004. Moths

A few months ago, on the phone with my mom, I was crying. That’s nothing new. The crying was a new kind of crying, though—like relief, or release. The kind of release I imagine finally comes (in a much larger order) to people who have just endured an enormous feat of trembling psycho-physical endurance—the marathon, the trench, the slogging march of the exile.

Under those double-tests of both will and body, any falter in resolve, any sideways glance at the encircling darkness would lead to certain failure, and in some cases, death. The key to successful endurance is, I think, a temporary shrinking of the larger reality to focus only on the event at hand. It’s why runners can be stoic and soulless and steel-jawed straight through the finish line; and why, when the adrenaline of the race stops coursing through their bodies, they can become weeping crumpled children.

The sense of relief that had flooded me, and that I was haltingly relating to my mom through the radiowaves, was less dramatic and less identifiable than that of the athlete. I had just come from a weekend at Mount Hermon, a sprawling campus in the Santa Cruz mountains marked by spicy-smelling chapels, ropes courses in the redwoods, and cabins full of bygone accessories: a wood-burning stove, cast-iron skillets. It was the default site to which most Bay Area churches retreated for their annual weekends of communion—with each other, with the finally smog-less forest air, and, if all went well, with the Almighty God.

Meeting with God is rarely straightforward. I attribute this to many things, but most directly to our love of the darkness, our bewilderment in the light. We don’t know what to do in the light: flounder about in our newfound exposure, deem it uncomfortable. Undesirable.

At dusk this evening, I was assaulted by a moth on the porch of our house. I was trying to lock the front door as discreetly as possible, but the moth was making such panicked arcs around the porch-light that it kept rushing stupidly into my arm and shoulder—hurtling headfirst toward the glow to which it seemed so compulsively drawn, then losing all courage, tumbling back toward me or up into the cool wide night, keen to leave the yellow orbit. Its schizophrenia startled me. A new desire every half-second: beautiful light, abominable light. Consume me, leave me be.

I was telling my mom that, finally, I felt I was with God again, or God-with-me. Sharing the same spaces, Emmanuel. He hadn’t exactly found me at Mount Hermon, but during one of my antisocial flights from the campus, parked in a peeling 1999 Camry on the shoulder of the road beside the roaring Pacific. My sense of relief as I spoke with her came from being able, after a long period of self-imposed stoicism, to admit to all of my longings out loud.

Longings are not public things. They may determine entire human destinies, but rarely do they see the light of day. We tout our ambitions proudly, but our desires—the very marrow of our lives, so earnest and private we’re instinctively ashamed of them—remain securely trenched in us.

I told her that God had so often manifested in my life as an absence, a longing for reunion. I believe incompleteness is the most basic human condition. I have known God as a once-vital part of myself: a limb lost so early on that I can hardly remember my fully-formed self, but so great a loss that I re-encounter it every time I move my body. I told her that my longing for oneness with God, for reunion with my many lost limbs—it stretched backward like a thrumming thread through all the years I’d already lived, and even now it was stretched taut ahead of me, pulling me upward and outward with agonizing force like a newly-hooked fish.

“Well, most of life is just trying to get back to God,” she said.

Most of it is. Amen, amen.

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003. Shrinking

Last year I had the chance to travel through the music-scapes of Tanzania and Kenya and Ethiopia (homes of my childhood, lands of my literal dreams); I feel I’ve grown in ways that I’m only beginning to recognize and identify. Maybe “grown” is not the right word—I feel reworked, revised, I feel startled and shorn, I feel unsure of many things I previously felt sure about. I feel, with a mixture of shame and relief, the size and the heft of my un-knowledge. “Grown” is the wrong word.  I feel shrunk more than anything.

Maybe because I’d walked Tanzanian ground before (Tanzania as marked by the technical black lines of the World Map; there are so many tanzanias contained in that stomach-shaped scrawl) or maybe because I already spoke Kiswahili, or maybe because I am privy to the same generalizations and assumptions that I scold other outsiders for holding about East Africa, I expected to slide smoothly into the sprawl and strata of Dar es Salaam. Dar es Salaam: capital city, home to three million, primary port of commerce and trade, political nexus. Teeming with musical divas, starving entrepreneurs, con artists, rancid politicians, clear-eyed sailors, rural girls looking for husbands, kids vending ice cream they cannot afford to eat.

Dar es Salaam, gleefully defaulting on the promise encoded in its ancient title: abode of peace. A half-promised land, a humid festering land in which long months of sweat and striving rarely translate into real returns. Three million dreams hemmed in by the warm semi-circle of the Indian Ocean, sprouting and spreading in the heat like weird bacterial growths in a petri dish. How did I expect to enter that humid, living tangle without some great effort—without the pain of grafting, of surrendering myself to the larger organism?

Those first months in Dar es Salaam, I can only describe as transitional. I had hoped to speed through the acclimation process, bypass all of the discomfort and dependence and disorientation of starting over in a strange city. I’d expected to stride cleanly onto the “music scene.” I’d expected—across the pockmarked, pot-holed, unmapped morass of Tanzania—to ride some level inroad straight into its center. But within days, Dar es Salaam had reduced me—or elevated me, I guess—to the dependency level of a child: a tentative questioner, an apologetic intruder.

Only after being away from Dar es Salaam for some months has it begun to take shape in my mind. When you’re in the city, it demands all of your senses, at all times—there’s no way to hold it clearly in a single glance, which is what makes it so difficult to write about. Dar es Salaam is defined by its much-ness. It still feels too expansive and volatile and shifty for words, but like all lovers of place and language, I have to try—

Tanzania is a country for sleeping with no blankets, just sheets, and sometimes not even that—sleeping on bare beds, sleeping on the cold stone floor. At the home of the Guni’s—my first host family—there was an open courtyard in the middle of the house, and all through July, the city was ravaged by night-storms, storms that came right into the structure of the house, and not at all tentatively. The house was like a mouth turned skyward, thirsty for storm-water, gawking at whatever gods arced over the human schemata of the coastline.

For my part, I felt cracked open, a pomegranate with its bright red innards gleaming through the skin. Everything in me was showing—I simply couldn’t hide. During that first month, I kept waking up in the early dawn to rain plummeting down through the roof, and the cement floor running in rivers so that I couldn’t go to the bathroom without my clothes and skin getting soaked. The lines between natural and domesticated space were utterly irrelevant. The walls, the ground and my body—all were turning heavy with water, and never more receptive.

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002. Kigamboni

For those first months, while I lived in the southern suburb of Kigamboni, I took the ferry across the channel to reach downtown Dar es Salaam. To board the ferry, you were first funneled, along with thousands of other day-walkers, into a sort of shaded corral beside the ferry dock—that is exactly what it seemed like, cattle-cramming—to wait for the ship’s arrival. If you were lucky, you only waited for a few minutes, pressed in there against hundreds of other sweating, heaving, sniffling, wiping, dripping, aching, shrugging, sighing, boiling humans. The sea air, already dense and saturated, became even more so under the corrugated tin awning of the corral. And all the bodies! Most people seemed to be holding their breath, trying sensibly to conserve our limited stash of oxygen. The man beside me, his cheeks tight with unreleased air, was rapidly turning the cells in his body to carbon dioxide, getting woozier and less stable, swaying visibly (no danger of falling down in this sardine-can of a waiting room!)—Brinking on unconsciousness… The massive woman in front of me pulled panicked on the collar of her shirt, her Himalayan bosom straining upwards for the slightest air-whiffle coming in off the sea, and we were all growing warmer and warmer and warmer… We were becoming radiator-hot, scorching to the touch, portioning out our last mites of oxygen to the weakest among us, swaying in dis-unison—severely imbalanced but buttressed on all sides by soggy fleshy props…

And then the gate-guard stepped up to the padlock, key in hand. Apathetic jailer, militant gatekeeper: only great callousness or great discipline kept him from turning the key. The veins in our necks and temples were tight with waiting. The ferry lowered its groaning boarding ramp, unspooling black metal chains thicker than a woman’s thigh—eeeeee-iiiiiiiiiii-ergh—followed by the scrape of metal on concrete as the ramp slid into place. And then, abruptly, the gates opened out, unleashing the cattle-stampede we’d been dreading and longing for (the terror! the relief!), and we were sucked straight into the mad suffocating crawl toward the ship and to free air.  We were moving and not moving: borne along, a compulsory charge. With very little effort, you found yourself trampling dress hems, exposed heels, small children—but there was no way to stop moving forward! The unrelenting human mass kept steamrolling out of the gate and toward the water, beneath you, over you—but you were a part of it, there’s no exempting yourself!—bobbing along… one more benign, oxygen-less cattle-face, soaked with perspiration.

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