Come August—just when deep summer heat strikes the US and it will simply be just another 75 degree Rwandan month (here it’s not about the temperature as much as it is about rainfall: rain? Or no rain? That’s the real marker for seasons…)—I’ll be helping to lead GLOW. GLOW sounds like a new perfume scent recently released from J.LO or Beyonce but instead it’s a summer girls’ camp with the mission of instilling self-confidence in young women, discussing gender equality, and even creating a comfortable atmosphere to discuss HIV/AIDS. GLOW: Girls Leading Our World. In addition to assisting in creating the schedule and curriculum, I’ll also be a cabin leader for 10 young ladies. (!!)
Maybe even more exciting (probably for me than anyone else) is that each cabin leader chooses a strong woman from any country—a “hero”—if you will, and the cabin leader is responsible for creating a cabin theme surrounding this person or figure. True to form, my friend Sara has chosen J.K. Rowling (she, Sara, is indeed cooler than me) and as for me? Well it’s a pretty obvious choice: OPRAH. Hello. I can see my girls now…cheering live your best life!…In fact, when submitting Oprah’s bio that I put together to our camp director for approval, Caitlyn, the director, applauded my detail, but gently reminded me that these young Rwandan girls would have to understand everything in the biography. And, it has to fit on a relatively small piece of paper. In essence, cut it down sister.
In doing so, I got to thinking, what’s so great about Oprah anyway?
I just read a fantastic article entitled, “The Glory of Oprah: Why the ‘talkinest’ Child Understands Women and the Power of Television Better than Anyone Else” (by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic). A good portion of the piece is devoted to examining exactly how Oprah came out of a deep poverty in the Jim Crow South and was able to make something of herself. The article is good though, because while acknowledging and celebrating Oprah’s connection to women, it also is unequivocally fair and doesn’t shy away from issues regarding her celebrity and the controversy surrounding her almost religious (no—I take that back—her very religious) elements within her pomp and circumstance.
Anyway, that really has nothing to do with this. I just try to keep up on my Oprah reading and this writing piece was particularly riveting.
My reasons that I chose Oprah as my ‘hero’ and why the slogan Live Your Best Life appears as my ‘about me’ on my twitter account are quite simple.
I first watched Oprah in my grandma’s kitchen: newspapers scattered on the coffee table, plants creeping in from the garden outside, and often full of the irreplaceable smell of a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.
I was probably in like second grade or something, but I remember watching her speak, eating away at slices of cheese grandma had prepared for me (with a fresh apple of course), and thinking that this woman was very cool. Plus, grandma liked her, so she had to be good. Lance would be there with us sometimes (or he’d go play Oregon Trail on the big hunker of a machine that was the computer in the 1990’s) but somehow, Lance or not, it became a tradition.
Wednesdays in elementary school, grandma drove her proverbial big boat (the maroon Chevy Lumina) to school and waited for us with open arms. Sometimes we’d mix our routine up with fro-yo (YUM), the library, or a quick spin past my dad and uncles’ childhood home nearby. However, two things were constants in our visits with grandma: walking to feed the ducks at the park and Oprah viewing sessions.
Whatever episode we watched, even as a young girl, I deciphered the shows and the long, sometimes arduous lectures from Oprah with a true sense of positivity. Oprah’s message, when you really boiled it down, was about taking a problem, our life, because that’s pretty hard too, and pushing forward. Cry, scream, smile, whatever. But do your best because you can do it. And life’s too short not to. Yeah, it’s the gospel of self-help books and maybe grandma read too many of those too (she wasn’t the cleanliest of folks and I remember these books littered around her 4 (or was it 5?) story townhouse) because as I grew up, grandma carried and shared the very same message. I don’t really know who said it first—Oprah or grandma—but it didn’t matter. Grandma’s echoes of positivity and believing in yourself, I know, came from her own life experiences. And, I believed it. And, I still do.
I don’t think my relationship with Oprah is unhealthy. I joke—often, especially with my friends—that it is, but I promise, I have my head on straight (most of the time). Oprah is not God, is not my grandma, is not the world’s perfect person or idol, however, she went to hell and back when she was young, took life by full force and followed a dream. I admire that. Plus, she’s pretty funny to boot and has about three million inspirational quotes to draw from. I. LOVE. Inspirational quotes.
The trick with all of this rhetoric about ‘living your best life’ is that’s hard. Really really really hard.
For nearly 8 months I have been living and breathing Rwanda.
8 whole months.
That’s a long time.
I think it’s possible that I’ve spent some of my very best days and very worst days here. That’s how this goes, I suppose.
I love what I do. Through and through. Even on the tough days. And it’s really coming together—my first football and volleyball practice (with me coaching!) is tomorrow. Our first matches? THIS weekend. On top of that, I have wonderful neighbors and can’t speak enough about the transformative experience of integrating into something completely unfamiliar. It’s unreal how blessed I am to have this. Yes, I love my job. That’s 110% true.
But the other truth is this: like anywhere or anytime in life, we’re human, and with that comes beautiful happiness, but also sometimes, intense sadness. Lately, I’ve been feeling sad. And there’s all kinds of sadness: sometimes I’m sad about the intense poverty here, sometimes I’m sad because every day, at some point, I am called umuzungu. Sometimes I’m sad because I wonder about how much of a reach I really have.
Am I able to do this?
Is my presence here really actually doing anything?
Yeah, self-doubt is not very fun.
But more recently, I’m sad because I’m alone. No matter how you slice or dice that, it remains true.
People are here, yes, and some I’m growing to really appreciate. I have friends here in the village, and I couldn’t even ask for more support than I’m already getting from them.
Yet, at the end of the day, the story is mine, isn’t it? How do I begin to share what life is like here? And how do I share life with these people I am beginning to know?
What a weird feeling, indeed. I think that’s one of the things that made studying abroad in Ghana my junior year so special. Amidst volunteering, studying (sometimes), and travel, my best friend, Rachel, and I were doing it together.
But here, it’s me.
For nearly 18ish more months I will continue to teach, help, listen, motivate, share, and reflect as a Peace Corps Volunteer, out in the village, trying to figure out what this journey—this story—actually is.
For a few days now, this has saddened me. I’ve felt unmotivated, restless, and tired. I’ve cried just a couple of times and getting out of bed has felt…challenging. It feels good to be honest about all of this. It was at Rachel’s encouraging that I share this, because yes, emotional challenges have a place in this story too. I was afraid of singing my own sad sorry song, because I fully and completely realize that there is much, MUCH more in the world than my temporary loneliness. But again, it’s what I’m going through. It exists. So I recognize it, I feel it, and I deal with it. Certainly doing this—living this life—is taking a lot more strength than I imagined, particularly because some days just feel so easy and effortless. Peace Corps warned me this would happen. I can’t blame them. They told me, time and time again, that I would miss things from back home. I would miss weddings, funerals, graduations, engagements, and I would be here, away from it all. I listened. I knew it would be hard. So, this really should come as no surprise, right?
I am ready though, to take all of these emotions in stride: feel them, live them, but do not be defined by them. Most importantly, as alone as I feel, I am not.
Taped to my desk is a note from Philippians 3 that says this,
“Let us live up to what we have already attained.”
God has a hand in all of this. It’s not me achieving, accomplishing, and overcoming; it’s all possible because my strength comes from something much more than just myself.
And also, sometimes living your best life is just doing the best you can on any given day.
Some days, it’s just a smile, while other days it’s full of immersing yourself with everything you got.
Yesterday, in class, in one period mind you, I managed to teach my dear students how to ‘disco’ (and along with that, provided a completely inaccurate historical explanation of where the disco came from—I said it was because Americans wanted peace during the Vietnam War?…*) and also provided reinforcement with the verb ‘to win’. To do so, I demonstrated the power of T-Pain lyrics (an artist most of them, if not all, know) with the classic and memorable hit “All I Do Is Win.”
All I do is win win win, no matter what.
Let me just say. Watching students disco and singing T-Pain at the same time? As an educator, it doesn’t get much better. It’s quite possible my um, teaching methods, might be a little unsoud (even by American standards) but whatevs. Sometimes, you just have to have a little fun, right?
I did all of this—laughing hysterically of course—and also while dealing with this whole loneliness thing. Did I walk out of class completely cured and rejuvenated? No. Because human emotions often don’t work like that.
But, I did feel better. And I know that soon, this loneliness thing? Well, this too will pass.
I can do it, I can do it, I can do it.
Grandma’s mantra is fresh in my mind.
How I miss her.
Maybe it’s scary to know I’m doing this alone. But it can be empowering too: the stories, the experiences, everything—I have all of this to share for the rest of my life.
Anything can be a miracle, a blessing, an opportunity if you choose to see it that way.
*the history of disco is rather extensive after skimming some of the information provided on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. While some of the elements of the disco craze certainly are traced to the culture of the 70’s—largely shaped by the war—the dance itself was even considered a reaction against the domination of rock music.