Friday, March 23, 2012

full exposure: south africa, part one


At the Cape of Good Hope, November 2007

"I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us. We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content. We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret. We continue to explore ourselves, hoping to understand. We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty. We like forests and mountains, deserts and hidden rivers, and the lonely cities as well. Our sadness is as much a part of our lives as is our laughter. To share our sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we can know - unless it be to share our laughter. We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide." 

James Kavanaugh


For a long time, I've struggled to figure out what this blog is actually about. (It's like that line in Lost In Translation, where Scarlett Johansson's character says, "I just don't know what I'm supposed to be." Both blog and author are stumped.) More recently, I've also wondered who, exactly, I was writing for, and why. 

emy in the world began as a way to document my volunteer trip to South Africa in 2007, and my audience at the time was clear-cut: I wrote for college professors, people that had donated to the project, fellow volunteers, and my family. Blogging was simply a step up from the mass emails I'd occasionally send out during my first year abroad, as a student in Germany (back when our internet was dial-up and facebook was just an idea). While I do believe that what I wrote at the beginning was authentic and honest, it certainly wasn't the whole story. 

Here's the part I never covered: South Africa knocked the wind out of me. I'm only just learning how to get back up on my feet. 

When I decided to embark on my third continent and second expat adventure, I was a student at the community college I'd spent most of my teen years ridiculing. Without a doubt, COD was the "College of Dumb-asses" in my (clearly superior) circle of friends. Deciding to forgo the expensive education at the school I'd initially decided upon was painful but necessary -- and not just for cost-cutting reasons. 

Attending the College of DuPage ended up being one of the greatest blessings in my life thus far. As a student in the (now-defunct) Honors Program, the majority of the classes I took were capped at around 20 students and taught by full-time faculty (who to this day remain some of the best, most interesting people I've ever known). In addition, any Honors class I took while in the program was tuition-free. So naturally, I enrolled in pretty much nothing but Honors courses.

For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who learned like me -- gifted thinkers that cared about what they were learning, doing, and contributing. My classmates also came from every walk of life and were many different ages. I loved everything about this. In a religion class, for example, someone would pipe up and say, "Well, I'm Buddhist, and this is what I think," or, "I actually practice Hinduism, so if you want I could arrange a tour at my temple." My partners on group projects were often decades older than me, and as such brought real-world knowledge and wisdom to our work that I wouldn't have had access to otherwise. Talk about first-hand learning! I couldn't get enough.

COD also gave me the flexibility to pursue whatever I was interested in without worrying too much about the cost or my transcripts. So I went for it: I took metalsmithing and participated in my first-ever gallery show; I enrolled in a writing workshop at an all-female youth prison; I went on a weekend caving trip to Indiana (best P.E. credit ever); I witnessed the warbler migration in Ohio and fell in love with bird-watching; I immersed myself in a Native American Experience course . . . and on it goes. No-holds-barred, experiential learning, where every participant is there because they want to be? It was a dream come true.

This didn't change the outside world's perception of the school I called home. Saying you go to a community college, even one you love, doesn't elicit quite the same reaction as, I don't know, "Harvard" might (or even just a well-respected state school). Towards the end of my two year stay at COD I was feeling a bit fidgety (read: having nervous crying breakdowns and hiding under my desk at work every now and then). I'd earned a full scholarship to a local four-year college, where I planned to study education with the aim of student teaching abroad (ah, yes -- like facebook, this, too, once existed only as an idea).

Once again, telling people the name of my future alma mater didn't impress either one of us. For one thing, it was a mere 20 minutes away from where I grew up. I needed to get out, and fast. But I also needed to finish my degree.

Enter South Africa.

It was an adventure, and full of excitement, to be sure. More than that though? It was an escape.

I'm embarrassed to admit:

I went to Cape Town under the guise of serving others. In reality, my main focus was myself.

I am deeply, deeply ashamed by this. But I also know that I am deeply human, and therefore flawed beyond measure. In many ways, I've also been paying the price for five years.

Did I love the children I worked with? More than I ever thought possible. Did my work there have value? Some, to be sure. Would I go back? In a heartbeat. Do I regret it? Only sometimes.

The thing is, I still can't make sense of it all. I ran from myself, sacrificed for the wrong reasons, and threw my world so completely off balance that I've been spinning ever since. 

There's a world of difference between "taking a leap" and "running away," and it's not always easy to tell which is which. Sometimes I wonder if, right now, living abroad, I'm actually playing it safe in some ways. For the past five years, this has been my comfort zone: a perpetual state of in-between and what-ifs. And because of my reasons for going to South Africa, I've believed I'm getting what I deserve.

Perhaps, then, the greatest leap of all would be to change my mind. To decide, once and for all, that I am worthy of life. Flaws and all.

More to come in Part Two . . . . Stay tuned . . . . x