Monday, May 13, 2013

Out of Africa: International Travel as a Metaphor for Heaven

I hope that dying feels like jetlag.

My childhood beliefs about heaven seem, well, childish. One challenge of being raised in a Christian home, exposed to Bible stories from a very young age, is that those early teachings don't all age well. My ideas about death and the afterlife and the mysteries of heaven are all tangled up with cartoony images of gold streets, pearly gates, angels with enormous wings, raucous choirs, and new heavenly bodies replacing broken down earthly bodies.

When I picture my mom passing from this life into whatever comes next, the best version of death I can imagine is a wonky circadian rhythm.

In the spring of 2004, days after I graduated from Western Washington University with a teaching certificate and an English major, I left the country. It was a trip that had been years in the making. Every ounce of my anticipation, determination, and motivation to take that last round of finals and complete my student teaching was all directed toward one place: East Africa. I had volunteered to be a chaperone with the African Children's Choir and traveled by myself to meet the kids and fellow chaperones I would spend the next two years with.

I vividly remember my first morning in Uganda.

My flight landed at the Entebbe airport before the sun was up. I walked down the airstairs onto the tarmac in a daze, followed my fellow passengers toward the small, single-story building, and fumbled through my bag until I found my Visa. Two members of the choir's parent organization picked me up and drove me to Makindye, one of the hills in the capital city of Kampala. When I arrived at the guest house where the children still slept, I was shown to my room and promptly fell asleep.

When I woke up several hours later, the sun was bright through the screen-less window. Mosquito netting billowed around the edges of my borrowed twin bed as a gentle breeze filled the room with the smell of wood fires and cooking rice. I could hear the happy chatter of children in a language I didn't recognize. Birds sang in the lush trees surrounding the house, hidden by banana leaves and other unfamiliar foliage. I looked down from my second story window and saw the children I had come to teach, busily performing their morning chores; sweeping the front porch with a broom made of branches, washing clothes in small plastic basins, arranging shoes and flip flops neatly at the entrance of the house.

My cramped seat on the plane was a distant memory. The kink in my neck loosened as I got my bearings. I couldn't get downstairs fast enough to meet all of my children.

I never could have predicted the beautiful place I found myself. My former imaginings seemed ridiculous and two-dimensional. Before going there, I thought all of Africa was brown and dry. Once I arrived, I found myself in a colorful oasis, surrounded by red dirt, bright green vegetation, and blue skies. The sun definitely felt closer on the equator, especially after a rain storm.

Nothing prior to that moment, in a new location and time zone, was any less valuable. Everything about my new reality in time and space put all that came before it into perspective.

This is why I worked so hard in school. 
This is why I packed as much luggage as I did.
This is why I brought a top-of-the-line digital camera.
These are the people I have so much to learn from.

My wish for my mom is a similar awakening. I hope that dying is just the necessary doorway to unimaginable journeys.