Home

“Ndi gutaha.” 

“I’m going home.”

Those words rattled in my head with every bump of the crowded bus from Kayonza to Rwamagana. They bounced with my every step up familiar sidewalks and down dirt roads until I rounded that last curve by the banana plants and saw the familiar red gate rising at the end of the path. 

Home is a complicated concept—a network of small towns and rising cities and beloved people around the world—and somehow in the past six weeks, it’s expanded to include a cement and mud-brick compound on the outskirts of Rwamagana town. 

It’s been a rough week. For site visit, I left the comfort of my host family with my school’s Dean of Studies, a near stranger, and travelled to a different district to spend four days learning a new town and new people. 

Sometime amid the tears of fear and frustration this week, I realised culture shock had caught up with me. 

The name makes it sound like a sudden surprise at clear cultural differences, but the truth is it’s less of a shock and more of a pervading exhaustion. You go along thinking you’re fine, but it builds up little by little until, out of nowhere, you’re tired beyond belief. 

It’s a gradual wearing down beneath the grindstone of a million tiny things you don’t even notice in the moment. 

It’s the disproportionate effort required to communicate. It’s being stared at, shouted at, and touched on the street. It’s considering starving rather than take one more bite of unseasoned beans, and then taking one more bite. It’s struggling to keep my shoes clean and knowing that no matter how dirty someone else’s feet, mine are the ones being judged. It’s having to question the cultural assumptions behind any question. It’s not knowing the fair price of anything. It’s wondering whether I’ll ever have cheese or ice cream or chocolate ever again. 

It’s my fight-or-flight never resting, because I have no prior knowledge by which to predict any situation. 

At the beginning of this journey, someone gave us this advice: 

“Fall in love with your country as soon as possible.”

Someone else (probably on Welcome to Night Vale, to be honest) said this: 

“Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.”

In the moments when life here feels like a storm battering me, when I think I will break if I’m bent any further, it’s all too easy to remember what I dislike about this country and to forget all the things I love. 

But there are things I love, even when I’m drowning under waves of culture shock and exhaustion. 

I love the rolling hills patterned with fields of beans and rice, the dry rattle of banana leaves in the wind before a rainstorm, the music rolling out the doors of boutiques and down the street. 

I love the warm greetings of shopkeepers I know and the tendency of old ladies to pull me in for a hug instead of shaking hands. 

I love the uninhibited joy of children and adults alike whenever there’s a game or a song or a good conversation. 

I love the goats by the side of the road and the tiny, impossibly blue swallows that dart and dive and swoop bat-like and the magpies and hawks vying for the right to circle any place that might have food. 

I love the sunsets and the dark storm clouds and the vibrant dirt roads. 

And today, when I knocked on that big red gate and heard a patter of feet and the bolt screeching back, I discovered I love the look of surprised delight on Simbi’s face, and I love hearing Nziza chanting my name before I ever reach the door, and I love Hiro’s silent, tight hugs.

I love walking into this place, so strange to me a month ago, and knowing I’ve come home. 

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Oh Brother (or: 8 reasons I’m grateful to my brothers)

You may have guessed from my kind of bossy, kind of control-freak-y attitude that I’m an oldest child. What you may not have guessed is that my younger siblings include four brothers, all of whom now tower over me. Today, in belated honour of my youngest brother turning sixteen (!!!), here’s a list of things for which I’m grateful to those li’l stinkers. If you have brothers, you can probably relate.

1.  Teaching me to punch…
If you’re going to hit someone, do it right; none of this weak-wristed, limp-knuckled sissy stuff. Lucky for me, I had four growing guys around to ridicule me into learning proper form.

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by GIPHY

2.  …and to take a punch
If you’re going to throw a punch, you’d better be prepared to take one. Fortunately there was no end of surprise tackles, slug-bug games, and rough fights during our formative years. Thanks, guys.

3.  Pushing me past my limits
Whether it was climbing to the highest branch of the mango tree, playing 24-hour Halo binges, or taking the dog for a run, my brothers have always pushed me. I lost the “I’m the oldest” edge pretty early on, and while I might think I’m dying, those boys have made me go farther, faster, and harder than I ever would have without them.

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by GIPHY

4.  Calling me out
I’m a forceful personality, and let’s face it—most people hate confrontation. Here’s to my brothers for listening to my perspectives and still telling me when I’m wrong.

5.  Pretending I’m tall
They’re all about six feet tall. I’m short. They very nicely pretend I’m tall even though they tower over me—in fact, just this morning one of them pretended to think I’m 5’6″, which is simultaneously ridiculous and very sweet.

shortpeople

6.  Letting me tag along
There was a time when I was the big kid and they tried to follow me everywhere, and I made life miserable for them by doing things like tying them to trees and leaving them there or locking them inside so they couldn’t follow me. Now they’re the big kids, and they let me tag along on their adventures to the shooting range, their college campus, or boys-only(ish) poker night in the living room.

7.  Calling me cool
Let’s face it—nobody is cool 100% of the time, and it’s not really cool to think your siblings are cool, and yet these boys not only let me do stuff with them but also, apparently, tell their friends that I’m cool. One of my brothers is even friends with me on tumblr, so you know it’s a real thing. Me and my fragile ego thank you, kiddos.

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by GIPHY

8.  Protecting me
Whether it’s shooting the guy behind me in Halo (because, honestly, I am video-game-incompetent), loaning me a sweatshirt when it’s cold, or physically helping me scramble to the top of a boulder, my brothers are always there. We don’t talk about it, because it’s cheesy, but they demonstrate it all the time. There’s nothing quite so reassuring as knowing with certainty that no matter what trouble I get into, those four young men have my back.

  • In short, my brothers are the best. I love them.

#Readwomen: This Is How You Say Goodbye

thisishow

I’m writing a day late, not because I finished the book a day late, but because it’s been two days and I’m still not sure what to say. If Wild felt like going along on a journey, This Is How You Say Goodbye felt like peeking in someone else’s window.

Victoria Loustalot writes of her father, of searching for a deeper understanding of him through a trip around the world—one he talked about during her childhood but never made. I read in a haze of bewilderment, caught up by the evocative phrases and relentless emotions but constantly amazed that what seemed outrageous to me could be commonplace in someone else’s life.

Emotions are universal; I’ve felt insufficient and confused and lost. I understand those. But causes are not. I will never understand the type of family Loustalot describes. The feelings that drove her across the world—I can believe her descriptions, but I can’t feel them myself.

And, I suppose, in some ways that’s the point of the book—a daughter searching around the globe for clues to help her understand how her father felt. People are complex; relationships are more so. Somehow, we find ways to understand each other even though we can never really feel what another person feels. And even though we’ll never completely understand, there’s something beautiful about trying.

This book captivated me like a beautiful song in a different language, or an abstract painting I can’t quite wrap my mind around. And perhaps that’s how people are, too—not exactly understandable, but all the more worthwhile for being complicated and contradictory. And maybe that’s all I needed to learn from this book, after all.

Why Summer Doesn’t Have To Be Comfortable

Summer is uncomfortable.

University goes by in a blur of coffee, late-night cramming, and hysterical laughter. And then finals week comes crashing down, and suddenly you’re watching every single moment fly by individually but too quickly for you to catch, and you have to soak in your last few days with your friends while simultaneously studying like mad (because, let’s face it, you’ve been putting that off all semester) and packing and finalising your summer plans.

And then whoosh—you’re home.

One more year gone. (I like to think it’s run off to live happily with all my unmatched socks.)

woosh

And home, it turns out, is uncomfortable. For example:

  1. How did my brothers get so tall?
    Last I looked, they were about waist high and I could sit on them if they got too rowdy. Now they’re taller than me, and I just hope I trained them well, ’cause I can’t force them to do anything anymore.
  2. Do I still have to listen to mum?
    I mean, yeah, she’s still my mum, but I’m also officially grown up and able to take care of myself and determine when I should sleep and whether another cup of coffee is good for me, right?
  3. What is this place and what did you do with my room?
    It’s disconcerting, because it has some of my stuff in it, but not all of it, and my sister now guards the place like a sphinx, and I live out of a suitcase on my bedroom floor.

It turns out I’m…c’mere and let me whisper it, because I’m uncomfortable with this word: I’m an adult. 

adult

An honest-to-goodness, real-live adult. I know how to pay my own rent and clean my own bathroom. Last year I set up and paid for my own internet all summer, and I’ve stayed in a sketchy motel by myself.

And being an adult makes coming home…well…uncomfortable. I’m in this limbo stage. If I want to do something, should I do it? Ask my parents? Tell my parents? Can I still yell, “MUMMMMMMYYYYY!” if a sibling gets in my space? Do I go on all the family outings?

We’ve found a relatively happy medium: I check with them because I’m in their house, I play nice with the kids, and I help with the dishes—because they feed me for free, and that is a great gift. Being home is kind of nostalgic. Pictures of high-school me on the walls, my siblings’ school things scattered around the hallways, my old junk still crammed in my dresser because I never got around to cleaning it out…

Some days I consider staying home. Free food, my parents’ insurance… But that’s not an option. Not only because my parents would disapprove, but because life is about growth, not comfort. Learning to walk was uncomfortable. Learning maths was uncomfortable. Learning to live like an adult and pay my own bills and find my own jobs? You bet your sweet life that’s uncomfortable.

But people are kind of like hermit crabs: we outgrow our shells, and no matter how happy we are in this place, there’s nothing comfortable about staying once the shell’s too small.

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So yeah, I’m loving being home for the summer, marvelling at how tall my brothers have gotten and eating plenty of home cooking. But I’m also looking forward to leaving, finding a new shell, stretching and growing and letting myself feel uncomfortable.

Because if I’m going to have pains, I’ll have growing pains, thank you. Because life is about being uncomfortable.

 

world

In which I apologise profusely…sorta…

You may have noticed I did not post yesterday.

You may have thought, “Oh no! I hope she didn’t die! She’s always so consistent!”

…or your memory may have served you right; you may have remembered previous incidences and thought, “She’ll probably post at midnight.”

Either way, you were wrong–but thanks for thinking of me. By way of apology for posting late, I will make a brief explanation: My mother came to visit me.

...but really, guys, I rejoiced loudly for the month leading up to her visit.
…but really, guys, I rejoiced loudly for the month leading up to her visit.

This statement should convey excitement, but it should also convey terror. Because…well…let me tell you about my identity fears.

One key factor of identity is consistency (and I know this for sure because my psych prof said so in class yesterday). Consistency means that my identity is the same whether I’m at school or at home, or whether I’m on my blog or in person, or whether I’m with my roommate or my professor.

Or my mother.

This week, with my mother following me around (“like a lost puppy,” in her words; “a very cute lost puppy, though,” in mine…) I’ve realised that it’s incredibly difficult to be the same person at school as at home, and I never noticed until someone from home dropped into my school environment.

Suddenly I caught myself second-guessing everything from my answers in class to my morning routine. I even started worrying that my coffee was bad. (And that proves I was afraid, because I never doubt my coffee. I make fabulous coffee.)

Alice

It wasn’t bad. It made me live up to expectations. I thought in classes before I spoke instead of blurting out whatever came to mind. I reevaluated everything through new eyes, so I thought deeper, harder, and more critically about the things I learned and the way I responded. I cleaned my room and did my dishes–not because I had to because my mum was there, but because I want to be clean anyway, and having her there provided a catalyst (ten-point word!) for decent living habits.

Mostly, this week, I was afraid I would disappoint her. But hey, she hasn’t run off yet, and she keeps hugging me, so we must be good.

And she likes my coffee.

So in the end, I guess my apology is sort of an explanation and a challenge. When someone follows you around–someone whose opinion you value–how do you act? How do you think? How different are you from your normal self–and why?

Losing Diamonds

I lost my diamond somewhere in the crowded moments between stumbling to the barn in the stormy dawn and shuffling into rehearsal in the crystal cold afternoon.

It fell from my ring, gone before I ever noticed.

diamond

The ring is a narrow, graceful band of gold, delicately curved, unashamedly pretty in a way most girls today are afraid to be, set with tiny leaves of white gold, all curled around a chip of diamond. Now they curl around a blank darkness where minuscule prongs of gold reach upward toward nothing.

Their sharp bite first alerted me to the diamond’s disappearance. They scratched my bare skin just deep enough to hurt, and when I glanced down, the forlorn hole where the diamond should have been stared back up at me, accusing, like a puppy who hasn’t been fondled in a few hours. I experimentally put my fingernail into the tiny crevasse between the hungry little prongs, and then, a little horrified at the cold touch of the now-useless twists of gold, I pulled my finger away and looked somewhere else, pretending I couldn’t sense the dark cavity beside me.

My father gave me that ring one night as we sat in a restaurant booth, making slightly stilted conversation over steaming spinach dip–slightly stilted because we hadn’t talked in too long, because authenticity always carries that odd stiffness, like your neck when you wake up chilly. I don’t remember his explanation for the beautiful gift he handed me, but I think the feeling I’ve had ever since, that slight warmth in my chest and catch in my throat when I finger the ring these years later–I think I still capture the essence of what he wanted for me. There’s something to it, knowing that my father gave it to me, that I’m loved, valued–that no matter what I or anyone else feel about me, my worth is not in what I do or say or think–something of all that seems caught in the golden swirl of the ring’s filigree, in the minute glint of light in the diamond.

My diamond is gone–so many other things, missing before I knew it, valuable in a way I can’t define.

Like that crazy sense of optimism I had as a kid– the certainty that life would always somehow right itself, like those inflatable punching bags that bounce upright when you knock them over. That crazy optimism somehow disappeared into a vague certainty that I’ll eventually manage to fail colossally and live in my parents’ basement with a lot of unfinished first drafts and a secret case of clinical depression. It disappeared somewhere between the empty bank accounts and full sermons about trying harder, smiling bigger. I noticed it was gone one day when pessimism scratched just deep enough to hurt, that whisper that really, in the end, it’s all futile, and life isn’t a faerie tale, and probably Cinderella was miserable after “the end” anyway.

Like that hope in rightness– that right answers existed, that we could ever fix the world instead of damaging it further. It dropped away somewhere between the depressing headlines and the ubiquitous, petty infighting that stripped away my hope in people and change. I noticed it was gone when fear scratched at me, promising hopelessness and loss.

Somehow optimism and hope disappeared, and I didn’t know it until flat pessimism and cynicism cut at my frail surface, just deep enough to sting.

sidewalk crack

Funny to think, isn’t it, that my diamond’s probably gone forever. Somewhere, nestled in the warm, soiled bedding at the barn or wedged into a deep crack in the sidewalk- somewhere that little chip still glimmers, catching the light, keeping on being itself whether it’s set in gold or rendered anonymous by the earth.

 

And you know, somehow, even without those things I’ve lost, with fear scraping at me, with cynicism and pessimism staring up with hollow eyes like the diamondless cavity of my ring–still, somehow, I’m me, and still, somehow, that graceful curve of gold is shamelessly pretty; and still somehow, in the subtle glimmers of the worked golden leaves, something whispers just under the surface: “Someone loves you. No matter what you lose…you have value.”