Monday, October 26, 2009

The Art of Losing

PRE-PRE-SCRIPT: Ok, I have two hours in Kaolack to get a ton of work done. So I'm not going to edit this before I post it, even though I finished writing it a few days ago and should really give it a glance, or respond to any emails. But I should be back in a week or two, so see you then! Oh yeah, things in the village are fantastic and work is going well. There's a pretty cool latrine thing I've got going, and if it works out.... Well, we'll see.

PRE-SCRIPT: As I write this, I'm somewhere close to my third month without regular Internet access. We moved the Kaolack regional house a few weeks ago, and we're still working on getting everything going. But I believe it should only be a couple more days. I've been working on a couple of blog entries lately, which has been made more difficult than usual by something that gets explained below. So I'm going to try to sweat these last few paragraphs out. If you're one of the people who's sent me an email recently, please excuse me! I've occasionally borrowed a friend's computer and taken it out into town, to one of the couple local spots with wireless access. But it's been difficult to sit and concentrate on communication recently.

For those of you keeping score at home, I'm almost eight months into my service. It's gone shockingly fast. Tomorrow, the next stage of volunteers will be traveling to their regional houses. We'll receive our newbies here in Kaolack and take them shopping, introduce them to the sprawling mess of this city. We're not the new kids any more. Weird.

One of my bosses came out to my village recently to talk about my action plan, a long-term calendar of goals and strategies related to my work in the village. After his visit, I felt rejuvenated and super excited about things to come. So I'm here in Kaolack to help the new volunteers, and then it's back to the village for some good times.

Anyway. On to what I actually wanted to talk about.

I'm familiar with what it feels like to have a song stuck in my head. The two or three lines that you become stuck on, that keep you from moving on to the end. The urge to hum it out loud, to ask around if you've forgotten what line comes next, to spread your suspension to the people around you and force them to take a share in it. I'm familiar with all these things, but only remotely so. Much more often, I find myself chasing a couple of lines of poetry around my skull, sometimes even paragraphs of prose. A few authors and poets do this to me often: John Fowles, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot. And that's when I find myself in trouble. That's when I get the urge to go back and find the paragraph or verse I'm thinking about, put it in its context, as if it were a part of a wall that needed to be rebuilt, a child that had to be tucked back in properly, a gap urgently needing to be filled.

In Senegal, this has become much more difficult. When I was still in college, I had three resources that are completely lost to me now: my fellow students, books, and the Internet. So these days, if I get a line from something stuck in my head, I have to wait until I come into Kaolack and hope that it's findable from here. In this way, I'm learning patience and apathy.

Anyway, the most recent poem that's been driving me nuts is Elizabeth Bishop's One Art, which I first ran across in a high school English class. I'm re-typing it here, not because you wouldn't be able to find it, but for the fun of going through it like this:

The art of losing isn't hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.

The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

She wrote this poem toward the end of her life, but I don't know on what occasion. I imagine it was the death of a loved one, though since I don't have any Internet access as I write this, you guys will have to figure that out for yourselves.

It's been a month of small losses for me.

There's a mango tree growing in my latrine. I'll admit to dropping a lot of mango seeds down there recently, mostly out of curiosity. How fertile, exactly, is my poop? Teeming as it is with amoebae and other nasty parasites, can it support more complicated life? Every morning and night, when I brush my teeth, I like to check in on it. Brush, brush, brush, spit. Why, hello, Mango Tree! How are you today? You get the idea. It was the spit part that got me in trouble one night. I went to spit and stare, and my glasses dropped off my nose, bounced (I held my breath and prayed, but couldn't catch them) twice, and fell down the three meters into my poop pit, landing with what seemed to be a rather self-satisfied splooshing noise at the bottom.

I took it very well. Once I stopped choke-laughing on my toothpaste, I slipped back into my hut and found my replacement pair. The Peace Corps, in its infinite wisdom, makes us bring an extra to country. Presumably for just such an emergency. And thanks to the fantastic insurance coverage we've got over here, the American taxpayers will be buying me another pair. The whole thing is more of a funny story than anything else. It all makes me think I should keep a list of the strange things that accidentally or purposefully find themselves in my latrine.

The second loss was more significant. I arrived in Kaolack one day to find that the rainy season had claimed my beloved laptop. Even though I had left it locked up in a secure, metal-plated chest (tastefully decorated in wall-paper covered in teddy bears), somehow the rain had found its way in. I dried it out for a while, but the keyboard's still not working and the whole thing is generally behaving rather funkily. Considering everything that's there, I feel like I have the right to be pretty upset. My music collection, photos, writing from my college years. I'll probably be able to scrape the hard drive out and salvage all that, but I'd also become really attached to the particular experience of writing and working with that machine. I'm borrowing a friend's laptop now, but the keys aren't fit so perfectly to my fingers, it just doesn't feel like home.

I was deeply upset for a day, and then almost completely forgot about it. I only see my computer every couple of weeks or so, and I suppose some forgetting of it had already occurred. And of course I knew when I came to Senegal that there was a good chance my computer wouldn't be making the return trip home with me. This place is hell on electronics, and of course there's always the possibility of theft. Nevertheless, my laptop was on a short list of things I had hoped to protect while here. If you had told me before I left for Senegal that I would have this type of accident so early on in my service, I think I would have been a little bit upset about it. But now, my computer's absence is nothing. It doesn't bother me, I don't ever think of it.

The last thing I lost recently was my cell phone. I didn't lose it, precisely. But I broke it. No need to get into the details of how I managed to do the damage, but it was pretty dumb on my part. Suddenly, on this Friday night, the damn thing was only good as a flashlight. My phone number itself was lost: no one calling my number would have been able to get through. My contacts were all lost, and since my main method of communication with other volunteers is through text messages, a fair number of threads of conversations were gone as well. Friends who sent me texts (and I had been in the middle of a couple exchanges) would wonder why I had all of a sudden gone quiet. And I would be unable to explain myself until I got to Guinguineo, purchased a new SIM card, installed it, waited for two days for the Senegalese phone company people to wake it up. And then I would have to find a way to get back in contact with everyone. It's not as if I had written any one's phone number down, so that part was going to be tricky. Anyway, I was upset with myself, unhappy about how slow the process of healing would be, and bitter about the loss of contact, contacts. I went to bed that night in a black mood, about as bad as anything I've felt since getting here.

I left for Guinguineo the next morning, and was home in time for lunch. A couple of days later, I had a functioning cell phone again and I was able to track down most of the people I had been in contact with. Nothing important had happened during my three nights of being completely out of touch with my friends in Senegal, the Peace Corps folk in Dakar, and people back in the United States. The crisis was past. But during those days, I noticed the same feeling I had experienced with my computer; or rather, the same lack of feeling. There had been the initial anxiety, the initial disgust with myself for messing up my phone. But then, nothing.

I guess it's no surprise that I notice myself becoming less attached to the physical presence of my property, less materialistic. After all, the space in which I live has become considerably smaller. I store some stuff at the Kaolack house, but really, everything I own is in that little hut. And that little hut is itself made of rocks, mud, sticks, and a little bit of cement. Believe it: in the middle of the worst storms of the rainy season, after seeing other huts in the village collapse, I certainly made a mental inventory of the things in my hut I would attempt to salvage if the thatched roof collapsed and the walls caved in. I saw myself sifting through a pile of rubble, looking for... nothing. My wallet, my cell phone, my headlamp. If I hadn't lost my black security blanket utterly shapeless old hoodie, that too. But I realized that all I would really want would be the handful of change it would require for me to catch a charette to Guinguineo, and from there, a car to Kaolack. That's 600 CFA, or a little over a dollar.

Maybe it used to be important to me to have a mental list of the things I could depend upon always having with me. No matter where I found myself, if I had even partial use of my mental faculties I would probably have remembered my wallet, my cell phone, etc. And if I were at home (Los Angeles, Annapolis, Chicago) I would have a familiar stack of books, a computer, other small things to pour over, with which I could spin the sort of net that would keep my personality from leaking away and merging with others. People were like that for me, too. Carrying around a cell phone with a list of names and numbers in it was always a little like carrying around the selves those names and numbers represented. It was always so easy to pick up the phone and be connected. Suddenly those possessions aren't here anymore, and I have recent occasion to realize that the ones that are, aren't here forever. They never were, of course, but the illusion is gone. And the people in that phone book are gone, too. It costs me about a dollar a minute to call the United States, and an international text message costs the same. And even if you guys over there in the States signed up for Skype and called me occasionally, we would inevitably sometimes find ourselves, separated by an ocean and by a vaster gulf of daily experiences, with nothing to say to each other.

If I had made a list a year ago of people and things I was unwilling to lose in this way, it would have been pretty long. I need reminders of others, the presence of things. Or I thought I did. I thought I needed the presence of others and the forces of their personalities to assert the existence of my own, to interact, to expect things of me. I thought I would be lost without a handful of possessions and unable to function. I was wrong, at least in part. I lost my glasses, my computer, and my cell phone. These three items would have been on that list. And yet their loss was no disaster. So I have to ask myself now: what would that thing or person be, that losing them would be a disaster? And since I have to question the validity of my list, as it's been proved inaccurate so far, I have also to ask myself if I'll even know in advance what it is that's of vital importance to me. I can't guess what it's going to be. I can only wait to lose it, in its turn.