the peace of mangos

'emirembe ya miyembe' i say to Ivan,
who swings from a fruited mango tree
in the timeless summer of Uganda,
sticky green orb in hand.

i am not talking with him: i am under a blanket
in wintry Colorado, an ocean, a continent,
two hemispheres and the world's economy apart,
knowing that this is mango season.
imagining these african orphans i love
rolling ripe mangoes under palm til they juice,
biting a hole in the top to suck them dry--
swinging from trees, hanging fifty feet up the canopy
to toss the ripest to waiting hands below,
each day dispersing in little bands to find fruit,
to pick bare the closest trees, promising fruits
to those who have stayed behind, never as fresh
as those moments from the trees, sticky-sweet.
no need for worry now about how many beans, how much posho
each plate will get: the yellow bar is open.

this is the peace of mangoes, emirembe ya miyembe,
for which i am longing, just a piece--
alone instead, at home, dreaming of Africa.


nothing short of a miracle, maybe: my fifteen-minute anchor

busyness. if i had to write life in the US in five words, this would be one of them: busyness. the bane of our existence, the bill of our subsistence, the heart of our existential angst. cell-phone-ringing-running-to-the-car-twelve-minutes-to-get-there-and-things-im-forgetting busyness.

it's something i learned to live without, to really mentally exorcise, during my time in Uganda. no more: like people with jobs and children or events to go to or hobbies to do or TV shows to watch or people whose jobs are so tedious/unpleasant that all the non-job time is needed just to recharge, i have joined the Great Stream of American Busy. my busyness is grad school, which makes few claims on my scheduled time, and massive claims--if i am to do it well--on my unscheduled time. that is, i only actually need to be in school about ten hours a week: five hours of classes, three hours helping a professor teach, two hours of office time. that's it. the real demand is reading--i probably spent 50 hours a week reading this semester, and the balance of time was synthesizing what i'd read into papers for class. and the insignificant balance of that time was spent doing the things i wanted, like spending time with others, or spending time with myself doing nothing in particular.

as the semester goes on, this balance of time lists increasingly one-sided--until the couple of weeks last month in which there was no balance, and i gave up all pretense of preserving it. life was work. read, write, read some more. revise and write again. can you believe i blew off my own mother and gave only a day to a friend who'd flown all the from Japan to see me? forget about balancing priorities. all this culminated in a 25-page research paper on Uganda, and a 15-minute presentation to be given in front of 100 people or so, these two projects being the only grades in the class.

the paper is more or less done. the presentation i gave today: tenth in line out of fifteen or so, i foolishly sat in the first row, presentation on my mind, and watched everyone else get up stressed and nervous and deliver their sweated-over 15 minutes of infamy. i was in the front row, as close as i could possibly be to them, and the nervous energy was palpable. i wasn't actually worried about my presentation until other people started giving theirs, but hearing the stress in their voices, the nervous ways their eyes darted, the strained looks people next to me were giving their presentation notes, i started to feel it, physically, painfully. my shoulders tightened. my chest condensed. my heart beat a tighter beat. in a few minutes i went from unearthily relaxed about this large part of my grade, based on a brief performance, to a flaming stress ball.

let me back up: there's a reason i'd made it that far with unearthily calm. i'm sure, having talked to the rest of the students in the class, i was the only one like that. this is because i made a promise to myself, just as the worst of the unbalanced all-work-and-no-play time was getting over a couple weeks ago, to give myself one concentrated dose of do-nothing time every day, to try and balance the weight of so-much-to-do time that grad school seems to be. i started meditating.

not much: i know what a realistic promise is, know what i'm capable of. i said fifteen minutes, told myself i could find at least fifteen minutes every day to sit down and do nothing but notice my breath going in and out. and that fifteen minutes of awareness would be my anchor in the other sixteen hours and forty-five minutes of headless-chickenness.

so it was: i calmed down about my giant research paper, made a plan to finish it as best i could in the time remaining, and did. same for the readings i was doing meanwhile, same for writing the presentation script and making the powerpoint. obviously, there wasn't enough time to do it perfectly, there was too much to cover. stepping back and taking a breather, i could see accepting that lack of time would be better than stressing over my inability to either create time or clone myself to get more work done. so i sat down, wrote out the presentation, refined it, made the powerpoint, had a nice evening with friends practicing and critiquing each others' work, and then i was done, stress-free. nothing short of a miracle, maybe, judging by the anxiety my friends were experiencing today. i even found a couple hours last night, as i should have been making final stresses and revisions to my presentation, to sew part of a quilt and listen to my intoxicated friend talk about his parents' relationship growing up. life is good.

good, that is, until i finally caught the the Flaming Hot Potato Stress Ball we were tossing back and forth in the front rows of the auditorium. what if i screwed up my presentation? what if my mouth got dry, i ran the powerpoint wrong, what if what i'd written was dumb, i went over time, was way under time, talked too fast, too slow, too quiet, clammed up, flabbergasted, failed?

presenters switched, my time grew nearer, shoulders tenser, chest harder. my heart was beating sulfur instead of blood, achey and ready to ignite any moment. meditation has made me aware enough of myself and my body that i sat there feeling myself get this way, tense up, not wanting to, like a child on a rollercoaster i suddenly decide i don't want to be on, barreling down a rickety wooden track. overriding in my mind was not the thought that this would all be over soon, or that everyone else was feeling the same, but just that this was bad for me, that i didn't want to feel this way, didn't want one ounce more stress in my body than absolutely had to be there. after all, i have to live in this body, be it, for a long time still.

so i took a breath. not a quick, busy one--a nice, deep breath, as though i was sitting at home in a quiet room during my fifteen minutes of concentrated-nothing time. that was a fantasy--i wasn't at home, i was minutes away from standing up in front of my professors and peers and trying to sound intelligent with my mind aflame and chest asqueeze. i took another breath, still pretending i was peaceful, staring at the woodwork on the bottom of the lecturn, and another one, slowly, deeply. and then i wasn't pretending anymore: i literally sat there and felt my heart slip out of double-time, my shoulders unknot, my chest unwind, breathing deep, breathing slow. i managed to sit for a minute or two, calm again, and actually hear what the presenter was saying. then i'd notice the tension creeping up again, and remember to breathe, and gently unwind the intensity.

this is my fifteen-minute miracle: knowing how to breathe. that's all i had to do to calm all that anxiety. don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy, the stress came back each time my mind wandered, and i'd have to remember to breathe again, but basically i got all those straps of anxiety to uncinch and fall off with some simple breathing. when it was my turn to get up, i got up, said my piece, pushed the buttons at the appropriate times, and didn't once flub my lines. i delivered the message it'd been so important to me to send, took some questions, and got a nice round of applause as the next speaker got up, nerves sparking fire.

this was the fifteen-minute miracle everybody else saw: my presentation. i didn't think it had been that good, or bad, but afterwards i got lots of sincere compliments, some from peers that really mattered to me: they thought it'd been good. a couple told me it'd been the best of the day. to them, maybe the miracle was how calm i'd been on stage, or how i'd managed to get enough sleep the night before, or to put together my talk that well with all the other work we've had on our plates.

i know the miracle was simpler than that: it was breathing. knowing how to stay calm enough to not get overwhelmed by all of it, and just do what had to be done the best i could. and so this is my way of living in the Busyness of our great United States: to make sure i balance the Hectic with the Fundamentally Non-Hectic, and better yet make non-busyness part of my business, so that it never gets overwhelming in the first place. because being busy is good, if you're doing something worthwhile. but the second you're getting stressed out to do it, mistreating yourself and probably others in the process, is it still worthwhile to do?

no. that kind of busyness needs a miracle. good thing we are one, and capable of more.