When I was in high school, we had school-wide assemblies every week, twice a week. Lame. I KNOW. The first one of the year was inevitably and without fail “the bookbag talk.” It was a cliché. It was reviled. It was naptime. But, as I’m beginning to ponder my new adventure, it’s … newly meaningful?

Our principal, Dr. Elizabeth Griffith, would place a series of variously-sized schoolbags by the podium. She’d say that now was our chance to unpack our fears, our prejudices, our stereotyping, our preconceived notions, and leave them at the gates. This would open up room in our baggage for new friends and new experiences and new beliefs and all the knowledge we could cram in. I don’t remember all the details, but it was a bit like the speech George Clooney gives in “Up In The Air,” if in reverse.

I am on the cusp of an enormous number of BIG GIANT changes in my life; I finished my thesis, I’m moving out of the country, I’m gaining new friends, I may lose some of the old (you always tell everyone you’ll stay in touch, but how often do you really?), I’m beginning to think about the rough and rocky path to my careeeer? And yes, I say it like that in conversation: extending the second syllable and pitching up the tone at the end as though I’m asking a question. Because I am, aren’t I? In some way.

I’m also packing up my life. Literally, and figuratively. My two best friends have already promised to help me pack my belongings (we’re ordering pizza, drinking wine, maybe making a slumber party of it – IT WILL BE EPIC) so that doesn’t worry me too terribly much. It’s only been today that I’ve begun to think about the “things” I’ll take with me and the “things” I’ll leave. “More than anything else,” a professor told me recently, “graduation is an opportunity to take with you all the good things you’ve gained and leave the bad.” I have no doubt the same can be said for moving to a new continent 8 timezones away. And so, in this spirit, I begin to take stock of my mental rucksack.

Leave: Vexation at the apathy of my generation.
Take: Knowledge that, hell, I’m certainly not the only person out there trying to change things. I know some awesome, competent, activist types. It only takes a few sparks to start a fire.

Leave: The epic frustration that comes with facing a problem so enormous as HIV/AIDS in a place so vast as Africa, compounded with the intimate knowledge of the failings of humanitarian intervention in general.
Take: Learning from others’ mistakes – if I can identify where humanitarianism fails, both as an individual and as part of a larger system, perhaps I can steer away from those courses. Or at least, do no harm.

Leave: Overthinking.
Take: Listening for understanding.

Leave: Worry that I won’t be able to maintain the friendships I’ve formed when I’m so far from twitter, facebook, e-mail, cell phones, text messages, and of course, immediate proximity.
Take: The love and memories I KNOW I’ve gained, which are mine to keep forever, regardless of what happens next.

Leave: Reliance on the familiar
Take: Openness to the unknown in the form of embracing the good experiences and accepting/processing the bad.

Leave: Naïve idealism
Take: Cautious optimism?

Leave: A-effing-dW, anthropological theorist, enormously respected scholar, primary resource for the giant term paper I’m currently finishing, and insufferable Africana know-it-all.
Take: My friend Nora; telling me that the circle of life does, in fact, involve me turning into AdW. Bless her.

Leave: Cynicism, doubt, ill-ease with systems and people and situations relating to East Africa, or to the media, or to the application process, or to the broader political world.
Take: The following little story – an anthropologist once told me about a time he had been driving on a stretch of highway running north out of Nairobi that’s INFAMOUS for police officers shaking down tourists, asking for kitu kidogo (“a little thing” – i.e. bribes to make imaginary traffic violations go away). It had been a bad day, or a hard trip, and he was sick of dealing with it; when he was pulled over and immediately thought, “God, this just takes the cake …”

When he presented his paperwork, though, the officer simply looked at him mildly and said “Congratulations, you’re the first car to have everything in order. You can go.” And like that, the straw that would have broken the camel’s back vanished entirely. And he was fine again.

“This is the thing about East Africa,” he told us solemnly, “is that you must be open to grace. East Africa is FULL of these moments … you spend a lot of time wanting to roll your eyes and going ‘Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse,’ or ‘OH GOD, HERE WE GO AGAIN,’ and then everything turns out in a way that’s unexpected and inspiring. If I can give you a message, let it be this: allow yourself to be open to and experience grace.”

And so I will.

I’ll even save room for it in my luggage.

Advertisements