I often tell myself and reassure others that the world is small. I like to talk about colliding worlds, intersecting lives, fused cultures and interests. “Don’t say good bye,” I’ll say to my tearing friends, “Stop crying. Stop that right now. If we really want to see each other again, we can and we will. Okay now seriously, stop it.”
I grew up in a college town where people came in and out of my life faster than the seasons. Every August, Ithaca’s population doubles with the entrance of new Cornell and Ithaca College students; every May, the population shrinks back in half and the bustling college towns become abandoned ghost towns. I learned not to get attached to the people around me because chances were, they would soon leave my life in a matter of three or four years. Saying “good bye” became an annual routine that involved glitter glue, card-stock, calligraphy pens, and photo collages. I coordinated the production and distribution of “farewell and thank you” cards to graduating college seniors and then watched others cry and embrace and tried to weasel a couple tears out of my own eyes to not look out of place.
When I entered college, I brought with me a potted plant. Bred on Ithacan soil, this two-year-old sapling became the basis for my gradual trust in the fertility of the new Chicagoan soil. I began to cautiously plant other seeds and, for a while, everything seemed to go well – new leaves began to unfurl, buds emerged beneath the foliage. I sat beneath the tree and enjoyed its shade for another two years as I tended the seedlings around it.
My first year of college increased my faith in relationships and in humanity. My second year of college destroyed both.
Halfway into college, my tree suddenly withered overnight. And as I grieved and tried to understand its loss, I failed to notice the poison that had begun to spread among the others. Even the most resilient plants fell away and shriveled despite my desperate attempts to nurture them back to life. In the aftermath, I was left with only the two youngest seedlings out of the several dozen. When I returned to examine the remains of my tree, I saw how the mysterious disease had severed its roots long before it died, a disease that was aided by the activity of one ambitious termite. I realized that my complete trust, dependence, and love for the tree had also blinded me to its ailment.
I stopped caring. I sat beneath the dead branches and spent my days grumbling about the scorching sunlight. “The risks aren’t worth the benefits,” I would complain when others asked me why I refused to garden, “Look at what happened to my first investment! Why would I repeat the same mistake?”
Weeds began to sprout up from the soil and I let them grow. I occasionally even tended them and allowed them to choke the two seedlings that continued to flourish despite my negligence. For over a year, I lived among the weeds and embraced their thorns and false ephemeral beauty.
I am not sure. When my friends go through similar struggles, I share with them the same mantras that helped me through my loss. “Everything is 20/20 in hindsight.” “Adversity creates opportunity.” “It takes half the length of a relationship to get over one.”
But these were not the statements that ultimately convinced me to stand back up.
For six months, every morning was a battle. Just the process of opening my eyes and recognizing the world induced tears. I needed mandatory rehearsals and midterm exams to force me to get up – and for a while, the runway was my therapy. I found relief in the lines of the clothes and the pounding of the beats. When I walked, the weight of the world momentarily vanished and all that mattered was the stretch of stage before me. During those brief moments, I became nothing more than the fabric on my frame and my existence evaporated with all of its pain.
But after the show, I returned to full consciousness and every moment of it was unbearable.
I remember very little of the spring quarter of my sophomore year. When I search for memories, I find a long hazy stain punctuated by faded images of midnight heart-and-soul, an Urban Outfitters sweater, study sessions in 4N, a stroll through the new ARTIC modern wing, and the lingering taste of pink cotton candy accompanied by the soundtrack of “Kids” by MGMT.
But somewhere, however, in the bleak fog of those months, I discovered my utility.
I realized my hands, my fingers – their capacity to hold, to pick up, to write, to caress, to point, to guide. I saw my ears, my legs, my neck, my face: I saw the functional human body before me and recognized its physical capacities. However barren and burnt my soul may have been, I could not deny the potential utility of my body. The most pivotal realization of my life became this: that even if every second of every day you live is hell, as long as you have the capacity to bring happiness into another person’s life – whether this means sitting down next to a stranger in the dining hall, baking cookies for your neighbors, or making a baby laugh with a silly face – if you can induce a smile, your life is worth living. Life is a perpetual struggle, a journey over rivers, valleys, mountains and deserts. Others may never comprehend your struggles, but you also can never completely know what others are going through. Who knows whether one smile, heartfelt conversation, or helpful hand may transform someone’s day, or even their life?
Life did not become any easier or less miserable, but it did take on a purpose and a drive – the pursuit of utility, a desire to be the best I could be and to make the most of what I had. Instead of focusing on my own suffering, I started to prioritize how I could relieve the pain of others. I pursued utility – I tried to maximize my usefulness to serve the happiness of others, and hoped that, in the process, I would also find happiness.
I began to pull out the weeds and plant new seeds. I took risks because I felt that I no longer had anything to lose. I was no longer afraid of people. I did not fear poverty. I did not fear death.
I love J.K. Rowling’s speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2008, especially when she discussed the benefits of failure:
“[F]ailure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me… I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive […] And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
From rock bottom, I began to pick up the scattered shards to construct a new and improved Lydia 2.0.
I looked for ways to make myself useful to others – to friends, to the campus, to the local community, to communities abroad. I started designing activities for preschoolers, I taught arts and crafts at a school in the Dominican Republic, I spent long afternoons picking up manure in a Guatemalan field.
At school, I soon became involved in all things Africa-related, and began to focus especially on Rwanda.
Somehow, the country’s devastating history and post-genocide reconstructive efforts struck a chord with me. Here was an entire population that had experienced and endured more than I could ever imagine, and yet in the aftermath of destruction the nation’s unparallelled growth and progress have astonished the world. Here was a story of great loss and extreme pain, but also a story of healing, recovery, and reconciliation.
Rwanda became my inspiration and my muse for personal growth and self-recovery. And my goal became to witness the country’s progress first-hand and also play a role in contributing to its Vision 20/20.
As you already know, dear Readers, I finally had the opportunity to realize this goal TWICE last year – a BIG THANK YOU to the Provost’s Office! Those trips convinced me that Rwanda was where I belonged.
And now I am back in Rwanda again! (Yes, the blog lives on!). And this time, I am here to stay for at least one or two years.
But you know what?
I miss you.
It’s not really that I’m unhappy here or anything – no, I still love my taxi-moto rides, my daily cups of African tea, the long nights of music and dancing, the sense of purpose and meaning. I am happy here. Truly, I am.
But it’s the small things.
I miss occasionally feeling invisible. I miss walking down Michigan Avenue without having everybody turn to stare and gawk at me because I am a foreigner. I miss House music, Lyric Opera performances and CSO concerts. I miss blueberries and Whole Foods samples. I miss having the security of a return date. I even miss the el.
But most of all, I miss YOU.
I miss all of the people in my life who used to be oh-so-accessible via text, calling, facebook, gchat, skype, email, etc. The internet isn’t bad here, but it still isn’t good enough to have a sustained video chat or even an unbroken gchat conversation.
Graduation passed by smoothly in June, but it was July when the reality of all the good byes started to hit me. I quickly realized that my determined ambivalence toward intimacy and all my efforts to remain aloof and detached had failed and failed miserably.
Yes, I had planted a variety of new seeds – all sorts of flowers and vegetables and fruits that sprouted and flourished and yielded blossoms. But never any trees – no, I refused to plant another tree. That was one risk I would never ever ever take again.
Yet still – somehow, a new tree sprouted among the weeds and grew despite my conviction that it was just another weed. At first, I regarded its growth and emerging buds with great suspicion. However, over time, I learned to trust in the safe shade of its branches and the loyalty of its trunk.
But life moves on. Sometimes if we’re lucky, we understand why things happen, but most of the time, we don’t.
When it came to be time for me to move on, I had trouble leaving the familiarity of my garden. Some of my most beloved plants have stood with me through the worst storms and droughts and still remained as steadfast and loyal as ever. The tree, especially, had taught me to love and trust again. I didn’t want to leave but it gently pushed me away and whispered, “It’s not ‘good bye’, it’s ‘I’ll see you later’.”
Returning to Rwanda for the third time has made me reflect and reevaluate why I am here. I am trying to see the larger picture – the experiences, the people, the setbacks, the failures and successes – that have led me here.
I have spent much of the past two years running away — and twice in the past, Rwanda was my escape. I ran away from Chicago to learn and experience and breathe in a foreign country. But problems have an annoying tendency of catching up to you. The third time around, Rwanda is not nearly as charming or delightful – in fact, the past two weeks have presented more challenges and frustrations than the full duration of my two previous trips here.
But you know what? Perhaps it is here, in the belly of a great fish, that I can once again reach rock bottom and begin to see myself completely and honestly.
MURAHO from Kigali, Rwanda. It is good to be back.