I’ve been home, now, for a few of days, and I think – I think – that I’ve recovered from travel fatigue – 28 hours it took me to get home from Lesotho – and jet-lag and the brain fog that comes from traveling halfway around the world and back in less than a week. But I haven’t quite recovered from what I can only describe as soul-lag: the existential exhaustion that settles upon you when you’ve experienced something that changes you so profoundly that your psyche has trouble catching up to your transformed heart and soul.
I have soul lag. It’s getting in the way of writing anything meaningful or informative about everything that I saw, everything that I learned, everything that changed me last week. It’s clouding my mind and tangling my thoughts and every time that I sit down to write I am faced with a screen that demands, now, something better than before, something worthy of the stories that I heard and the stories that I was part of, and as I stare at that screen something inside me sags and crumples. I tell myself that it will all come, in time, as my heart and soul and psyche reconcile themselves to each other and to the clock of my here and now, and as I find the words to do those stories justice, but my self is not entirely convinced. My self is also not a very good listener, but that’s not really the problem here.
I met her at what the Global Fund calls an ‘OVC House,’ or home for orphaned and vulnerable children, although in this specific case it was actually a residential school for visually-impaired children who have been orphaned or otherwise made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, all of which is to say that it is not a place where you expect to do a lot of giggling. But I did giggle, a lot, because this young woman and her friends followed me around, giggling, and giggling, as it happens, is infectious, whether you’re in Lesotho with blind orphans or anywhere else in the world.
They stuck close to me, these girls, as I took pictures, following me around, asking me again and again to take their photo, posing and giggling behind cupped hands, squealing cheese! every time that I pointed the camera in their direction. They were sweet and they were funny and it was impossible, in their presence, to not share their laughter, which was wonderful, because, as I said: homes for blind orphans who’ve lost their families or been abandoned by their families because of HIV/AIDS are not places where you expect to do a lot of laughing. I was grateful for the laughing.
And I did laugh. I laughed a lot. I laughed when she asked me if I liked Beyonce (sure I do, I said, as I waggled my hand and warbled “all the single ladies, all the single ladies!” while they collapsed in fits of giggles.) She wanted to pose like Beyonce, she told me, and she wanted to sing like Beyonce and just as I was about to tell her that her poses put Beyonce’s to shame, she burst into the sweetest rendition of ‘Halo’ that I’d ever heard. At which point my smile became drenched by tears, and – and I know this sounds terrible – I was grateful that she and her friends could not see well enough to register that I was crying.
I asked if I could record her. She said yes.
I’m writing this post from a hotel room in Maseru, Lesotho. Lesotho, in case you didn’t know, is deep in the southern-most part of Africa, land-locked by South Africa. It is, you might think, an unlikely place for a blogger to be. After all, what do bloggers have to do with aid in Africa? But you’d be wrong. A blogger can have a lot to do with aid in Africa, or any other kind of social good. I’m here for some very good social media reasons.
I’m here because I’m visiting some on-the-ground projects that are funded by Born HIV Free, a program of the Global Fund, and I’m visiting these projects because Born HIV Free and the Global Fund want to raise awareness, and who better to raise awareness than bloggers? Who better than bloggers to take the real stories of what such projects look like, of what they mean to real people, and not just the posters and soundbites and late-night infomercials with Sally Struthers, and become part of those stories and tell them in real voices? Who better than storytellers, personal storytellers, coming at the story with their hearts and telling and showing their communities what it all looks like and sounds like and feels like?
Here’s my worry about going to Africa to see the Born HIV Free project in action: that I’m going to start crying the moment that I arrive, and just not stop. And that I am then going to feel guilty about crying, and that I’ll then cry about that.
I fly to Lesotho on Saturday. I was supposed to go to Napa Valley, first, to hang out with some lovely women and discuss things like life lists and dreams and pixie dust and to drink wine and be light-hearted, and for some reason, some ironic reason or some absurd reason, that – that beautiful little oasis of self-indulgence – was grounding me, was helping me keep my emotional wits about me. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe because they are opposing poles on the same fuzzy dreamscape, whereupon I live a life in which I get to do things like spend weekends in Napa and also go and support humanitarian projects in Africa and I wanted to see them reconciled. Because these things, these actually very real things, are, however different, nonetheless connected, inasmuch as they both have everything to do with this, this thing that I do here, on this page that you are reading.
But things changed, and I’m not going to Napa Valley first, and it hit me this afternoon as I was pushing aside the pretty dresses in my closet to see what clothes might be appropriate for visiting orphanages in Lesotho – what does one wear to visit hospitals and orphanages in Lesotho? – that I had really been relying upon the whole idea of Napa Valley – the Mighty Summit – as a buffer against the soul-rattling hugeness of the journey to Africa. Or maybe not a buffer – a transitional zone.
I like to think that I’m the sort of person who doesn’t take things for granted. I know how fortunate I am to have the life that I have; I know, too, that the terms and conditions of that life include no guarantees against frustration and sadness and pain and loss. I know, even the most difficult moments, that I have much to be grateful for, that I lead a life that is, for the most part, what the old philosophers might have called choiceworthy. I know that it is choice, largely, that defines my fortune and privilege: I am fortunate enough and privileged enough to be able to choose, to some not insignificant degree, my path and all of its little detours, to choose my pace and my direction, to choose to linger over or to pass by the myriad distractions of life, to gaze into the gloom or to seek out the sunlight. I am lucky, I know this.
It is also a characteristic of this good fortune, this privilege, that I am vulnerable to frustration and sadness (and, possibly, to depression; I’ll reflect upon this further someday) when I am forced to confront my limitations, when I look down this path or the other and see no way around a certain obstacle – some figurative bog or rock or troll-ridden bridge – and have to stop, give up, go a different way. That’s the very definition of privilege, I think – the luxury of getting pissy about being thwarted. Not that those who are less privilege don’t get frustrated at the obstacles that they are forced to confront – it’s just that, I think, the fortunate are more likely to put their hands on their hips and stamp their feet and say that shouldn’t be there, how dare that be there? and collapse to the ground in a resentful huff.
Or something like that.