Sunday, April 5, 2009

Standing Still

So a crazy thing happened last week. I got Bored. Really Bored. And it didn’t go away. And hasn’t now for 2 weeks.

This has been a very peculiar experience for me as “boredom” is not a state I’ve ever experienced in great length. I’m American. I’m Bostonian. By definition that means I construct activity and stress and action as though my life depends on it.

Dinner parties, house parties, birthday parties, the gym, clubs, girls-nights, date-nights, working late, working dinners, family dinners, trips, holidays, hiking, happy hour, movies, musicals, plays, the ballet, weddings, wedding showers, baby showers…

and that’s not all—there are the events but then there are also The People…

In Boston there are people Everywhere: work people, family people, high school people, college people, grad school people, neighbor people, gym people, coffee shop people, party people, travel people…

Oh, and now that those people have gotten married and started having babies it’s People x 2 (or in Denise’s case, 4!)

And so boredom is not really much of a hurdle back in Boston. Which means that my first quiet year in Africa has felt like an enormous SIIIIIGH.

Not that I don’t miss all those people and events madly—just that for the first time in my life I’ve had heap of space and energy and time and solitude to do My Stuff.

And my stuff has been great. Now I run every day, write every day and floss everyday. I’ve also refined my cooking skills (sorry Kris, still veg) and developed a cleaning-habit that’s teetering on the edge of obsessive compulsive (my floors will never be free of desert sand… I am not yet resigned to this).

I now can communicate at a conversational level in Setswana and I’ve spent a chunk of time exploring and experiencing a spiritual peace which I would never in a million years be able to explain to you in type (incentive for a coffee date in 2010?).

I’ve also developed an acute passion for my career in international public health and have begun to define the areas of this field that inspire me most and which will guide my job search when I return home.

So, yes, Year One has been Productive. Important. Evolutionary. And I am certain I’m a healthier and happier person now than I ever was 12 months ago.


self improvement has its limit. And I reached that limit last week. On Monday.

Suddenly, things felt stale. Same running route. Same dinner options. Same work routine.

I started sleeping more.
I stopped writing.
I started to loathe flossing.

Peace Corps gives us this “emotional map” that plots out the typical highs and lows that we will experience in our 2 years of service. Brad snorted when he saw it: “Yeah so looks like we’ll be depressed 50% of the time… thanks for preparing us.”

But the lowest low? One Year mark.

And so here I am. Right on track. Not depressed but definitely losing interest in self actualization and career epiphanies.

And so what happens when Jessica Charles Gets Really Bored?

Well, the sleeping/flossing symptoms began first but then something totally surprising happened:

The Little Things got bigger. And then beautiful. And then Striking.

It was the craziest thing and I still don’t fully understand it but it happened. It was as if someone splattered color all over my tedious little black and white routines.

And started painting…

My walk to school is 10 minutes on a flat, sand road scattered with goats, chickens and dust. I walk this road four times each day—Monday through Friday. But one morning the tiniest of the village girls came up to join me on this 6:45 trek to school. She started talking to me in Setswana and I understood her. And so we had a conversation. And somewhere in that conversation she took my hand. And we walked like that for 10 minutes.

The task of cutting an African watermelon should not be underestimated. A) they are huge B) the rind is as hard as cement C) the 2-pula-kitchen-knife has seen sharper days. So it’s 8:00 at night and I’m whittling away at that watermelon and feeling tired of the task and I consider music but I’m too lazy to find a CD and I consider just slicing off a bit but then what else am I going to do with my night so I spend the 30 minutes dicing up this watermelon but at 8:20 I start to hear something. At first I think I’m hearing things. Then I think I’m going crazy—but eventually I realize that the noise is quite real and phenomenally beautiful: my neighbors are singing. Maybe 20 of them. Something deep and gentle. It’s the end of the month so the men are home from the mines to supply the baritones. And so I open my window and the night pours in that thick song and cool air. And I polish off the watermelon to the music of a Tuesday night in Kumakwane.

Mr. Gneom is working on his 3rd master’s degree. Every few weeks he’ll hand me a paper to edit or elicit a conversation from me on the state of the international economy. On Friday I glanced over his shoulder, “Eh. Globalization. That’s a good one.” “Not just globalization.” He replies and raises the paper to read: “Discuss the influence of globalization on democracy in the developing world: include both challenges and opportunities.” He watches my face light up and kicks out a chair for me. What then ensues is a heated discussion complete with passionate hand gestures, fiery opinions and dramatic examples. Other teachers stop to listen. Mr Gneom slams the table a bit and speaks too loudly and writes furious notes. And I sit there spouting off about global politics and soaking up his energy and feeling acutely invigorated.

Since beginning our Setswana lessons Rati has requested American pizza, American cookies and American photos. Despite the fact that Peace Corps is paying her by the hour I oblige to these requests because, really, what else am I going to do with all my free time? So I dish out a bunch of food and photos for the first 6 months of our lessons in an effort to enhance our “cultural exchange”. And it doesn’t bother me too much but sometimes I wonder at the balance of this supposed “exchange”. And then it’s Wednesday night at 5:00 and I’m heading to Rati’s house for my lesson and I’m dragging my feet because, like everything else, I’m bored with lessons too. Rati and I push through the lesson and at 5:55 she stands from her seat and disappears into the back room. I check my watch and tap my feet and yawn. When Rati returns she is cradling a giant watermelon, five sticks of sweet root and a bag of maize. I squeal. Yes, squeal. There is no other word for it and I’m not proud of it but I can’t help it. I squeal. Now—appreciate this: I’m vegetarian. I live in a desert. I can only get my groceries on the weekends. I then have to lug those groceries on stuffed combis and dirt roads to get them home from Gaborone or Thamaga so, really, my shopping is confined to the weight I’m willing to heft around for 2 hours. Many a week I’ve had to forgo the apples or canned tomatoes or tuna. And watermelons? Forget it. And so I squeal.

A child and a song and a conversation and gift.

I am learning so much here. Just by standing still.

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