Friday, May 29, 2009

To Dance in the Rain

Since I've been thinking about Liberia, I decided to post a memoir I once wrote for a college assignment. I've grown as a writer since then, but I will leave this in its original 1997 form, for sentiment's sake.

To Dance in the Rain

I keep a rock in the bottom of my jewelry box. It’s just an ordinary rock to most--its long and fat, and fits perfectly in my hand when I wrap my fingers around it. It's been rubbed smooth by the sand in the ocean, but it's not particularly pretty so I don’t display it for fear someone might think it's useless and throw it away. But I know it's there. And this rock is one of my most important possessions, for it represents something in my life extremely dear to me.

I found this rock on the shores of West Africa where I grew up. I had often picked up rocks in the clear blue waters of the ocean near my home because they sparkled in the sun shining through the water. When they soon dried off and weren’t so pretty anymore, I got rid of them, but for some reason, this one I kept. One day the rock fell off my window sill and a piece broke off.
When I was twelve, on the last day I was in West Africa, I took that piece of the rock and hid it in a corner of our house. I took the large portion with me back to California. I was only going to be in the States for a year, I thought, and when I went back to Africa I would unite the two pieces of the rock and my heart would be home again, where it belonged.

Home......for a long, long time I considered my home to be Liberia, a small country on the coast of West Africa. I was six when my family first moved there as missionaries, so I don’t remember much before that time. To me, Liberia was a beautiful place, a wonderful place, a perfect place for a child to grow up. I remember it as a place full of trees to climb, flowers to collect, and rain to dance in. Completely cut off from almost any American influences such as television or Toys R Us, I instead grew up with children from all over the world in the absolute freedom of the outdoors. I saw everything and anything as a treasure box for my imagination, waiting to be opened and explored.

Saturdays in Liberia were my favorite days of all. People in Liberia knew how important it was not to work on Saturdays, so almost all of the 100 or so families that lived on the mission compound went to the beach. Our house was only a few hundred feet from the ocean, so Mom usually let my brother Paul and I run down ahead of her. The water was always warm and clear, and oh, so beautifully blue. My friends and I pretended we were shipwrecked or mermaids or beautiful princesses in a castle by the sea. Sometimes we built intricate series or tunnels in the sand or examined the millions of baby crabs that had just hatched on the rocks. On low tide days, the water was so shallow that we could walk all the way out to the reef and not even get our knees wet. Then Dad brought buckets and Paul and I pulled live cawlry shells off the rocks. Dad then boiled them to get the animal out, and the house stank all day, but we would have beautiful shells as a result. One Saturday every July the Portuguese-man-of-war jellyfish washed up on the shore. Whenever that happened, we kids went down to the beach and discovered the sand littered with blue and purple bubbles. But those “bubbles” had long, invisible tentacles that could kill a person, so we couldn’t go swimming that day. Undaunted, we ran home and put our shoes on, then walked along the beach and popped the jellyfish with sticks. Saturdays were made for fun, I thought, and any problem of the week could be solved by a Saturday at the beach.

Saturdays were great, but I liked school too. School always started early in the morning, at 7:00, and ended at 1:00, because the afternoons were too hot and humid to have classes in the suffocating tropical heat. So my friend Mindy and I always walked the half mile to school together, usually taking the shortcut through the jungle unless it had been flooded. On rainy days it rained so hard in Liberia that it was no use trying to stay dry. We just took off our thongs so that the mud wouldn’t flip up on our dresses, and then we walked to school, in the rain, barefoot. We were soaking wet by the time we got there, but the air was so warm that we would dry quickly. A few times my teacher even had to cancel class on rainy days because the rain poured so hard on the tin roof that we couldn’t hear her talk. Even if we could hear her, she always had to stop talking when the thunder sounded because it was so loud. My heart always beat a little faster during thunderstorms; they were so exhilarating. My classmates and I whispered and giggled, “God’s bowling,” we said, “He just got a strike.” Thus, school was often unpredictable, but always exciting.

Mindy and I often took a long time walking home from school, if it wasn’t raining. Sometimes the sun shone so brilliantly on the ocean that it sparkled like millions of turquoise jewels. Mindy and I picked flowers and put them in our hair, or we pulled handfuls of the tiny ones and threw them gleefully into the air, until the whole road was covered with tiny flowers. Sometimes we stopped and talked to the Liberian children who traveled from house to house, selling fruit from large pans balanced on their heads. Life was relaxed, but never monotonous. I rarely had appointments or places I had to be, but I was never bored. I always just waited for the next adventure to come along--because it always did.

I always had the afternoons free to play. Mindy, our brothers, and I thought up all sorts of things to do together. Someone had a canoe, and the four of us often piled in and took a tour of the lush tropical swamp right next to my house. We paddled in amongst the lily pads and the water beetles skimming across the surface, and sometimes we all carefully climbed out and scrambled up the mangrove trees growing in the middle of the water. “Don’t fall in,” our mothers said, “or you’ll get leeches on you.” But we didn’t care about the leeches. We were just afraid of the crocodile that all the kids said lived in the swamp. There was never a lack of material for our imaginations.

Sometimes I went over to my friend Esther’s house after school. Esther was Liberian and Liberian girls are expected to do all sorts of chores like washing clothes and making dinner. I always waited for her to finish, and then we played together. We followed little streams through the jungle just to see where they went, and we picked mangos and ate them right off the trees. Esther sometimes braided my hair the Liberian way, or showed me how she made peanut butter or fried plantain chips from scratch. Sometimes I forgot that I was supposed to be an American girl--and rarely did I think about the fact that very few of my friends had ever stepped foot on American soil. The similarities of childhood often overlook the differences of culture.

In the late afternoons, Dad came home from the hospital where he worked. He picked up Paul and me on his motorcycle, and we would drive to the administration building to pick up our mail. He would always take us to a special patch of beach that was his favorite, and we picked up shells and watched the sun set over the glorious Atlantic ocean. It was always peaceful, and secure, and wonderfully beautiful. I was given a utopian picture of life--that whatever problems life held could be solved by sitting on the hammock on the front porch and watching the lightning hit the ocean, or a spontaneous water balloon fight with friends, or singing joyfully in church with people from all over the world.

Liberia was my home for a long time. So when we packed up everything to come to California for a year, and I left that piece of a rock behind, I was leaving part of my heart behind.

We never went back.

In 1990, when we were in the States, a civil war started in Liberia. It has never ended. For nine months we waited, hoping the fighting would stop and we could go back. But it never stopped. All the remaining missionaries were evacuated. The mission compound was bombed by rebel forces, and we received sketchy reports on the location of Liberian friends. Newspapers gave us headlines like “an orgy of killing and mutilation.” And all the while, I was thinking, “That’s my home--that’s my home they’re destroying.” With it, a part of me was destroyed too. That summer when the war started was the summer I grew up and was faced with reality--the reality of hate, and killing, and evil. My view of the world had been hopeful--that people from all different countries could get along, that life could be simple, that a hard days work could earn reward. I had seen poverty and sickness, but I had also seen miracles and sunshine and hope. But when Liberia was destroyed, so was my dream that life could be perfect--or at least could be made better.

Thus, a piece of me was left behind in Liberia, a piece of my childhood, and of the childlike faith that the world isn’t so bad after all. The two pieces of my rock will never be put back together. But I will never forget the beautiful dream that once was my life.

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