I wrote a short story last week. It’s about a character who is ashamed of his identity. That was not the intent – the idea began with a comical scene that I wanted to expand – but it was the outcome. Often, results are not the things we initially desired. You could say that that is life, or even art. It also sucks.
Two weeks ago I read Mia Couto’s first (and best) collection of short stories. My favorite was called, “Saide, o Lata de Agua.” It’s about a character who is so embarrassed of being abandoned by his wife that he pretends to beat her inside his house every night in order that the neighbors believe she still lives there. He chooses one shame over another, because shame has levels, and they all suck.
Just over five weeks ago I wrote this previous blog post that did not once mention shame. I detailed several self-righteous claims about the reasons why I moved to Mozambique, why I want to suffer, why pain can be beautiful, mind-opening –
Your choice to live in Mozambique had what effect on those suffering there?
You always had an escape valve. You always had
Still, Be Careful What You Wish For.
There is nothing beautiful
about infection, diarrhea, blood,
Maybe the reason you aren’t an accountant or an engineer is:
you were never mature enough to stay.
MAYBE YOU SUCK.
Today I own my Shame, along with all of the Humility that should have been present in the post five weeks ago. I write from my desk in San Diego. Let me say that more clearly: I left Mozambique. The Indian woman at the grocery store on Rua das Mártires da Mueda said she would switch purified water companies, but you cannot undo bacterial colitis. She did not intend to poison me the very week I finally stopped the bleeding in my colon, and I never intended to take a medical leave of absence from the grant I have worked towards since writing stories in Mrs. Feingold’s class in the third grade, but these are the outcomes. This is life, this is art, and this sucks.
I seem to be confusing the term “art” with “irony,” but the irony of this situation is not lost on me. The American boy who wanted to experience African poverty – and write about it – couldn’t even drink the water. On the most basic biological level, he could never be what they are. The diseases that Stephen Crane contracted in the slums of New York (because he wanted to know what that life was like) eventually killed him. I used to admire him. How naive –
Him or you?
The irony is that a colonoscopy last week confirmed I have Ulcerative Colitis. The irony is that there is a fifty percent chance it will spread to other areas of my colon, but only a nine percent chance that it will develop into pancolitis. The irony is that I no longer care enough to provide more definitions and statistics about the Irritable Bowel Disease I gave to myself by wanting to experience everything. The irony is that I stopped being ironic –
But never stopped being a joke.
Yes, yes, that’s right: the irony is that I am home, I am broke, and I am broken [my landlord stole $1000 and Uncle Sam (the irony!) took another $2500!]. I could never truly understand the depths of suffering in Mozambique because I always had this escape valve, this option to come crawling home – the prodigal son! Not wizened but weakened! – when the Mozambican microbes mandated move me 2 my ’Merica… But even here there is welfare and food stamps: my destiny could never be African poverty because I am and always will be a son of America, whatever that means, Nation That Kills Its Youth.
Wikipedia: “Self-hatred (also called self-loathing) refers to an extreme dislike or hatred of oneself, or being angry at or even prejudiced against oneself. The term is also used to designate a dislike or hatred of a group, family, social class, or stereotype to which one belongs and/or has.”
The irony is that I could have just stayed here, read a book, and been all the healthier, smarter, prettier, and socially savvier for it. What about this book, Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: “Then there was the self-disgust, which we each wrestled with differently. Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on – well, it would simply never be okay. In an inescapable way, we sucked, and we knew it…”
Alas, I did not even come up with the idea of sucking.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t SUCK.
I have come to respect those who stay more than those who leave. Even more than either of them, I respect those who return. That’s probably just the coping mechanism of a sad boy who was forced to return, but allow me to elaborate. Home is the bathroom mirror that every American expat tries to smother beneath the flag of another country. We left because we were ashamed of what we saw, like angsty little teens covered in acne. Then we got so accustomed to avoiding the mirror that the mere thought of self-reflection (on our national, social, and familial identities) became anathema. Very few of us actually grow up –
You certainly haven’t.
All you did was
However, some do grow up. I’m thinking now of an American family I met in Mozambique. After nearly twenty years in Africa, they moved to Portland, Oregon. See what their fifteen-year-old daughter has to say about life in America by clicking here. This family, unequivocally, does not suck. They looked in the mirror.
Something you still refuse to do.
You’re still thinking of going back.
Didn’t you learn anything?
Not autoimmune disease
Not MIND-RIPPING PAIN
Could teach you anything.
That’s because they speak Portuguese in Mozambique, and the word “suck” doesn’t translate.
I’ve been really into assigning voices to the different strands of thought rolled up in my mind lately. You met Shame. Shame is loud and intrusive. But it’s the meek that are supposed to inherit the Earth. Meet Acceptance:
You can only feel shame if you give weight to the opinions of others. This only occurs if you want others to see you in a certain light, which is only possible with the existence of an ego. If you could just be you, irrespective of they, then you would know that you are always exactly where you are supposed to be. The problem is not running from the mirror, it’s that you ever looked in the mirror in the first place. A deer lives in harmony with the forest because it never asks itself why it lives in the forest. These questions of identity can be useful, but often they are self-serving, self-perpetuating, and self-limiting. It’s time to stop peaking at the mirror and get the fuck out of the bathroom.
“Song” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1878)
Stay, stay at home, my heart, and rest;
Home-keeping hearts are happiest,
For those that wander they know not where
Are full of trouble and full of care;
To stay at home is best.
Weary and homesick and distressed,
They wander east, they wander west,
And are baffled and beaten and blown about
By the winds of the wilderness of doubt;
To stay at home is best.
Then stay at home, my heart, and rest;
The bird is safest in its nest;
O’er all that flutter their wings and fly
A hawk is hovering in the sky;
To stay at home is best.