The answers are out there in the drowning deep

Today was one of those days when I inexplicably have Christmas carols stuck in my head: first, “Un Flambeau, Jeanette Isabella”, my favorite despite the fact that I always butcher the French; then “Little Drummer Boy”. The reason can’t be the weather, which has been beautiful these past few days, unseasonably warm and disconcertingly windy. Yesterday, finding myself in the city, I sat in the sculpture garden and watched ice-skaters in T-shirts and tennis skirts glide around a melting rink, skates throwing up plumes of water, reflections bright against the sky. Arriving early at a friend’s, I waited on a back porch and watched the sunset while warm, gusting winds wrought havoc on my hair. Today, devoid of obligations and free of cares, my father and I took a long walk along the C&O Canal, admiring the day.

The strangest thing about this weather, to me, is how the character of the wind changes depending on whether I’m outside or in. There are few things I love more than walking into a strong wind, feeling it blow directly into my face, knowing that my hair is standing out horizontally from my head. But when I’m shielded from the gales all I hear is cruelty, a hard whistling that seems to want nothing more than to rip away the walls and windows between us and blow me away.


It’s strange, how the most mundane household chores become benchmarks of adulthood.

I’m home alone for two weeks while various family members are in places of varying exoticness (ranging from Baltimore on the dull end to the Maldives on the “where is that again?” end). Without their presence, it would be so easy for me to slip into a housebound hermit act, neither going out nor doing anything.

But, somewhat to my surprise, I don’t. It snows, and I shovel the front walk (even though I don’t mind tramping through the snow, I’m sure the mailman appreciates it). I haul the fallen branches around to the back yard, where they’ll sit until I get around to cutting them up for firewood. I run the dishwasher and clean the oven and the sink.

I’ve never been in this situation before, alone in my parents’ house, but I suspect that pre-Tanzania I would have handled it rather poorly. And it’s only in this sort of oblique evidence of change and improvement that I am able to realize how much I grew while I was living alone in rural Africa. I’m comfortable being alone, now. I can improvise and tend to problems–why, just yesterday when a (not-too-important) part of the car fell off while I was driving, I simply tied it back on and drove home.

Remember that time I

A few weeks ago I pulled some music out of the bench, cleared off and lifted the fall board, and sat down at my long-idle piano.

I studied piano for ten years, from second grade until the end of high school. I wasn’t remarkably gifted (I didn’t practice enough for that), but I was pretty good and I enjoyed being proficient. When I started singing in college piano fell off my radar, eclipsed by a way of making music that came more easily and felt more natural.

But I’ve always been hesitant about my voice, even as my confidence in it developed. Now that I’m living with my parents again, I have no qualms about interrupting the peace of the house with the noise of the piano, but a serious mental block about singing with anyone else around. I don’t know why it is that I feel that the piano is acceptable whereas voice is not, but at any rate it’s led me to start playing again.

And I’m amazed by how easily it all comes back. Not the delicate artistry—my skill level hasn’t progressed that far yet—but pieces I played ten years ago are still within my grasp. I look at the music and it all comes back, not flawless but the underlying idea is there. I am continually surprised by what I’ve retained, by what my fingers remember how to do. I’ve lost a lot of the strength that allows for steady arpeggios and clear trills, but I can feel it coming back. And it’s a wonderful feeling.

(This image has nothing to do with this content, except that both playing the piano and our enormous new cat in a tiny box make me very happy.)

If this were the last snowfall

The bus departs DC over an hour late but still gets to Philly ten minutes early. Terrible prediction algorithms or very smart management of expectations—with Greyhound, it’s hard to say one way or the other.

On the ride up I stare out the window like I always do. The glass next to me is dirty, covered in something sticky-looking that I opt not to touch. It distorts the image enough that I can’t decipher billboards as they go by. It’s like driving through Russia.

The clouds are thin and wispy. Not terribly invested in anyone’s idea of three-dimensionality, they seem painted on to the faint blue sky. A factory’s smokestacks impersonate a city out near the horizon, down where the sky’s color is bleached to white with the pale, sharp light of winter.

I didn’t really believe in the blizzard when I left DC, ridiculous crowds at the Greyhound station notwithstanding. In Northern Virginia it snowed all day and we had a quarter-inch accumulation to show for it; in the city the next morning there’s no sign of snow at all. It’s only north of Wilmington that I begin to see snow-clogged streets, greyish white below the dry, salt-stained highway. In the city I slog through slush and sidewalk drifts; on the train I watch the snow kicked up by the train’s wake. The sun sets into pink fire on the horizon. I examine my reflection in the darkening window, my favorite self-portrait, visible to only me.

I’ve never felt so close. I’ve never felt so all alone.

My trip to New York can be summed up: Brooklyn / two short people / one tall one / others, briefly; Manhattan / two tall people / modern art / a walk in the park; In Transit / too many hours / three black men.

To expand a bit on that last point, I’ll briefly mention some conversations I had. The first, while I was waiting in line for far too long at Port Authority, was with a kind elderly gentleman on his way to Birmingham to see family for the holidays. He told me about public transit when he was younger. I told him about public transit in Tanzania. The second was with a fellow about my age from The Gambia, seated next to me on the bus. He told me about his country’s birds. I told him about Mt. Meru. The third conversation was with a Tanzanian whose son happened to overhear the conversation I was having with the Gambian and asked me if I spoke Swahili. When I said yes, his father asked me some questions in Swahili and we had a gratifyingly fast-paced conversation. He and his Australian wife were traveling around the U.S.

After that conversation I put on my headphones and dozed for a while, the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session intimate against my ears. When I woke up somewhere in the middle of Jersey I wound up alternately fending off conversational advances from the Gambian and staring out the window.

The Calder mobile tips a biomorphic sphere

Last Sunday my parents and I went into town to see a few exhibits that were closing that day. One of them, prints by Edvard Munch, was something we all wanted to see. (It did not disappoint: the way he used the woodgrain in his woodblock prints was incredible, and the evocative blocks of color were remarkable to see in person.) But the Munch is not what I want to talk about today: instead, I’d like to say a bit about a video installation at the Hirshhorn that my mother wanted to go to.

The work was called “Flooded McDonald’s” and it was exactly what it like. A Danish art collective built an exact–and I mean exact, down to the woodburned hands on the flaps of the trash bins–replica of a functioning McDonald’s restaurant and then slowly filled it with water. The only sounds were the soft susurrus of the rushing water and the tapping of objects against counters as they floated by.

It was excruciating.

I mean, I’m sure it was scathing commentary on the consumerist culture of the developed world and/or global warming, but when you get right down to it it sounds like something that college performing arts majors would think of doing when they were high. “Dude….let’s flood a McDonald’s!” I made my own fun by making hilarious-at-the-time remarks to my mother about how the coffee machine must be handling its stressful experience. Whenever the footage showed it in close-up we both shook with silent laughter.

At base, the problem is simply that I don’t particularly like modern art, don’t take it seriously, don’t enjoy analyzing pieces at great length to determine what the artist was trying to say. I like my art to have aesthetic value or, failing that, be an impressive technical feat. (Which is why I love Calder, since I find his work both aesthetic and technically impressive.) I’m sure Rothko put a lot of thought and work into his canvases, but when I look at them I just don’t see it. And they don’t move me.

We should become more adventurous

A weekend trip up to Philadelphia provides welcome variance from the too-easy-to-sink-into reading that makes up most of my days, whirlwind visits with Philly friends and then a brief trip out to New Jersey, where I sang until I ran out of breath from exhaustion.

It was a weekend  of odd dissonance and consonance, both musically and otherwise. (I use the word “weekend” in the loosest of senses, as a group of two or more adjacent days, since for me, now, one day is much like the next.) I went back to my alma mater to visit some professors, and despite knowing it would be the case was still disoriented by not knowing any of the faces I saw around me. I still think of myself as someone who just graduated from college, and the reminder that it’s been more than two years since that happened was a bit unnerving.

And then, waiting at a SEPTA station, it occurred to me that the last time I had been there was after saying goodbye to a dear friend before he moved west and I moved very, very east. A bittersweet memory, to say the least: I think we became closer while apart, but the friendship we have now is not what we had then.

It was a weekend full of reminders of the person who I was, the person I can’t tell if I still am. So many things are the same. But in confronting this evidence of my past life I realize that one thing has certainly changed: I have become a stranger in a very familiar land.

So what do we do now?

I got home Tuesday night. Travel took a little more than 24 hours, from where I was staying in Dar to home.

It feels like it did when I was home for Christmas, as though Tanzania never really happened. This is just a continuation of the summer before I left, two years later.

Except: when I walk around outside, I see ghost images of Tanzania, like those plastic overlays in informative children’s books that show you the skeletal structure or the muscular system of the human body. Phantoms that remind me I lived somewhere else, for a while. When I cross a street, I remind myself under my breath to look left, not right. I still do a mental double-take when I drink a glass of tap water. A passenger on the highway today, I found myself overwhelmed by the presence of so many signs, the visible possibilities, the places I could go. On a walk yesterday, I stood transfixed by an empty playground, contemplating the sheer amount of money that went into the plastic-and-metal structure.

Is this what they mean when they talk about culture shock? Probably. When it fades it feels like everything I learned, everything I gained, everything I became in Tanzania may fade with it.