Up until my time in Burundi at Radio Publique Africaine, I was best at setting myself apart, as a monument of sorts, so that no one could enter inside and look around for themselves. I looked best and often for the thing to separate myself from the person I was loving, whether by background, age, race, or availability. And in that solitary space, I felt wide open and most primed for reinvention, a trait I have long prized.
I did this not only with those I loved romantically but, perhaps more important, with childhood friends and family. Friends like Alvin Jarvis, whom I grew up with and who died at 22 in a car accident. The last time I saw Alvin I was home for a summer break from college in Texas. Alvin broke away from his hard-looking friends and walked over to me and grabbed at me in an embrace, but my grasp remained loose. I did not hold tight onto his back, the way he held mine, but rather beat it a few times as if it were a drum. He asked me how school was. I said, "Fine," looking down at my toes. Alvin was still in New Orleans and I was not, and I let that be the chasm. I understood without understanding that by avoiding Alvin, I hid from myself.
But in Burundi, looking down or away never worked. I had arrived in that tiny Central African country unmoored, without a familiar language or geography, and let loose from my personal mythologies. All I had to go on was myself. Even at work at the radio station, I was forced to rely on my Burundian co-workers for more than I had ever needed before. And that forced an internal movement. Whenever I tried to look down or around or away from a person, they became more curious than before.
And a few other things happened: I met a man whom I recognized but didn't yet know, and in time he helped show me to myself without my looking to him to do so, and without my asking for it. Sometimes a person can do that, pull you up from the depths. He loved me, and I felt thoroughly and keenly myself in his presence. But it was not only this person but also the country and its people who showed me a kind of caring that taught me the value of looking straight onto things.
Like the time I was stranded on the side of a mountain road on my way upcountry, waiting alone while my flat tire was being fixed. It was broad daylight, and surrounding me were young boy soldiers wearing fatigues and carrying sawed-off shotguns with the barrels wrapped in tape. At first, I was full of fear, and for reason, but then I began to notice the slow way the men began to surround my car as I waited hour upon hour and life passed me by—women carrying babies on their backs and plastic containers of palm oil on their heads. And suddenly someone had sugarcane and was offering me some. No words spoken, but the sucking and spitting out of sugarcane while the radio played a Phil Collins song. And how in that moment I learned something of brotherhood and trust and the human condition. All of us together like that.
And later, a Gloomy Sunday when I was sitting in my African house, the solitude burning, with no place to go and no one to talk to. With the banana trees shimmying outside the window and the sound of rain beating down the roof drowning my thoughts, I opened up a novel and out of it fell a Polaroid of Alvin, my childhood friend. I was surprised and set off-center by the image falling out like that.
James Baldwin once wrote: "To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love." It took me a long time to know what he was talking about, but Alvin's picture that day forced me to think about the enormous costs of pushing him away, and that felt like a waste of good love. I took the picture and sat it right where I could see it. It is now, always, right where I can see it.
I know this: It is possible to stumble upon oneself in the process of looking onto and receiving others. I had perhaps come into the world alone, but it was populated with other people when I arrived. People who might love me, see me, teach me things. And so I glimpsed, somehow, in Burundi, the nature of connection, which is to say, the nature of love. And there cannot be, I have come to know, one without the other. Simple sounding, yes, but not actually, and I have traveled quite a long way to understand that.
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, December 4, 2013