Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Africa is teaching me Me.

In the absence of comforts and supports and escapes and distractions there is

Just Me.

And I meet myself here and I know my shape and color in a way I never thought possible.

I have learned more about who I am socially, spiritually, creatively and privately. I have learned the extent of my strength and the depth of my passion and the things that preserve me when both have reached their limit.

I have learned myself through complete solitude in a plethora of scenes. I now understand what I look like in fear, outrage, loneliness, compassion, exhaustion and awe. Some scenes have affirmed my sense of self and some have humbled and disturbed me. All have brought me closer to The Glass.

This past week I learned who I am in Heartache. Who I Really am, without the friends and family and gym and food and tv and car and music and alcohol. When my laptop crashes and I lose every document I've ever composed, I also learn who I am in Heartache without the ability to write. This gives me the sensation of being lost and on the point of panic as someone wrestles me into a blindfold.

Still, I survive.

I am surprised at the nature of this survival. I am particularly surprised that, in the absence of influence, I do not resort to the things I once believed I needed. For the first three days I do not respond to any emails, nor do I call one friend. I do not buy wine or cigarettes. I do not read or pray. I do not eat.

The oddity of that which I do find comforting both amuses and surprises me:

One morning I wake up at 4:00 to bake cookies for my neighbors. Most days I walk for hours through the sweltering desert. I am fixated on the rising of white dawn and the setting of yellow dusk. I spend entire evenings lying on my floor and inspecting the bugs on my ceiling. I drink copious amounts of tea. And I sleep. More than I ever thought possible. I sleep.

I also work extremely hard. With robotic focus and zealous engrossment. I work through tea and lunch breaks. I dive head first into projects and engineer a floury of stress and activity around me that shadows any pain or emotional indulging.

And so it is Here, racing around on a Friday morning in frantic motion and intentional stress that I finally find what I am looking for: Perspective.

And this Perspective brings Peace.

And this Peace brings Rest.

And this Rest brings me back to Me.

On Friday mornings I teach typing to the clinic nurses for two hours. This week I am teaching typing, completing the translation of a grant letter and meeting with the Lay Counselor, Thato, to discuss the initiation of a Teen Club in Kumakwane.

Botswana's Teen Clubs are funded by the Baylor Clinic in Gaborone and are designed to inspire HIV+ teens to live healthy and safe lives. Most Teen Clubs meet once a week to help the kids develop skills for practicing medical compliance, maintaining good nutrition and providing emotional support to one another as they cope with stigma and discrimination.

Thato and I have met twice before and this time he hands me a list of names.

These ones are interested in joining the club. He says. You can see their name, age, grade and the ward the live at here in Kumakwane.

I scan the list. Great. This looks great Thato. Thank you. I'll bring it over to Tumelong Counseling Center this afternoon and we'll start the needs assessment and plan a meeting with the parents and the Baylor reps.

On my way from the clinic to Tumelong it begins to rain as it has every day this week. On this ten minute walk I am not distracted by work or sleep and the ache rises to my throat and I cannot swallow it away.

Retabile meets me at the door and smiles through our greetings. I debrief her on the clinic progress and hand her the list of child names. There are eight.

Oh, so I'll keep this then? She says holding the list out from her.
Yes, thats fine. I say, distracted.
Well, but, dont you want to copy down the names for your own records?
I pause and refocus.
Oh yes. Yes, of course. Let me just get a pen.

The pen is soggy from the rain and I write laboriously with Retabile staring at the top of my head. When I get to the last name I gasp and cover my mouth with my hand. Retabile starts and says What is it? I swallow three times before I can look up at her.

Nothing. I say. It's nothing. I just... I just recognized one of the names.
Retabile stares at me for a long time and I cannot tell if she is confused or annoyed.
I excuse myself and walk back to the school.

And it rains and rains.


The patient whose name I recognized is my favorite of the PACT students. I have seen sickness in her eyes for months but those are the things you dismiss here-- in lieu of hope and self-preservation.

On Saturday I resort again to the therapy of work but this time decide to volunteer at a Teen Club event. Since I can no longer ignore this sickness I immerse myself in an effort to better understand it and in understanding, gain solace.

In the first 30 minutes I spot two other children from my school and they smile at me. I greet them and squeeze their fingers and smile back.

For three hours I play cards and dice with rotating groups of children who pour life and health and hope all over my narcissistic little heartache.

In the last hour I have a group of ten girls and we are playing team-UNO. Ngele is my partner because she's been fixated on stroking my hair and because she's staring at me with a giant smile that nurtures every broken part of me.

I am cross-legged on the floor and Ngele is to my right. She is 9 years old in the mal-nutritioned frame of a 5 year old. She presses against my side for affection and I put my arm around her. For 30 minutes she leans across my lap tossing our cards while I rub her back. After every play she looks up at me for approval and I smile down at her.

Heart-ache is relative. Pain proportional.

A 9 year old girl with a terminal illness is sitting in my lap, playing and laughing. I lose all empathy for the girl crying in the rain.


Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving Jessica. Thank you for ALL you do.

Anonymous said...

wow. - Scott

Anonymous said...


was looking for that PBS TV special showing a guy shuffling his feet up and down in a straight line in the desert, and it was some sort of art installation, where he left his foot marks.

this is better.

Hotel MCM Towers said...

This is really good. Nice post...