Friday, December 21, 2012

On Being Lonely

There is an art to being alone, to finding comfort in it and seeing its potential. For me, more than anything else, being in the Peace Corps has re-routed my perspective.

If there’s one thing I do when I’m alone, it’s think. I think about any number of things and lately I think about home. I imagine the mountain range in winter, the crisp stillness of days when snow floats silently from the sky. I think about my friends and all of the amazing things we've done. The silence of being alone, the symptom of a fishbowl, reminds me of my awe for the world, reminds me of the love I bear for my friends and family; mostly it reminds me of ... well ... me.

The first thing I tell people about the Peace Corps is that liking oneself and ones company is a requirement. With nothing to do but think about life and self and growth, strange things start to happen. Sometimes it’s forgiveness and letting go – as easy as dropping a pebble into the sea and watching it sink it’s farewell; other times it’s acceptance and self-love – looking into a mirror and seeing something beautiful there. Sometimes it’s unbearable – nagging thoughts circling like birds above their prey, picking at weaknesses and drawing blood; other times it’s pure bliss – that moment of nirvana when the world stops and calm quiet descends, a moment of clarity without meditation, a point of light in the mind as warm as the sun on a spring morning.

It’s purposeful; not always filled with the pursuit of knowledge, but pursuit of self and useful introspection. Journal pages are filled with ramblings, some of them profound. Books get read and pages are typed – reflections of this life and those that came before occur with regularity.

And in the silence, somewhere along the way, you start to listen and what you hear sometimes surprises you. Having thought you knew everything about yourself, you realize you are just an acquaintance of yourself. And a gate opens somewhere and more than you ever thought you had to say comes tumbling out. Things that are old - antiques you thought you’d lost or sold, things that are new - things you hadn't realized you picked up along the way. Some of them are obvious and ugly and you realize you want better company.

All the while you’re getting to know yourself – silence being a sneaky catalyst to a reinvention long overdue. And without noticing you begin to change, begin to like yourself in your entirety, begin to leave the ugly things behind because forgiveness seems more important in the silence.
You do a spring cleaning and what’s left is a clear, empty room. Pictures and memories line the walls, an open window filters love and light everywhere and a comfortable chair waits for your return. This is where you come to think, enjoy and relax. It’s where you feel safe and free and loved. It’s your room in your house - your heart and your mind. It existed there all along, but fearing loneliness like most people do you neglected it, let it clutter.

But you see, there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. And once you've mastered one you will never feel the other. The company of people is meant to be worshiped, but you marvel at the fact that you like your own company, too. Dinner and movie, a book at your favorite coffee shop, a late-night stroll under the stars. You find that you've become aware of the world – no more vultures in the sky. You see beauty all around you, reflected in you, because as well as loving the world you recognize your place in it. You are more beautiful because you belong to it.

And it loves you in return – sends you the sun and life giving rain, grows you flowers and gives you sustenance, sends the wind to tussle your hair and you understand that it’s a gift. Every breath. And you are lucky just to be standing here, sleepy eyes and grateful heart.

This is what being alone has meant for me. An expansion of awareness, of appreciation – the ability to love and laugh and cry when I need to cry. Some people call this God, I call it life; you can call it whatever you'd like. I crawl into bed with it every night and needn't fear it’ll leave before morning; and wouldn't you know, I’m always smiling – even when I’m alone.

Welcome to 2013 – take some time to be alone this year; you might find something you like.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Things I Know ( And Things to Remember) Thanks to Ghana

The first rule of Peace Corps is to re-write the rules ...

1. Be grateful for every day, even the bad ones.
2. It truly is the little things that matter most.
3. Kindness comes in so many forms, it'll blow your mind.
4. Expectations have no place in the world; they ruin the joy of spontaneity and the many unexpected kindnesses of every day.
5. Hugs are the best medicine, as is laughter (which, conveniently enough, happen to be universal).
6. Loving yourself is the only way to truly love the world
7. You are always the student, posing as the teacher. Always.
8.  Exploration is the key to a life well-lived.
9. We are not superior because we have more, nor should we hang our heads in guilt or shame. We should be grateful (understanding that no system is perfect) and then we should forget the system exists completely and remember, simply, that we’re talking to another human being.
10. Having a little hope, a little determination, and a little faith in those around you is important, but having empathy is always better.
11. Follow your dreams for you, and never lose sight of that.

Here's to hoping we all apply some of these rules in the new year 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Religion in Ghana

As I sit here, listening to the culmination of another week filter its way out of church windows next door, I realize I've never explained the phenomenon that is church (and religion) in Ghana. In general terms Ghanaian dedication to the Almighty is mind boggling. (And I grew up in Colorado Springs, which was featured in the documentary Jesus Camp.) I’m not sure the missionaries understood the kind of goldmine they’d found in Africa - I don’t think anyone can prepare for that kind of dedication - but they couldn't have been more successful had they shown up with pom-poms and Sue Sylvester from Glee.

Now, at this point, you probably think I’m being facetious and, while I admit to approaching this blog with the same humor I approach most blogs, I want to give you a few examples to illustrate my point:

 When I was younger, I was invited to attend church with my family in South Carolina – we’re talking once a week, two hours at most – and I wouldn't set foot in that church without an adequate supply of notebooks for hangman tourneys, tic-tac-toe, and note passing. The highlight of these Sundays were the cookies I got once it ended, I was a kid after all, but I observed plenty of adults who still couldn't get through an entire service without checking football scores or nodding off at least once … and that was before the iPhone. 

Fast forward to modern day Ghana: the church next door is testament to the fact that a lot of Ghanaians attend church seven days a week. If you've ever attended a service on Sunday you know  to carve out at least seven hours (no I’m not exaggerating) and sometimes Fridays are equally important, though it’s hard to predict when. Last Friday I thought I’d watch a few movies on my laptop; when I removed my headphones at 12:30am, I was startled to realize the church next door was still in full swing. Okay, I thought, I could probably watch some Mad Men. They’ll be done soon.

Ha! Hahaha, oh rookie me …

I was still holding a pillow over my ears at 3:30 am, weeping and convinced - in my hallucinations - that I could actually understand what was being spoken in tongues (which at that point was a very lively conversation about the poor sap living next door, trying to get to sleep over the glory of God). So when I say ‘mind boggling’ above, what I mean to say is relentless … obviously.  

When it comes to religion in Ghana, there are two: Christianity and Islam. That’s it. If you don’t claim one or the other then you are grievously misinformed; if you don’t attend church then there must be something wrong with you. I happen to fall under both of the categories above and I’ve honestly had people react to me the same way I would react to terminal cancer. On the up side it’s sparked a lot of great conversations about things like the Inquisition (my counterpart  made a comment about Muslims being terrible, wicked people so I introduced him to Google and gave him a history lesson), but requires a constant awareness that admitting my heathenism will always be met with strong curiosity. 

“God willing” is a common phrase here, but it’s the dedication to it that’s foreign to me. A student will pray to get better grades in school without taking the time to study for exams; a man will pray for money without improving his work ethic; a mother will pray for her child’s health without taking them to the clinic to be diagnosed … God willing … It makes me feel like I’m in a Greek play. For the most part, this is because Ghanaians take the Bible very literally. Every word. They aren't simple minded people, but their education system is based on rote memorization and very little room for debate.  Things aren't meant to be interpreted, things are directly as the Bible says and the Bible is the only book anyone ever reads. I say that last part because any book I happen to be reading (right now it’s A Game of Thrones) will undoubtedly be referred to as my Bible (because every other book I see will undoubtedly be concerned with Jesus). If this doesn't give you an idea about religion in Ghana, then I don’t know what does.

All of this being said, churches do a lot of really great work in Africa, but I honestly don’t think anyone could have predicted just how popular Jesus  – a blond haired, blue eyed, Jewish carpenter – would become in even the most remote villages. It’s like watching a Bieber concert. It’s also one of the reasons white people are referred to as ‘Sunday born’ in their local languages, are met with constant enthusiasm, and are given an almost immediate declaration of church before anything else. (Honestly – I met a guy the other day who told me he was Pentecostal before he told me his name.)

Considering my hometown, this shouldn't surprise me as much as it does and, considering my occupation, I see it as an opportunity. As a Peace Corps Volunteer it’s not only my job to educate you about Ghana, but to teach Ghanaians about America. Being an over-achiever, I also consider it my duty to teach them about the world at large (starting with a few choice Google searches) and so we talk about church and dying traditionalism, but we also talk about gay rights and Judaism and why some people in America don’t eat meat (this last concept, by the way, is absolutely mind blowing to them).  

I've run across Ghanaians who ask me if I know who Jesus is - like it’s Pig Latin. They adopt him so thoroughly here that they often forget Christianity is a foreign implant. It's amusing every time. I figure my trade off for listening to sermons on the bus, on the street, on Facebook, and from my neighbor next door is being able to sing Broadway show tunes at the top of my lungs at any given time and call it cultural exchange. 

So, sure, King Solomon (yes, this was his name), I’ll come to church with you – I appreciate the unique cultural experience it presents me – but when you’re laughing at my exhaustion eight hours later, remember: next week we’re having a Harry Potter marathon and I’m going to tell you a little about what happened to witches in the Dark Ages.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why Bikes Are Good Bargaining Chips (and Other Useless Information)

Since living in Ghana I've learned an awful lot about the ‘barika’ (or, the bargain); most importantly, I've learned that currency does not always come in the form of coins or bills.

In the village, I often held aloft small things – pencils, paper, chewing gum and other teeth-rotting concoctions, movie viewings, and temporary skull tattoos (lovingly referred to as ‘la stamp-la’) – as payment for chores and services rendered (because as Ghanaian as I think I am, I couldn't fetch an entire drum of water if I wanted to). Among the best of things I had to offer, however, was my bike. And my bike was a hot commodity.

On average, even with a flat, bikes have two more wheels than most humans. What this meant – in midday heat – was the difference between ‘footing’ one’s way from shady tree to shady tree (which are sparse, at best) and rolling swiftly by all those suckers with their pathetic walking feet. It also carried with it the Flintstones equivalent of a drop-top: beautiful man-powered wind. What might take forty minutes to walk one-way was now fifteen at most and this, my friends, left a lot of time for socializing – the biggest benefit of them all.

In addition to the obvious advantage of two hollow, inflated circular tubes, a bike has a basket. Some bikes even have a basket AND a platform above the rear wheel – like mine. These come in handy when hauling heavy things like packages or a week’s worth of groceries; water is easily hauled from borehole to door, children can be hauled from home to school (riding on the back rack, legs splayed and looking surprisingly comfortable, though I tried it and it wasn't), and usually means that walking with such things on one’s head (or shoulders, or kicking and screaming at the end of an outstretched arm) is unnecessary. Last time I checked, humans have neither baskets nor built-in butt racks so, clearly, the owner of a bike is at an advantage. All of the time.

Bikes happen to have bells which, while much more adorable when rung by well-dressed old men, happen to make everyone who use them polite and endearing ( ... just try to squeeze past someone without ringing a bell and your charm is instantly lost, you dangerous vagabond, you). Bikes can be used to lean against in the midday sun, sat on in the absence of a chair, and is rather effective at parting crowds in times of need and desperation (though a white person on a bike will part crowds whether it’s necessary or not).

Conveniently, after the initial purchase, bikes are free. In the village this is the difference between waiting every three days (and paying a fare) to leave town or traveling wherever and whenever one pleases. When one has free, two-wheeled transportation at the ready, everything becomes that much simpler – which makes it so sought after to begin with. Especially in a poor farming village.

Of course, people don’t get things like flat tires – which makes having two feet rather convenient when a tube happened to pop – and I'm not personally equipped with a chain in danger of rusting or jumping the tracks - which are both things that happened whenever I loaned out my bike - but the fact that medicine and food and meetings were a simple ride away made my rusted, beat up little guy a resource to be collected frequently.

Thinking back, I probably could have gone all ‘Jaffar’  on my household, jealously coveting its power and convenience, but a bike is meant to be used and if it wasn't always going to be used by me, it might as well have been a village bike [insert ‘yo mama’ joke here]. Until people adapt to grow wheels in their heels like some kind of twisted, awesome opposable thumb, just remember: never underestimate the things you take for granted - turns out bikes are excellent bargaining chips.