July, she will fly

I wrote this in late March as I was on a plane flying to Washington, D.C. where my best friend was about to give birth to her son. At the time, it was the rallying cry I personally needed to carry on through the uncertainty of traveling; at the time, which now feels like an age ago, it felt as though this was a temporary circumstance that would soon pass. Here we are five months on with no end in sight. In many ways, my thoughts remain the same: Carry on and don’t collapse. But it goes beyond that now. Our government is failing us – we as Americans are failing each other in a way that is both shocking but also unsurprising. It is up to each of us to hold ourselves up and do the right thing, which means wearing a mask, electing responsive officials into government, and supporting in any way we can – financially, electorally, and through advocacy – fellow citizens who do not enjoy the benefits of being white in a privileged society. So. With that preface, a post from March 27, 2020:

***

On September 11, 2001 I woke up to a world that was disintegrating. Like so many other people, I watched on the news in disbelief as planes collided with towers and crumbled into ash. As news anchors like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather cried openly on TV so did so many of us in our homes – some of us because we knew we had just lost loved ones, and all of us because even without having all the information, it was clear that everything in the world had just forever and irreversibly changed. Do you remember the days that followed in September 2001? The days when our entire country came to a screeching halt and we walked like zombies through our lives trying to make sense of what had just happened? When the airports closed and our skies went silent? When we watched the news together thinking “this cannot be happening” but also what does it mean that it actually is? All while trying to manage this overwhelming suspension of disbelief and the sense that everything felt so incredibly wrong and out of control…

What I remember distinctly about this time almost 20 years ago, is the feeling that nowhere and nothing felt safe. It was like being followed around by an invisible, noxious fog that kept creeping into my brain and my heart to remind me that I could be hurt at any time, or worse, that the people I loved most in this world could be taken away and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I found myself bursting into tears, overwhelmed with waves of panic and fear about me and others getting sick and dying, and engaged in a barrage of intrusive, negative thoughts about the future, my finances, work, and just this general tirade of unsteady wrongness. As I was chastising myself (“Jesus, Demitz, pull your shit together”) I suddenly realized that this is a place I have been before. This is a place a know.

While a pandemic is not a terrorist attack, it very much feels like one. It feels like living in fear of an enemy you cannot see but that you know wants to hurt you. Worrying about the economic toll this will take or whether you’ll be able to finish school. Afraid for the safety of your family and friends. Watching as the streets empty out and America stops going about business as usual…

Fear is one of the most out of control feelings in our emotional dictionary and it will gleefully fill in the cracks in our souls and our hearts and our armor if we allow it to run unchecked. Fear is eager to give us permission to lose our shit and unhelpfully freak out. It will jump at the chance to politicize itself for those who would take advantage. It will silently weave itself into the way we look at resources and human beings and privilege as we use it to justify decisions that seem reasonable at the time but don’t pass the history sniff test later on.

So, your PSA for today is this: I am not doing this again. Cities may be closed for business, the skies might be slow, and the uncertainty of the future may permeate everything we do for the next weeks or months but fear? FEAR CAN GO FUCK ITSELF. To all of you out there who feel the weight of fear in your chest like a bowling ball these past few days, FEEL IT but do not let it run amuck in your life. We’ve been down that road and this time, let’s take a pass. Harness it instead. Listen to it. Activate it. Let fear be the superpower we need to make the changes in the world that we must.

And if you’re not there yet, just remember that love and gratitude even when things are the WORST are reminders that we are bigger and stronger than this one moment we are living through. Love and hand washing to all.

Here there be dragons

A love lost in a bagel shop. That’s where I was – ordering an everything bagel with egg and scallion cream cheese – when I watched from outside my body as my heart broke in this relationship for the last time.

As the woman behind the counter passed me my order, I realized with a rising sense of panic and urgency that I had to get out of there. I had to leave that shop and also this relationship immediately and if I didn’t? I was going to die. A suffocating rush of pink started to flush up painfully through my chest, into my neck and up my face as I tried to hold back the searing tears that by this point were pushing through my eyes and catching in the back of my throat. Time slowed down just enough to acknowledge what I had been resistant to believe or accept for months: This is all just utterly and spectacularly over.

As this realization silently fractured like a thunderbolt beneath my ribs, I looked up at my boyfriend’s face as he chatted and paid the cashier. I love you, I thought to myself. And also I have to leave you now. I do not understand how we got to this place.

Jay looked up and smiled, waiting by the door so we could walk back to the car together, his sneakers squeaking on the worn linoleum as he casually strolled outside totally naive to the disaster that was about to unleash. It was in this moment – the moment that is now seared like an iron brand into my memory – that I realized sharply and suddenly and with an irreversible sadness that this thing we were trying to do, this relationship, is done. I would never, ever get what I need from this man or this life. 

In the aftermath of it all weeks later, after I had moved out of the big house at the end of the cul-de-sac in silicon valley and banished myself about as far away as you can go without disappearing entirely – to a town 250 miles north near the sea – with nothing more than my dog and a pile of boxes, when I finally had the time and the emotional willingness to sit with and start to examine the disoriented pieces of my life, it is that moment I think of, standing outside a bagel shop on that Sunday morning in December. The moment – when something solid and something real, when an actual part of whatever it is that makes us all human – split apart in my soul and set my life adrift through space like an untethered astronaut alone in the galaxy.

***

It was not the announcement of Jenna and Will’s pregnancy that got me, or even the news – shared as though it were a bonus gift in the same sentence – that another mutual friend couple were also having a baby, due the same week in the spring. It was Sunday, and we had run into Jenna and Will in the parking lot on our way to the bagel shop in old Palo Alto. Jay and I had just picked up an old desk from someone on NextDoor to put in our guesthouse which I had been redecorating all winter. We had planned to grab some food and walk the farmers market before heading home. To our surprise and delight, we happen to run into Jenna and her husband as we passed through the parking garage. Of all the couples in our friend group at Stanford, Jenna and Will were by far my favorite people and I had known for awhile that they had been trying for a baby. Only a few weeks earlier, Jenna and I had been in my kitchen commiserating about how triggering the seemingly endless onslaught of baby shower invitations could be when you are childless – even temporarily – and not by choice. 

Now the four of us were standing in a parking lot as Will gushed with excitement over their pregnancy news, and Jenna announced that Ricardo and Fatima – another couple in the PhD program – were also having a baby. My initial reaction was real joy: I was so genuinely happy for them. How could you not be? The look of pure love on Will’s face when he looked at his wife, the way Jenna’s eyes teared up with what I imagine was a combination of sheer happiness and also relief as they told us – it was impossible not to share in that kind of palpable excitement. A new baby. They were going to have chubby, beautiful new baby and that was their everything right now.

But as we said our goodbyes and started to cross the parking lot towards the bagel shop, something inside me shifted. In hindsight it almost felt like someone had lit a match which had started a deep burn, as if there was a kettle in the middle of my chest whose top was starting to tremble and groan under the growing pressure of the hot water underneath. And while I had a sense of why I was feeling those feelings, I had no idea how hot or how fiercely it was about to explode.

When the emotions hit, they ricocheted like a fiery, physical tidal wave of sadness, anger, disbelief, guilt, and grief that stunned me into a suffocating silence. I hid behind a pair of dark sunglasses, knowing that if I tried to say anything – no matter how mundane – the dam would break and I wouldn’t be able to stop whatever kind of nuclear reaction was happening inside my body from spilling and spinning totally out of control. It was a terrifying sensation of being emotionally burned alive from the inside out. Everything hurt. It was becoming hard to breath. My world was a Dali painting and the clocks that I had so desperately tried to ignore were now melting down the sides of time, screaming and shrieking and begging me to listen to the reality of my life. By the time we left that cafe, I knew that my four-year relationship was over. 

Weeks later, while in the process of packing up closets of clothing and belongings, in this bewildered state of resignation and confusion I came across a long silk dress that Jay had bought me last spring before our trip to Hawaii. It is a beautiful dress, with a high neck that parachutes down to the floor in long, flowing folds of gold, green, and crimson colored fabric. I remember looking at that dress in the Anthropologie catalog as Jay peered over my shoulder and coyly placed an order that he surprised me with the night before we left for the big island. I remember thinking how perfect that dress would be for a Hawaiian holiday…and also to hide the signs of an early pregnancy at a friend’s wedding later that year. I also remember how much this thought pleased me when I wore it for the first time on that vacation, thinking that the next time I put it on we would be halfway to having a baby. I thought about this all with a sense of detached sadness and numbness as I gently folded the dress into a box and sealed the top with shiny clear tape.

Looking back on all of this – from that moment in the bagel shop to the act of packing up a life into storage – it is amazing to me the kind of mental gymnastics we allow our minds to accept in order to maintain the illusion of what we want to believe. The reality was that when I put that dress on in Hawaii last April, we were no closer to having a baby than we were when we broke up 8 months later. At the time, I was simply just more willing to ignore the emotional sirens going off everywhere in my life than to admit that we were broken beyond what love and therapy could ever possibly hope to repair. How could all of this time, this love, this work, this building of a life simply add up to…nothing? How could we have absolutely nothing to show for this four years later? And most troubling…how could I have done this to myself what feels like yet again?

In my experience, the willingness to get real honest about why a relationship ultimately falters doesn’t actually happen in the moment the relationship finally dies – it’s all those cliche stages of grief, ultimately cumulating in a come-to-Jesus moment usually well past the relationship expiration date. In this case, it was a recognition months later that I had done this, all of this, to myself. It would be easy for me now and really forever, to craft a narrative that basically paints him as bad and me as blameless, and I know this because this is essentially every story you’ve ever heard me tell about every boyfriend I’ve ever had. They were shitty, and I was shiny, and that is more or less the order of things.

It is easy to make this your truth because everyone – your friends, your family, sometimes even HIS friends – are conditioned to accept this version of reality. It provides a scripted role to for everyone play in the aftermath of relationship catastrophe, including and perhaps most importantly, carving out a character for yourself that reiterates your own blamenessless because Christ. How do you accept that you did in fact do this to you? You chose to stay in spite of waking up to a red dawn day after day, in the face of all of the booming red parachutes falling from the sky, as your own body and life splintered apart hollering over and over that this relationship was not enough no matter what your heart and your mind continued to lie to you about. But those lies are a call to arms to comfort you in your despair, to assure you that everything will be all right, and to insist that the next time – the next man – will be so much better than what you’ve left behind.

How would any of us ever leave a relationship if not for the lies we tell ourselves.

But be warned because here, in those false stories, there be dragons. This final chapter you have bought into, this narrative you have not even had to convince yourself or anyone else is true because it felt so easy to accept and carry on, is a cautionary tale. It is the moment of truth. The choice between the red pill and the blue pill, when you have the option to emotionally burrow and go underground and shut down your consciousness yet again. Or?

Or not. Or you can listen. Or you can take a breathe and take a peek at what really just happened here. You can decide to look at what really went down in your life and the role you played in getting to that point. That break in your soul might be what catapults you into the darkest night of your soul but also the blessing that gifts you into the rest of your life.

My heart broke in a bagel shop. And through all those cracks, somehow gave me permission to let the light in.

Whatever you do, make westing

I drove down to Menlo Park yesterday, as I do now every week, once a week, to take care of my regular physical therapy, and therapy appointments. Therapists of any kind – much like hair stylists – are not people you can just swap out of your life willy nilly so is driving 250 miles round trip once a week fucking bonkers? Yes, but also demonstrably no and I just have to live my life.

Also, 3 hours one way in the car driving down a coastal highway through redwoods and dairy farms and vineyards leaves a lot of time to think about all the reasons why you’re now living in a remote part of the coast of California that is hours away from nowhere and any town larger than about 7,000 people.

So on this long drive I was thinking about the name of this blog, and why something I pulled out of my brain as a 28 year old grad student now feels almost more important and applicable to the life I’m living right now, 10 years later, in a tiny town on the edge of the pacific. When I started SideStreet, is was really just going to be a medium to communicate back to people in the states what my life in Malawi looked like – I thought of it as a travel blog (which now feels naive and embarrassing and as a former aid worker, let this be the last time we ever describe or discuss it in that way again). 

What I wanted to convey was that feeling you get when you stumble upon something new, in a different place, as a stranger or a foreigner or whoever you might be. When I started traveling – I mean really traveling alone as an adult – it was 2003 and the internet and cell phones were barely a thing. The iPod did not exist, let alone a handheld computer with a camera that we now call a phone. My cell phone at the time was a Nokia (the fancy one with a flashlight, I’m not a savage) that by contemporary standards was about the size of a vaping device and was useful only for texting, finding things in the dark, and playing snake. When I left for Bolivia in January of that year I got on the plane with a backpacking pack, a Panasonic  “shock proof” CD Walkman, 12 carefully curated CDs, a film camera (real film!) and two Lonely Planet guides: Bolivia and South America. Those last two are important because as anyone older than 35 might recall at the time, there wasn’t a lot of reliable information on the internet about places to see, stay, eat, or how to get there and particularly for a country like Bolivia, having a consistent internet connection was barely a thing. You relied on what was in that lonely planet book and the notes you took from the advice of other travelers you met along the way. 

And you know what that advice nearly always had in common? Stay off the main drag. Hit the alleyways. Wander your way up the hill. Explore the side streets because that’s where the real treasures – the discoveries that make it feel like your heart might explode from the the mere magic of stumbling upon the beautiful ordinary of a city’s every day life – are hiding in plain sight. The ceviche place in La Paz that I cannot show you on a map but can only get to by memory on foot in that city. The morning I got lost near the cathedral and turned a corner into the weekend flower market where baskets overflowing with white and yellow flowers, and vendors selling coca leaves by the pound filled up almost a entire cobblestoned hill. The hostel that looked like a cross between Tatooine and Casablanca on the edge of the lake run by a crazy German guy that served the best trout filet I’ve ever had in my life. The memory of laying on a boulder at 15,000 ft in the Dali desert holding my friend Alyson’s hand and knowing that taking a photo would never capture the joy of feeling so small in such a vast, never ending space – that is a physical memory that can only exist in your body and in your heart. 

The main streets will try to capitalize on all of that. They will try desperately to communicate through flashy ads and loud music that THIS IS THE PLACE! The Hard Rock Cafe is the true character of this town. United Colors of Benetton have captured the nature and culture of this city scene. They will try, but no matter where you are in the world, it is always a frenetic farse, a poor imitation of something original and grand. Broadway in Nashville. Market Street in San Francisco. The red light district in Amsterdam. The Prado in La Paz. At its best it’s all just an amalgamation of mediocrity, a sea of buzzing neon reds and pinks and greens trying desperately to convince you that it has something new and different to offer, to trick you into feeling as though you have found something special and to draw you away from the rest of the city that is extraordinary in its ordinary-ness. What you see is bright and loud and screaming in neon, but the only thing you feel inside is an endless sea of beige.

One of the questions I keep getting from friends and some family members is, why Fort Bragg? The insinuation in that question runs the gamut from “why the fuck would you want to live THERE” to “are you having a nervous breakdown?”. The simple answer is that I needed to get away, far enough away and out of my comfort zone to get some perspective not only on the deterioration of this relationship that I thought at one point I would be in forever, but to take stock about what my life looks like naked, as it were. Without a relationship, without a job, without the baby I thought I would have right now, to define me.

That, and trying to find affordable housing in the Bay Area in 2019 is like being an unwitting actor in a terrible dark comedy that went straight to DVD and no one has the energy for that kind of d-listed garbage. And so if I had to move, and it wasn’t going to be San Francisco-adjacent, well then fuck everything I am going to live in a forest near the sea.

Fort Bragg is not a place where people from the Bay Area go. It is so far away and so removed from the day-to-day hustle of SF and Oakland and Silicon Valley that it almost doesn’t exist at all. It is, for all intents and purposes, not a destination along the main drag. No bright lights, no neon signs urging you to buy trinkets or to even stop for that matter. It is a side street. It is the place you end up because someone told you once that Glass Beach is beautiful. Or that taco Tuesday’s at North Coast Brewing are worth checking out. Or that the city in all of its transition and identity crisis between a once-upon-a-time logging boomtown to just a regular place dealing with pot and poverty and daily life, is still beautiful and vibrant and teeming with a tender realness that big city dwellers simply can no longer connect with because it makes so little sense in contrast to their own intensely urban lives. 

But it made sense to me. I walked a metaphorical Main Street for a long while – for years – waiting for the moment where I would finally feel settled, like I had found where I was meant to be. But somewhere in the act of looking for that place I derailed my own nature and needs. I managed to – in all of those tiny daily incremental decisions – to deny who I was. I cannot grow or thrive under Budweiser signs and tubes of artificial light because few things ever can. And maybe that’s why the idea of being a stranger in a strange land in a town I didn’t know felt like relief instead of fear.

In the midst of this massive, unexpected life pivot in which I now find myself, trying to figure out what I do next, or who I am now, without all these labels or ideas that I tried so hard to make work but was not able to make stick, I needed to get off the main road. It is the only place, really, where it felt right to just be, away from the neon beige of everything 130 miles south. In a cabin in the woods. With a tiny dog. Walking the beach. And staring out to the bright blue sea. 

Tiny town. Big league.

I posted something on Facebook the other day, mostly an observation and reflection on love and how tiny stolen moments are a great breath at a time when it feels like the world is suffocating from bad decisions. People commented back, as they do on the interwebs: an old friend sent a kind note over messenger; I got some nice text messages. It made me want to write for the first time in a long while. And so, here we are.  

In a way, I suppose the timing feels right, it being the New Year and all. Because it’s the time of the year when lots of people are reflecting on hope and love, and the importance of not losing sight of who we are and what we all want out of life. Everything feels so fresh and possible at the start – new beginnings. Resolutions. All those visionary statements about who you’re going to be or what you’re going to do – or not – in the coming year: This year I’m giving up gluten! (Uh-huh). I’m finally going to take that basket-weaving class I’ve been meaning to! (Mmmkay). I’m getting up early every day to go to the gym! (*thumbs up* buddy).

This year, I am resolving to do almost none of that. And mostly because I’m pretty sure I learned everything I need to know about how to get through the coming year on day one of 2017.

I kicked off the new year in a tiny little town in the far north of California we’re going to call “Pinevale”(names in this story have been changed to protect the sanctity of this magical place from terrible bay area hipster dwellers like you). So, Pinevale. Population: 1,300. Or 1,303 if you count the three of us who settled in there for the last weekend of December.

As quaint quiet country towns go, Pinevale is a damned prize. It’s on the right of the Pacific and left of the middle of nowhere, tucked away into a majestic little a nook of dairy farms and pasture land at the edge of where giant redwoods meet the sea. There are 3 restaurants and one main street – during the holidays the center of town is lit up by twinkling fairy lights and dotted up and down with Christmas trees, each decorated by a different elementary school class at the local school. The town has one bar. One proper dive bar that heaven help me may be the best hideaway in which I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting shitfaced. (Pouring one out here for you Starla, you glorious bartender goddess).

We ended up there by accident. By the time I started looking for New Year’s accommodations nearly everything from Mendocino up to the Oregon border north and west into Nevada was booked. Except…for unassuming tiny Pinevale. It was the perfect misfortune.  Rather than glitzing and glamouring it up, we opted for puzzles over drunken dancing; cozy dinners instead of mad house clubs. We decided against heading down to the big city to chase taxis after midnight and instead followed the Christmas lights down Main Street into the warmth of the local pub. It was freezing and raining, and I may never want to see another Bud Light again as long as I live but damn was it the right place to be.

Pinevale – it might be love.

So the fact that I had a great New Years is a side note. The real lesson here, and what I will circle back to, is that Pinevale left me with some takeaways, which I think are worth repeating now because, well, 2016 was rough. 2017 might be worse. Pinevale itself I think proves a point about the ebb and flow of real circumstances vs expectations, something I think a lot of us could probably use a refresher course on right about now.

I was thinking about all of this when I woke up on that first day of 2017. This sliver of a town that by all laws of economics and industrial change should have disappeared off a map half a century ago still stands, preserved in time and present in modernity all the same. Pinevale has managed to stay afloat through earthquakes and tsunamis; flash floods and economic decline; the fall of the forestry industry and the unexpected phoenix of weed as a legitimate money maker. It’s like the whole world came and went and Pinevale stood there nodding and taking note before shrugging its shoulders unremarkably and heading back to the dairies, the barns, and the pubs to just get on with life. And remarkably through it all, this weird rabbit hole of a place seems to have kept its true nature and its heart, beating steadily and reassuringly as the world changed drastically all around it.

But that’s life, right? As much as you plan and research, or envision your path (if you’re into that hippie woo woo stuff) your current life circumstances are the result of 60% accident, 30% purpose, and 10% crazy weird WTF miscellaneous luck. Pinevale rode out that formula and while it hit some pot holes along the way, it’s still here to tell the tale.  Pinevale made the decision to stick it out. As far as I’m concerned, that is what we’re all facing right now: Just a heap of decisions to be ok with and celebrate the life we have individually and collectively, or a choice to wallow in absence and the darkness of past wishes.

My unsolicited advice to everyone in 2017 is this: Be like Pinevale. Embrace the innumerable accidental life circumstances we may find ourselves in in the coming year, or at the very least figure out how to adapt to the uncertainty of certain change. Be like Pinevale. Stand in the tide and let the waves roll all around and over your head – they’ll recede eventually. Be like Pinevale. Let go of things and people in your life that drag you down instead of lifting you up – they probably aren’t as important as you thought they were. Be like Pinevale. Fight for the things that matter and ignore the noise that doesn’t. Be like Pinevale. Listen more to your inner voice/gut/garden gnome – that barometer usually knows what’s best even before you do. Be like Pinevale. Rock that camouflage and Carhartts because they’re still not, and will never be, fashionable but do it because YOU DO YOU PINEVALE. And please continue to watch the evening news and whammy up that panic button because shit, kids, we may be in for a rough four years but in the long run, nothing is unfixable.

And if in the end it still feels hard, take my last piece of Pinevale advice:  Find a bar with a bartender who loves whisky but loves you more. (Starla, someday people will write songs about you).

Get ready, 2017. We’re a comin’ for you. 

The ants come marching in

In ancient Greek mythology, there’s an unsavory character named Sisyphus, king of Ephra, whose constant, wily plotting for power eventually gets him condemned for crimes against the gods. For these grave infractions he is punished to an eternity of hard labor, which involves rolling a great boulder up a hill that can never – will never – quite reach the summit. Every time Sisyphus manages to huff, puff, and push the boulder up to the top, it simply pauses, teeters, and rolls back down the hill again. 

This is the embodiment of insanity. 

This is also how I feel every time I walk into my bathroom (kitchen/living space) between the months of November and February, as I watch thousands of little boulders infiltrate my apartment through microscopic cracks I cannot see but that I loathe all the same.

Welcome to Antpocalpyse 2014, ladies and gentleman. You can run. But you can’t hide. 

I live in a building that was built in 1922. Most of the time I like to think of her as a dear old lady you want to help with her groceries or hold the door open for. Sometimes her bones creak and her white, wispy hair gets a bit disheveled, but overall she’s tender and kind, and trying her best to keep her 16 unit family safe and snug inside her aging but lovely home. 

Then again, sometimes she’s a cranky, old demon whose sole mission is to dementedly scream ungodly profanities while she throws peanuts at you from her wheelchair and cackles like a crinkly little witch. 

We’re in one of those stages right now. 

Every year during this time, my building surrenders to a seemingly immortal colony of ants that apparently resides in the ground beneath my first floor apartment. Every day, thousands (millions?) of these ubiquitous little f**kers crawl up through the floors, through cracks in the windows. Up through the drains, the faucets, and the showerhead. Onward and away through the heating ducts and out through the radiators. In some places, I honestly think the gods of the underworld have simply willed them to appear out of thin air because why/how the hell else is there a swarming army of ants just hanging out in the middle of my living area for no earthly reason? 

Alas, apparently there IS a logical reason. One that has nothing to do with cranky old ladies or malevolent Greek gods. According to the interwebs (an internationally renowned and reputable source of useless information), Alameda County sits on one of California’s premier ant “super-colonies,” which means that at any given time, there are about 10 or 20 million ants just chillin’ in the ground beneath our feet. Grossed out yet? You’re welcome. 

When the weather gets yucky and the air grows cold, thousands upon thousands of these little guys march their way up to urbanity the seeking bigger and better opportunities. Evidently even ants are striving for the American dream. 

I have ant-proofed nearly every corner of my bathroom. There are traps lining the edges of my radiators and my windows. Cinnamon has been sprinkled in historic ant-highways to deter the advancement of future fronts all around my kitchen. I am single handedly keeping the orange oil industry alive trying to deter these prolific little jerks from advancing any further. And yet?

And yet, every time I seem to overcome them, every time I think I’ve reached the top of that mountain and finally conquered those squirrely minions, they return in earnest and with reinforcements. 

My breaking point came one morning last week as I was getting into the shower before work. (As a critical digression here, it is important to note that I have optical powers akin to a mole – when I wake up in the morning everything looks like a knock-off Monet painting. If you left me in the jungle at night without my contacts or glasses – which, true story, someone once threatened to do – I would be puma meat within the hour. Most importantly, I generally do not have any of these optical support mechanisms in or on my face before 8 o’clock in the morning).

So I step into the tub and immediately notice two things: 1) the shower walls and floor look kind of dirty and 2) there is a giant hairball up near the drain. 

Only, the dirt is moving. And so is that hairball. 

I believe that was the shriek of “MOTHERF**KER” heard round the world. 
As I discovered, once I had catapulted myself out of the shower and grabbed my glasses in one utterly ungraceful movement, the “dirt” in the shower was actually ants. Ants coming out of the drain. Ants coming out of the faucets. Ants coming in through the window and swarming up and down the walls, over the shampoo and the soap, happily blanketing every inch of the tub and tiles with swirling blots of moving brown.
And that “hairball”? Oh, that was a giant wolf spider about the size of my big toe who I presume had made his way into the tub because he was hungry and ants are a tasty treat.

Oh my god. Just. No.

Insanity is a girl in a towel, cursing up a storm, throwing cinnamon and orange oil everywhere, trying to vanquish 2,000 ants and the world’s biggest spider out of her bathroom just so she can get dressed and go to work. 

CLEARLY, I was all up in arms about this by the time I got into the office that morning, whining about the whole intolerable situation. Pissed off that I was going to have to go home that evening and likely face yet another wave of impervious ant – and now spider – enemies. And then my coworker Mara walks into my office:

Mara: “So the plumber finally figured out what’s up with the water that’s been leaking through my ceiling and walls all month.” 
Me: “Oh yeah, what is it?”
Mara: “Poop. It’s poop. From the upstairs neighbor’s toilet.”

…And that’s the story of how my ants and I lived happily ever after.

Love. Actually, nevermind.

“Meagan! There you are. How wonderful. Come here, there’s someone I’d like you to meet,” are the words every single woman in her mid-30s dreads. Especially while at a wedding. And most especially at a wedding when those words are coming from the bride’s sixty-something year old dad. 

I take a deep breath, put on my best parent-pleasing smile, and turn around to face the small group of people hovering near the cheese table. While I’m not entirely sure what is about to go down, I am certain it lies somewhere on the spectrum between probably not very good, and the absolute worst case scenario. As I prepare myself for the inevitable, I glance over at the person I imagine is the someone I’ve been beckoned over to meet: 

Oh look. A human. Who is a man. What a surprise. 

My friend’s father carries on, singularly focused on this matchmaking mission which is now making my stomach flip, and not in a good way: 

“Meagan, I’m so glad you’re here…because I’ve been meaning to ask you…AND my [at least 47 year old] brother Bob here…why…neither one of you…is married?” 

Yeah. So just to be clear? My friend’s dad has just tried to set me up with his brother. Aka, her uncle. I mean, I guess I’ve always wanted to be an auntie? 

In total, I attended 5 weddings this year. Five. Five receptions. Five bizarre conversations with mostly total or near strangers needing to understand how…you’re here alone…? But you are dating someone, right? No? You’re single? Oh, well, let me give you some advice. Or ask you more questions. Are you SURE you’re not married? How old are you? Haven’t you thought about kids? What about online dating? Or maybe just that guy over there by the punch? 

At a wedding in August, I was asked by drunk cousin Bertha “whhhhhhhyyyyyyYYYYYyyyyy” I wasn’t dating the groom’s 27 year-old brother, who at the time of this cross-eyed inquiry, was standing next to me with a look of ‘please let this be the end of this conversation’ plastered in terror across his face. The month before in July, an old lady I’ve never seen in my life told me I had ‘too beautiful a neck not to have a man’. Ummm, thanks, I guess? In October, it was the slurry short guy at the family wedding who noted that I was “real tall”…before launching into a diatribe about how ‘time is running out’ and I really should think about getting married. A week later, it was the friend-to-friend pep talk on how I should figure my shit out before my ovaries permanently go on strike. And finally we have Uncle Bob and what I like to think of as the formative basis for Father of the Bride Part III: The Most Awkward Family Affair EVER – Reasons Why Meagan Will Definitely Be Drunk At Your Wedding. (Touchstone Pictures, we can discuss royalties later). 

And yet, in the grand scheme of things, all of these utterly absurd wedding encounters were merely tame, laughable microcosms of my actual romantic life circa 2014.

This year has been a real doozey in the relationship/finding love/chivalry is definitely dead department. At some point along the line of my general existence, I apparently managed to deeply (and I mean DEEPLY) anger the gods of romance. In response, it seems they have chosen this past year – 2014 – to enact their sweet revenge and wreck continuous and utter havoc on my so-called love life. As we speak, somewhere out there in the universe, there is an army of vindictive little cupids flame-throwing arrows at my head and watching with delight as every romantic encounter I’ve had over the last 12 months spontaneously combusts upon impact. Over. And over. And over again.

First, it was the Match.com phase around January of this year, which included the weird surgeon who smelled creepily of antiseptic and parted his hair down the middle a la 1902. Then there was the super tall wine marketer who was so promising! Until he proceeded to talk for 25 minutes on our second date about why he exclusively drinks bottled water from Whole Foods. Because “other water tastes weird” out of the tap, through a Brita filter, and even when delivered in large water coolers. I can’t believe he wasn’t “the one.” 

February and March gave way to the “I’m going to have an open mind about men” period, whereby I agreed to go out with a bartender who works at my favorite bar in Oakland. The bartender who was also – wait for it – a musician in a band who was also – wait for it – a tax accountant during tax season. I thought things were going pretty well until he vanished two weeks before taxes were due, resurfacing just long enough to let me know by text that, and I quote: 

“It’s not you. It’s Uncle Sam.” 

Can I get a slow clap for the best worst break-up text in the history of texting? Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam. Not only are you an asshole, you’re an asshole who just ruined my access to the best vodka martinis in town on Friday, Saturday and Monday nights. 

There were the 4 or 5 droning dates I went on through OKCupid in the late spring. A Canadian pharmacist. A painfully awkward software engineer. The Republican with the Lego helmet hair. Also the guy from the gym who while nice, was so socially and politically oblivious that talking to him filled me with debilitating levels of irrational rage. Also, he was a grown man living alone with a pet chinchilla. The end. 

But why stop there! In April I met a lovely man from the UK who I thought was the most normal human I had encountered in months, right? WRONG. After nearly 12 weeks of dating, it became clear that this dude had major, borderline very scary life issues that I quite frankly, had no desire to handle. Aside from the creepy drive-by he later did past my apartment on a motorcycle late one night (yes that happened), my favorite part of our break-up was the time he sent all the stuff I left at his house back via UPS. I’m still not entirely sure who “Megan Demilde” in apartment 102 is, but shit! We’re like the same size AND have the same set of beach towels? What a coincidence! Oh, and thank you for the extra women’s sun hat – that was definitely NOT mine but it should come in super handy during my trip to Mexico in December. 

Then wedding season started. Flirtations with an adorable best man at a wedding in July. Congratulations: He lives in England. The nice, but overly eager dude at the wedding in August who asked the bride what his odds were with me that weekend: “I mean, I don’t want to say zero but yeah. Somewhere close to zero.” The funny, handsome (god, so handsome) friend of a friend who – because the universe hates me – of course has a girlfriend. And then there’s Uncle Bob, the father of the bride, and their merry band of complicit crazies. 

The final straw came last week, when one of my coworkers tried to set me up with her friend’s son…who in a small world twist of fate, turned out to be my ex-boyfriend’s best friend. The discovery of this of course prompted a somewhat angsty email from my ex, which he sent me this past Sunday, aka on my 34th birthday. The best part? No mention of my birthday AT ALL. Why? Because he clearly didn’t remember. Thanks for that lovely metaphoric reminder of why we are no longer together. 

So, when people ask me that awful question, “why are you single?” that’s my explanation. Everything you just read. Because most humans are terrible. Because the Internet is full of creeptards. Because meeting people in real life who aren’t the worst is nearly impossible. Because life – like your grandma always said – isn’t always fair. Because sometimes you have to get set-up with your friend’s uncle or your ex’s BFF to realize that as hard as it feels (a lot of the time) to be alone, there is a silver lining of unbeatable comedy to all of this. Which makes you realize that your life might actually be ok right now. Sometimes it’s borderline great, even if you don’t have a person. Or you simply get to the point where you can accept that for this moment at least, the most important person in your life is actually you. And you’re some kind of wonderful. (Suck it, Uncle Sam).

Or, maybe the reason I’m single really is because there’s some punk-ass winged cherub motherf**ker up there, looking down on my would-be relationships all up in flames, and doing a happy dance every time he scores a fiery hole-in-one through the ridiculous, disastrous rom-com that is my love life. 

So, if you’re listening, you little jerk, I CONCEDE. You WIN. I fold, give up, throw in the towel. I know when to take a hint. I officially give up on dating in the year of our Lord 2014. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have important single girl life things to take care of. Like washing my hair. Maybe (probably not) shaving my legs. Netflix binging on every episode of Gilmore Girls ever created. Right after I finish googling “cat adoption near you…”

Entry stamps

“Wow. You’ve been a lot of places.” This waitress in Healdsburg, CA is flipping through my passport, seemingly unaware that every time she touches another page and opens her mouth I come one step closer to kind of wanting to punch her in the face.

“Tanzania? Bolivia? That’s a big visa from Kenya, huh?”

I smile politely and ask her, again, if she could possibly deliver on that order of zinfandel I just put in. Oh right. She smiles and hands my passport back to me before day-dreamily walking back towards the bar, totally unaware that I am sending her stabbing eye jab looks at the back of her head the whole while.

This scenario played itself out twice that night, again at another bar with another server who felt entitled, when I handed her my passport as identification, to flip through the pages and discuss the contents of the last 9 years of my life while I sat on the other side of the bar listening to my internal commentary switch come dangerously close to “f**k it” and “f**k you.”

I suppose bar patrons, particularly Americans living and drinking in America, don’t often use passports as the common denominator of identification. But I don’t really have much of a choice at the moment. My Massachusetts-issued driver’s license ended up on the losing end of a battle between me and a Malawian cop who for various reasons (ranging from me having an expired “certificate of fitness” on my car at the time to a streak of obstinance that prevented me from bribing him purely out of my own stubborn principle) resulted in my license being impounded sometime in July, effectively vanishing into the abyss of the Malawian police system never to be heard from again. Hence, the passport as my principle form of I.D. – As it turns out, it also now functions as a passport into my life when placed into the hands of complete strangers. Zikomo. You are certainly NOT most welcome.

Reverse culture shock this time around is creeping up on me in ways I didn’t anticipate. Some things are the same, like the fact that my first trip to the local supermarket nearly gave me a heart attack. (Are you aware of how many kinds of blue cheese there are? Or the fact that a pint of sour cream is only $1.69?! It’s criminal — CRIMINAL. Someone needs to stop the insanity). But the emotional ebb and flow of being back in California this time around is hitting me up side the head a bit differently, I suspect mostly because I am having to dually reconcile that this time it isn’t a vacation. This time, I’m not going back to Malawi.

I was standing in line at Peet’s Coffee the other day, waiting patiently to order some sort of ridiculously fancy and overpriced cup of coffee/espresso/tea/whatever when I had a little mini “WTF America” moment of unpleasant zen. The couple behind me were talking about repainting their house. The two women in front of me were discussing the sale going on at the local boutique where they were apparently headed to next. The entire place was packed with people, chattering, jabbering, gibbering people. When the cashier at the front said “hello” to me he looked genuinely surprised when I answered back, “Hi. How are you?” (Because greeting people in America is apparently akin to holding them up at gunpoint and demanding the soul of their first-born child). At any rate, it was your typical yuppie coffee shop scene, and all I could think about the whole time was, “jesus, this is utterly ridiculous cacophony…and there is a panic attack lurking riiiiight around the corner as a result.”

It’s only been a little over a week since I left but I miss the sense of living life in my own personal observation bubble. When you live abroad and don’t speak the language, the daily sound of life is almost like friendly white noise. It’s like a chipper background tune in a foreign tongue that buzzes around your head in an odd, yet soothing, urban symphony that you don’t realize exists until it’s no longer there. Or you’re no longer there. Instead, you’re in a new place where you suddenly understand EVERYTHING being said and demonstrated by nearly everyone around you almost all the time. I find this incredibly unnerving and kind of intrusive. Quite frankly, I’m having a really difficult time concentrating on the internal when everything external is just so incredibly chaotic, rapid, and irritatingly “loud” both in an audible and lurid sort of way.

And as “American” as this place so obviously is, so much of it sends me right back to thinking about people or places, even specific moments in Malawi. My friend J out there always says that even on the worst days of work, in the afternoons where you feel totally depleted as if the inanity of Malawi has actually, finally, crushed you, there is always this moment at the end of the day as the sun is setting where you catch a glimpse of something bigger. When you can suddenly understand the reasons you’re there and why we all do the things we do. The sun dips low on the horizon. The sky turns orange…then pink…and ends in a sea sky full of deep blood-orange red. You are conscious of your heart as all this is happening, and the sense that it is expanding, bursting, and breaking all at the same time. Everyone around you could be talking total bulls**t but that one moment in the day is clear and nothing, absolutely nothing else in the world could bring you more peace and clarity than the site of that sky and that sun setting in the distance.

I’m having trouble letting go of those sunsets out east and embracing the ones out west. There’s too much background noise here. Too many people, too many cars, too many kinds of blue cheese. I underestimated the learning curve getting back into the groove of American society. It’s not bad, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s hard and I have moments where I feel torn and tired, and a bit compelled to hibernate from the world and my friends and LIFE for a little while I retune my internal radio settings. None of it is unexpected but that doesn’t seem to lessen the fact that it kind of sucks. 

Which is where the passport situation comes in. I am putting barricades up against the noise. I’m plugging my ears to the dissonance. I’m fighting NOT to have panic attacks at the supermarket and do normal things like have a nice glass of wine with friends I’ve known for over a decade and haven’t seen in a year. And yeah, I know you’re curious about all those pages and all those stamps, and god knows you probably don’t come across them all that often, but those 22 pages of my very old American passport are a little summary of my life, one that I don’t have an obligation to share with you and one I am clinging to while the discord of my new life in America knocks on my door as asks to be let in.

So, madam bartender, if I may? Please just serve me up that glass of vino. Go back to your banter with the other patrons. Comment on the weather. Wipe up your bar. Do whatever is you need to do while I take a second to myself here. I need a moment with this part of the sky, with these new 7 p.m. pinks, oranges, reds, and blues. Because I’m looking for that heartbreaking moment on the horizon where it all makes sense…so far, it still feels a world away. 

All things big and small

I’m in Dakar, Senegal sitting on a flight back to the U.S. that originated (originally) in Johannesburg via Lilongwe, as they transfer passengers and staff, restock food, fold up blankets, and get ready for yet another 8 hour trip to yet another destination. If this plane is anything, it is a metaphor for my life: Another country/city/place, everything I own packed neatly into three suitcases in the cargo hold and 2 carry-on bags in the overhead. A life lived abroad all suddenly coming to a strange and seemingly abrupt end.

The process of change and transition, no matter where one is geographically or psychically, is never easy. Moving my life from Lilongwe to California has been a series of mini battles – some good, some bad, some more complex than others, and almost all of which have been in my own head and my own heart. For almost two years, Lilongwe has been my home. And although I knew it was time to leave, even though I could feel my body and my heart telling me it was time to go, it just never felt like quite the right time. Now that I’m here, on this plane, it all seems too soon and too fast. It feels a bit like I’m about to walk into a party to which I was not necessarily invited…and one that I’m poorly prepared for (and certainly not dressed for) to boot.

My last week in Lilongwe was spent in tears: tears with my housemates, tears with my coworkers, and tears with my clients. I pulled out of camp last Thursday sobbing in the front of the Land Cruiser as a dozen of my women clients showed me off waving and crying themselves. It was heartbreaking in a way that I cannot even describe…quite honestly, I don’t really want to. Although it was a very public good-bye, on the inside it felt a lot like someone squeezing my heart until it bled.  Given the hiccupping sobs I was rocking while leaving camp that day, I’m sure this wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone within about a 1 kilometer radius.

There was simply no way to prepare for it – no matter the time or the place, that final day in camp was going to be heartbreakingly beautiful and desperately tragic, not just for me but for everyone whose lives I have become inextricably intertwined with over the past 20 months. I’m on a plane leaving Dakar in the middle of the night one week later and I’m on the brink of tears just discussing it. I get the feeling that maybe the overwhelming feeling of loss is never quite going to go away – I am, in many ways, willing it not to, like my emotional baggage is the last remaining link I have to my life in Africa which is quite literally getting farther and father away as I write.

I left Lilongwe on Tuesday, after a weekend of going-away dinners, going-away BBQs, going-aways in general. At one point I think I just stopped processing the whole thing and sort of flat-lined emotionally because the very thought that I wasn’t coming back this time was too goddamned unbearable to contemplate. Leaving Malawi was more than leaving a job that I loved:  It was leaving my people, a group of people who over the last 20 months have become my family and my support network, silly, loyal, and occasionally dysfunctional as we all are. I feel as thought I am leaving my home– and again, as I say these things typing in the middle of nowhere transatlantic-dome I am crying like a bit of a maniac and hoping that $2 Malawian valium is somewhere within arms reach for the next 8 hour leg of this trip. (Malawi lesson #252: It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. If you have a problem with that, mentally stated to the American man sitting next to me looking HORRIFICALLY uncomfortable as the woman next to him types and drips tears onto her keyboard, too bad. Pass the tissues, kids. I’ve got 14 more hours to go and I’m just getting started).

Malawi was not a “trip.” It was not “part of my travels.” I didn’t go there to party or go on adventures to the lake every weekend (although I will admit that these were all immense bonuses to the last nearly 2 years of my life). I went there to work and accidentally stumbled upon a life, one that I miss with an intensity I don’t yet know how to explain.  In many ways, Malawi made me whole again at a time when I didn’t even know how broken I really was. I found “people” in Malawi that I didn’t realize I needed until it all sort of tumbled together in this unexpected balance of f**ked up expats and life-hardened refugees. It just might be the most ridiculous faux group counseling scenario on the planet – and yet somehow, in sliding into all this, I rediscovered myself. I went to Malawi to help people put their emotional lives back together and in the process, it seems, I too ended up getting patched up along the way.

I always joke about how Malawi is like Never Never land, how even Peter Pan has to leave the island and grow up eventually. It recently occurred to me in a discussion with a friend that maybe this metaphor isn’t so accurate after all. Life in Malawi is very real, real on in-your-face levels few people in the West have to deal with on a regular basis. The last 20 months of my life has been a crash course in all things poignant: Death, dying, loss, hope, joy, love, and all sorts of in-between crazy shit I cannot even begin to explain. (Goat induced panic attacks? Three-quarter length suits? Inexplicable shortages of water, fuel, electricity, internet, and telephones occasionally all at the same time? $20 butter and the world’s most expensive processed cheese?). All of these ridiculous and amazing things, bundled into this crazy time and spread out over a refugee camp and an expat community I didn’t know I needed until I stumbled my way into all of it. And now? Now it’s over. And Peter Pan or not, it’s time for me to leave.

I know that going back to the U.S. is the right thing to do right now even if I feel like I am breaking my own heart and tearing myself away from the people I love…even if I feel like I don’t know what I’m going “home” to when home feels more like Africa than anywhere else. What scares me the most is not returning to the states, because I am looking forward to it on some level. I’m nervous about living in California for the first time in 8 years but this too is a new adventure and there is an anticipation about living in the place of my birth for the first time in what seems like eons.

What scares me the most right now, as I look west in the middle of the night over the Atlantic is facing the reality that a chapter in my life has closed for good. Malawi is over. My job is over. I have become another hole in the lives of my friends in Lilongwe and the people at Dzaleka…in time, I will just be another chapter in a story, but one that cannot be re-visited or re-opened. There will, quite simply, never be a time in any of our lives like this again.  It is so very Malawi by virtue of its beautiful tragedy – immensely joyful and sad, intriguing and terrifying, friendly and yet lonely all at the same time. And now? Now it exists in memory, like a scene in a snow globe: perfect and untouchable all at once.

I am, for once in my life, not whinging. I am not lamenting. I am not complaining. As sad as I feel right now, somewhere over the Atlantic between Africa and America, the emotions I feel are not out of angst, depression or despondency. Rather, they are out of love and immense gratitude to my friends, to my once-upon-a-time home in Africa, to my clients, and to the universe, I suppose, for taking me in, for dropping me on African soil, for making me part of a community I didn’t know I was supposed to be in until I got there.

I am not ready to say good-bye and so I won’t. I will simply say, “thank you”. To whom? Well, that is a list too long to start. You all know who you are. You know I miss you with an intensity that will probably always make me smile, and very well may always make me cry. Thank you for the blessings of the past 20 months. Thank you for teaching me to love. Thank you for gifting me back me. A million times thank you for all things big and small.

So, as they say in Malawi? Tionana. See you later, my loves. This is Meagan Demitz, a once-upon-a time Malawi expat, signing off the island for the last time.

Over and out. 

If God is with us, who can be against us?

There’s a guy who sells bumper stickers down the road from my office. He hangs out around the traffic lights in Area 15, right next to the homemade sling-shot hawker, the stray puppy purveyor, the mop/broom/feather dust buster man, and an ever-changing variety of mobile merchants who sell live chickens, turkeys, and your occasional duck off of the handle bars of their bicycles.

The thing about bumper stickers in Malawi is that there are only about five – five staple phrases that you are sure to see on the back of at least every other vehicle in town. For the humble worker: “No Food for Lazy Man.” For the romantic: “I Love my Wife” (also available in “I Love my Husband”). For the God-fearing man: “RELAX: God is in Control” or the sticker that graces the back of my 1996 Toyota Corolla: “This Car is Protected by the Blood of Jesus.” (Trust me, if you were in a driver in this country, you’d want Jesus on your side too). And last, but not least, the Malawian adage that most aptly plucks the strings of satire: “If God is with us, who can be against us?”

Who can be against us…who, oh who, can be against us? Oh Malawi. You really just walked right into this one, didn’t you?

As much as I would like to think that I am optimistic about the future of international development and the burgeoning government systems in which we work, there are moments where the sheer irrational logic that seems to dictate infrastructure and problem solving in this country just completely overloads my capacity for lucid, balanced reactions. Malawi, I love you like a second home, but seriously? You are doing my head in.

There has not been steady running water in my neighborhood in almost 7 weeks, which when paired with the twice weekly electricity blackouts, the 72 hours this past weekend where the entire country was without functioning cell phones, and an apparent region-wide diesel fuel shortage, is making city living around here a real kick in the pants lately. When this first started, I made one, maybe two phone calls to the water company, politely asking when we might have running water again. “Yes, Madam, we are working on it. We do not know what the problem is.” Fair enough. Pipes burst, shit happens. I tell myself that there are people who work at the water board whose only job is to fix this sort of thing, maybe there is some kind of clandestine mercenary plumbing troop tasked with rappelling down in the middle of the night to fix busted water lines or clogged dams for the betterment of Lilongwers everywhere. I mean, no water for 7 weeks: There MUST be a contingency plans for this right? There must be. There has to be. Someone quash that grumbling rage in the pit of my stomach that says mockingly, “you are a moron. Of course there isn’t.”

Let’s fast-forward to this past weekend, six and a half weeks after this utility debacle began. I am on the phone, once again, with the water board, arguing against the most incomprehensible reasoning I have ever heard in my life in regards to why there is STILL no water between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day in Area 12:

Me: Good afternoon, Sir. I am calling about the problem in Area 12. We still do not have water. When will this be fixed? 
Water Man: Yes, Madam, we are working on it. 
Me: Right, so what is the problem? 
Water Man: Ahhh, we do not know.  
Me: Sir, it’s been six weeks. Your company turns the water off at the exact time, for 12 hours a day, six days a week. 
Water Man: Yes. We do not know what the problem is. 
Me: Ok, but that is what I’m saying: The problem is that your company turns off our water EVERY DAY. 
Water Man: Mmm-hmmm, yes, well…we do not know what the problem is.

Based on my dead-end conversation with the “faults” line personnel, my housemate then decided on Monday that perhaps a physical visit to the water board might prove more fruitful in terms of information gathering. Wrong. That scenario clearly ended in similar obscurity, with a rather bright-faced Northern Irishman storming out of the building muttering unmentionable curses and with no clearer picture of how, when, or why anyone would conceivably expect that there be reliable utilities, like water, in this city.

Argue that I am petty and spoiled all you like. I don’t care. I live in a house, in a city, I pay for public utilities and I have quality of life expectations, although they are certainly more tempered and flexible here than they would be at home in the U.S.  But what I would say in retort is that my annoyance with the infrastructural failures of this country is the accumulated frustration of living in a place that seems so apathetic to problem solving. Yes, my water may not be a major concern to you, Mr. Water Utility Man, but that is because I am a half-enraged white woman who, you figure correctly, probably has other alternatives to getting water when I need it. I can go to the posh hotel around the corner for a shower or I can drive up to a friend’s house for a hot bath and a cup of tea. But that is sort of the crux of the problem, now isn’t it, because there are LOADS of people who live in my neighborhood who can’t do the same thing. They are housekeepers, watchmen, guards, gardeners, tomato sellers, maybe even bumper sticker vendors – they are the ones who have to bear the brunt of bullshit like this and I am equally, if not more so, infuriated for them. As a Malawian friend of mine said last week, “it is very bad. Water is life. Without water…this is a difficult thing.” I obviously agree although after nearly two months of dealing with this, I can’t say that I have an immense amount of faith in the system’s ability to right itself at this point. Bucket showers and evening water hoarding continue, as do the occasional early morning shouts of “F**K MY LIFE!!!” that come from the bathroom when my half-naked roommate realizes, once again, that there is nothing coming out of the tap and we are both going to work dirty today. 

An expat friend wrote me in a gchat the other day, “I realized recently that living in Malawi is, sadly, like interacting with a teenager on a daily basis:  Stubborn, temperamental, crazy illogical, and sure that it is right 100% of the time.” As development workers, we are here trying to build systems of sustainability, to create projects that help people better themselves, their lives, and their country – at least this is the altruistic half-truth we all tell ourselves. But I question this rationale and wonder if our involvement here is, perhaps, doing more harm than good. I mean, how do you build sound, sustainable policies and projects if the infrastructure of a place is still so unreliable? It’s like building a fortress upon a foundation that has been crazy-glued together with a colorful mish-mash of questionable internal policies, politics, and ever-shifting international influences. I often feel like we are just tripping over one another, dog-piling onto an already incomprehensible bureaucracy that seems to bottleneck at the top before anything gets down to the bottom where it is really needed. 

I know God is with us, even as someone who walked away from the Church a long time ago, I believe in the spirit of something bigger and a faith in hope, and I can see that in the faces of the people I work with every day. But it isn’t God I’m worried about: It’s us, the communities of this country, expat, Malawian or otherwise. The biggest enemy of development is development itself and maybe all we’re doing here is compounding the problems, proliferating the crux of the issue even through our most altruistic efforts to make things better.

At the end of a 12-hour workday, when I’m tired and I’m dirty with red African dust, when my heart feels heavy and I’m angry at the world for the list of injustices we just can’t seem to sort out, the only thing I want to do is go sit in my shower, under an artificial rain of warm water and pretend, if only for a moment, that everything isn’t f**ked up, that God is nearer than he is far, that everything we’re all doing here is for some kind of purpose.

So, God, if you’re listening, cut us some slack. We could use a break here. And a little bit of water too.