In the second grade, our class was assigned an art project, making masks in a particular style. We cut rectangles from pizza boxes, and perforated them with eye and mouth holes. Then we fashioned long cardboard stalks to sprout from the tops of the masks like antennae, with a couple of shorter cross-sections. We had a limited color palette–bright red, black, and white–but we could paint whatever we wanted with those hues. I added black stripes and a few polka dots, dashes of whimsy and whatever else seemed artfully apt at seven years of age.
A couple of decades on and a year or so into my time overseas, I came home to Cleveland for a visit. In a jet-lagged haze, I walked up the stairs to my mother’s apartment through a gallery of sorts that she’d curated from similar scholastic amateurisms: posters, sculptures, the cute, the clever, the hideous, it’s all there. That day, the same mask caught my eye and I caught my breath, recognizing it anew: it was a Dogon mask, traditionally crafted for funerary rites by the Awa from the Pays Dogon in Mali, where I lived at the time. I was struck by the coincidence: 20 years earlier I had unknowingly made a wonky ode to a place I couldn’t imagine then, but would arrive to eventually. The universe had winked at me, and I caught the wink a mere 20 or so years later. The following year, I would take a Christmas trek with dear friends to Mopti and then onwards to Bandiagara, heart of Dogon country.
Hassan and I are in Toronto this week, and will be married by the time we get back to Hargeisa. Considering the occasion, I’ve been reflecting on the moments and the people that delivered me to now, and the points of connection that reverberate through the years and offer a comforting sense of purpose, of intentionality buried in the randomness of growth.
These glimmers of synchronicity aren’t always revelatory, but they are meaningful. Job opportunities brought my parents to Cleveland from New York via California, and I only realized in my final years of high school, while working on an anniversary year book for our graduating class, that my grandmother had attended the very same one, and grew up only a few streets away from my home. Not until I was accepted to graduate school in Washington D.C. did I hear that my grandfather, who passed away before I was born, had attended the same school for his doctoral dissertation, and taught as assistant lecturer. I dedicated my master’s thesis to him.
Are you familiar with fernweh? A German friend mentioned it to me the other night over pizza. It’s all the nostalgia and longing of homesickness, but not for home — for somewhere far away. In the dry, dusty capital city of Bamako, at the edge of the vast Sahara desert, I cried over stunning loss and dreamed of the lush greenery of Ireland. In fact, I had fernweh for Ireland, though I’d never been; in my gut it was a place I had to see, a place of my ancestry, and an antidote to the sand pit (literal and figurative) in which I found myself.
Years later, after I’d moved on to work in the Horn of Africa, the Addis Ababa to Washington D.C. flight route was reconfigured by the airline to include a fueling stop in Dublin. Embracing serendipity, I extended my layover on the Emerald Isle, my first trip as a solo traveler. It was, indeed, the tonic I’d sought, albeit delayed. In the dreary Irish winter I walked the Cliffs of Howth and wept there — for all that I’d lost, and in tremendous gratitude for losing it; for the freedom to welcome me back to myself. I wept in the rain, shoes soaked in mud, until a friendly Irish grandpa in a red slicker ambled past, scolded me for inadequate footwear, and encouraged me to continue: onward to a full pint of Guinness and a hot bowl of fish chowder, exhausted in the sweetest way. A couple of years after that, I brought my beloved back to Dublin and more or less forced him to wake up at 6:00 a.m., down an Americano in the darkness of a January morning, and take the same hike with me.
One of my closest friends talks to me about “upward spirals” of life lessons: our baggage is ours, our faults and failings won’t leave us, and they come around again with cyclical persistence. But we face each approach differently, with a higher level of understanding. Each time, it’s a newer, better, stronger us that takes on those tired challenges. This is how you manage to accept the stuff that haunts you: it’s never the same you, even if it’s the same stuff. Dublin was a place of healing on my own upward spiral that I felt fernweh for before I knew what it held for me.
In college I had a brief fascination with Somalia, knowing very little about it, and thought I might like to work there. Understandably, considering rhetoric and reality, friends were appalled — But why? My answer always had to do with starting over, with building a functional system from scratch, with phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes cliches. I didn’t actively try to get to Hargeisa; I was offered a position more or less out of the blue, during a period of jobless angst in Mali when I was propped up by dear and generous friends. Yet I found myself in Somaliland one morning, on the rooftop of my guesthouse, looking out over a new city and breathing in the clear air under a typical and magnificent blue sky. I cried again (I always do!), in gratitude for delivery to a new chapter. And it turned out that my assumptions about Somalia were not only grossly erroneous, but they were really intuitions about myself–starting from scratch after personal destruction, building emotional systems anew, and yes, those same phoenix cliches.
I met Hassan in Hargeisa, walking down the street. Another striking coincidence, since we grew up just across the Great Lakes from one another, him in the borough of Scarborough, and me on Scarborough Road. I spent the late summers of my childhood in Ontario on a quiet island, and I’m sitting in a hotel in Ontario now, a few days after assembling a coterie of our dearest for a heartfelt commitment and some good food. With a bit of luck and generosity from loved ones we’ll make it to Tokyo in a few months for a honeymoon. It’s a place that’s fascinated us both, and a city that hosted my father for a few of his youngest years. He has fond memories, and we hope to make a few new ones.
It’s all been so interwoven — the uncomfortable lessons and the startling beauty and the relatively mundane — and unintentional, and suspiciously coincidental. This may simply be evidence of the smallness of human existence, but I enjoy the idea of undercurrents that shepherd us from lesson to lesson, with nods to the past and future along the way. I’ve gotten a few winks out of the universe over the past few years, and do my best to honor them for what they are.