I hit the ground running, going into work for a week starting the day after I arrived, and working straight through the weekend. Then yesterday I heard myself telling our daughter that my emotions are all mixed up and bubbling. “My heart feels like a water balloon, rolling around and around, about to burst. I don’t know what to do.” She wisely asked (where does she get it from?), “What does your heart say?” And I suddenly knew what I had to do: geef het een plek (give it a place) and write down how I feel.
This blog came into being when I returned from another trip to Africa, much more battered than I am now. Putting down the truth and telling how I felt healed me then. The slow showing up to write every day for a half hour helped me breathe new life into a blocked writing habit. I don’t have that problem now. In fact, I’m all excited to be home and can’t wait to start teaching on Tuesday. I’m happy to see my colleagues and I love sleeping in my bed. The best part has been hanging out with my family and watching their eyes and memorizing their voices, now no longer skype distorted. No, I’m okay. But as a wise friend said to me on Wednesday, “You need to let it all settle.”
But it won’t. Memories lift me at the most surprising moments, like birds taking flight. Smiles on the street. The eyes of a 12-year-old I interviewed who said her dream is to get pregnant because then she will receive R200 (€20) per month. The smell of wood smoke and sewage inside a community. Air warm against my cheek while cool water caresses my ankles. Mountains rising across False Bay with a thousand shades of teal between the other side and me. The faces and voices of all those many interviews; their words still swirl though my heart.
It needs to be said that I have met children who have no hope. Struck down by poverty, orphaned, sexually abused–still they dared to tell me things like, “When I grow up I want to be a chartered accountant.” Where does that courage come from?
Oh, you want to know about my Thank-you Lunch! It was perfect. Three people didn’t show and one woman brought her two sons from the community, so we had just the right amount. We ate and laughed and at some point I moved my chair from one end of the table to the other. Then I asked the kids if they wanted milkshakes. Chocolate? Right. We ate some more. Beneath ancient trees sun dappled our long table full of roses and glasses. Who was there? Friends and family: a reverend, psychologist, student, anthropologist and her two little girls, a favorite little girl of mine who has the heart of a peacemaker, mentor and colleague, husbands, wives, think-tank program director, filmmaker, teacher-to-be and me. We did the usual de Graaf thing: ate and talked and laughed and told jokes and listened to stories. There was also a fair amount of exchanging phone numbers, so that was cool. I miss them, these friends and family.
I feel . . . mixed up. Sad and relieved. Sad that so many children seem left behind. “You can’t save them all.” No, but I can save one. And I’ll teach and write and use all the gifts I’ve received: listening and seeing, trying still to understand.