South Africa’s narrative is clear: twenty years into the grand democratic experiment, Mandela’s rainbow nation is starting to tarnish. No one knows what’s next. Any day President Zuma could announce a term-extension, shut down the papers for seditious leanings, deem the entire budget discretionary. Mandela’s vision has faded. Between the idea of the thing- that beauteous and progressive Constitution- and its execution “falls the Shadow” (thanks T.S. Eliot). South Africa is stuck in that shadowy, unelectrified valley. We all know what’s supposed to come next, but how do we get there? I get it. I’ve tumbled into that valley myself.
When I drove down to North Carolina for my freshman year, I said goodbye to my brother and parents at brunch in Breadman’s. I haven’t been there since, but I remember they said sir-up instead of sear-up, and I wanted to go back to New Jersey. In a ravioli box, my mom gave me a note and a photo.
Besides the general goodbye cry (I have many kinds of cries), I cried because her note wasn’t true. No exciting directions in sight. Just stress, southern faces, country music, frat parties, and a growing distance from my high school friends. My shining happy adult life lay off far in the distance. I hunkered down into my valley and prepared for the trek.
Not everything was shadowy. At my side was my bastion of passion, feminism, and love: Sophia. Across the hall, my soft-haired, Belk-wearing Boy Scout Joseph. I wasn’t miserable. I had the happiest snow days with Soph, explored beautiful parts of Asheville, cried laughing in dining halls until midnight, went skinny-dipping on Topsail, ate hush puppies til I wanted to burst, rode in a police car, called an ambulance for a drunk girl, went on a few dates, went to class….
Still, I was sad and scared. Sophia was my greatest source of giggles, but time without her sucked. In the slow times, I felt stuck between the dream of the future and its realization. The more time I spent at UNC, the more impossible the gap felt.
Of course, no one is alone in these thoughts; my own worries sat unspoken in my friends’ bellies. Talking about it was such a relief, and I felt less weird knowing that everyone’s Facebook photos and group Instagrams and LinkedIn updates belied the boredom and isolation of their college lives.
In March sophomore year, overwhelmed by panic in the fourth floor of the library, I walked back to my room, shut off the lights, and played WHALE SOUNDS to try to calm down. An insane hallmate stood pounding outside my room, shouting out his plan to convince my friend she wasn’t gayjustconfused and whatdidIthink? I had a small mountain of unwashed dishes, and a larger mountain of late Arabic homework. Lying there, I thought of my mom’s note and photo, and was trapped. I was stuck back in the playpen, and there was no balloon. Where was Rachel, where were the caterpillars and worms after the rain? Where was little Aaron and his curly hair? Where was my dad with a pair of skis and Third Eye Blind CD? Like so many of my college-aged friends, I couldn’t see the future’s excitement anymore. Instead, I obsessed over the small beauties of memory, of pizza and bagels and diners and summer and old photos and home.
There is no such thing as an epiphany. Only a slow understanding: there needn’t be a gap between the happy memories of the past and the promise of a successful future.
It was on the drive home from UNC this spring, me sitting passenger seat and my dad singing loudly as he drove, that I felt supremely and deeply happy, like my heart had been dusted off and set in the sun. After months of rereading it, I felt Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road:”
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
What next, then? Whatever I’d like. I got into a program in South Africa, and for the first time in two years, I didn’t cry while I flew away from New Jersey.
Being here is great. I learn, read, write, hike, explore, teach. I meet people with incredible life paths. Take the Welsh Hugh, with whom I took a bus to Stellenbosch. He’s spent the past few years living and working in Ghana, then Botswana, and most recently Namibia. When it came time for him to enter South Africa, he realized his visa was a month expired, dated for August instead of September. On a Thursday, he turned himself into the Namibian police. On a Tuesday, he was released. Back to Wales? No. His travels continue.
I love this story. I love how he tells it, the cold concrete floors, the thin mat. His bed mates were major league drug traffickers. How small, then, were my troubled nights of sleeping in library cubicles, spotting a Spurs player on Franklin street, throwing a pumpkin from the top of my dorm. How small and stupid!
I am no longer in the world of falls the Shadow, but instead exploring. Next semester, I’m going somewhere new because I am able and because I want to. No program, a vague plan, and a little money. It’s time to make something of my own. I hope that you who’ve felt stuck, powerless, lack agency in the course of your own lives, that ALL of you can feel the courage to crawl out. It’s warm and sunny out here, and it’s not too hard once you realize the trench is optional.
Through all of the cumbersome metaphor, my message is simple. You are a person. You may walk where you like. Where you are and where you’re headed isn’t so important, so long as you know you’re in charge.