October 24, 2012
Waking at dawn three Tuesdays ago, I realized that my cheeks were dry. The silver tears rolling from each of my eyes were only inside the dream. Still, I was grateful. Until that moment I had not cried about the untimely death of a former love whom i'll call Lyle.
He had just surprised me, interrupting my dream of buying saris in the basement shops around Jaipur's red market. I had not seen Lyle since our last visit in Monterrey, California in November 1997. I had not shopped in Jaipur since November of 2003. Yet in the dream, Lyle's presence and the shop itself seemed very real, confusing and immediate. I had been fingering the dream merchandise, silks the colors of a rosy dawn--iridescent blues and palest pinks--when suddenly i saw Lyle beckoning to me from behind a stone pillar. Surprised, i moved toward him. He leaned against the pillar, and took my hands, gazing into my eyes. He was wearing one of my favorite shirts from our Peace Corps days, a faded dark blue cotton the slate-navy hue of a clear day on the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New England. In the dream I held the lapels, and I looked up at his face with delight, even as I felt tears sliding out of my eyes, down my cheeks, into the hollow of my throat. I woke into the real dawn, much darker than the silks, and whispered quietly "Thank you.." for the opportunity in an overly busy life to recall him, and to mourn. Despite pains in my chest and left arm that week, i did not consider that it might also be a warning from beyond the mysterious barriers that separate living from dead. Those barriers get nudged aside by many cultures on All Saints Day, or what some call The Day of the Dead, when picnics and parties unfold on the graves of loved ones. I started writing this entry around that day, compelled to commemorate a caring friendship lost.
I met Lyle in 1988 in Bukavu, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC). We were Peace Corps trainees together, sharing what Philip Gourevitch terms, in a recent essay about learning to skin a bear, "dauntlessness born of cluelessness" (see Gut Course: Bear, pp 92 and 93 in December 3 2012 New Yorker). Before shipping out to our respective posts in Burundi (for him) and Central African Republic (or CAR, for me) we had several long weeks of language immersion and learning about rural farming in the hills around Bukavu. We were living on the shores of the limpid Lake Kivu in what had been a colonial Belgian school for boys. By the late 1980s, it had become the Institute Superieur Pedagogique or Teacher Training Institution for that vast country, where many young, ambitious, nationalist teachers came there to prepare for careers in small schoolhouses. A subset of them, language instructors, helped us Peace Corps Volunteers in training learn to say things like "Did you sleep well?" or "How are you feeling?"
On days off they and we would go squeeze convivially into the tiny wooden-benched eateries of Kadutu market to eat red rice and beans with sugar or salt sprinkled on top and chilis on the side. At night we'd go in groups to dance kwassa kwassa in the bars of Bukavu, drinking locally brewed Simka beer and drinking in the feeling of optimism about the country's future that was still there, in the air around our group of teachers and foreign volunteers, despite the gathering geopolitical clouds.
Lyle, a "Fish" volunteer, was running from the confines of an Ohio childhood that had held him a comfortable captive. He was no Neil Armstrong, eager to return to a Norman Rockwell existence in middle America after major discoveries. He seemed determined--almost driven--to seek intense experiences indefinitely. He consumed places and people with a blithe enthusiasm. Yet he also had a capacity for tenderness. I appreciated that during my own training as a beekeeping volunteer, working African bees for the first time and realizing how much that could hurt.
|Photo of the Institut Superieur Pedagogique used for Peace Corps training in Bukavu|
from Nick Hobgood's photostream http://www.flickr.com/photos/globalvoyager/7010879207/
|Photo from http://www.lakelubbers.com/lake-kivu-2150-photo-lake-kivu-fishermen-3689/|
Because I already spoke french I was able to spend more afternoons off, swimming in that lake. Its water was like a caress, silkier than any other I have known, perhaps because of immense, dangerous store of methane and carbon dioxide beneath its waters. Kivu is one of three potentially explosive volanic lakes on the African continent. The idea of Lake Turnover, massive and immediate extinction of life forms in and around the lake as it has happened in the past and could happen again, makes the loss of one dear friend seem small. Or perhaps it reminds us of how precarious it all is, every bit of what we call life.
I love the Bukavu fragments of my life's mosaic. In the late afternoon after French class Lyle would walk down to the dock, sometimes bringing me armfuls of calla lilies for my room. We would sit and talk while my hair dried and he sipped scotch. Or he would draw me outside to play frisbee under Kivu rainbows. Only a few years later those rainbows would span the devastation and suffering of sprawling refugee camps along those shores. They would embracing survivors of interlinked regional conflicts that together constitute one of the deadliest wars humanity has ever known. It simmers still with a much more real and present danger to Kivu communities than any buried methane. Time cannot stand still.
For us it seemed to, one night under a full silver moon in October of 1988. We were each young, but experienced enough to consider that single night spent together perfection. We also knew better than to think such liminal love could be forgotten, or ever found again, with each other or anyone else. The next day I packed up and left the dormitory with its windows and terraces looking over the lake.
Sitting in the flatbed of a six-cylinder Toyota Land Cruiser with the Peace Corps Logo painted on the door, I jostled through Cyangugu, Rwanda to get to the Bujumbura, Burundi airport for an onward flight to Kinshasa, DRC. From there came a connection in Yaounde, Cameroon, and finally a flight to Bangui, the capital city of CAR. As I watched the red ribbons of laterite road unfurl beneath our plane, separating me from the magic of that pre-departure romance, I composed letters to Lyle. I was writing on an accounting pad with carbon paper that left a smudged blue copy of my maudlin thoughts, and the madcap circumstances of a first time in Africa.
November 1 1988 Bangui
You'll never guess who sat next to me on the flight from Kinshasa to douala! Emoro, the dwarf from Papa Wemba's film La Vie Est Belle. He is a flirtatious rascal and when I sang for him "amoroso amoroso..." he got very pleased with me. When we deplaned, he had his musicians strike up a spontaneous mini concert for us, and offered me a cigarette. Bienvenue, baby.When Lyle's letters came to me, they showed me an impressively direct side of himself:
Becca, I guess that most things have to over before you can say that "that was the best time I ever had." It will not be over for quite a while in my memory but at least i will then be able to spew out the above phrase. I'm sitting here in a small brick house somewhere upcountry in Burundi. It has rained nonstop the whole day. We halfheartedly went out to see some ponds, where they asked us preplanned questions about slopes and compost while I thought of you...Realize that I will be with you always emotionally, and in a sense spiritually. Do good work. Make it an extension of yourself. Think of me occasionally and write often. I will see you in my best dreams and in each full moon. Please take care of yourself. Drink scotch, light a candle, and remember our hugs when you begin to feel down. I might not give this to you. Maybe so, probably not.
Take care and God Bless, LyleWe wrote many such letters, and sent each other photos. We shared our nostalgia for worlds back home, in his case especially his favorite game, baseball, and one of his favorite teams, the Detroit Tigers. He sent me Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer and implored me to read each and every word (I named my cats in CAR Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella).
Often a letter would combine newsy notes alongside shared details from our vivid malaria dreams, scrawled in stream of consciousness fashion.
Halloween 1988 from Bujumbura
The Life of the Grand ChefGradually my own letters become more emotionally honest, and the incremental opening of hearts and minds that almost only comes in epistolary love was a treasure to us both.
The mocking of small Burundian children and my realization of cultural difference
My inability to crash through the world's problems like a bolt of light
The moon. The moon. The moon.
Ohio Halloweens. The ghost costume. The river. Crossing the river, and having to piss.
How much I love Dad.
All Saints Day.
April 4 1989
Becca, I just received your letter which was dated only three weeks previous to the time that i read it. This gave it a more powerful essence, an air of urgency; it made me feel much closer to you on this vast continent, as though you had been off as a very tiny speck on the horizon and suddenly I was able to jump, leap for miles to close the gap; to yell out to you hoping that you might somehow hear... It was as if it was the first letter you had truly written to me. Trying to explain that night in Bukavu to myself has remained a wonderful burden... Things happen in peoples' lives that are looked back upon forever. They are held up as symbols as time goes on; the knowledge that perfection has occurred for a few brief moments in one's life, and the hope that it will do so in the lives of others. Grace, pure grace. What do we do Becca, go our separate ways and look back on that night in Zaire? Try ever to find it with others? Do we hold it up as a moment of perfection, one that is no longer attainable?I could never answer his questions, even to myself. Still, we wrote--about us, and about writing, and living in a world in which life itself seemed ever more precarious and beautiful.
Burundi 14 September 1989
Came home from the hospital last night on a second life; a second childhood if you will, with a new appreciation for the loveliness of the land around here. The land, I thought, is the thing in life that I love the most. It is the thing that we all share, and despite all that is done to it, it manages to somehow survive. There was a full moon out (voila, i guess, the ritual of writing to you whose face was never more desirable than under a full moon). It was reflected in the small white flowers that grow in my front yard. They were great tiny little glowing balls in a sea of dark, dark green.
Burundi December 6th 1989I met a dark-haired young farmer from the Massif Central who was completing his French military service as a civilian expert with vegetable growers in northwestern CAR. He traveled around in a silvery blue Peugot 504 pickup truck inspecting cucumbers and cabbages in farmers' fields, then directing them toward the market of hungry soldiers who lived nearby at a French military base in the town of Bouar. He was a focused fisherman, who would accompany me in the river swims i loved, watching me with wry amusement as i attempted to swim against the current, reminding me to stay away from his fishing lines and watch for crocodiles. He was physically strong, practical, thoughtful; good at fixing things, growing things, waiting for things to develop in due course. In due course, we settled down in a rhythm of separate lives and work sites, with regular weekend visits. Lyle was in and out of love again too; new girls encountered, a former girlfriend who came to visit and experience Africa through his life in Burundi.
Strange how a small part of the old Americanized Christmas spirit hits at around this time of year. Was way up in the wet green mountains of Mabayi, very close to Rwanda, when the rain started in sheets. We picked our way up the slippery clay hill through the banana trees and took shelter in the stone house of a stranger. The chair was offered to me. I accepted it, and sat by the door watching the rain coming over the forest, and the fog descend like a big ghost while the radio played some Zairois tune. Crackle Crackle came the sound of "The Little Drummer Boy" in English, the Joan Baez version, too! Nothing will zap me back to my warm bed as a five year old quicker than that particular song. Tap a tap tap goes my father's typewriter, from downstairs as he works on his dissertation. "I played my best for him, pa rum pa pum pum...." This Christmas won't be like that; I'll have to talk with Rick to put myself in the proper mood. Johnny Walker instead of brandy, chicken instead of turkey, but hey, La Vie Est Belle...
Then, suddenly we were seeing the end of our service contracts.
8 November 1990 ...so hard to believe that two years have passed. It must have been the day before yesterday that I was dropped off, and finally forced to speak French. It must have been that same day when I happened upon Floribert, shovel in hand, asking for a chance to be interpreter and constant companion. Two rainy seasons, two dry ones, a blink of the eye, and I haven't changed. Or have I?We both had, and both were eager for more life experience. In 1991 I extended my Peace Corps contract to move south and learn about wildlife conservation in the forests of CAR, on the borders with Cameroon and Congo Brazzaville. My Frenchman went to work on the front lines of conflicts over grazing lands and wilderness in northern CAR, on the borders with Sudan and Chad. We got engaged, even as we realized that the Eden forged by rural residents' hands where we two had come together had lines drawn all through it by states, militias, international organizations, and private companies. We were growing up together in what now seems like a disturbingly postcolonial fantasy, learning to use elephant guns, and saving each others' lives from charging gorillas, cerebral malaria, and military coups. We watched our Central African friends lose too many loved ones to the growing tide of HIV, alongside already miserable infant mortality and life expectancy rates. We realized that no one gets to go back to the garden. Yet we remained in CAR, trying to be constructive alongside those there who were teaching us so much about strength and courage, healing and humor.
Lyle came back to the states before reapplying to serve the Peace Corps again in Thailand. He wrote me lyrical letters about the smell of leather baseball gloves rediscovered, and fresh cut grass, as if to say "it's o.k., you can come on back now." As a returned fisheries volunteer, he settled on Southport Island in Maine where he worked on a project with fishing fleets to see what technologies could limit collateral porpoise kill in those waters.Wrapped up in blankets on the chilly glassed-in porch of a fisherman's cabin overlooking that dark blue Atlantic, he took to writing and calling me more often.
By then it was spring of 1992, and I had completed my Peace Corps Service with a flurry of applications to graduate school, anthropology, which would get me back to CAR over the next several years. I was living on my grandfather's cattle farm in Golden Eagle Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River, watching the place while he and my grandmother wintered in Arizona. I spent my time alone or with kind-hearted Vietnam Veterans and their families on neighboring farms. They were the perfect neighbors; able to help me with the cattle and supply me with venison salami and jello salads; willing to listen to me talk of CAR and empathetic about the strains of re-entry to "normal" American life; even fun to party with at the local fireman's ball. I visited a few of their childrens' rural schools to answer questions about Africa, but otherwise I waited, biding my time, trying to gain weight again, wanting to hear about grad school, and avoiding the sheer overwhelm of suburbs, supermarkets, and shopping malls.
Meanwhile, Lyle was falling deeper and deeper in love with the ocean after his inland years. His stream of letters never failed me:
7 March 1992That summer I was back in northeastern CAR again, about as far from an ocean as one can be on this planet. I found myself supporting stragglers from the Sudanes People's Liberation Army who stumbled into our rooms among the ruins of an old Catholic Mission in Birao, fleeing across the border from the northern Sudanese offensive against the SPLA in Jebel Mara. They taught me the arabic alphabet while i fed them chicken soup to get them strong enough to head south to the UNHCR refugee camps.I tried to distract them from dwelling on their dead friends and family. I needed chicken soup, myself, given recurrent abdominal pain, weight loss and fevers. September 1992 found me back in the U.S., living as a doctoral student in New Haven Connecticut to study the cultural politics of wildlife conservation in southwestern CAR. My sweetheart from France was still back in northern CAR, conferring with communities about their water needs, and maintaining his motorcycles against the acacia thorns. It was worthy, and it was worlds away.
Southport Island, Maine
The day done and I stretch my muscles after a morning and afternoon of labor. I am on dock, and staring up into the huge blackness of a clear night, as light shines on my back from the wheelhouse, where Ward, Rob, and Tim sit, slowing down at last. ...The ferocity when the hauler is lifting the nets from the bottom and up over the rail is to me as sport. It is a dance between men. Athleticism, if it is done properly. There are mute gazes in the work process, affirming glances as if to refer to the active, fluid, motion that is taking place by all crew members. They are surprised to see how accomplished I am at getting fish untangled and out of the net. It is an art form; each fish a puzzle. They lend advice, as they would to someone making a crew share. It is constructive; I am after all "the biologist guy." A whale skeleton, the vertebrae in sections, comes up. I see it as I stare down into the water. It had been picked up in the course of the night, piece by piece, carefully, as the net had moved with a strong night tide. An amazing sight to behold.
When Lyle heard of my emergency appendectomy only a few weeks into my time in New Haven, he decided to materialize again. It was a golden early September Friday, when the bluefish were running, Lyle landed on my doorstep in the Elm City with a cooler full of their sleek, dark bodies on ice. We hadn't seen each other in years; he marveled at my blond straight hair (too many parasites from those river swims, and too much sun exposure), the scars on my face (from the acne that stress and infections had caused), and my body still so thin (from malaria and a very recent emergency appendectomy, samples from which had been sent to NIH for analysis of "ideopathic parasites"). Lyle knew better than to join the chorus of voices from my college friends telling me i looked "fantastic" as an emaciated blonde. Instead he peppered me with questions about my degree program while we baked the fish, and then invited some of my new friends from the anthropology department over to feast. Lyle was entertained by their research projects (sex tourism in the Dominican Repubic; hip hop in Tokyo nightclubs, religious conflict among rural Indonesian islanders...). They in turn asked him how women manage to pee off fishing boats, and other relevant ethnographic questions about fishing life.
Lyle knew better than to do anything that night but just hold me as i did him, sharing fears, hopes, and a long, sustaining sleep that helped my sutures heal from the surgery. As we drifted off, we talked about fearing death. He told me of the terrifying night his foot got caught in the net as it was being cast by the machinery on their fishing boat. Whipped overboard and dragged underwater for some time, he remembered little about the way his life was saved by the guys on deck. But he recalled too clearly the deepened disdain from his shipmates, mostly sons and grandsons of fishing families, for the college boy, the peace corps guy, who thought he could learn to fish, let alone improve their fishing. As we parted the next day i tried to remind him of what i had read in his letters of why he loved to fish; why he could indeed learn and teach about it, and should keep getting back on those boats.
The next week i got a copy of The Nick Adams Stories from him in the mail. Still healing, I greedily read the book. I was grateful for the access to this more Michigan Hemingway, rather than Hemingway of Paris cafes who had so seduced me through A Moveable Feast when i first read it, or the Serengeti Hemingway whom I was learning to resist through my studies of cultural constructions of African wildlife. This fishing Hemingway reminded me of growing up in the southern Appalachians; of backpacking, bushwhacking, and stream hopping. It brought back the smell of my father's sweat and peppermint soap; reminded me of Annie Dillard and the threads of transcendentalist reverence for nature that had run through my whole childhood. It made clearer the things Lyle loved in me, and I in him, and we in our country.
When i had finished the Hemingway, Lyle sent Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, as if to lure me further westward through my country's iconic narratives of bounteous land, big personalities, and violent frontiers. I submitted with guilty pleasure to even more virile narrative style. It balanced out the reading i had to do for my coursework: intricate, multi-volume ethnographic accounts of equatorial African societies written by meticulous French scholars. These were followed by equally intricate theoretical arguments about the French colonial psyche, written by meticulous American scholars. Reading about a few brave whores and bitter gunfights after hours began to feel like a gift.
So did the letters that kept coming, scrawled on the back of naturalist illustrations of mackerel shoals. They seemed a kind of substrate for Lyle's inked words. Those words informed me he was leaving the New England fishermen to whom he now owed his life, and much knowledge of actual work on the ocean. He was joining a group of marine biologists on a shark conservation campaign under the auspices of the Audobon Society's "Living Oceans" programs. The staff were living in an historic mansion in Islip, Long Island. I should come visit.
Photo of the Scully Estate, or Weeks Estate, in Islip Long Island
The mansion was donated to Audobon in the 1960s by Happy Hathaway, childless daughter of a New England Scion. Happy wanted the place to serve as a refuge for defenders of nature, and it seemed just that when i visited Lyle there later that same fall, during a weekend of intense indian summer. Little pyramids of shark teeth were piled in odd places around that mansion. Stranger, still, were the full scale plaster and plastic models of sharks; their jaws open in gaping grins, their plastic eyes beady and their bodies inaccurately smooth to the touch. Lyle was spouting shark facts at me; he was clearly freaked out by the scope of the trade in shark cartilage for the preparation of dietary supplements. It was combining with markets for shark fins for food and decimating many species despite the conservationists and marine scientists who were working in defense of sharks (a losing battle, still).
Lyle spoke admiringly of Carl Safina's example of a life dedicated to marine sustainability issues: "...and so now you can eat striped bass again, Becca, because of what Carl and his colleagues have done!" As it happened, Carl and his colleagues had left us a fridge full of bluefish as they went away for the weekend. We sliced red, golden, and orange peppers with shallots; we drizzled olive oil over the sliced veggies and strewed them artfully across the chocolate colored fish flesh, then cracked pepper on top and slid it under the broiler. I was wearing the old slate-navy colored shirt that had been my uniform in Bukavu, and which i'd kept through Peace Corps and brought back to the U.S. with me. I had started to put on weight; i had curves again and my hair was curling at last. I was preparing to go back to CAR for the following summer, and then for several years of fieldwork. Lyle, reassigned to Peace Corps Thailand, was excited for a new phase of discovery and challenge.
But before embarking on those adventures, we licked the oily bluefish juices off our fingers, went out and walked hand in hand on the beach at Fire island, came home and sat on the gracefully sloping lawns of the shady, quiet mansion, and then soaked in the deep antique claw-foot tub in his suite of rooms under its garrets. We were catching our breath, mustering our courage, and sharing our consternation that we could spend our lives working on over-consumption issues without solving them. Throughout the dreamlike weekend of gothic staircases and shafts of sunlight we had a mutual fear of touching each other, of tarnishing that perfect memory of the night in Bukavu. Staying instead on the surface of our connection, we relished the tension and parted friends.
While Lyle was in Thailand in the Peace Corps, I returned as a Fulbright scholar to the CAR. We still exchanged letters, convincing ourselves and each other that these learning experiences completed the ones from college, but deeper, broader, better; surely they were worth at least the same amount of time investment...four years? We had few illusions that we were saving anyone, or even helping anyone much. Most days I think we each felt lucky to be serving our country abroad by living with others and learning, convinced we were doing more good than harm.
Some of these feelings changed for Lyle when he returned yet again to the States and began to work in policy and lobbying circles on marine issues. As he learned about how protective measures for the natural world are actually forged through political alliances, he would complain about the gamesmanship. His abiding love of social interaction could feel tawdry or strategic in such settings and this confused and hurt him. But during the Thailand service life was more Lyle style: according to his letters and cards, when he wasn't fighting new strains of fever and malaria, he was doing dangerous and thrilling white water rafting, and working in protected areas in Thailand whose beauty took his breath away.
Meanwhile I was being taken deeper into family histories, ritual contexts, and interdependence with the Sangha Sangha fishermen and women of the Sangha River in southwestern CAR whom I had first met during Peace Corps. In late 1997, my paper about those groups of people was selected for a panel at the San Francisco meetings of the American Anthropological Association. I was back from the field, preparing to travel across the country to get feedback from the most important and generous scholars i knew to be working on french speaking equatorial Africa. It was all so exciting.
"Come down to Monterrey," said Lyle. He was back in school himself, completing a masters degree in international relations and conservation issues at the Monterrey Institute. The site for that school, built right on the edge of the ocean itself, seemed perfect for Lyle. "I have an instructor who would like you to address our international development seminar," he said.
We did. After nearly two years back in the heart of the African continent, it seemed ethereal to hear the sound of Pacific waves breaking below me as I dined. Afterward, Lyle insisted that we walk down to the beach. Our palates were still swirling with surprising combinations of fish terrines, seared scallops, tiny fat herbed sausages, spicy local greens and caramelized tarts, paired with delicate white wines. Neither of us took the meal for granted. We stood alone on the beach under a startlingly bright full moon which was pulling those waves into powerful peaks that crashed at our feet. Lyle eased my dress off my shoulder and caressed the white full-moon-lit flesh. He gently kissed my skin again and again, then we held hands and walked along the beach, not talking.
This was not just one more farewell in our friendship. Without saying it, we both knew it was a more permanent goodbye. My several-year engagement had made room for two different PhD processes, one in the U.S. and one in Belgium, each with field research in CAR. But was very soon going to culminate in marriage (or so I thought), and I was planning a research and teaching career in France and Africa. Lyle was falling in love with that California coast, and one particular California girl. We weren't young anymore, and we weren't going to be able to visit each other this way indefinitely. It was a bittersweet, beautiful night. We spent it again in physical restraint and sentimental excess, honoring that night of no inhibitions years ago on an African lakeshore. We knew we would miss leaning on one another from time to time with that strange mix of trust, and chemistry, and comfort. But it was time to finish growing up.
I do wonder that even after that vivid October dream i did not, in waking life, weep for him. The tears for him finally came only as i emerged from the haze of fentanyl that was administered to me in the cardiovascular catheter lab, just a few days after the dream. Perhaps when you nearly die, you feel more deeply those you have lost. Perhaps without the ways they reach out from beyond to warn us, more of us would actually die.
As I write this, my heart--now healthy--aches for Lyle, and most of all for his family, but also for the communities from New England to Equatorial Africa, from Ohio to Thailand, where he lived and loved and learned, working to heal a weary but still so wondrous earth. Thank you Lyle, for somehow reaching out to help me stay on beyond you on this shimmering, beautiful planet you loved so fully in every moment i knew with you. Whatever waters you now navigate, know that I can't forget your love of those here, on this beleaguered blue orb.