Gone Home – Reversing Polarity

Fact of the day: the earth’s geomagnetic fields sometimes change direction. It’s true. The current geological powers-that-be haven’t quite figured out what causes it, but it does happen. If it changed this year (which is unlikely) and any of you in the US decided to use a hand-bearing compass to go find the cool volcano in Iceland (even less likely), you would end up passing South Africa on your way to Antarctica. Yes, north becomes south and south becomes north. This only happens every few hundred thousand years though – not often enough for any of us to be worried about missing Iceland. In the grander scale of Earth’s history however, it seems to be a fairly regular occurrence.

Transfer to the world of the Dunehopper: the poles have been reversed … and it’s not the first time. In fact, now that I have stopped to consider the evidence, I think it’s happened quite often in the life of Lillis. What is she talking about?

One month ago I was a student, living on a boat, farther north than I had ever been before, and disconnected from my normal technological forms of communication (I had no phone or computer.) I lived in three sets of clothes and two pairs of shoes. The space I shared with my three fellow-students – living, eating, working, sleeping – was no bigger than my living room. We sailed through a world that felt free: a place in which we did not need locks or fences and we got to choose a new view every night. Our social world consisted only of each other – ten strangers thrown together by a common choice. The sounds around us: water and wind, speed boats and tugs, eagles, otters, and harbour seals. And I only needed my mother tongue.

One month later I am a teacher, living in an apartment, just south of the equator, connected in all ways deemed necessary by modern society. I have a closet full of options in a spacious apartment that I do not have to share. The world around me is not free – locks, bars, walls, gates, security guards and car alarms define all the edges. My social options are many – teacher-friends, church-friends, choir-friends, visiting-friends, friends-of-friends, neighbor-friends – and I get to choose which ones to hang out with when. It’s noisy: cars/trucks/matatu horns, neighbors, dogs, ibis birds (very loud), dance music from Indian wedding party happening in the community center next door, the hammering of construction workers working on apartments next door (on the other side) … no water sounds for miles. And I need more than English to navigate this world comfortably.

The poles of my life have thus been reversed. What was up is now down, what was north is now south. But the reversal this time has been much easier than I expected. Much easier too than previous reversals. This world is at least familiar – I know what to expect and how to move through it. And this is where I will drift a moment from the specific circumstances of coming back to Nairobi after a month in British Columbia. I am starting to think of cultural adjustment as a bit like reversing polarity. When you get to a new place, you go through a strange, destabilized phase in which it’s hard to tell which ways is which. What’s north and what’s south? Which way do those magnetic lines run? It takes a little time for those poles to settle into place and for the grain of life to be pulled in a recognizable direction.

Back to Nairobi – life has quickly settled back into a recognizable pattern. The school year is off to a fantastic, if hectic start. I’m teaching three sections of fifth-grade music again and the kids are wonderful. Night-and-day difference to the challenging group I had last year. I teach more than 5th grade though. There are 23 kids signed up for my high school choir and 25 in each of my middle school choirs. My IB music class is going to gear up to take the big exam this year – very exciting. On top of it all, I’ve taken on the Yearbook class! What have I gotten myself into? We’ll find out. As for extra-curriculars, I will be helping with the musical “Once Upon A Mattress,” sponsoring the high school Habitat club, and coaching an acapella ensemble before school. I’m still singing in the Nairobi Chamber Chorus. We performed at a wedding yesterday and we’ve got a full-on concert in three weeks. Fun times all round! What could make it better? Visitors! My awesome cousin Brian has been here for a couple weeks and it’s been an excellent time.

So come visit – karibuni sana! My door is open to you.

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