Friday, March 16, 2012

A Note On Arriving

Could it be? I'm home! Unscathed and back in southwest Virginia. I, for some reason, expected this transition to be fairly straightforward, run-of-the-mill. I was remarkably confident that this would be the case, and have been excited to get home and get on with it, so to speak. The actual process, the reality shift, has been profoundly mind-boggling, and has left me reeling and perplexed.
Waking up from my life in Africa and being thrust back into this all too familiar American life has been jarring, effectively shocking my brain into submission. My first full day back, while wandering around the streets of DC, I found myself randomly leaking, as I was hit with waves of "Oh God, it's over, and it's not coming back." The mulitude of memories and lingering emotions from the trip were swirling with ferocity, but the abrupt return triggered a short curcuit, and I was left oddly blank. I haven't felt this intensely shaken by homecoming since my first jaunt abroad, a six week stint in the UK during college, which consisted of frolicking around castles, seeing Shakespeare performed at the Globe, picking thistle in the Scottish highlands--basically living out my Braveheart-inspired Celtic fantasties. I fell into a sort of depression, revulsed by the trappings of my normal existence, eventually taking off on a cross-country trip as a way to cope.
Since then I've experienced multiple international transitions, and have grown into myself sufficiently to develop the emotional tools needed to deal. It's not that I necessarily dislike what I'm coming back to. I love this country, in the sense that being a United States citizen has enabled me to do incredible things. I have the freedom, and the ability to work and save enough money to do things like take personal journeys to Africa. This is astounding! I'm also blessed with a couple of wonderful parents who gladly allow me to nestle into the comforts of our family home while I'm in transition. I'm exceptionally fortunate. But, there is no way around it: Coming back from Africa has rocked my world. I keep returning to the dream comparison--being deeply involved in a pleasant, vivid, bizarre dream, then being abruptly woken, blearily blinking back into reality, disoriented and grasping for the last bits of the dream as they inevitably fade away. I can still recall such a dream from my adolescence. A girl, the girl for whom I had so longed, was suddenly, inexplicably mine! It was manifested as something as simple as holding hands in the back of a school bus, but the residual feelings that dreary morning were as real as any, and the return to reality was devastating. But my experiences these three months were certainly real, if starkly different than from any other portion of my life. This recent life abroad has been a beautiful moment-to-moment existence, replete with poignant moments, set within an exotic land and culture that kept me constantly amused and fascinated.
While discussing homecoming, a friend recently conjured the image of a soul walking, trudging back across the great distance that the body has so quickly, unceremoniously traveled. Within 24 hours, thanks to modern technology, a person can be ripped from one culture and thrust into another with great ease. I had been gone for three months! I want to vomit my experiences all at once for everyone I meet, in a desperate attempt to share what had happened. When the customs officer at Dulles airport asked where I'd been, I was prepared to be interrogated about the wooden carvings I was toting, about the two kilos of tea tucked in my luggage. I responded, "Africa," and he merely grunted and motioned me on. Really? Couldn't you hassle me a little? It's not that I'm yearning to feel important, it's that the spectre of the experience starts to evaporate so unsettlingly quickly. Understandably, everyone has been neck deep in their own lives, their own troubles and joys, and it's difficult to relate to something as nebulous as "three months in Africa." My sense of urgency to share my experience is tempered by the glaze that appears on friends' eyes whenever I start expounding upon far away things.
Homecoming has always been one of my favorite parts of traveling, and I continue to treasure the process. I've always found it useful, but especially in this case, to get as much written down as possible. In order to function properly again, to move forward in a satisfying way, one must fully arrive. Funny anecdotes must be told, pictures and videos must be sorted through and shared with loved ones. In order to fully arrive, this time I've found it necessary to analyze the process a bit more, but only after allowing myself to be "blank" for a day or so. I'm happy to report that I've flipped the breaker in my mind, and have reclaimed the voracious desire to process the trip. Having accepted the end, I can continue savoring and sharing the juicy middle part. Coming down can be rough, but the experience is absolutely worth the withdrawal. So now, friends, forgive me if I feel compelled to force a couple of stories on you--you'll be doing me a great service by listening!