I stride determinedly through the crowds, blue, lopsided backpack slung over my shoulder as he struggles to keep up. I’m wearing my animal print sun dress, the one I’ve been traveling with for over a year, the one with a hole in the front peeking through the ruffles, the one that somehow fits all of my sisters and I perfectly. I bounce along in borrowed shoes and a new smile, up the hill and into the cacophony of Broadway Street. I’m not used to pacing myself, to letting someone else direct me through the maze, to keeping quiet when he accidentally takes the long way. “Don’t you want to put your bag in the car?” he asks. We won’t be using the wide picnic blanket with leaf stains, my bottle of water, or the rain jacket I brought along, just in case. Still, I hesitate. I am not yet willing to lay down the identity and comfort of passer through, of traveler, of girl with a backpack carrying everything she needs, just in case.
I reluctantly lock my things in my roommate’s car, feeling strangely empty-handed, and we find a parking space closer to the hustle and bustle of honky tonks and street buskers. Navigating the narrow blocks, moving slowly and timidly, I explain that I haven’t really driven in over a year. I gave away my car when I quit my job, and don’t plan on buying a new one. “Riding the bus makes me feel like I’m still a traveler,” I confess. He nods his head with an “ah-ha” look on his face. Now it makes sense. He’s not the first to show surprise, but it takes one to know one and I think this is why we argue playfully about how and whether it’s time to return to “real” life and stay in one place for awhile.
Yet. My muscles ache to be used for what they were made for…moving sturdy bones through space, feeling the tiredness of a long day on the balls of my feet, noticing the subtle and not-so-subtle shift of class and race in half-mile and mile increments. I need to feel part of something larger than myself, need to belong to these new faces and places. I need the familiar interaction and interruption of waiting and walking, of talking and laughing.
These people are my neighbors and I can’t imagine not having the pleasure to experience life with them, to shake hands and wave as I pass the man I’ve come to recognize who lives one street over, walking uphill with his grocery bags as I pedal faster on my bike, carrying mine on my back. I need to keep alive the flame of community that burned so brightly on far away continents in foreign languages and shared embraces.
A bunch of ragamuffins whom I love very, very much.
Teiman, Ghana 2014
Nothing seemed more real than those long, dusty walks through the village, tiny hands holding mine, laughing, pointing, “Madame, look-at!” Nothing made me feel more alive than those cold morning bucket showers, than eating another meal of rice and curry in candlelight because the power went out again. Nothing made me smile wider than the leaky tro-tro ride home, whizzing through palm tree landscapes, leaning away from the drip-dripping bubbling in the windows and collecting on the ceiling. Nothing made me feel more human than the weight of a stranger’s tired head on my shoulder holding a watermelon in my lap, sweating, tired, uncomfortable, happy.
The bus is my new village, taking public transportation a way for me to honor who I became in Ghana, to remember the weight of small bodies shifting and squirming on my back, carrying precious cargo safely home before dark. It’s my way to remember that no, sharing life with others is not always comfortable or easy, but it is so rewarding and necessary. That life isn’t meant to be convenient or rushed, that people are more important than schedules and independence. Not having a car is my way of intentionally placing myself in situations where I depend on others, allowing someone to give me a ride home, borrowing, contributing, learning how to drive a scooter and how to change a bicycle tire.
It is a constant struggle. A smelly, frustrating, awkward, and very inconvenient attempt to stay alive, to be fully human, messily in need of Grace and belonging.
“Ragamuffin! Balderdash! Bollocks!” We use our best fake British accents and laugh like school kids seated next to each other on the school bus. I am reading a book titled “The Ragamuffin Gospel” and he asks me what it’s all about. I look around and try to explain, “We’re all ragamuffins,” I motion. And we are. It’s the late-night bus, the last one home. Seated in the back, we shake our heads and giggle as an older black man and woman debate the latest NFL scandal and the implications of domestic abuse. How much time should he be suspended for, who spit in who’s face? Their arguments are heated, the rest of us perplexed, but entertained.
“Were you on the bus last week when that guy got punched in the face?” I ask. “Oh yeah! Some blood dripped onto my skateboard so I got up and moved.” Larry was his name. Larry had been proposing to his girlfriend on the #10 when I first stepped on, heading downtown for the #12. “Marry me Squishy, marry me!” A squat girl with small round spectacles blushed notably in response to his insistent overtures. Wearing a dark baggy t-shirt, her top half spilled over her short legs, carrying 3-4 times the weight of the lower half of her body. They sat across the bus from each other, his eyes glazed over, focusing vaguely in the general direction of her smile. She sipped on a large styrofoam cup and sssshhhed him, laughing as he gulped back a mouthful of vomit.
I couldn’t help laughing too. After arriving at the terminal, I follow them onto the next bus, sitting in the middle as they move towards the back. A few moments later the passengers start protesting as a fight breaks out and I see a young man responding to Larry’s insults with his body poised for violence. Suddenly, his fist meets Larry‘s nose and he scrambles off the bus before the light turns green. Perturbed and intoxicated, Larry makes his way to the front, complaining to the driver. I scoot over in my seat and motion for him to sit next to me. Offering him my bottle of water, I tell him to take a deep breath and relax. His nose is already swollen, but he is okay. “If you were my girlfriend or wife, you’d want me to fight, right? It would be my duty to protect you!” He mumbles some more and takes a long swig of water. Taking my hand, he kisses it softly and calls me a sweetheart. The man sitting behind us shakes his head and smiles as a calmer Larry moves back to his original seat next to “Squishy” and the tension dissipates.
Is this real life? It’s Saturday night and the boy with the “ah-ha” look, wearing a buttoned down shirt and tennis shoes, is leading me up the stairs and into a hazy bar. Stopping to flash my I.D., I look around at the dressed up, high heeled, hair straightened girls drinking cheap beer and twisting their faces into strange expressions as they belt out the words to Garth Brooks, “I’ve got friends in low places…” I see an older gentleman wearing more American flags than I can count (including one painted on his face), bulging belly held in place by suspenders, smiling goofily next to a petite blonde for a photo. I touch shoulders and bump elbows with strangers as we weave through sweaty bodies singing in unison to songs I’ve never heard, spilling drinks and splashing my feet. Outside in the fresh air, smokers clog the patio, concrete buildings with lights turned on in vacant offices drown out the stars, neon colors blur everything into one. Is this real life? Is this what I’m meant to return to, to settle into?
“You don’t really like bars, do you?” The question catches me off-guard as I shift my gaze distractedly. I notice other young couples, groups of friends sitting around tables, joking, shouting over the noise. Girls flash smiles as they take selfies, photos and statuses are typed into smart phones and uploaded simultaneously. The truth is, I look just like them, chair pulled close, shyly sipping a cold beer as I lean in close to hear above the volume. I don’t know how to answer, what to say, how to explain. I feel out of place. Somehow, in a way that doesn’t yet make sense, riding the bus feels more real, more human than shouting over loud speakers blaring guitar riffs and boot stompin’ lyrics. Is this real life? To whom do I belong? Where do I fit in? Why isn’t it here?
Back on the bus, I wave through the window at the man with the grocery bags whose name I don’t know yet, but whose smile I’m learning to recognize. “We’re neighbors!” I tell him and a spark of familiarity brightens his pale blue eyes. I introduce myself to John, a recovering addict and fellow ragamuffin with an easy drawl, and return the gesture of the disheveled homeless man staring back at me, shrugging my shoulders as I step off the bus and into the pouring rain. In a moment I will be soaked through and through, drenched in Grace, running for the protection of a Jimmy John’s, huddling in the wind while I wait for the storm to pass. I’ll be forced to pause in my rush to arrive on time, forced to observe the sky for signs of reprieve, forced to feel stinging rain drops pelt my face, wet toes wading through puddles. I’ll remember how I used to kick and play and laugh as a little girl, welcoming the thunder, leaning into the misty breeze. I’ll remember how the rain used to bring joy and how my heart learned how to stay warm in the cold. I’ll remember and I’ll feel alive, knowing for me, there’s no other way.
I am a ragamuffin, drawn to the misfits and weirdos, the disabled and homeless like a moth to the flame. I am rough around the edges, a pile of contradictions and mismatched ideals, a wanderer and traveler. For a reason I can’t quite explain, I feel most at home sitting next to the tattooed gang-bangers, the fast food workers, the immigrants. They are my new family, my new village that I am slowly discovering, face by face.
For me, this is real life.Google+