Hearts and Bones

I’m not complaining, I’m not complaining but, yes, I’m complaining.  It’s been a physically and  somewhat emotionally exhausting week, and I sometimes just want to list all of the things that make it that way: the heat in a steaming jar feeling of the weather, sore throats/colds in the heat, not enough protein, at times not enough sleep, pain in my hip, and did I mention the heat and surprise power outages?  But this listing really makes it sound petty, when sometimes I feel like one of those things is enough to sap all of my energy for the entire day.

I remember B., who had lived in Zanzibar for some time telling me when we had lunch, the only time we did, that one day at a Somali restaurant in Denver, that the second time she had been in east Africa (maybe the first time she had been on the mainland, in Dar I think), she was living in a really rural part of the island and she got really excited when it started to rain a lot—she said she was catching the rain in buckets to use to wash clothes or to maybe to wash dishes, and then she realized it was a really bad idea because the rainwater was so dirty.  I remember her describing this feeling that she physically was really not able to handle Zanzibar very well and in the end felt pretty defeated by it, and I remember thinking, yes, I can see that easily happening, because sometimes you can do these things and sometimes you just can’t, though it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the capacity to, but that you just can’t always do it.  I know that I’m definitely closer to not being able to do it than being able to, feeling like I’m constantly fighting off a mysterious, looming but concrete illness, moreso today and yesterday than usual, so that when the power went off in the middle of the night and I was lying in that steaming jar of heat, I really wasn’t happy about it, at all (okay, I was mad).

But honestly, all of these things are just such “day-to-day” Zanzibar experiences and woven in with more important backdrops.  Like: a cow was slaughtered one day this week at 6:15 am, and not just slaughtered in any particular way, but beheaded, since that is a traditional way to offer sacrifices here.  It was for the two month old baby upstairs who I’d seen for the first time about a week or so before with the cousins from upstairs, and to some extent I knew it was coming the night before, when my host dad took my hand and pushed aside the curtain to show me the large white cow standing calmly outside in the rectagular courtyard where clothes dry.  So I said, “Oh, I don’t want to be here when the beheading happens,” and my host dad said, “me neither, I can’t stomach it!”  But then the next morning at about 5:45 am, I heard the arrival of people and the coming of those people to the balcony outside the window to watch and pray over the beheading.  So it happened.  It was loud, but somewhat quick, followed by a lot of praying upstairs.  I did some abs exercises while listening to that, a little annoyed, but somewhat relaxed by the praying which, to be fair, sounded really choreographed and good.

That night we had the cow for dinner—I took a bite, and then said to my host mom, I’m sorry, I just can’t!  She laughed, and said, if you hadn’t seen it you might have been able to!  I gave my piece to Naifa who sat perched on the arm of the couch next to me while eating, saying, “Mmmmm, Sarah, delicious!  Try some!! Very good!”  She likes saying the phrase “very good!” in English to refer to almost anything.

So I don’t remember if it was that night or the night following, probably the next night, but I felt so exhausted by all of these cultural things and the heat and heartburn, so I went to an Italian restaurant and watched a lot of Kristen Wiig SNL videos which I feel partly was a really inappropriate response to a cow beheading on my part, but sometimes, a lot of the time, I am not really sure where else to go but there.  The internet is dangerous, and I am debating really moving away from it, or trying to, because I feel so bombarded sometimes that it’s really easy to get sucked in, away, “anywhere but here.” But if I were in America, that’s probably what I would do too—watch t.v., or do something that would let me step away from the analysis for a while, use a different part of my brain or shut it down, and those things are harder to access here.  It feels more difficult and sometimes impossible to escape the difficulty, concreteness of day-to-day life.

But returning to “complaints”—I have this feeling of wanting my complaints to feel somehow graceful; I want to sketch them in a way that will make people nod and say something like, “yes, that’s a reasonable and thoroughly articulated complaint, and I may have felt that way before myself even if I haven’t experienced that exact thing.”  But I don’t feel that way at all—most of the time I feel like my complaints tend to err towards “I have to go the bathroom, “ or “my hands are dry,” or “It’s hot,” the kinds of things that make me feel as if I sound really out of touch, because what I’m trying to express is a lot bigger than that, but the trigger is something like my hair blowing across a peeling, sunburnt face.   I feel a lot of the time like my brain isn’t doing the work it’s supposed to, because my body’s not doing the work it’s supposed to, and I just don’t feel as confident about things, like my language ability, or my thinking ability, as I want to normally feel.  And socially too, I feel primarily concerned about putting one foot in front of the other, that I have these bursts of worry that I’m behaving really rudely or passive aggressively or socially inappropriately (as it’s even harder to know here) all of the time.  Because I know that I’m thinking about myself and in terms of myself more than ever.

But the real thing here is the broader context, though obviously.  The other day I was lying on the beach with the apocalyptic feeling I tend to have on beaches, especially here, because they are often deserted and the water so blue.  I was listening to S & G and crying a little, just enough, thinking, this is the weirdest I’ve ever felt.  I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that I haven’t been in one place for longer than 2 months in so long.  Since March 20, when I left for Uganda, and was there for 6 weeks, in Kampala and Gulu, and then in Denver for 5, Oxford for a few days, and Gainesville for 8 weeks, Oxford again for 4, Zanzibar for about 3.5, then Oxford for again about 5 with traveling during that period, to Louisiana, and LA, and Colorado, and then again back to Zanzibar for about 4 by now.

Another thing that complicates these complaints is that I feel like, especially abroad, there can be a tendency to contextualize complaints in a broader, upward sloping narrative: yes, these things are frustrating, but in the end, it’s the people who matter, it’s the joy that children bring when they do strange, delightful things, or the happiness of seeing a sunset and drinking coffee or eating ice cream, or people going out of their way to show you their kindness and love.  And while I believe that those things in and of themselves are beautiful and good, the ultimate triumph of that narrative feels more vacuous and distant to me than ever, because I feel so familiar with the deception involved in remembering anything that was ugly or difficult.  I do feel that I enjoy things more in retrospect because I am more able to discard the experiences of sheer physical exhaustion and hold the kernel of the memory without all of the junk that probably actually surrounded it.  But those physical experiences are important too, and all of that junk is important too, obviously, so I have a really hard time these days with any kind of redemptive narrative.  Most of the time, I tend to think, “this is a hard time,” as in, this particular time is hard, but other times aren’t like that—this is an anomaly, this is not what life really is.  But there is so much danger in that deception, and while I don’t mean that it’s all true, it’s definitely important.

I’m mostly thinking in terms of these redemptive narratives because of this that I read, quoting a Huffpost article by Carolyn Gregoire, which resonated:

“…when it comes to life stories, our current emotional states and life circumstances have an enormous impact on how we construe the past and imagine the future — even based on moment to moment oscillations, says McAdams. Going through a depressive period or time of pain can change your entire story for the duration of that period. While recovering from a divorce or breakup, for instance, you might view the past more somberly and be motivated to construe how you got to this point…”


“Redemption is seen as when something in the story starts really bad,” says McAdams. “They’ll talk about a negative event – a failure, or some kind of disruption or loss – and then they’ll transition into some positive outcome from that.” For example, a generative person might view getting fired or divorced as a catalyst for a better opportunity to arise later down the road. The basic arc of a generative script is always one of going through suffering and then coming out of it better than you were before.”

It’s strange because as much as I struggle with this narrative construction, I still continue to have these concrete, though moving ideas of how I will be in the future.  I think about myself both in a refugee camp in the DRC and also doing research in some beautiful library in Amherst.  Maybe one day I will be runing a marathon or, in the nearer future, trying to find a good racing swimsuit.  But at the same time, I feel less compelled by this idea of an upward slope than maybe I have been in the past.  And I don’t mean it in the depressive way that I feel that it sounds.  I just don’t even want to feel that way anymore.  I want to remember all of these negative things too—physical, emotional, spiritual—and just deal with them.  These are part of everything too, and I know I won’t just wake up tomorrow feeling differently, just maybe more rested.

I feel like I’m almost trying to argue something to myself here, but I don’t mean to.  Another thing is that I heard these James Taylor lyrics the other day, and I thought, yeah, that’s true, it would feel like a festival or it would feel like Christmas morning, maybe even all the time, if I didn’t feel this deep loss, digging into me, all of the time.

Probably the best part of this week was when Bikombo and I planned our skit, and not wanting to tell her I thought it sounded really boring, I suggested we get into a fight as I’m trying to sell her cloves; she wants me to lower the price, so I start saying incendiary things: “What, do you want me to be on the streets, begging begging?”  That’s one great thing about Swahili, that you just say things twice for emphasis.

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