Olivia Dawson, 129 YinD
Last night, I tried to explain that I was hoping to go ice skating to grandmother Frog in about three weeks, the sun was setting, and I used my messy Thai to explain. There is a lot of ice on the ground. You put on the special shoes. And then…I was sliding around her tiles, while her daughter-in-law laughed at me. I no longer have any shame in looking silly anymore – the sacrifice of communication these days. Meanwhile, grandfather was blessing the house, dipping leaves in water and spritzing the house in quick wrist motions, his motorcycle, the cabinets, and us, with water. I felt blessed miming ice skating, being flicked with blessing water, droplets landing on my cheeks. I laughed at my life in the way that I knew this small, deeply warm moment would soon be a memory in five months time and you were in the back of mind as you always are.
Three weeks ago, my neighbor down the street gave birth and everyone kept asking me if I was going to the spa. Confused, thinking, “what spa… ?! I would know about a spa?” They told me after dinner to shower, and get into my pa-seem. It’s a thin cloth tube, that functions as a modest towel, skirt, dress, comfy-clothes hybrid. I did as I was told. Stars were out that night, as I walked with my neighbor and the neighborhood kiddos down the street to the spa. I was still confused about this spa. All the women and children from the houses around had gathered in their shower clothes. A small hut, covered in layers of fabric and plastic to trap the steam had been rented for the new mother to heal after her birth. A space for her to recuperate even. A bench sat inside the covered dome and the steam had been infused with herbs. The air was filled with everything you would hope, an essential oil diffuser has the power to disperse but can’t. Women and children went into the heat in pairs, exclaiming at the temperature each time. I sat in the structure three times, each time being aware of the height and size of my body, each time the neighborhood children yelling-asking me if it was hot inside. “Of course it is, you were just in here, silly munchkins.” The more mischievous of the little ones were pulling back the damp cloth curtain and letting the medicinal vapors disappear into the night, and a wiry smile spread across my face in that moment. When I was done after my three rounds, I sat on a cinder block, in my pa-seem, listened to my neighbors chit chat in their pa-seems, and watched the steam escape. I wished you could see what the intimacy of this moment was or at least see the image of me in that messy, familial moment.
A year and a half ago, every neighborhood had to learn Phu Thai traditional dances for the upcoming rocket festival. All the women and children in my neighborhood gathered in front of one of the village leader’s houses and danced for three hours every night. Music would blast loudly down the street and there was no way you could go about your business and not hear it. By then I was living alone so it took some nerve to show up and join the circle, mimic movements I was not innately given the grace to mimic. Each night for a month the music would play and people would gather, as the night passed on I could see thunder clouds in the distance. I could see the flashes, the cracks far off as I danced in circles fighting cultural exhaustion. I wanted to share this with you, see me dancing, eyebrows furrowed in concentration, as lighting and thunder rolled in.
Early in my service, a group of kids showed up at my house on a Sunday afternoon to play games as they do. I was tired, in need of snacks, needed to leave the house, pry myself from the allure of Netflix. I was also bummed because the youth group hadn’t shown up to their meeting on Sunday afternoons in a while. As such, I felt unproductive, uneffective, and like I was personally failing this community as a volunteer. Sometimes a few skipped meetings has the power to emotionally level me – still. I asked if we could bike to the market two kilometers away instead of me showing that I was grumpy during a round of UNO. I would buy snacks, I promised. We all got on our bikes and began winding our ways through the streets. One boy started singing, “Que Sera Sera” completely unprompted and then the rest of the pack joined in. They sang it for the most of the way while my eyes got teary. I had not expected to be hit with that very apt, somewhat cosmic zinger. I knew that you would have sung along, unabashedly and so I sang too. You would have been proud.
I stand on the side of the road sometimes waiting to cross the busy highway running through the community and I see a student’s familiar face, a smile, hands cupped together to form a wai, whip by on a motorcycle. I hear the echoes of my name shouted by students from the trees, bushes, houses as I bike home everyday. I will miss the pockets of students huddled around wifi hotspots. I will miss the grandmother’s waves and shouts to come eat. The lubbering golden retrievers with painted on eyebrows who know me by now. You do not know these patterns, you do not know my rituals. I have made a whole life myself here, a whole messy intimate life. I will miss this, but I also miss you.
You have visited, and stared down some livestock on the side of the road with me. I have shared the same space as you for two, two week periods during this 23 month stretch of time. This is to say, I miss you when I cook and it’s not just because you always did the dishes when we lived together and even when we didn’t. I miss coming home to you very simply and I miss the mundane patterns we made around each other for the years prior to me becoming a peace corps volunteer. I miss my patterns being your patterns because now my patterns are a whole village’s. The cafe lady knows I come every Thursday during lunch. She knows I’ll be disappointed if there’s no boba pearls. The evening market sellers know I like my sweet potatoes and my pork skewers. The mother at the restaurant knows I like extra holly basil in my dishes. Despite this intimacy, I miss you in these connective moments, these grounding moments, these successful moments, these messy moments.
You learned a lot about my life during that trip, witnessed my particular brand of chaos. I mistakenly wandered off and left you alone with one of the community’s resident grandmothers who had stopped by my house to say hello one morning. By the time I came back you were eating whole minnows and smiling through this wise old woman encouraging, no demanding, you to eat. I know how you feel about fish and I felt this sort of surge of pride watching you nod along to her talking to you. You took small, careful, methodical, intentional bites. You didn’t understand her but it didn’t matter. You had accepted her kindness and you accepted the ambiguity of the interaction. I watched for an opportunity to jump in, felt the warmth of you fitting into my new life, my new patterns for a few minutes.
You visited about four months ago with your family … we got lucky with how supportive a team they are. We have gone a nine month stretch, then a seven month stretch, and then another nine months between seeing each other. This most recent goodbye was distinctly different in tone since everything was steeped in the plans to come. Soon you will be in graduate school, and soon I will be there to rearrange all the art on the walls. Soon you will show me all the magic of our hand-me-down slow cooker and soon I will figure out a job in the same geographical location. Soon we will travel and find even more art to hang on our walls. Soon.
Nine months passes between us saying goodbye at the airport in DC and me seeing you again that first time. I was super anxious that we had somehow managed to become completely different people in those months and I verbalized this anxiety for weeks leading up to your visit. “What if I am a completely different person?” I asked this over and over in an indulgent way that makes me look back with a slight grimace. You were strangely, oppositely not worried about this. You seemed to know that all it would take was some pizza and a nature documentary for everything to make sense again. To be fair, you seemed different too, like a dude who knows his way around the frozen food section of Trader Joes and doesn’t subsist off take out. Like a dude who had a job and an apartment and was in his early twenties in a super-healthy-stable-way. I looked at you in that moment and asked myself how in the world we had gotten here? Each with our own particular mundanity, each with a two year gap in shared knowledge about the minutate of our day to day lives.
Soon we will be home together for the first time in 27 months but soon I will miss these moments here.