In the guest room of our house, I stand surrounded by large suitcases and stacks of second-hand laptops. It is a mess of clothes, deflated soccer balls, bags of candy, and early reader books. I leave in four days to deliver these things to a village in Ankaase, Ghana and it seems beyond imaginable that all this will fit into the two suitcases that are open and waiting on the bed. I circle the room and then remind myself to breathe. My husband thinks it’s humorous that I do this, but sometimes my breathing is not deep and peaceful; it is Lamaze-style, as if I am laboring. I stop the nervous shallow breath and inhale and exhale in a ridiculously slow but cleansing manner.
Then I circle the room again as if I am about to interrogate my luggage and it’s potential inhabitants. Both pieces are going to be grossly overweight and I’ll end up getting smacked with a charge. And what about those computers in the hands of the airport luggage carriers? I’ve watched from the plane window how they toss and throw, and let them bounce onto the conveyer belt. I close my eyes at the thought.
Inhale. Exhale. That’s better.
I could stay home. It’s fall, and there is a chill in the air and everyone is setting out pumpkins and mums and relaxing in the evenings by the chiminea fire. I could bake some spice bread and find new soup recipes and generally snuggle in before winter arrives. The thought takes me to a place where I am safe and comfortable and breathing deep. I like it.
But I’m not going there right now.
I’m going to Africa, which is anything but simple. Getting there, being there, traveling within countries, understanding how people and systems work, working within systems. It’s all complicated beyond what I could have ever imagined. Which doesn’t seem a fitting topic for a column titled Simply Being.
Yet Africa gives me a perspective on simplicity that I could never get if I stayed here and sipped hot chocolate while snuggling in a soft chair in front of a crackling outdoor fireplace. Nothing wrong with that, and I have plans to do that when I return, but I receive from Africa something that I could never obtain in my world here.
Traveling takes us outside ourselves – or at least it should. When I step off the plane in Accra and out into the city, it hits me like the blast of hot, humid air: This is a world I do not belong in. I am completely and totally out of my element. And from that moment on, I throw up my hands and give over a certain amount of control to Africa. Time is not sacred, but relationships are, so if we’re late but enjoying the company then we don’t check the time. Joy does not seem to belong in this place, but it’s abundant, and I realize that it comes from within – a determination to laugh and dance in the midst of sorrow and pain.
Life is very hard, but life is very good because we still have it.
It doesn’t get much more simple than that. Life is sacred. Life is worth celebrating. Life is also unpredictable and fragile. And yet, Africans take long, deep breaths. And they sing. And dance. And they endure.
The simplicity of this draws me back. I make my trips terribly complicated, which is why I find myself standing in the guest room staring at all the stuff and the luggage and reminding myself exactly how to breathe.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
I would add to that good advice, “Take one trip in the course of your lifetime that scares you.”
It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own place and time and before we know it, we’ve made a million mountains where there were once molehills. Traveling helps me put my problems, fears, worries, and obsessions into their proper place at the back of the line.
I start placing the items into my luggage and realize the impossibility of getting all this stuff in two pieces. Keep going until the plane lands, I tell myself. And then let Africa take over. I take another long, deep breath.