Gratitude

Ishimwe

Gratitude

In Peace Corps, perhaps more so than in other phases of life, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative.

Our conversation patterns fall into a familiar cycle of complaints, implicit or explicit, as we discuss the foods we miss, the aspects of our jobs that frustrate us, the constant shifting of Peace Corps rules, the lack of comforts we took for granted back in the States. It’s harder to remember the things we’re grateful for.

I have a confession: this year I planned not to celebrate the holidays at all. I’ve been pushing my budget and my energy both to the limits lately, and Thanksgiving, especially, has sounded more like a chore than a holiday.

But a friend passing by talking about her love of Christmas reminded me of how much I, too, love the holiday season, and a couple other friends decided to visit me for Thanksgiving despite my having flatly refused to join in on their initial celebration plan, and suddenly the season didn’t seem so bleak and difficult. I’ve spent a few days making holiday decorations and hunting down Christmas music, and just like that, I’m looking forward to the holidays. And just like that, I remembered that there really are a lot of things I’m thankful for.

Here are a few of them—one for every month I’ve been in Rwanda:

  1. Friends who refuse to let me be alone on holidays
  2. Furry animal babies who cuddle me and love me even when I’m grouchy
  3. Neighbours who invest in me despite the language barrier
  4. Local co-workers who are motivated and serious about projects
  5. Holiday foods—we won’t have turkey or cranberry sauce, but if we put a little effort in, we can have goat and mashed potatoes and maybe even pie
  6. My own compound with running water—I will never get over how lucky I am to have a private space with a good wall and water I don’t have to haul in jerrycans
  7. The internet—even if my access to it is limited and slow, I can still communicate with my family more or less instantaneously despite thousands of miles between us
  8. Books—I may be the only person in my village who owns books, and these gateways to comfort, escape, and enlightenment that I’ve regarded as a right for many years suddenly appear clearly to be an incredible privilege
  9. Beautiful things—this week it’s the paper snowflakes I hung from my ceiling and the candles I stuck on some empty bottles on my bookshelf; I’m mesmerised; I can’t stop staring; isn’t it lovely that we have the capacity to create and admire art?
  10. Cozy clothes—jumpers and leggings and socks and hoodies and all the lovely soft clothes that make chilly evenings a little better
  11. Coffee—in a country where coffee is an export crop but not a common drink, I can buy freshly roasted and ground coffee just a 45-minute bus ride away from my site
  12. Rainy season—honestly, during dry season I’d forgotten how beautiful my area is, but now that the rains have returned, the hills are green and the valley shimmers wet in the setting suns and the colours are vibrant without their dry-season coats of dust, and I find myself craning my neck to stare in all directions when I walk up the road
  13. My health—some volunteers have been sick more often than not here; I’ve only been significantly sick three times in the fourteen months I’ve been in country
  14. A long holiday—my mind and body are so happy to have a chance to rest a little before next schoolyear, and I’m looking forward to lying on a beach for a week in early December

Anyway, there’s my list. I hope you, too, have plenty of things to be grateful for and that you take a moment to remember a few of them this holiday season.

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Small Joys

I sat on the windowsill and blew bubbles out onto the evening breeze, because this week, the full weight of my aloneness settled on me.

Over the weekend, I walked alone through Central Park and passed couples jogging, children playing, and dogs walking their people. I wanted to point out the way the air smelt unaccountably of cinnamon, but I had nobody to notice it with me. I wanted to marvel at how unfamiliar grass and trees and mulch seemed already, after so short a time living in the city, but I had nobody to sigh with me. Every morning and evening, I walked alone through Madison Square Park and passed coworkers chatting on benches, mothers tugging toddlers along, and friends waving across the square. I wanted to see a friend and smile in recognition, but I had nobody to greet.

I slide into lonely self-pity with the same ease I slump down into my seat on the subway. But a wise man once remarked that, “The world is so full of a number of things…” So this week, I reminded myself of the small joys that soften my isolation.

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Small joys of soft rain caressing my face in the park. Of the sparrows fluttering in dust-baths, so tiny and yet so bold. Of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice drifting down the street out some open window, and of flashes of my childhood rushing in and out of my room as cars pass by at night, radios blaring.

Small joys of twisted tree roots breaking up the synthetic structure of the sidewalk, and of the cactus someone set in its pot on the first-storey windowsill outside my door. Of the man who greets me in Spanish at the tienda on the corner and sells me queso fresco for hojaldres that taste like home. Of hour-long, rambling conversations with my mother as I pace my flat—seven steps to the door and seven back to the bed, pivot, step again.

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Small joys of free books and hour-long subway rides to read them. Of the boy humming with his guitar in the Times Square station, eyes closed and mouth smiling, and of the man growling jazz on his saxophone by the fountain, dancing with the force of his syncopation.

Small joys of the post—of letters in elegant calligraphy swirls and heartfelt scrawls, and of boxes filled with homemade cookies, Nutella, and Sharpies.

And small joys of bubbles, floating like transient jewels on the evening breeze, dancing between high rises and lighting on fire escapes, escaping into the lowering dusk from my seat on the windowsill.

Bubbles