This morning, I told my friend Premila over our mosaic projects that I was having serious questions about what I was doing here in Malawi. As I watch all my friends on Facebook having first (and second…and third) kids, I’m sitting here, at 34 with a great guy waiting for me back home. What was I doing? What am I getting out of this experience except exposure to malaria and frustration? And having the occasional naked guy running loose in front of my house?
Of course, I know the answer to this, otherwise I wouldn’t be here: I’m here for the experience of living in Africa, helping others, career advancement, adventure and the ability to pad my savings. I’m here because it means I’ve committed myself fully to my career goals; I’ve resisted convention; I’ve overcome the trap of the cube walls. I get to see a baboon run on the roof of the lake cabin. I get to feel proud about doing something hard. I get, in some small way, to help farmers. It means, it means…so much.
But Premila added another one to the mix, one that I had tangentially identified but hadn’t really grasped.
Time, she said, this place gives you time.
What? Time is what I don’t have, I exclaimed. Did you not hear the part about me being 34 and childless? I’m wasting the twilight of my childbearing years gluing glass shards to a plywood board.
She laughed, and then elaborated. In America, we are so busy, we don’t have any space to enjoy what we have. When I was living in Michigan, she said, it was all my husband and I could do to get our daughter to and from daycare, take her home, wash her, feed her, and put her to bed. We never had any energy just to _be_ with her. Here in Malawi, we have a live in nanny. Suddenly, all those things are gone. We enjoy the best parts of each other.
Also, she continued, there is too much to do in America. What is there to do in Malawi? There are limited amounts of things to drag my daughter to (birthday parties, dance lessons, etc). As a result, we stay home and watch movies or play board games. You know, Quality Time.
I thought about myself. Since coming here, what have I done? Learned rugby. Taken a painting class. Attended home-made costume parties. Watched several sunrises. Learned how to make hummus. Listen to innumerable TED talks. Looking back at that list, it sounds like I’m at summer camp.
Of course, I could do any and all of those things in America, but I don’t. Premila was right. With more distractions at my disposal, I would usual wile away a Saturday afternoon being “productive”, e.g running errands, cleaning house and watching TV. I still do those things here, but they somehow don’t take as long.
We don’t do well with extra time in America. I think it makes us nervous. I remember when I first experience the abundance of time in the United States; it was terrifying. I was a freshman in college, and had just gone from the highly structured high school to the optional class going liberal arts curriculum. Without distraction, my mind picked at silly anxieties until they bled. What if I failed? What if I got the freshman 15? What if my parents died? What if I ran out of money? As that first summer post freshman year inched closer, I dreaded the void of long summer days with nothing to “do”. Frantically, I filled my time working two jobs. Even surrounded by co-workers (and roommate in a studio apartment) the summer passed slowly in an endless chatter of anxiety and loneliness.
Fast forward to the first time summer I spent in Malawi; it was much the same. One of the last weekends, I had absolutely nothing to do for two whole days, and no car. I felt that old familiar dread of time yawning endlessly before me. I knew that if I didn’t keep my mind distracted, the beast would come around and pick at the scabs of old worries, some of which by that time had hardened into full on scars.
I ended up sitting by the pool from 10 am to 6pm, reading an entire book. I remember wanting to stop, but there was nothing else I should’ve (could’ve) been doing, and the book was humorous, so I just kept going. At the end of the day, I felt like I binged on a giant chocolate cake. It felt both disgusting, scary….and a tiny bit glorious.
I felt (and still feel) the drive to be constantly productive. Given big spaces of time, yes, I still do get nervous (probably why I hadn’t thought of time until Premila mentioned it.) But I’ve discovered that extra time is nothing to be frightened about. With practice, I can guide my mind away from silly anxieties. They will always lurk, especially here in Malawi, but I can live with them. With practice, I can perhaps truly grasp this Time as a gift, instead of something to be waded through. I’m certain that I will never have this space again. God grant me the ability to play around with it, enjoy it, productive or not.