I've always felt I never quite fit in. I am colorful and eccentric. My admirers call me inspirational, a creative free spirit. My detractors call me crazy. I look on life's duties as stage acts requiring appropriate costumes -- the corporate costume, the church costume, the gym costume -- and appropriate role-playing, which I never could quite master. No matter how hard I try to hide it, at some point a seam in the costume rips open and Myself pokes out, generally to mixed reviews.
The adventures of my life have taken me all over the world, into a variety of cultures and religions, and deep into the past, with my writing. I stride from century to century, from civilization to civilization, with a feeling of great exhilaration. Medical care and civil rights aside, I feel that I would be happier living in the past, a time of greater beauty in dress and architecture, with time to think undisturbed by electronic beeping.
I have this thing about beeping. It's a kind of Chinese water torture. My refrigerator beeps when it's not completely closed. My microwave beeps when the food is done and keeps beeping. My husband's laptop beeps as it's shutting down, which takes some time. He has not one but two cell phones that beep and chirp and twitter and jiggle, sometimes at the same time and towards each other in a kind of mating dance. I am afraid that one night, when we are not looking, these phones will have phone sex and spawn more beeping electronic devices to drive me insane. I have violent fantasies of taking a heavy mallet to all the beeping, tweeting, annoying, noise-making electronic devices and smashing them back into silent molecules.
People are usually so excited when a new cell phone-radio-camera-television-dishwasher comes out. They wait in line for hours as if it's the Second Coming of Christ. I am baffled by this fascination with beeping things. All I want to do is sit under a tree and read something and think. And you wonder why I feel I don't fit into this society?
Imagine my shock when I find myself married to a man with FOUR children (How did this happen?) living in a lovely white wealthy suburb with no culture other than the PTA, Boy Scout meetings, and Little League games. (What is a white suburban housewife costume like? I don't OWN anything that looks like what the other women wear. My stepkids won't let me wear my feathered velvet hat and floor-length leopardskin coat to their sporting events.)
The white suburban culture doesn't allow for much individuality and frowns on eccentricity. It insists you buy a Sherman tank to ferry all the kids around to games, blocking the view of all drivers behind you and defecating carbon monoxide proudly into the suburban air. It advises you to slap on a bumper sticker that states smugly, My child is smarter than yours. It tells you it is okay to yell at the referees at the Little League games. Sometimes I sit there wincing in real pain.
Looking around the bleachers, I think, Help! I have landed on Mars and need to get out of here! Or maybe I'm the Martian and these are the normal people. Either way it's not good. ET phone home.
This year my business took me to Cameroon to work on a promotional project with the government. It was my first Sub-Saharan journey, and it was less organized and well-kempt than most of the US. But I have never experienced such genuine warmth, friendliness and hospitality. And imagine this -- the women wear what look to us like evening gowns to the office! At nine A.M. there they are, on their way to work, wearing robes of chiffon and silk and printed cotton with stunning head wraps and loads of jewelry.
In Africa you don't dress to fit in to some cookie-cutter boring asexual suburban look. You dress to look good. No matter what you wear at any time of day, if you look good, you will get compliments and applause. Men wear dignified robes of various colors with intricate embroidery. This is a place with less judgment for those who are a bit different, and more appreciation for individuality.
A couple of months after my return, I met five Cameroonian Fons, or kings, at an embassy party. They invited me to their Fons Council, which I attended, and they made me their Yah or queen. A large part of the Council's work is to raise money for their villages back home -- money to send kids to school who would otherwise grow up pasturing goats. Money to bring fresh water to town. It is very strange that I am the only white person and the only woman on a council made up of African men. I should feel that I don't belong, but instead I feel completely at home. More at home than at the Little League right up the street, with people who look like me but wear variations of Hefty trash bags and yell at referees.
African kingship is painfully hierarchical. Where you sit has great import. If an important visitor joins the meeting, someone of less importance will be kicked out of his chair near the kings so the more important visitor can take it. But for all the hierarchy, everyone, even the least in status, is respected, honored, and thanked for what they bring to the group. Everyone is given the chance to speak. Everyone is acknowledged. I have never experienced this in meetings of white people.
I am delighted because after nearly half a century on this earth, I feel that I have found a place where I truly belong and am valued. I don't have to be a loner, trailblazing through life in eccentric costumes all by myself, leaving a perplexing mixture of criticism and applause in my wake. It's strange for a person who has spent much of her life studying, visiting, and writing about Europe. But now Europe leaves me cold.
I am much happier now that I have become an African.