First impressions

Monday, February 12, 2018

It’s funny what stands out, what sinks in. What you really see, and what glides beneath your notice.

Write about the details, I tell my oldest daughter. We homeschool, and every day we begin with writing: my expert field. It’s so easy to sound like an expert when you’re not the one sitting before a blank page. Trying to remember, trying to translate.

Stretch your story out by telling the reader about what you saw or heard, what you thought or said, what you smelled or tasted. Help your reader make a picture in their minds.

I don’t tell her that it can feel like you’re trying to recreate a photograph by ripping chunky pieces from a magazine and collaging them together. Colors may vary. Shapes will never be exact. Also, the glue is mostly dried out, and so pieces of the collage keep falling off, scattering.

I don’t tell her that writers present this mess, this collage, this horrible pastiche, as a photograph, like: “This is what it’s like here. Read these words and paint the picture in your minds. Then you’ll know.”

Think how many filters the city of Kigali has gone through before it reaches you, reader. First, the filter of my eyes, wide and searching, yes, but ultimately drawn to what all human eyes are drawn to: novelty, perceived differences, movement.

Next, the filter of my body, the spaces it occupied, the opportunities it gave or denied my eyes. What does—really, what can—a person see in only a few weeks in a foreign country? I crop the picture every time I walk out my door and head one direction instead of another.

Next the filter of my memory (enormous losses!) and of my biases (what do I find noteworthy?), and then the filter of my pride (how far into the memories shall I allow you, reader? Because at a certain point I might feel your heat a little too close, might wall things off for my own purposes of privacy, or of how I’d like to skew the thing. You’re not just seeing Rwanda, here, you’re seeing how I see Rwanda, and thereby seeing me. Frankly, at the end of the story, I’d like your impression to be good. So I make my lens even narrower.)

Then there is the filter of your own experiences, because my description here will sort of paint a new wash over a picture of Rwanda, or maybe Africa, you probably already have in your minds.

And finally I pass it all through the filter of language itself: spoken, written. My ability to fit the experience into words, when it feels like none of these black-and-white containers are quite large enough. The experience runs over the words like too much water poured in a glass, and so much is lost.

And sometimes there is no word to act as a container, to pour the experience into. Language evolves, after all, in the context of culture: We engineer our words to contain a certain collective experience.

If you leave your culture, and new experience happens, you may find your native tongue suddenly comes up short. English has not found the need to contain every experience in the world. Sometimes there is no word.  

So. After all that. Here it is.

The first thing was the flowers: orange, yellow, pink. Bursting from trees and smattering roadside bushes and absolutely everywhere. Clouds tumbled in from one side of the sky, and the other was perfectly clear. The weather felt like it was what God always intended when God made our bodies.

It smelled very faintly of car exhaust, and of something different. In the mountains in Colorado, I sometimes felt as if I was smelling the soil when I walked down the road. It reminded me of the scent of giant boulders crumbling and evergreen sap and Aspen leaves rubbed between your palms.

The smell of Kigali reminds me of cooking oil, wet cement, and what I imagine an empty chrysalis must smell like.

We piled in the car.

But there's something here I'm leaving out--some sudden awareness, or maybe a self-consciousness. Maybe it was the color of my skin or maybe it was the cost of my shoes or sound of my tongue or the way I carried my children. 

Without permission, I found my body announcing for me: I'm different; I don't belong. I felt split open, a bit exposed. I would prefer to go unnoticed. 

I was very noticed. 

We piled in the car.

On every side of it, we were surrounded by motos so close I could have reached out and high fived the drivers. The motos squeezed between the lines of cars, and where the road stopped, the pedestrians began.

There were so many people walking. It was like someone had opened a tap at the top of the road, and people just poured out of it like water.

People walk here, like in any place, at a particular pace—not the ambling I noticed in Saudi Arabia, and certainly not the business-like stride you’ll find in Denver, where there’s always somewhere else you need to be. 

In Rwanda, it's a steady beat, as if people had begun walking a long time ago, and must keep walking for a long time yet.

On the horizon, hills rose between valleys, one tucked behind another, just as if God had spread his fingers and dragged them through the earth, over and over again to make the furrows and crests. This is called the land of a thousand hills, and it does give that impression: as far as you look, another valley drops, and another hill rises, and if you didn’t know any better you’d think the whole world looked this way, like the hills and valleys go on forever.

How did this find a beginning, and how could any of it ever end? The people and the cars and the roads and the hills and the valleys: All of it. They all stretched every way, filling space like water, disappearing over every horizon.

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