What I’m listening to: Simi’s “Duduke”
The sound of the muezzin wakes me before dawn most mornings in Senegal, West Africa. Whether it’s crackling from the speakers in Dakar, or echoing across the earth-coloured one and two story houses in Ziguinchor, that call to prayer anchors me as the sweltering, shimmering heat swells with the day and recedes at night. It isn’t unusual to eat dinner at 10 o’clock at night to the sounds of Cabo music and various mobile phones going off, football conversations shouted over everyone imploring me to “mange, mange” (eat more) even though I’m stuffed. It is a vibrant contrast to my often solo dinners at home in my two room flat. I’m living my life with the volume turned up, and loving every minute of it.
Senegal is a country unlike any I’ve ever encountered and I was excited to experience life at the ground level, not as a tourist, but living amongst locals. I never expected going there for over two weeks would change my life in unprecedented ways and that coming back to the U.S. would feel so different. The trip reminded me of how far my life had come and yet, how far I’ve yet to progress.
To give a brief itinerary, here was our travel trajectory:
- 2 days in Dakar with Yogu, my cousin’s husband’s (Idy’s) sister
- transit from Dakar to Ziguinchor: we took the overnight ferry (a lovely 14 hour trip) and slept for most of it on the deck on mats while Cabo music played late into the night.
- 7 days in Leona, Ziguinchor at Madame Gueye’s house
- 2 days in Cap Skirring on the coast
- 2 more days in Leona before flying back to Dakar to return to the U.S.
In total, I took four planes to get to Dakar, and five planes to get back to Austin, TX. (I won’t do that again, but it was a really good experience learning my limits in air transport).
I went to Senegal with a very knowledgeable guide: my cousin, Koumba who had lived there a total of three years and whose husband is Senegalese. As a result, we were always surrounded by family (which I loved) and it felt like the loving, joyous and celebratory family reunion I had never experienced before in my life. I’ve often thought that my best ideas come from solitude, isolation and having space to do my own thing whenever and whatever I like. However, being with 15+ complete strangers who became family in a short amount of time taught me a lot about the power of love and connection. How it can trickle into your heart delicately, take a hold of you, and heal you in ways that are unprecedented.
Every day I started my morning eating breakfast with either just Ousseynou and I before we had a small gathering of Koumba, Idy and others hanging around, chatting, drinking tea (Ousseynou is a tea master of the highest order). I would write while everyone talked, usually in Wolof (of which I know maybe 10-15 words max) and sometimes French (my knowledge is VERY basic). I watched the cadence of how they spoke to each other and I was brought back to growing up in Japan and the warmth I had felt there from visitors to my parent’s house and how we’d eat and talk for hours, even though conversation was difficult, and required pulling out dictionaries to make sure we understood each other.
This was no different. We’d consult with translator Jen (who was far more proficient than google translate or my paper pocket dictionary), but we didn’t let a language barrier get in the way of getting to know each other. Every day we danced, sang, ate really delicious food, and I loved how Idy, his brothers and sisters watched me take everything in with awe and wonder. I truly felt like I was with some of the world’s most loving and beautiful people and it was heart-breaking to leave them behind after so many late nights dancing, singing, talking, eating and simply enjoying each other’s company.
As an author, I have to live “under” things, experience them on both an observational and visceral level (if I can, without harming myself). I felt like being in Senegal was like living in technicolour, except instead of being by myself, traveling solo (like I normally have to) I was cushioned in a loving embrace with an elasticity beyond comprehension. No one thought it strange that I wanted to hug them every day, or that I’d randomly start humming a tune, or that when danceable music came on, I just automatically moved.
They’d simply move with me and we’d have an impromptu dance party, right there in the front room of Madame Gueye’s house. No one said to me: “Gosh, you’re spirited,” or “Wow, you’re friendly” or anything that felt like a back-ended compliment. I was teased about my snoring (though I had my own room for a good portion of the trip) and for my funny facial expressions when I dance, but it was all friendly and the bonding type of teasing that isn’t the same as trying to put someone down for the sake of conformity.
Koumba once said that she felt more beautiful in Senegal because there isn’t the same beauty standards there as in the U.S. I felt that same thought immediately upon arrival, despite feeling underdressed most of the time. As an adolescent in Japan I had often been ashamed of my appearance (frizzy hair, tall and easily tanned were not considered beautiful, plus cystic acne didn’t help). I felt fully myself in Senegal, away from the trappings of American beauty standards, which I have to fight against on a daily basis.
However, having access to only a tiny mirror and having left everything except lipstick and basic toiletries behind, I had to accept what I looked like with virtually no make-up. I also shared a bathroom with anywhere from 7-10 people for the bulk of the trip which meant there was very little privacy in the way I’m used to in the U.S. After I came out of the shower, there were usually others waiting to use it. Hot showers didn’t exist (which didn’t matter 90% of the time because it was so warm…I even found a mid-afternoon shower had slightly warm water if it was a particularly hot day, at least for the first few minutes). If I did need warm water, I had to heat it on an open flame burner and lug a bucket to pour over my head, which felt like a total luxury.
I had been warned to expect that life would be very different in Senegal: I would sleep on the ground, have zero hot showers, and I would need to tote a lot of the gluten free grains I needed for breakfast because gluten free bread didn’t exist where we were staying. However, none of this felt like a hardship, because I felt a part of the family, a cherished guest and everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome. It was like coming home instead of entering a foreign country. The same hospitality I was raised to show guests in Japan was on shining display in Senegal.
One of my favourite Sundays was when I had the chance to visit with the local women’s group that Jara and Nde Mbaye (Idy’s sisters-in-law) belong to. I was invited to dance with the women in their gorgeous finery while one of Idy’s brothers DJ’d and encouraged the women as they danced, calling them by name. It was an incredibly wonderful time to see all of these women dancing with each other, gathering and supporting each other. Instead of relegating me to spectator, I was asked to dance alongside them, take pictures and relish the moment, like I was a part of their group.
In the evenings, most nights in Ziguinchor, I’d sit on the roof, write in my notebook and take pictures of the sunset. I loved the feel of the warm, gravelly concrete around me, listening to Kine talk on her mobile while Princess sat on her lap. Kids were usually playing futbol below, yelling at each other, and the muezzin’s speakers would crackle with the call to prayer. I would write what I could before someone came upstairs to check on me. Sometimes, Idy or Ousseynou would come sit next to me and just breathe in the dusty air for a moment while the sun went down, before we were cloaked in darkness up there amongst the cement and rebar sticking out of the roof. The stars would come out and I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it was. How I never thought my life could change so much in the face of so much loving company.
While I was in Senegal I listened to the entirety of Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart and furiously scribbled notes. A frequent question that I asked myself was: “What would it look like if I let go more?” I wrote this alongside the notes to a chapter in the book entitled “Why We Feel the Pain We Feel.” On the roof that evening I answered the question the chapter is asking: “I write about the love that I have and want to experience–as a way out of emotional pain—a type of soothing.”
Brene Brown talked about her family as having difficulty expressing deep emotions. Their motto was: “Suck it up and get it done and don’t talk about feelings.” I feel this sentiment a lot in America. I believe most countries have a culture that has to do with some aspect of suppressing our deep emotions. That’s why we love songs, dancing and reading stories. It lets us access what society wants us to suppress so that we’re more productive. More like machines and less like humans. As a result, it means we often turn to suppressing behaviours that Brene Brown describes here “I made everything around me so loud that it drowned out the sound…” This can lead to neglecting our inner voices asking for something different, something kinder.
I know what numbing looks like and how I’ve suffered when I turn to numbing instead of working through tough emotions. As a result, I’ve been on a path to doing the inner work to curb activities that numb my ability to feel, though I still fall into old patterns of running from the hard stuff. (Staying out late, dancing?)
When I read this chapter, I asked myself “What pattern needs to die?” In answer to my question, I loved this quote from Atlas of the Heart
“the sharp edges let us know where we end and others begin-they bring grace and clarity.”
Seeing those patterns and sharp edges lets me know where I’m treading too thin, running too fast and wearing myself thin because I think that is better than facing the pain.
A note I wrote to myself after pondering this chapter, while next to the sea in Cap Skirring: “Lean in and lock eyes with it. Don’t choose a life of suffering and exhaustion.” I scribbled this as the glistening ocean roared in front of me. At that moment, I realized that I had been burned out for months and it was why I had been struggling before leaving for Senegal. “In the midst of struggle, the center will hold if and only if we can feel the edges” (Brown, Atlas of the Heart).
Brown goes on to talk about how we need precise language for what we’re feeling and that language “will help shape what you’re feeling…it gives emotional granularity.” Each person needs 27-28 emotions to accurately convey their human experience and she goes through and maps these emotions in Atlas of the Heart. I sat on the steps of my hut in Cap Skirring when I copied down Brown’s invocation to readers “with an adventurous heart, and the right maps, we can travel anywhere and never fear losing ourselves, even when we don’t know where we are.”
I dove into the ocean an hour later, got tumbled in the waves as Sitor was trying to hold me up, even though I knew I needed to let go of his hand, I didn’t want to. I was afraid he was going to get swept away. Instead, I got tumbled and scraped up my right knee fairly badly. I rose out of the waves, bloody but okay. It wasn’t until everything was scabbing over that the pain really set in.
Let your self doubt die.
Before I left for Senegal my therapist, Andy, said it was important for me to look at the period of burn out that I was in denial about as a type of death. I needed to take the space to ask myself what needs to die? in order for me to move on. At different stages of our lives we have death transitions (death of loved ones and animals, habits, geographic moves, etc…). Though reluctant at first, I contemplated and wrote what had to die in order for me and my art to live. I didn’t realize I was creating a map for this stage of a type of death transition.
For a long time, I had doubted that I needed to ask for help, that I needed more love in my life, and had to follow my instincts about hunches that I didn’t have a ton of data support. However, in a sea of pure belonging and kindness, I found my heart healing in ways I hadn’t estimated were possible, because I hadn’t realized the depth of my broken heartedness and grief until I was separated, by several thousand miles, from everything that had broken my heart in 2021.
“True belonging doesn’t require us to change to be who we are, but to truly embody who we are. If people don’t know who we are, then we can’t truly be ourselves” (Brene Brown). This is especially hard if you’ve experienced any measure of trauma, because you might, like me, have created maladaptive coping skills to publicly display the sides that community and family are the most likely to accept. But, in Senegal I was too tired and in awe of everything to be anything other than myself. I didn’t have the time to build unhealthy walls. I felt so comfortable I didn’t want to.
Now, this doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of stress, misunderstanding, and cultural clashes. There were, but they were communicated, and I moved through the feelings. It meant that my ability to write was suddenly opened up in the wake of having so much life to observe, interact with and a myriad of people to love and accept love from. (This is familial love I’m talking about here!) We did have a few marriage proposals from complete strangers, which was flattering, comical, but I had to graciously turn them down. There was an awesome moment where Idy politely declined a marriage proposal on my behalf. This guy already had two wives and asked, “What’s wrong, is she difficult?”
Idy nodded his head, very kindly, “Oh, yes, very difficult.”
The man stood up, brushed off his hands. “Oh, no, I don’t need another difficult wife.”
I laughed so hard when my cousin, Koumba, told me. She and I had quite a few laugh out loud moments, many of them because of things I was doing, or not doing. Instead of feeling embarrassed (most of the time), I tried to be kind to myself and accept that I’m not going to know everything. The act of having more grace with myself made everything easier: the writing, relating, and most of all the loving.
Senegal brought a new definitive focus to my life. My whole life’s purpose isn’t just about writing, dancing or editing books. I believe my life is truly about love and belonging and hopefully helping everyone I encounter, who wants it, to feel loved and like they belong. Writing, editing, dancing are a part of that journey, but they aren’t the destination. I realize the destination will likely be (and always has been) to celebrate the hearts and minds of everyone I encounter. Going to Senegal taught me just how important that was and helped to heal my very broken heart. Now, I’m hoping that the healing can continue so that when I go back I can learn more lessons that are waiting for me on those blessed shores.