shared things about myself that I normally wait to tell people in “normal” circumstances. I’ve been ever so fortunate to run into Natalie twice in the computer lab this summer. And to hang out with Sarah and Kylie. The Skabelunds and I met for lunch this past Monday. And I saw Spencer once, too. I’ve only known these kids for only four months, really, yet when I’m around them, it feels like home. Like we can kick back and talk about anything or watch tv or not feel any pressure to talk at all.

My heart has been so full this week. I have loved the quality time.

This past week was also Education Week at BYU. I’ve joked trying to compare it to EFY and Women’s Conference, because campus gets crazy and crowded and annoying during those events. Walking around these past few days, I met a lot of kind eyes and smiles, and it was rather touching to see how happy all the adults of all ages were to be at BYU learning fun and cool things. They get a week each year.

I’m coming up on two years. I pay tuition for each semester, but still.

It’s easy to forget how exciting it is to be here. To have access to all sorts of information and the academic community. To be someone to offer a perspective¬† of a roundabout path that might actually be valuable.

And I’ve been thinking about grad school. It’s my last undergraduate year, and I’m trying to reconcile the joy in moving on to even greater opportunities and the heaviness of my heart that also comes with moving on to even greater opportunities.

Yes, I do have to plan for the future, but I need to be ready to make the most of now. Of BYU. Of Utah. Right, Thomas Traherne?

Entering thus far into the nature of the sun, we may see a little Heaven in the creatures. And yet we shall say less of the rest in particular: tho’ every one in its place be as excellent as it: and this without these cannot be sustained. Were all the earth filthy mires, or devouring quicksands, firm land would be an unspeakable treasure. Were it all beaten gold it would be of no value. It is a treasure therefore of far greater value to a noble spirit than if the globe of the earth were all gold. A noble spirit being only that which can survey it all, and comprehend its uses. The air is better being a living miracle as it now is than if it were crammed and filled with crowns and sceptres. The mountains are better than solid diamonds, and those things which scarcity maketh jewels (when you enjoy these) are yours in their places. Why should you not render thanks to God for them all? You are the Adam or the Eve that enjoy them. Why should you not exult and triumph in His love who hath done so great things for you? Why should you not rejoice and sing His praises? Learn to enjoy what you have first, and covet more if you can afterwards.

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.

The Opening Line of an Email Today

A few drafts of entries hide, latent, outside the public’s purview. They discuss mostly my French experience in Africa, and I wanted to focus mostly on the African experience, the human experience, the life stuff beyond the school stuff.

It’s hard to separate the two realms: I spoke, read, and wrote French in Africa. We took tests and turned in papers in that language. I’d rather just forget the grades from my study abroad, because–although they’re not horrible–they don’t reflect the breadth of my experience there.

Somehow,¬† I was able to channel the spirit of the adventure–my reason for being there–and focus that energy into some of my schoolwork. And it resulted in the opening line of an email that made my day today:

May,

Comment allez-vous? ¬†Savez-vous que je vous ai donn√© un A pour votre projet anthropologique? ¬†C’√©tait magnifique, ce que vous aviez √©crit.

So, I’m happy I did well on the anthropology project, which was about families. I enjoyed writing it; I appreciated being able to express some of the things I learned that were important to me.¬† I’ll push away the thought that I must have BUSTED on the exams to earn the overall grade. That thought is a little bit depressing.

One thing advanced French classes have taught me these past six months is that grades cannot define me. It’s such an easy trap to fall into, and I’ve let it create doubt in my abilities as a student, a scholar, a writer. I’ve let it “degrade” me (sorry, pun, and I’ve also recently watched Wit again, which also plays with the word so it’s fresh on the brain) and undermine my identity. I still might write those entries, just because they outline some breakthroughs and personal growth that didn’t necessarily result in an A.

Unquantifiable stuffs. You know.

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.

I Wonder How Different My Life Would Be If I Slept This Month

It’s one night in Senegal. Any night. All nights. I can’t sleep. I settle into bed, usually between 11pm and 1am, depending on whether I have to read or write or watch television with friends. If it’s watching tv, I try leaving early enough because I know my friends like their sleep. As they should. As I would, if I could.

Sometimes I walk into the hotel room and my roommate is praying, in a hunched-over kneel on her bed. I move about quietly, gathering my things into the bathroom for a quick shower.

I negotiate with the showerhead, try to put it in a place where I can stand under it without getting the whole bathroom wet. On the days when the bathrooms have shower curtains, it doesn’t really matter. That piece of fabric is a mere formality, existing only to facilitate splashy chaos on that gritty tile with the moldy grout.

The bathroom sighs an aroma of shampoo and squeaky-clean May-ness as I open the door. The light on my side of the room is on, and my roommate has tucked herself into bed and caught a deep, rhythmic slumber. Lucky $%@%*!. While I write, or read, or think, the towel wrapped around my head absorbs most of the water from my hair.

If I’m reading, it’s with whatever book we’re studying and a pen and a dictionary and me getting through one chapter–maybe two–before I get frustrated.

If it’s writing, it’s any of the following:

-Je suis all√©e √† l’orphelinat (√† la F√™te de M√®res), et j’√©tais heureuse et triste au m√™me temps.

-Je m’assoie et pense. L’h√ītel est tranquille et je ne peux pas dormir. [Comme d’habitude.]

-Le mois passe rapidement. Tous les matins je me reveille avec mal à la tête.

-J’aime le mus√©e.

-Aujourd’hui, c’est l’anniversaire de mon p√®re….It is so easy to misspell words in a foreign language….Je ne bois pas assez d’eau, et j’ai mal √† la t√™te tout le temps. (I really do stop complaining about headaches. I promise.)

-(At a VERY EXCITING conference:) Je fais semblant de faire attention. J’ai mal √† la t√™te. Tout le monde rit et je ne suis pas pourquoi.

-LA PLAGE! J’aime la plage! La plage me rend heureuse.

-Shouldn’t I just have one or two days during this whole study abroad where I can write in English? I know I need the practice, but I really miss how fast my pen can go when I can think in successive sentences without stopping.

-Je veux être une griotte, mais je ne sais pas nourrir tous les enfants. HA!

-HAPPY HALFWAY POINT!

-I think I want to be everybody’s friend. I think I am making some really great friends. This trip is a lot of fun, even with the humidity and language barriers and poverty and foreign food and hagglers. There’s love and unity and abounding happiness in the children. There are stories and memories and dancing and singing with lots of laughing and big smiles. As much as I miss America, leaving this place is going to be hard.

-Je dois √©crire des choses importantes, mais je n’ai pas d’√©nergie.

-I really have to take advantage of my experience here. IT’S AFRICA. There are beautiful people and endless landscapes and so many things to think about. How do I make a difference? I have to get back in the habit of finding inspiration in everything, everywhere. Everyone….Kylie was really nice and gave me a page from her crossword puzzle book.

-Country Road, take me home, to a place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home country road. On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah with my friends, j’ai h√Ęte de voyager encore. Oui!

-Des HIPPOPOTAMES! Ils sont √©normes!…Oh! Des singes! Ils ont “attaqu√©” Kylie et Sarah ce matin….Il y a des morceaux de toit qui tombent sur mon lit. It’s annoying….P.S. My roommate, Chloe, is great. I’m very glad we get along. Bon soir, SWEATY MONKEYS.

-CAR RAPIDE et the DUSTS OF HELL! Des combinations secrètes à la derrière du bus. UGLY DUSTY RED FACES OF FUNNINESS!

-LE CASCADE! Mais d’abord, promener √† pied. J’ai beaucoup transpir√©, mais c’est l’Afrique. TOUT est l’AFRIQUE.

-J’AI UN MAL √Ä LA T√äTE. OUAIS!!!!! Nous sommes dans le bus. J’ai fait la si√®ste et de me reveiller and I AM VERY CRANKY. I shouldn’t be parce que les autres chantent des canticles. C’est joli, mais je peux seulement pleurer. C’est stupide.

-J’ai nag√© aujourd’hui. I dove into the water et j’ai oubli√© √† enlever mes lunettes. Oops, donc, apr√®s le dive, les lunettes √©taient au bas de la piscine. Britt les a retrouv√©, et j’√©tais reconnaissante.

-(In Sarah’s handwriting:) Aujourd’hui, j’ai commenc√© par √™tre awesome, puis, j’ai continu√© √† √™tre awesome jusqu’au d√©jeuner, o√Ļ je suis devenue m√™me plus awesome. J’ai continu√© comme √ßa jusqu’au d√ģner, o√Ļ j’ai rencontr√© Sarah, et la force de votre coalition de awesome √©tait for qui on a commenc√© a br√Ľler. Et puis, j’ai dormi.

-I feel like que je sois dans une autre dimension. Quel est vrai? Quel est la realit√©? Comment est-ce que ce voyage m’influence?

-DRAW ME A PICTURE PLEASE THANK YOU. What kind of picture? PRETTY KIND. WHATEVER YOU WANT. [Insert pretty picture here.]

Once I’m done reading or writing, I finish drying my hair, then I turn off the light and slide under the covers. I close my eyes, and whatever happened that day or the days before or whatever will happen in upcoming days float in my head. I open my eyes, and it’s the two o’clock hour. I create French conversations. I try to connect thoughts to make sentences, then I imagine I’m saying those sentences to people who can only speak French and as if my life depends on it. Sometimes I turn on my iPod and listen to music or watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, which helps. Then I pretend my eyes are drooping, and much of the same happens, over and over again. I reach down for my water bottle and slake my dry throat.¬† Almost on the hour, every hour, I check the clock on my cell phone. Between 5am and 7am my brain finally gets tired enough, but then it’s time to wake up. People are barfing their brains out around me, people have real reasons to want to go home, and my problem is that I can’t sleep. Get a grip.

So, I get up and change clothes and carry a book, a dictionary, a pen and a journal outside, and I try to catch some morning light to study by.

I’ve never been an awesome sleeper, but the insomnia has taken a different form lately. It has been exactly one month since I returned to the United States. I spent a few days in New York City before returning to Provo, and it’s been … hard. Fine, I am grateful to be brushing my teeth from worry-free tap water and showering with a shower curtain that keeps water in the tub and I am very excited to have some of the effects of the malaria medicine go away; I am very grateful not to be eating meat at every meal. And, I don’t have headaches anymore, because I’m finally back to drinking the amount of water I used to nearly two months ago. But one night in Provo is any night in Provo–any night after those nights in Senegal.

Between 11pm and 1am, I look at my bed, and we have a showdown. Are we going to do this again, I say. What you mean, “we”, bed says, I’m the one that doesn’t need sleep. I slip on some socks, because I can’t sleep when my feet are cold. I pile on blankets because my roommates like to keep the apartment cool and Africa has tempered my blood. Finding a comfortable position is a challenge.

Shutting off my brain is the biggest challenge of them all.

Every night, I close my eyes and see mangoes and the big white bus and faces of children and the homeless and feel the tense political air. In my mind I’m laughing at having to listen to Justin Bieber yet again or eating another baguette or maf√© or yassa poulet for the frillionth day in a row. I’m watching bad movies in French or cooking shows or anything else that could be in English. I see waterfalls and bats and giant baobabs and then also fertility statues in museums with their penises and breasts, and I can feel the pieces of the crumbling roof on the space next to me in bed.¬† I see more stars than what I deserve to see in the firmament; I snicker at scared faces who have gotten way too close to sociable (and hungry) monkeys. My jaw drops at mating goats or overexcited donkeys and horses. I hear laughing and singing, drums beating, my own animal impressions; my own (and others’) swears; I’m crashing a wedding or walking away from a vendor or saying what I should have said at the time one–or all–of those women tried to rip me off. I see the soul of civilization; I sense its struggle, its solemn sanctitude. My heart doesn’t know what to reconcile.

Every hour I open my eyes and check the clock. Then the sun peeks through the blinds, and it’s time to start the day.

Everyone has a little haunt in my mind, a cubbyhole, part of one of the wrinkles. Everyone comes and visits me, flashes in my memory, and of course I’m happy to see everyone, their personalities, their expressions; my friends. An entire month removed, and I can still see things and people so vividly.

Every night, all nights, it’s the same two related questions:

Will I ever get to sleep? (then)

Will my vision fade?

So far, for both questions, the answer has been the same.

From My Window Last Night

In Provo, we celebrated pretend 4th of July on the 2nd of July. I don’t feel like explaining why the big party couldn’t be on real 4th of July. There’s a big event called the Stadium of Fire, and big guest stars show up and sing then fireworks go boom in the sky and it’s apparently a lot of fun.

I think this is my first time in Provo during the 4th of July. Maybe I was here sometime in the 90s, but I honestly can’t remember that far back without pulling my cerebral cortex.

Anyway, everyone was off doing something, and I have a pretty good view from my bedroom window, so I turned off my light and waited for the show to begin. I didn’t get to hear any of the accompanying music – I do like patriotic music – but I also missed the performances of David Archuleta and Brad Paisley. I’m sort of bummed about Brad Paisley. Dude can play a guitar.

The fireworks lasted about 20 minutes, and here are the last 3 minutes or so. What I like about pretend 4th of July is that I get to see a lot more fireworks shows on real 4th of July. And I’ll keep remembering all the ways America is awesome before returning to feeling that a lot of Americans are not awesome. That kind of blind patriotism doesn’t only apply to America; I saw it in Africa, too, but mostly among the kids, but they were kids, and we don’t have any excuse, really, because it’s not just our kids who are acting like that. I’m not absolving the adults from being lousy examples to their kids, because they’re adults and they should understand their responsibility to bring up children to be healthy thinkers and honest and community members and not zealots who base their decisions on fallacy and ignorance. I’m not knocking gratitude or democracy or a lot of the things that make America a great country, because America is wonderful. Keep being grateful, but just stop being stupid. You know who you are.

The Case for a Generation Gap

Several things happened in Senegal that could have happened anywhere else. The following situations could have happened on a road trip to Cleveland, weaving through aisles at the Macey’s grocery store, turning tricks on the corner of University Avenue and 1230 North, Family Home Evening after the lesson and before one of those weird acting games, Sunday School as a part of a way-off-hand comment, Squaw Peak, doing Squaw Peak things.

Or, maybe not. I was crammed with 20 other strangers who knew nothing about each other when we left America, and when we returned, maybe some of us ended up knowing more than we could have ever expected. Maybe some of us didn’t know enough. Regarding my age, I really like to keep people guessing. It’s fun, and I wonder how long I can keep it up. Much to their credit, none of my guy classmates asked for my age, and much to their credit, quite a few African men asked for my age.

But let’s see, here. In order to prove this could have happened anywhere, first I’ll describe what happened in Africa, then I will try to recreate the scenario in each of the settings I listed in the first paragraph.

How old ARE you?
Our very first week, in the hotel lobby waiting for something to do or somewhere to go, I sat by a girl and her roommate. She asked the question outright, and then I responded with something like, “Well, two weeks from Sunday I’ll be [this old].” And as quickly as her brain received that information from her very efficient synapses, she reacted with “HAHAHAHAHAHA HAHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHA” then everyone else in the hotel lobby turned to look at us. The girl’s roommate calmly added, “See you could be [this age], and you could be 12.”

On a roadtrip to Cleveland, we start talking about drivers licenses and ask each other how old we were when we began driving. The driver swerves quickly to avoid hitting a deer, and I spill my Bugles everywhere, and I yell at the driver and start talking like a little kid, about how we all could have died. Then the driver asks how old I am, and then I tell him, and he starts laughing so hard we accidentally drive off a cliff and die.

At the Macey’s grocery store, I look at the shelf of vitamins and ask a friend what kind of vitamins I should get. She asks me my age, and I tell her. She then hands me a bottle of Centrum Silver. I chase her around through the aisles, giggling like a little kid and ignoring my arthritic shoulder. If only I had dentures to chuck at her.

On the corner of University and 1230 North, I’m wearing a very flattering outfit. I wave at passing cars with attractive young men in them. Some cars stop, and we talk briefly. Some guys ask my age, and no matter what I say, they let me into their cars.

At Family Home Evening, one of my roommates asks around the ages of everyone. Mine comes up and everyone automatically appoints me the mom. (This is sort of a true story, except one of my roommates calls me the mom of the apartment. She tries not to make it about age, but more about keeping her in line. That’s better, I guess?) I get up to leave and tell everyone that they’re all grounded.

During Sunday School, maybe we’re learning about Abraham and Sarah. Maybe not. Maybe it’s Methuselah or we’re just discussing how old everyone was in the Old Testament. I’d leave before they started snack time and after a rousing round of “Do As I’m Doing.”

The only thing I’ve done at Squaw Peak was watch a meteor shower.

Oh, I saw that in the theater.
This is what I said when someone was talking to me about the movie Meet Joe Black. Then, because Hocus Pocus showed on the television in Senegal, I commented that I also saw that in the theater.¬† What else did I see in the theater? Back to the Future. What could I have seen? Gremlins, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghost Busters, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Princess Bride.

On a roadtrip to Cleveland: “So, do you want to be Thelma or Louise?”

At the Macey’s grocery store: Whenever I’m shopping here, I like to pretend I’m at the Zabar’s and get in the cash only checkout and try to pay with a credit card and have Sara Ramirez get mad at me until Tom Hanks saves the day. Yes, I saw that in the theater.

At the corner of University Avenue and 1230 North: A car pulls up and asks me if I saw a certain movie in the theater. “No, I didn’t see it in the theater, but I could have. With my mom. But that would have been awkward.”

At Family Home Evening: “No, I have never seen High School Musical – any of them – and I plan to keep it that way.”

During Sunday School: “I saw Legacy about 957 times, and I only saw the Testaments once. The Church is true.”

The only thing I’ve done at Squaw Peak was watch a meteor shower.

When did you graduate?
So, my friend Natalie and I were sitting on a bus early one Wednesday morning on our way to Kedougou. (I just typed that into the Google search window, and my computer freaked out. Not a coincidence.) We were sitting in front of a married couple and behind a guy and girl sitting together and carefully watching the girl fall asleep on the guy’s shoulder and we and the married couple were whispering about them and laughing at them. The married man suggested we put a Book of Mormon between them to make sure they were a safe distance from each other. Maybe they heard us or the bus hit a bump in the road, because they suddenly woke up and she lifted her head from his shoulder. Then Natalie and I started talking about early-morning seminary, and I mentioned that I had Book of Mormon my freshman year. She said she did, too. Then she asked me what year I graduated, then I told her, and then she said, really, and I said yes. And she said, what, and I said, yeah, it’s true, so just imagine taking Book of Mormon eight or 12 years later than I did (since I wasn’t going to ask how old she is). So, that’s a fun way of doing that.

On a roadtrip to Cleveland: “Oh, I got my driver’s license my junior year of high school.” “Oh, yeah? When did you graduate?” Then the whole shock and hitting guardrails and laughing as we plunge into a ravine.

At the Macey’s grocery store: “I didn’t have to go shopping my freshman year since I lived at Deseret Towers, but my sophomore and junior years we often went to Smith’s at Freedom Blvd because we lived south of campus and Smith’s seemed the nicest place to go.” “Where’d you live your sophomore year?” “Regency.” “Oh? My sister lived there, too. When did you live there?” “1995-1996.” “Oh.”

At the corner of University Avenue and 1230 North: A car pulls up and someone asks when I graduated from high school. So I tell him, and he asks me if I’m the real cougar on campus. I smile and coyly shrug.

At Family Home evening maybe someone else is from Florida, a nearby town to Jacksonville. That person says they attended Institute in Jacksonville and asks when I was there and who I might know. I tell that person, then that person stops talking to me which is not uncommon these days. It’s pretty awesome, because most of the time I don’t want to talk to very many people to begin with.

During Sunday School, someone tells a mission story about when he was in the MTC just over three years ago. I can only shake my head and resist the urge to give the guy a pacifier.

The only thing I’ve done at Squaw Peak was watch a meteor shower.

There were other times, times I let slip that I have a younger brother and people would ask how old he is. Times when I told people that the guys at BYU are “too little” to date, meaning too young. Times when I really felt like an older sister to everyone there. Times when my roommate thought Ablaye was sooooo hot, like all the other girls did, and then she found out how old he is then seemed all discouraged and said that he was twice her age (they didn’t put the two Floridians together, per se, but it seemed they happen to put the oldest and youngest students together, in my self-centered mind), and I thought, he’s not twice my age, hee hee. Times when I told that story about when a professor tried to kiss me. A cautionary tale, I told the group at dinner. Only older folks tell cautionary tales.

So, let this be one to you.

Just live it up, you guys. I’m having a blast.

“Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”

We were maybe a little shy toward each other for a few minutes. But they looked at you and something touched your heart. Besides, they don’t really care if your French isn’t perfect.

At the Koranic school, the girls sat separate from the boys, and that one boy recited only some of the Koran but he had memorized the whole thing by the time he was 11 years old.

I looked around and wondered who to talk to, there were so many youth, and the room became very noisy quickly. I took a few pictures, smirking at the stark contrast between my fair-skinned classmates and the rich darkness of the young students. The smiles sparkled the same.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around. A group of young women looked at me. Their leader asked me my name. We talked about school and what they might do when they grow up. They all say they’re going to university, and a lot of them want to be teachers. A few girls ask me to take pictures with their cell phones.

They wanted to teach me a dance.

Every girl wanted to teach that dance to all the Toubabs. And they laughed every time we did it.

That first evening in the village near Saint-Louis, the kids were all dressed in traditional clothes and makeup. One of the teachers played a metal bowl as a drum, and little ones took turns dancing in front of the crowd. A few of us danced, too. A bunch of us watched a little boy wearing a green boubou with a white turban. His eyebrows were painted white. He fought sleep while we laughed at him.

A young woman made eye contact with me and we smiled at each other and exchanged names. I asked her about school and what she did during the day. She told me that she helped her mom make dinner and take care of the siblings. We took pictures and we look like friends.

All the village kids sang and clapped, and the rest of us clapped along.

One day in Saint-Louis, Natalie and I were on an errand to buy some bug repellent, because mosquitoes had attacked me the week before in Dakar and it was only a matter of time before malaria ravaged my body. We stopped by a pharmacy that told us to come back in an hour because they didn’t have any in stock at the time and were ordering some from another store. That was convenient because we wanted to go exploring that day. We crossed a bridge onto the fisherman’s island, photographing just about everything we saw. It was a bright, sunny day, like most of the days there. We walked to a less busy part of the island toward some houses along the beach. As we neared the coast a group of kids saw us and we started playing with them. A family invited us into their yard within a wall, where we got to look at their water well and talk about what we were studying. For the most part, I avoided the adult conversation and continued taking pictures of the children. There was a little boy wearing a yellow shirt with a puppy on it, and he made angry-looking, monkey-froggie faces and somehow immediately became one of my favorites.

One day at the village we got to teach the students. I sat at a table of 10-to-11-year olds, and their teacher instructed them to draw a cylinder with a length of 5cm and a radius of 2cm. So, that’s what I taught them. I used a can to demonstrate the height and to show them that they needed to double the radius. Reaching back into my basic geometry days was hard enough, and having to do it in French was an especially fun challenge. But I repeated myself three times, and when I asked them if they understood, they said yes. So I believed them.

Whenever I asked the girls if they were married, they always giggled. Then I asked how old they were and some of them were 13 or 14, and maybe I met a 15-year old. They can get married at 16, and it’s no more being a kid after that.

After class at the village we were standing in the courtyard and some of us were swinging the kids around. Two little girls were hanging off the arms of one of my classmates, and we couldn’t explain that they needed to take turns. One of them didn’t talk, but I took her and swung her around in a circle until I got dizzy and let her land gently in the sand. She let me spin her about five times until it was time for us to leave. It was cool knowing what she wanted without her having to tell me with words. She just took my hands, and I whirled her around.

There was another day of teaching the kids and there was the best recess I’ve ever had, with relay races and balancing water on one’s head and potato-sack races and wrestling. They taught us a few things about running in the sand, but I think they taught us more about how to be gracious losers and entertainers at the same time. They made us laugh, and through our follies and falls and spilt water and goofs, we returned the favor.

Then there was the evening our guys (and Britt) played soccer against the village team and while the village kids chanted and clapped in solidarity for their team, we bit our nails and winced and cheered whenever we got even a little bit close to scoring a goal. We lost 4-1, but we sang and danced together afterward and maybe I taught some boys how to wink.

The last night at the village we watched all the boys strip down to their underwear and tie their t-shirts around their loins like a sumo diaper so they could show us wrestle. It happened so suddenly and it shocked us, but it was all business to them.

It was during this last night that I noticed more kids had runny noses; I noticed their clammy hands and remembered a few kids with conjunctivitis. There was talk of bedbugs and lice, but it seemed that those were the least of the problems they were better off not knowing. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about them.

I cried on the way back to the bus that evening. A young lady walked with me, and we talked about her family, that her dad was working in the Ivory Coast. She was 14, and she didn’t have to say she missed her father; that she even talked about it was enough of an indication. I asked if he visited often, and she said every month.¬† We hugged goodbye, and I told her to go to university and become anything she wanted. I told her I’d miss her, and I thanked her for being friends.

It was sad to go, not so much because I didn’t know if I was ever going to see them again, but I wondered how many of those children would live to see the next year. What’s so inspiring is that they weren’t even worried about that. They gave us hugs and showed us how disciplined they were and sang anthems with great pride. They searched our souls with sincere eyes and reached out to us. They trusted us when we weren’t so sure about ourselves. I was so concerned about their future, the conditions of their country, but they focused on their present circumstances. If they could smile and laugh and cheer, so could we. They lived in the moment, and we were blessed enough to have them share that moment with us.