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Upon Returning

THE return was not easy. I felt as though two months earlier I'd been photographed in a place called home, had cut myself out of the photo, gone on a long journey, and left behind a silhouette of absence.

Upon returning I found photo and silhouette still intact. The empty space appeared to have been reserved and preserved for me, and everyone quite expected me to slip into it. Daily my environment tempted me to prune, squeeze, and trim myself so I could fit comfortably into my old slot. And daily, something inside me fought such repetition, feeling it would make a dream of my journey, dust of my treasure.

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The journey had been through small West African villages. One path in this journey led to Faoune, a tiny peasant village in the Casamance of southern Senegal. A walk through Faoune is a sequence of smiles. Its inhabitants have no price tag on joy for their delight is not based on things. It is rooted in a rare quality of family and togetherness. Happiness is freely given and easily replenished; it is abundant, as natural as Faoune's perpetual sun.

The people of Faoune have simplified life - or more accurately, they've refused to complicate it. What they live is essence: a concentrated richness with no luxurious distractions. Their homes stand noble, clean and lean, circular, grass-thatched with walls of woven bamboo strips. Water doesn't run and electricity doesn't generate: a hand-dug well provides water for cooking, washing, and gardening, and kerosene lamps supply what little light is demanded. During my visit the moon was so fat with light th at we used a lamp only once.

In Faoune you don't eat a meal, you share one. There are no forks or spoons to separate you from your food, and no individual plates to detach people from one another. Meals are all one-dish style, and that dish is usually a huge bowl filled with millet or rice and some type of sauce.

A family and its usual quota of unannounced visitors encircle this bowl and eat with their hands. Little is spoken: eyes meet in silence; hands bump often; the feeling of being together permeates every mouthful.

Sharing one bowl, people are not guilty of the waste typical of "individual platehood." Each eats what she or he wants, no more. As for garbage, it isn't. What is not eaten is used for the next meal or fed to the animals. There are no empty cans, bags, paper, and no dirty dishes other than the main serving dish and the pot used for cooking. Cleanup is brief and enables a prompt transfer outside for the evening's entertainment: talking with one another.

As I journeyed through this contented society, the turn to tranquility came naturally. Like a snake who unthinkingly moves out of his old skin, I easily shed layers of lifestyle, cloaks of custom. Yet, once back at my takeoff point - once home - I found all those layers waiting to enfold me again as though someone who feared change had trailed after me, picked up each discarded skin, and brought it home to reclothe me upon my return.

My first week home, I felt trapped between two cultures - as though I stood with one foot in West Africa and the other in Boston, Massachusetts; I had difficulty in determining which was real. Africa appeared distant, but felt familiar; home appeared close, but felt strange. Each time I picked up a fork or the phone, switched on a light or a faucet, I felt awkward. By the middle of the second week I picked up and switched on more easily, but felt strangely guilty, as if I were betraying a secret trust o f simplicity. I angrily sensed that I was being reabsorbed into my old lifestyle.

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Before leaving West Africa I had feared that, once home, my treasure of uncluttered living would die like some exotic bird plucked from its native habitat; so I'd taken precautions: I'd bought a calabash (a large gourd bowl) for communal dining; I'd learned to prepare African meals, I'd bought long pieces of cloth for "wrap-around and tuck" clothing, and had taken many photographs of contented people. I'd thought that by retaining my African habits - by dressing, speaking, and eating as I had for seven weeks - I could preserve my new sense of inner calm. But once home, all these precautions seemed like foolish and ineffective efforts to capture culture with artifacts and gestures.

ONE evening last week, friends and I sat on the carpeted floor of my apartment, eating with our hands out of my calabash. I quite imagined I was serving them Africa itself, and not just tcheboudiene, which is rice and fish. But as we ate I realized how wrong I was: Everyone talked during the meal; everyone spilled; everyone ignored the imaginary but firm territorial rights within the bowl. It wasn't the same. Holding up a lifestyle and saying, "Look how I lived during the past two months," was doing lit tle to preserve my tone of tranquility. I suddenly realized that the question I needed to ask was not, "Do I prefer eating with my hand out of a common bowl to eating with a fork off an individual plate?" Instead I needed to demand, "What changes have been kindled in me? How can they best be expressed here?"

Since that meal I've sensed, bit by bit, that I can't translate West Africa's tranquility into mere habits of life. Perhaps the habits are merely symbols of an interior spirit of simplicity which can be expressed in countless ways, anywhere, in any cultural ambiance.

Certainly the people of West Africa and their culture opened my eyes and filled me with calm in a way I've never experienced before. But if it is to last, I don't think my tranquility can be contingent upon their lifestyle, or any other, for all lifestyle is subject to change.

It occurs to me that no matter how deep or thick a tradition is, it is still only an outer shell - a house; and within that house sits the home, the heart of aspiration, the place where simple tranquility and all other gifts of the spirit originate, take root, and grow. It's not really a question of "which lifestyle?" but of "which values?" and these values produce a continuing evolution of style, never fixed, always original.

I'm finding my own lifestyle now, and in doing so I'm discovering that the coming home has been as important as the going. I expect there will be some local traditions I will continue to decline, but that will be because of a new sense within, not because I've selected lifestyle over another. I may pick up a fork, but that won't mean I've put down the serenity of the people who eat with their hands.

Sometimes I will eat with my hands. Always I will remember the gift of awakened simplicity and inner peace.

This essay was first printed in the Aug. 16, 1977, Monitor.

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