Do You Understand?

“Murabyumva? Murabyumva?”

“Do you understand? Do you understand?”

Eight of us in the classroom chorus, “Yego!”—“Yes!”— in response, even though we’re not sure we understand.

All day this has been going on. We’re saturated with new words, new sounds, new expressions. Our language trainers laugh and clap for us every time we muddle through a word, even when we mangle the foreign sounds with our clumsy American tongues.

Every few minutes, one of them grins at us and asks, “Murabyumva?”

Once in a while, too confused to fake it or maybe just brave enough to admit it, one of us answers, “Oya!”—“No!”

Sometimes, if we’re too overwhelmed to put together a reasonable understanding from the liberal flow of Kinyarwanda and never-ending pantomime our teachers use, they pause and patiently use English to explain the specific meaning of a word or the slight contextual difference between “muramuke” and “ijororyiza.”

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In the space of a few days, this has become my reality.

I’ve gone from feeling like a more-or-less adult to feeling like a child. My vocabulary is limited to basic greetings, “thank you,” “yes” and “no,” and “I want.” I don’t recognise most of the food. I don’t know the customs or the culture. I don’t even know how to ask for the bathroom (I asked someone, and she said, “It’s more complicated,” and didn’t tell me).

I’ve always liked to know everything—to be aware of all the ins and outs, to know the reasons behind everything, to be able to predict and control. I can’t do that anymore.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Rwandan culture or language. I can’t predict anyone’s responses or behaviour. I can’t guess what sounds should go together or how to rearrange my limited vocabulary into a different sentence than the formulaic dialogue on the board.

I’m ignorant and dependent—dependent on my host country’s goodwill and condescension, dependent on my teachers’ forgiveness for my unwitting faux pas, dependent on everyone else’s bilingual abilities to compensate for my own lack of language.

Now that I have no choice, I’m finding that there’s a kind of joy to it.

There’s a freedom I’ve seldom allowed myself in situations I can control. Freedom to make mistakes, freedom to forget, freedom to laugh at myself.

There’s a grace—from myself, from my peers, from my trainers. Grace that says, “Yego!” or “Ni byiza!”—“It’s good!”—when I fumble a word or fudge a phoneme. Grace that cheers for each attempt no matter the failure and acknowledges varying levels of skill as all equally acceptable.

There’s a beauty in the struggle to learn something wholly new, to create sounds that my tongue has never formed before, to admit my utter lack of knowledge and to sit humbly, repeating new phrases like a child, accepting smiles and laughter and wholehearted encouragement from my trainers.

There’s a beauty in not knowing. There’s a beauty in being helpless.

This position of complete vulnerability gives me a new permission to see every tiny step as a great achievement. Instead of criticising my insufficiencies until I reach some high benchmark, I’m allowing myself to celebrate each inch I gain.

In the space of a few days, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with not knowing. I’ve learned to ask dumb questions and then ask them again when I don’t understand answers. To pretend I know and trust that at some point in the future, I will. To say “Yego!” when the teacher asks, “Murabyumva?” and to believe that all the tangles of phonemes will separate themselves in time and that for now it is okay to repeat them half-knowingly, to scramble the mixed consonants, and to laugh and clap and call out “Yego!” for my smallest successes.

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I’m Off!

This is a quick goodbye—after a great whirlwind of a staging event in Philly, I and some 47 other Peace Corps Trainees are off to Rwanda!

I don’t know when I’ll have internet again; it could be a few days, and it could be a few weeks. I’ve been given to understand that the internet at our training site is spotty at best. I’ll be back as soon as possible!

In the meantime, a quick reminder that the “Rwanda Updates” dropdown has a few different pages that may or may not be interesting to you, including how to send me mail. Also a reminder that these pages will not send you email notifications when I update them; you’ll have to actually go there and read them from time to time. 😀

And, as always, thank you for coming along with me on this next adventure!

Halfway

A. A. Milne wrote a poem called “Halfway Down.” The second verse goes like this:

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

Tonight I find myself on that halfway stair.

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I’m halfway here or there—halfway home or not—halfway staying or going—halfway beginning or ending.

All of my things are packed, either inaccessible in suitcases to be locked in checked baggage, or carefully situated in my carry-on, or safely tucked away in storage bins to await my return. This puts me in a strange position, just for twelve hours or so, of having nothing.

It’s a feeling of rootlessness I know too well and yet am always surprised by—this question of where I live, where I belong. At the moment, it’s easy to pinpoint; I certainly don’t live here anymore, but I certainly don’t live in Rwanda yet.

Sometimes it’s more subtle, not marked by where I’ve settled or not settled but by a quiet awareness inside me. Sometimes it’s the unexpected distaste of filling my office with personal items. Sometimes it’s the reluctance to actually unpack a suitcase, since I’ll probably be packing it again soon. Sometimes it’s a fake smile when I meet a new friend, or a longing glance at a world map on a passing wall.

My halfway stair is clear to see at the moment, dramatically bookended by two very different countries, by an obvious before and after. It’s all too clear that this is the step breaking my life in half—my childhood and my adulthood suddenly splitting away from each other in the scanning of a boarding pass.

But there have been other halfway stairs. Sometimes it feels like my whole life is a halfway stair, frozen between something and something else—I seldom know what. My whole life feels like that moment between a long sigh and a sudden inhale.

Neil Das wrote a “Haiku on Moving—For Friends Newly Moved”:

home’s the skin we live
in, moving its shedding; you
now new and tender

they say you leave your
heart, i say your lungs; it may
take some time to breathe

How to Say Goodbye

I’ve made a lot of goodbyes in my relatively brief lifetime. Long ones, short ones; temporary ones, permanent ones. Some I saw coming for years, and others appeared out of nowhere, bumps in an unexpected turn in the road.

And I’m facing another one.

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I hate goodbyes—the messy emotions, the awkward eye contact, the lingering guilt of being excited to leave while I’m folded in one last hug. I’ve avoided them, skipped out on them, brushed past them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to do them properly.

But what makes a proper goodbye?

I’ve heard formulas and read advice—mostly checklists of things you ought to do and say and feel, places you should go, people you must see one last time.

I hate seeing an inherently emotional experience laid out like a to-do list. Goodbyes are deeply personal, painfully beautiful moments in which we pass from one world to another. They are, to me at least, too mystical for the mundanity of mnemonic reminders and check boxes.

It’s not about a formula; I think it’s about balance.

See, I’ve tried wallowing in the impending loss, and I’ve tried waltzing away without looking over my shoulder. Neither leads to satisfying transition. So I’m striving for balance, for an intentional halfway between disregarding my present and fearing my future.

I’m preparing to arrive in Kigali while preparing to leave Arizona, nurturing the anticipating and tending the grief simultaneously. I walk a fine line, noticing all the lasts while envisioning all the firsts.

I wonder if I’ll have a new pet as my dog licks my fingers, and at the moment I envision some vague, furry shape in my future, I realise my absence will be an eternity for this solid furry shape in my present.

I buy seeds to plant my favourite herbs and vegetables in my future garden, and I know I will not see the first flowers and fruits of the baby trees growing now in my present garden.

I hope my unknown host family will like me even while I’m exchanging bad puns and sarcastic banter with the family I’ve always known.

A photo by Kalle Kortelainen. unsplash.com/photos/HnWoAM0bMec

Every day, every moment, I am beginning goodbyes.

Goodbye to my books as I stack them in bins for storage. Goodbye to short shorts as I pack for a more conservative culture. Goodbye to soul-baking desert heat as I look forward to a milder climate.

Goodbye to the sunflowers we picked along the highway and planted in the backyard, and goodbye to the overgrown tomato vine that supplies my breakfast so often. Goodbye to morning cuddles when my mother flops on top of me to wake me up, and goodbye to evening scuffles when my brother tries to correct my faulty karate form.

It’s goodbye to more than that, though. It’s goodbye to effortless communication and innate cultural understanding, to time-proved friendships and subconscious patterns enforced by years of interaction. It’s goodbye to knowing how I fit into the social structure.

It’s goodbye to everything familiar.

Every day, every moment, I am beginning to grieve, to see the world through the lens of an upcoming ending.

Every hug, every wave, every “see you later” might be the last. Every flash of light against familiar walls and rooftops is the sun setting on this part of my life. Every drop of rain as the monsoon season finally wrings itself out is time washing away what I know.

Saying goodbye properly, I think, is not a matter of right or wrong, of checking every correct action off a list before you step onto a plane and into your future. Goodbye isn’t a ritual of words and hugs, a cliché of tears and tissues.

Goodbye is a perspective.

It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.

It’s knowing that the road always curves, that goodbye is inevitable, and that, whether or not you ever loop back to this stretch, the road beyond the bend holds adventures, joys, sorrows—life.

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Breathing

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I can’t breathe.

I find myself pacing, restless, needing to do something yet having nothing to do. I have no deadlines. I have no commitments. I have no classes, no job, no rehearsals.

Is this what it feels like to be an adult? I wonder.

It feels aimless.

To be fair, I’ve submitted eight freelance job proposals, attended a wedding, read a few books, revised twelve chapters of a novel, and unpacked and repacked almost constantly since arriving home from university. I’ve played poker and gone hiking napped on a mountain. I’ve washed dishes, made pizza, and come close to dying because I thought I was in shape and tried to sprint a mile.

It’s not like I’ve done nothing since graduation—and yet I find myself still with these terrifying pockets of undesignated time.

It’s an hour here and three hours there, ten minutes while the coffee perks in the mornings and fifteen minutes while I wait my turn for the bathroom at night.

And suddenly, without more homework than a human being can possibly get through, without work to rush to or emails to answer or events to attend, I find myself hemmed in by spare time.

I’ve dreamt of leisure for years—while I was working during high school, while I was reading textbooks during university, while I was job-hunting and tax-filing and internship-applying and apartment-cleaning and…

…and I’ve spent so much time wishing for freedom that now, with time on my hands, I feel restless. What do I do with the moments, the hours, the days? I feel lazy if I sit for a few minutes and do nothing. I sleep badly because I must be forgetting to do something.

I’m free, but I can’t enjoy it. Like a scared dog released from a small cage into a new environment, I huddle, immobile, terrified in my spare time, certain the appearance of freedom hides some trap.

And somehow, in the midst of newness and change, aimlessness and fear, I find myself breathing. I find that time is not, as I’ve been led to believe, a valuable commodity that I’m likely to fritter away.

I find it’s something bigger.

It’s the silence in which my heart beats and my eyes blink and a thousand thoughts race through my mind. It’s the chance to work, to invest, to learn, yes—but it’s also the chance to breathe. To look around me, to be caught up for minutes together in the beautiful flicker of leaves in the wind, to bond by lounging in aimless togetherness with my family, to sleep until I wake naturally and to marvel at the unfathomable interaction of my waking mind and my unconscious dreams.

Living, I see now, isn’t a matter of getting everything done before you die—it’s a matter of breathing.

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Shelter Dogs, Graduation, and Temporary Love

Sometimes, I adopt a shelter dog for a day. The local animal control allows people to borrow dogs and cats for an afternoon at a time to socialise the animals, get them out of their cages, and, hopefully, encourage people to fall in love with and permanently adopt a needy animal.

My roommate and I have done this twice now. Twice we’ve fallen in love with wriggling bundles of unconditional affection. Twice we’ve seen an animal’s joy at romping on grass and in woods rather than on concrete and in cages. Twice we’ve known our hearts would break at the end of the day when we returned the dogs to the shelter.

We’ve been poor college students living in no-pets-allowed dorms with unstable lifestyles. We would be irresponsible pet owners and eventually have to give them up all over again. Still, every time we take them back to their cages, my heart cracks as I hand the leash over to a shelter employee. There’s an urge, every time, to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with an animal I can’t keep. But it’s better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, and abandon myself to the eager eyes and wagging tail.

And yet we continue to go borrow pets for the day, and I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours we take them out and show them affection, we do something worthwhile—that despite my heartbreak both the dog and I are better for our few hours of love.

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I find, now, that this principle applies to more than dogs. As I packed four years of my life into boxes and suitcases, as I turned the tassel on my flat cap, hugged close friends goodbye for perhaps the last time, and watched my university disappear out the back window, I felt a familiar shattering under my ribcage.

Like most people, and definitely most TCKs, I hate goodbyes. I hate leaving people I love and places I’ve enshrined in my memories. And when I know an ending is coming, the temptation is always to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with people I can’t keep. I want to close myself off, to hide my soul away, protecting myself from the very beginning against the ending.

And yet it’s always better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, or the semester, or the four years, and abandon myself to the laughter and the tears and the friendships. Somehow, I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours or days or months we share joys and sorrows, we do something worthwhile.

I believe that we build something beautiful through late night hysteria and midafternoon naps, through heart-to-heart talks over coffee and insignificant jokes over cafeteria food. Most importantly, I believe that something does not have to be permanent to be beautiful—that some friendships are precious in their briefness, that the ephemeral can be as needed and as sacred as the eternal. And I believe that, despite my heartbreak at the end, both my friends and I are better for our few years of love.

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Confessions of a College Senior

There’s a frantic energy that pulses through college life. It’s the exuberance of the first week back in the fall, the urgent scramble to get ahead on homework before mid-semester apathy sets in, the wild abandon of late-night giggles before finals. It’s a desperation that pounds like a heartbeat, like treading water to stay afloat long after your legs are numb from exhaustion.

Numb legs. Numb mind. Numb heart.

That’s what I get after four years of this. I’m equally beyond panic and excitement. That freshman year flutter of anxiety over low grades has given way to an apathy born of desperation and exhaustion. The thrill of anticipation over upcoming events has dulled to a weary acceptance of change, a deadened recognition of time’s inevitable progression.

“Are you excited?” people ask when they know I’m graduating next week.

“Yes,” I say.

No, I think.

Excited? Who has the energy to be excited? I can’t see graduation past the packing, the cleaning, the final exams, the empty bank account, the endless commitments.

Photo credit: Laura McIntosh

The achievement I’ve worked toward, cried over, dreamed about—suddenly, as it comes within my reach, I find I don’t care. Exhaustion robs me of excitement. And besides—somewhere in the distance, beyond the cap and gown and diploma, I see something else coming. Something bigger. Something grander.

A new goal.

I’m struggling so hard to survive the moment, straining so hard to see into the future, that I’m about to let this achievement slip away unrecognised.

“You’re almost there!” people say.

“Yes, but…” I say.

That “yes, but…” is subtle. It feels like small talk when I say it, yet by letting it out, I negate my own success. Yes, I’ve put in four years of hard work, overcome challenges I never imagined, experienced adventures and heartbreaks I never anticipated—but…

But what? But I’m not quite there yet? But I have loans? But packing is hard and I don’t have a summer job and I’m worried about this, that, or the other?

This is not an isolated moment—this is every moment. At the crest of every hill, I see the mountain beyond and allow that to diminish my sense of accomplishment, to somehow make my effort meaningless, as if the successes to come make this one not matter.

There will always be a “but.” That’s life. Nothing is isolated. No day is 100% celebration. No moment is an isolated pinnacle. Something will always be coming in the future, but tomorrow’s struggle does not negate today’s achievement.

I cannot live my life looking away from today. I can’t diminish every ending. I can’t let every new challenge ruin the success of the moment.

So yeah—I’m stressed, I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed.

I’m also excited.

Because no matter what today looks like or what challenges wait in the future, I’m near the top of this mountain I’ve been climbing for four years. Whatever might be waiting for me beyond next week, I know that what I’ve done is significant. Where I am is important.

I refuse to let tomorrow negate today.

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High Wire Lifestyle

Like a lemming nearing a cliff’s edge, I’m racing toward graduation.

Or maybe the lemming simile doesn’t hold up—maybe I’m more like a performer on a high wire, desperately stepping toward the other platform while juggling five plates and seven flaming torches.

My life feels like a loosely-organised collection of objects, all of which must be kept from crashing into the ground or each other, and none of which is ever at rest. My laptop always has half a dozen windows, tabs, and sticky notes open to half-finished projects, and my mind is a scramble of approaching deadlines, to-be-read titles, and chemistry terms I still don’t quite understand and probably will guess on when the exam comes around.

And at the end of all that, at some point after the nightmare chem exam and the squeaked-under deadlines and the last pages of books that consume my soul for hours at a time—graduation looms.

Yes, let’s call all of this a high wire act.

Graduation looms like the platform at the other end of the wire, solid and safe, but also small. There will be room for me to turn around, to abandon my torches and my plates, to smile, to bow, to feel something stable beneath my feet—but it will last only a moment. The platform of graduation is just big enough to make me feel safe for a few breaths, but I cannot live there. Somehow I will have to make my way from graduation to solid ground.

And somehow, I feel certain that when I climb down that ladder, I won’t find a wide expanse of ground to rest on, but yet another platform and yet another wire.

Perhaps I’ll be juggling differently on that next tightrope—instead of plates and torches, maybe bowls and batons. Instead of papers, exams, and packing lists, maybe lesson plans, foreign noun cases, and new street names will swirl through my mind. But I’ll still be on a high wire, still moving to keep from falling, still with my eye on that next platform and the momentary solid safety beneath me before the next ladder and the next wire.

See, the thing about a high wire is that you can’t sit still. You can’t relax. You can’t decide that balancing no longer matters or that you’re going to spend the rest of your life hovering on the wire between one platform and the next—and yet, in the end, that’s where we live, I think. We like to think we spend our time on the platforms, where we can let down our guard, set aside the props, and rest. But if we land on those solid boards, it’s only once in a while, only long enough to catch our breath.

Life, I think, is lived on the wires between platforms. It’s lived in the struggle to stay upright and the wild flailing to keep all the balls and plates and what-have-you in the air. It’s lived in the gasps when we think we’ll fall and the ecstasy when we think we’re flying. It’s lived in that first moment when we leave the platform and feel the empty air beneath us, and it’s lived in those last moments when we wonder whether we’ll tip to our deaths before we reach respite.

Life, I think, is lived in motion.

So here I am, running toward the graduation platform, eager for the brief rest, ready to let the plates and torches drop, ready to relax on solid ground even for a moment. But also, here I am, running toward the next wire—and I’m eager for that, too.

Photo cred: Flickr user Christian

Between Bowls

Did you think I was done exploring the struggles and truths of transition times? Are we ever really done with transition? Here’s Amy’s take on moving home after graduating a semester early.


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I don’t like the in-between stages. I’m not sure anyone does. So when I came home after finishing university a semester early, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After sixteen and a half years in school, I had a routine down. In August, prepare for school and start classes. Early June, head home for summer vacation. Late August, repeat. But this year was different. I came home in February, not June, and my friends were all still in that routine, starting a new semester of classes and doing fun activities together while I sat at home trying to figure out a plan for this new stage of life.

After coming home, I took over caring for the family goldfish, Albert. He’s a happy fish, living in a good-sized container. He loves to swim around quickly to show off his gloriously large tail, and his bright orange coloring contrasts beautifully against the royal blue marbles at the bottom of his home. That is, for about a week and a half until his water gets dirty. All too quickly, the water takes on a dingy hue and poor Albert’s scales don’t seem quite as bright and happy. His water begins to evaporate, little by little, leaving a dirty ring around the top of the bowl and leaving Albert with less space to swim. Soon after these changes occur, I do what any good pet owner would. I scoop him into a small red cup and set him nearby on the counter while I scrub and rinse his little home until it’s clean and then fill it with fresh water so that he can swim freely and healthily again.

The only problem is that Albert hates the red cup. His big tail is suddenly a hassle, encumbering his movement for the five minutes that he is in a smaller space. He wants to dart and dive, but the red cup is just big enough for him to move around a little while he waits for his home to be cleaned.

In many ways, I feel like Albert. In this time of transition between college and “real life,” I’m stuck at home. I had a routine, but I’m being thrown into a new one, and it feels confining. Unlike Albert, though, I know better things wait on the other side of this transition. I know the in-between stage is just that—a time in between two good things—and that after this stage, I will be in a much bigger bowl, with plenty of room to dart and dive and try new things and with space to open my talents up wide and grow in new ways.


View More: http://tracifalderphotography.pass.us/taylor-cco-headshotsAmy Gaasrud recently graduated from Taylor University where she studied Professional Writing. She currently works as a freelance proofreader for InterVarsity Press. When she’s not editing or writing, Amy loves baking, reading, and finding pictures of cute animals to send to her friends. To hear more from her, follow her on Twitter (@AmyGaasrud).