Saturday, January 5, 2008

Alone is a Lonely Sea

I believe that one of the most profound lessons I took away from my 11 years in Liberia, was how one can be affected by loneliness and cultural isolation. I'd love to hear from other expatriates or foreign workers, that lived in Liberia, or any other country, for a prolonged period of time, whether or not loneliness affected them. I could just be an odd bird…or not!

There is alone and then there is ALONE! There were times while I lived in Liberia that I experienced a soul-searing loneliness that I have not encountered before or since. Loneliness inspired me to write the poem, “Alone is a Lonely Sea,” at the end of this post. I began to really experience cultural isolation after I’d moved away from the Hebrew Israelite group that I'd come from Chicago to Liberia with initially. Now I was deeply embedded in the Liberian culture. Ninety-nine percent of my time was spent with Liberians; there were no African-Americans, in fact, no Americans in my life.

I'm very contemplative by nature, and I really crave time alone when I can become lost in my own thoughts. However being in a room alone, listening to your own philosophical musings, when you know there are people that care about you within “holla” distance, is a far, far cry from being alone in another country, another culture, among people who speak other languages and who understand and experience the world and their environment differently from you. And for all the amazing similarities we possess as humans and as people of African descent, there are many very important distinctions.

Kocava and her family were among my few African American friends. She was down-to-earth, creative and brilliant, my oasis in Liberia. Whenever we got together we would talk endlessly, drink cold Orange Fanta and listen to “our” music; flitting from Sun Ra and Coltrane back to Stevie Wonder and Sade, and then a quick trist with Smokey Robinson before floating on to “Lutha,” no explanations necessary! If we disagreed about any little thing, I felt free to cuss her out in that special way that sista’s can talk to one another, and she wouldn’t feel “abused.” We could be nostalgic about things that my Liberian friends didn’t even know existed.

And did I have issues to discuss! I was fed up with government bureaucracy in Liberia, tired of rogues trying to break into my room, sick of my neighbors leaving our communal bathroom a mess, and so on this hot Sunday afternoon I left my children with their older sister and hailed a taxi to Sinkor to visit Kocava. As I rode I felt pressed down by the unanticipated weight of making a living for me and my children, I felt beat down from teaching them to appreciate Liberian culture while struggling to distance them from the raw and violent behavior that was a part of living on Lynch Street. I was culturally desperate that Sunday.

Finally, I arrived at Kocava’s apartment, bounded quickly up the steps to the second floor, and knocked on the door, and knocked on the door, and knocked on the door, and knocked on the door. A Mandingo woman on the porch next door, hearing my repeated knocking, glanced up and said “Hey Ma, da peepo gone to the beach ‘O’!"

Suddenly pain ripped through me and I crumpled onto the bench outside their door and wept shamelessly until I couldn’t cry anymore, until I could walk back down the steps and hail a taxi back to Lynch Street and my children.


The Lonely Sea
Aching alone
…to be apart of another’s breath and thoughts, longing for tenderness
Missing a warm smile and laughing eyes, the familiarity of friends
and family absent in happy and sad times
Alone is a lonely sea, passing through me.

Alone is feeling self-conscious because there is only my-self,
eating too fast, to avoid the fact that no one is sitting…
smiling and sharing this meal with me
Alone is a lonely sea, passing through me.

A new and chilling experience to struggle against and pass through.
The knowledge that loneliness can create shame
As urgency and need causes the unattractive to shimmer and sparkle in the dark
And the decadent to appear darling; as Saints too will sin,
Alone is a lonely sea passing through me

No more mother’s glowing aura to envelope sorrow or redirect pain
No father’s strength to steel away blue hours;
No brother’s laughter, nor sisterly advice.
Aunts and uncles vacant, grand-folks none,
I’m awful lonely with not a one
Alone is a lonely sea passing through me.

However long the sea will rage, the currents how torrential
and tortuously swift
I will master myself in this pain—at last
It cannot continue always, nothing does, or has or will, and so
I weep my tears and also wipe them—so that my soul will not see that
Alone is a sea, a lonely sea, passing through me