We arrived at the Cotonou airport exactly two weeks ago yesterday. When I stepped off the plane, the warm air hit me as it always does. But this time, along with the heat, I was processing shock over what we’d done: we’d packed our belongings in ten suitcases (excluding a closet’s worth of things in storage) and signed our New York apartment over with no plans of moving back.
Sometimes a long buildup to an event can make it seem less real. The year that we started taking months-long trips to Benin we had just returned to New York from six months of traveling in Africa. We returned to New York in the summer and found ourselves back in Benin in the winter, playing with the idea of moving. And then we were back in New York three months later. I got used to the rhythm of coming and going. Such movement gives the sensation of skidding past any derelict dart of pain over what you’ve missed. We got used to friends recounting missed moments with the phrase “...well you were traveling then” tacked on the end. We asked each other, “Were we here or were we there?” when we wondered why we didn’t make it to some event in either country and then shrugged off the response, replacing the missed moments with some other corresponding memory that seemed like a good proxy: one moment here, for one moment there. Once we’d decided to leave New York, the move was suddenly present, but still not real. It was on the horizon, yes, but horizons aren’t things you actually ever touch.
In the car ride from the airport in the dark of night, I could see the outline of dilapidated buildings, some half built and abandoned. We bounced from side to side as the driver maneuvered potholes filled with rainwater that spanned the width of entire roads. I focused on my excitement, ignoring a voice in my head that said: “Did you really leave your beloved Brooklyn apartment to move to a country that barely has sidewalks?.”
Now that the move is final, there are the concrete moments I sometimes fear missing- birthdays, holidays, and a whole smattering of events that one can never really keep up with in New York anyway. But there are also the other unnameable moments that come without announcement, the ones that carry only the reminder that you are at a distance, missing out on a moment that only people who are your people can share.
During the first few days, I unpacked my things and began setting up the house. I moved a table that I made into my desk to the second bedroom and tore bubble wrap off a hand-painted sign Mat made me years ago: “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely” from Ntozake Shange’s play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” The sign had been on a shelf near the front door of my Brooklyn apartment so I could see it every time I came and went. When I placed it on my new desk in Calavi, it was like a convocation that made me feel both ready to work toward new possibilities and firmly rooted in where I’m from. And then Ntozake Shange died (I found out a day late) and there was no one I knew in the same time zone who’d also loved her, who cherished “For Colored Girls…” for giving them a language to talk about being imperfect black women, yet still whole, hurting but still celebrating.
I had anticipated the far away feeling, grasping in a void for something familiar during significant events. I’d gotten a taste of it during the coming and going, but then again, the feelings usually surfed past me and I compensated. The only other time when the far away feeling didn’t quite pass me by was when a beloved aunt died when I was in Ghana and I couldn’t make it to the funeral. I was lucky to arrive the day after and spend time with my mother cleaning my aunt’s house, sifting through her things. I acquired two sweetgrass baskets (fitting objects to embody the cultural thread between South Carolina and West Africa) and a stack of records for Mat to sort through. Last weekend in Benin, we listened to my aunt’s copy of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Making Love” on the record player that we carried with us, padlocked in foam, from New York. I sat on a terrace handwashing my clothes, thinking of my aunt young and in love, listening to the record, which sounds like Roberta Flack sang it while magically riding a breeze. When my aunt was alive and in sound mind she enjoyed telling me, “The world is your oyster!” to make sure I knew that she was proud of my life’s choices. Sitting in Calavi listening to her record, I knew I hadn’t missed a beat.
Leaving New York is leaving the comforting blanket of anonymity, the ego trip of accessible cultural landmarks, the personal bragging right of living in a city that is the setting of dreams for whole swaths of people. Leaving New York is to leave behind the questioning and rumination that people in New York drip into their veins like glucose, the kind of questioning that once felt like a drug to me. When your home is imprinted upon the collective imagination of only the boldest, most creative, most resilient, most rebellious...there is no coming back. There is no other place like it. I don’t expect that I’ll ever recover. As Joan Didion says in “Goodbye to All That,” her essay about leaving New York: “I was in love with New York. I don’t mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city in the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again.”
The only problem is that I stopped wanting it. I stopped wanting the addictive questioning, I stopped wanting to be asked to pay exorbitant amounts to have a semblance of feeling free. I could see a life where I no longer needed to live in, or be, the center of the universe, or whatever that means.
The house we rent in Benin shares a gate with an elementary school. The man who owns the house runs the school and a few schools around the country. If we wake up at a certain hour, the first sounds we hear are children singing lessons in unison. Next week I will start leading an English language conversation group with the kids. Some evenings Mat and I take walks at sunset and come home to shake the red dirt from our shoes before we prepare dinner. We bring solar lamps that charged during the day to the terrace to set the table for the meal. These are the touchstones of new rhythms.
On the first Friday after we arrived, we found out that Sagbohan Danialou, arguably the most beloved Beninese singer, was performing that night. We bought tickets immediately and thanked our lucky stars that we wouldn’t miss it. Sagbohan Danialou is in his 70s and sings with a band of brass horns, a guitar, a bass, and at least three types of percussion at any moment. He bangs on drums and tells stories as he sings in Goun and French. That night, people of all ages sang along and jumped on stage to dance with him and press bills of money onto his head. I didn’t know any of the words to the songs, but I wrapped the sounds around me like a new blanket and connected to the current running through the crowd. A woman with one leg made her way to the stage and threw down her crutches to balance her weight to jerk her upper body to the rhythm. I watched her occasionally after she returned to her seat, enraptured by the legend that is Sagbohan. After the show, I wished the family sitting next to me a goodnight and we thanked each other, acknowledging the other’s presence in such an unforgettable night.
Feeling far isn’t scary when you think of distance as relative. We are far from the usual touchstones, but we are near so many other things, too. The rhythm is steady, unbroken.