An effort to stay afloat while determining which way is up

Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

Wrenched by Toto

Well, I had been sleeping, finally sunk down into the body surrounding me and floating on the darkness, until I was reawakened rudely by some inconsiderate explosions from the computer screen, these directed at Mark and his need for constant entertainment.  I turned to my other side, wiping small amounts of drool off of my face, to eventually see an episode of Family Guy come into sleep-blurred focus on the screen across from the bed.

Now, I tend to enjoy humor rooted in intelligence, rather than jokes created for shock-value and in-jokes that make people feel special because they remember obscure bits of pop culture from the 1980’s, so it’s safe to assume that I do not enjoy this show very much;  however, on this night I had been jarred out of the complex sequence of launch codes required to fully journey my way into dreamland, so while the gears and switches were being reset to hopefully restart the process, I had no choice but to listen to this episode.

There was some kind of flashback scene in the episode requiring a cheesy, dated feel, so of course the writers choose to play that staple of 1983, Toto’s “Africa” to get the right atmosphere as well as some cheap nostalgic laughs.  I, of course, couldn’t laugh because the moment the song started I wasn’t in my bed anymore; I had been wrenched out of my bedroom and my country and time itself, back a year and a half ago to an open-air dance party celebration in Hamdallaye, Niger.  Cement below our feet and thatched roof above, we milled around the chair-encircled courtyard, swimming in the yellow incandescent light of the night with sodas in hand as we talked and joked and celebrated our achievement: we had all survived three months of training to become Peace Corps volunteers.  Prior to this night I had never even heard of the song “Africa”, but standing then on the red soil of the continent it sings of, that was soon about to change.

Our silly American dance party was fast becoming a silly American karaoke party as ipods were whipped out and hooked up to the stereo.  Performances were typically over-dramatic and chock full of nutty fun as my friends sang off-key and gesticulated wildly to songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “She Wolf”.  Then Heather stepped up to the microphone and did what she always does best: with bravery, skill, and honesty, she told a story.  She had talked about how long ago at some college party, she had heard and been inspired by this next song, and knew that one day she would come to the place it spoke of, and maybe take some time to do the things we never have.  Cue Toto.

It was cheesy.  It was also true.  Most importantly, it meant something, damn it.  It meant something to Heather then, and upon hearing the song again on an unremarkable night in my unremarkable bed, it means something to me now.

One of the few consistent lessons I’ve learned in my life is that most of the experiences you think will be the great, meaningful monuments set in stone in your life’s timeline will come without pomp and ceremony, and they will fall disappointingly flat, while other more inconspicuous moments will in retrospect come to mean more to you than you ever thought they would; these moments are almost always inextricably intertwined with cheese.  Hearing that song again, laying on my side forced to endure a cheesy 80’s montage on a sub-par TV show in place of my own fantastic dreams, I felt the same thing Heather felt those years ago.  I don’t care what it takes, I have to go back someday.  Call it the thirst for adventure, or maybe affluent American naivety, or something as cliche as “trying to find myself”.  The simple truth is that I saw too many beautiful places and  met too many beautiful people to let that world rest unexperienced and unexplored in my life.

I know its cheesy to listen to that song and find inspiration in it, but I won’t let fear of sentiment stop me because on that night it became meaningful to me.  All things meaningful are by nature cringe-inducingly cheesy; I have come to embrace this fact, as I would rather lead a meaningful life than a cynical one.    I will have to wait until after this year’s France program, but, harnessing the power of as many cheesy cliches as possible, with god (and Toto) as my witness, I vow to return one day to that place, to once again see my sneakers stained by its ancient red soil.

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

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Unstuck

Last Friday I was at work, wiping down tables sticky with spilled milk and using a rag to brush off constellations of crumbs from the same cafeteria pizza they’ve been serving in public schools for the last twenty years at least.  They’ve assigned me to lunch duty, which I knew they would, even if it’s not in the job description.  I don’t mind.  It makes the day go faster.  This is life now.

Rewind to one year earlier when I was curled up on the most uncomfortable airport chairs imaginable trying to get some sleep in Madrid on an 18-hour layover.  There are no cushions on the chairs, and the arm rests are fixed in place and  close enough to the seats to render me the singular option of to contorting around them, determined to reach some kind of unconsciousness.  I know that my music player only has a few minutes of battery left, so in addition to my Spanish sleeping arrangements, I know if I don’t drop off the edge soon before the music dies, the brain’s autopilot will be discontinued and I’ll start thinking myself in circles again.

Rewind again to the day before.  I’m sobbing in a very ugly manner on a train somewhere between Rabat and Casablanca.  I’ve just said goodbye to all the friends I thought I would have years to get to know.  One good friend saw me off at the train station.  The rest had either left already, or they were eating their last breakfast in the unusually fancy hotel we had been housed in for the past week.  We had both done our best to make light of the situation, but the tears came anyway.  A nice Moroccan man gave us each a dirham as a souvenir of our time.  I already had a few left, not to mention several thousand CFA, but I was grateful nonetheless.  I’m holding on to that dirham looking at the countryside tumble past.  My luggage is sitting on the seat between me and the window, so I can make it appear as though all that land is falling interminably into my suitcase.  I’ve become very good at packing.

Rewind one last time to the week before when we all find out we will be forced to leave West Africa after developing a love and reverence for the land and its people in only seven months.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote a book about becoming unstuck in time, a concept which, since I read about it, has stuck with me ever after.  While separated by some distance, all these moments are somehow part of the same simultaneous crash.

The word “evacuation” is finally and definitively delivered from our friend Tondi’s mouth.  Crash.

The attendant comes to punch my ticket and help me figure out how to get to the airport, even though I’m in such a state I can hardly remember a word of French.  Crash.

I wake from an unsatisfactory twenty minute sleep and notice that my drooling has left a mark on my new Moroccan bag which remains there to this day.  Crash.

A bell rings to call in the next grade for lunch at a school in a town where I never thought I’d be in a profession where I never wanted to be.  Crash.

Or perhaps more appropriately, ding.

Today being the 22nd of January means my Peace Corps service ended over a year ago and I am once again a listless drifter with no particular goal in sight.  I will remain this way until April at least, when I will hopefully be accepted into a French work program.  My primary mission now is to survive the next three months of feeling worthless.  Hopefully writing about things will help.  All the details will come to light eventually.

For now I’ll just be treading in some mighty metaphorical waters.