Saturday, March 24, 2012

full exposure: south africa, part two


“You learn not to mourn every little thing out here, or you’d never, ever stop grieving.” 

Alexandra Fuller


(Read Part One here.)

I came home from Cape Town in the middle of winter, my funds depleted and my long-term relationship crumbling. Turns out, you can't escape yourself. Being a life-long fan of Breakfast at Tiffany's, you'd think I'd have learned that. But as my mom would say, there's a big difference between knowing with your head and knowing in your heart.

Speaking of Mom (or as I'm starting to think I should call her, "Oh Wise One"), my generous and ever-supportive parents helped me rent an apartment near school so that I'd at least be living somewhat independently, within walking distance of campus. Exciting stuff, right? My own place, a new school, and all that? It could've been. But.

Notice how my blog dries up right about this time. In 2008, I wrote a total of three posts. I was too busy falling apart to write, too exhausted to try and hunt down gratitude in the fog of sadness. And I didn't know how to ask for help, couldn't pinpoint what was going wrong.

That first semester back at school, I had this recurring dream in which I'd adopted the children I worked with in SA. We'd be on an airplane together, flying back to the States, me trying to figure out how I would feed all of them.

My waking thoughts were similarly consuming. I'd be hanging out in my living room, studying on the couch, when suddenly I’d start visualizing how five or six entire homes from the township would fit side-by-side in the rooms of the apartment where I lived alone. Wracked with gut-wrenching guilt, I'd cry for hours on end.

I was afraid of the dark. 

My first month on campus, I participated in an after-school tutoring program in conjunction with one of my classes. On the first day, I walked from my apartment over to the building where we were meeting. Two hours later, as everyone was leaving, full-fledged panic set in: Oh my God! The sun is down and it’s pitch-black outside! How am I going to get home?!? . . . Slowly it dawned on me that I was no longer in South Africa, that I was, as it happened, in one of the safest towns in America. I was going to get home the same way I’d come. Still, I had to force myself to walk the six blocks back to my apartment, shaking and checking over my shoulder the whole way there. 

From that point on, I drove to tutoring, but even then I wasn't free from fear. As when driving anywhere, I made sure my valuables were locked safely in the trunk. It took me months to stop reaching for the car stereo to stuff in the glove box whenever I parked.

Through all of this, I managed to excel in my classes, earning straight A's and eventually graduating Summa Cum Laude. Nevermind that I had almost no friends and was a hot emotional mess, or that my relationship of five years was destroyed (and destroying me). I was fine! It would all be fine. After all, I told myself, plenty of people encounter poverty more widespread, violence more gruesome, and they don’t fall apart. As you might imagine, this did not make me feel better. In fact, in only served to prove that I was an even greater failure than I'd initially thought.

I’m embarrassed to admit:  
That my college years were a social disaster. 
That I lived from a place of fear, sadness, and ego, 
and that I still struggle with this. 
And in some ways, that I am who I am.

I wish I could go back to my then-self and tell her it would be all right. Tell her to pay better attention to the people that loved her, to ease up every now and again. To reach out, laugh more. In equal measure, though, I wish the future me could come tell this one it will continue to get better. Most of the time I’m still wading through the muck with more questions than answers.

The other day I was talking with Andy* when I had a crazy revelation: That every experience I’ve had since South Africa is tied to it in some way. While my motivations for traveling there in the first place may have been murky at best, I continue to carry the hearts of the children I worked with in my own. As a result, if I’m not doing something to help them, then I’m not doing enough. Which means, in a strange twist of subconscious, that I am never enough. For over four years, my whole life has been less-than.

While I know this can’t be right, part of me won’t let go. To know that that level of poverty exists, to have witnessed it up close, and to do nothing about it . . . It seems despicable. Especially when you realize that such poverty is manmade, in this case the direct result of human hatred. And I can’t make sense of it, of any of it. I get lost in the darkness. 

So I apologize for not having a tidy wrap up, a way to package up this particular place of shame and tie a little bow around it.  All I can say is: I went to South Africa as a way to run, and I’ve been carrying around fifty-five children ever since. I don’t know what’s happened to most of them, or if I’ll ever see them again. But for what it’s worth, I loved them. I will always love them. Now, however, the time has come to let them go.

Thanks for bearing with me, folks. I'll be sure to follow up with a bit of bliss soon (in case those joyful little faces weren't enough!). Enjoy your weekend.

*Remember that “destroyed relationship”? It’s now referred to as “a rough patch.”