Monday, November 12, 2007

Cheap Therapy: Calcium on New Years

It was eight pm on New Year’s Eve. All across America my friends were debating whether to drive or take a taxi, to bring beer or champagne, to go with the strapless bra or none at all. Even elsewhere in Guinea, where I was serving in the Peace Corps, volunteers were gathered at regional capitols, pouring cheap vodka mixed with fosters clark into plastic bags and setting up ipods to transport them briefly back to those same taxis and liquor stores.
I was sitting on a rice sack bed in a hut. Drumbeats echoed from around a fire in some local official’s yard. It was the beginning of the cold season, and a big wind gusted through the gap between the mud wall and straw roof, dimming the candle and rustling the mosquito net. Every now and then, one of the termites I battled daily would scurry across the floor in an effort to “take the fight” from the wall to the wooden furniture.
The sinking feeling was beginning to overtake me. Starting as an acute sadness in my stomach, it would spread a numbing weight into my arms and a foggy numbness into my brain. In other circumstances, I could treat this feeling with exercise, socializing, a drink or a movie. But in a hut at night—the night of New Years Eve—it threatened to render me inert, lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling and yearning for sleepiness.
It wasn’t that I had this feeling often: Rounding month eight at site, I had several projects underway; my malinke finally allowed me to crack intelligible jokes (“Did you bring me a gift?”—“Yes, it died on the road”); and a couple of friendships seemed libel to progress past the “take-me-to-America” stage. So boundless existential angst had me in bed by eight a couple times a month.
But tonight promised to be bad. I had stayed at site to attend a meeting that probably would not advance my project or maybe even take place. If it did, after two hours of waiting for the important people to show, we would fastidiously grill each other as to presence of evil in our homes, work, and families. When we had established that there was none, (there was never any) we would entreat God to prevent it, and adjourn. As I pictured how this would play out, vivid images of my volunteer friends—getting down to our recycled top 40 playlist until the generator died---installed themselves around the hut, and stirred my budding self-pity.
Plus, all my trusty weapons were out of commission. My beloved discman, which provided hours of shakira-inspired dance sessions, was broken. My usually sizeable stash of smooched, stale and/or doused-in-shampoo chocolate from America was depleted. And Maimouna, my closest friend in the village, (not coincidentally the only French-speaking female) had just transferred to a teaching post in another town.
I got to thinking about the debate I had been having since arriving at site. Besides a few sincere village friendships and some promising development work, I was more bored and lonely than I had ever been in my life. Eighty-five kilometers down a rough road from the nearest volunteer, I would go four weeks at a time with no English, sarcasm, philosophizing or salad. Sure, I wanted to make a difference, but could I hack the loneliness for two years?
“Alex,” I said, careful not to address myself too often in public, “the pursuit of good and important things is not necessarily pleasant. Let site be hard and productive, and travel can provide you with fun and leisure. You can have both, but you have to compartmentalize.”
Easier said than done. When the sinking feeling had set in, it was nearly impossible to slog off to a farmer’s field to extol the virtues of composting. I had read somewhere that your IQ decreases when you are sad. Watching my Malinke suffer in tandem with my moods, I began to seriously question the feasibility of my solution:
“Maybe it is unnatural to compartmentalize happiness and effectiveness. Certainly one does not beget the other, but happiness could be a pre-requisite for productivity.”
If this were true, then in order to help my village, I was staying miserable, which prevented me from helping my village. Awesome.
I rolled over in my bed on New Years Eve and felt I was confirming this view. The weathered copy of War and Peace lay next to me but I knew I wasn’t going to read any more. The drumming had started up again close-by and you could hear the kids shrieking at the breaks, but I knew I wouldn’t go. At this rate, would I even go to the meeting? Would I possibly complete a project?
It was almost nine. I was still awake and sick of feeling doomed. I grabbed my short wave radio and found a faint salsa station. Hooking it into the wire that snaked eight feet up to the crest of my hut, I began to dance.
I danced slowly as if by compulsion. The doom was still palpable and everything seemed to suggest that I belonged on the bed, inert. But my steps elongated, the music grew richer, sweat beaded on my skin and suddenly I was dancing with real joy. Shakira would have been mortified. As the second hand clicked past 11:59, I slumped exhausted onto my bed and toasted the New Year by devouring an extra chocolate chew calcium supplement.
Tucking in the mosquito net, triumphant, I thought, “This is adulthood.” With the simplest tools—a radio and some calcium—I had fashioned a makeshift happiness, one that would (hopefully) sustain me in the pursuit of an elusive, rewarding goal. Sure, for the long haul real happiness might be necessary for achievement. But realizing you can marshal contentment on your own—that you can choose it in the face of seemingly fated wallowing—was transcendent. Certainly more so than drinking vodka and fosters clark out of plastic bags. And it meant no hang over for the meeting I would attend the next day.