On my twenty-third birthday, which somehow felt like my first as a real grownup, in Uganda, J convinced me to go on an afternoon walk for no particular reason. So we took our favorite hike, through the hospital compound, greeting neighbors, through the market, up the hill that old women with bundles of sticks on their backs scaled so effortlessly, to the lookout where lantana grew and children gripped our hands.
When we returned to our bungalow, our friends had decorated for my birthday. Balloons hung limply from the rafters. J had painstakingly begun to download new episodes of The Office with our little slow-moving modem. The freezer was crammed with ice cream the guidebook warned us not to eat (as it had certainly melted and refrozen in its eight hours of transport), a gift from the Irish doctor. The German trio of doctors gave me a mirror, something I had lived without for our first two months in Africa. And Colby, an undergraduate from Texas, had made me a memory box. It was just a shoebox, covered in an old German-language map of Uganda, with a snapshot she’d taken, and this quotation.
I brought the box home with me four months later, and yesterday placed it, full of love notes from little Ugandan girls and odd pieces of jewelry and letters we received from home, in a suitcase to move to our new place. Colby left Uganda soon after my birthday, and I hear she’s now in med school, like she wanted.
We don’t really keep up, but that passage gives me strength. I hate quotes out of context, but I cling to this one. In Uganda, I slowed down and had to re-examine the academic drive that had characterized me throughout college. I started to learn how to cook, and came to accept, over long, hot days, that this might be all I’d really contribute to Africa: reading with children, talking about husbands with our housekeeper, fixing spaghetti and meatballs for a homesick friend.
Now, as life is heating up with two new jobs, I’ll struggle to remember the same. Work is helpful, a means toward an end, but achievement isn’t all. In the end, it might be all about relationships, all about, as Kent says in Lear, service.
[see my library nerd blog, The Cardigan Librarian, here]