by Rachel Pieh Jones
Dan's Note: I met Rachel at a class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. It was just about the same time I was one year sober. Anyone who has experienced this first year of sobriety knows it can be filled with drama and some pain. However, it can also be a time of re-discovery of the things that give us passion. Reading and writing were two such driving forces in my life. I am deeply indebted to Rachel for our writing friendship. Here, she explores her own transformation going from a jello-eatin', ya-shure-ya-betcha sayin' Minnesotan, to a person living her faith life as a gifted writer and mom in Djibouti, Africa.
Transformation is beautiful, right? Inspiring, motivating, stunning.
Look at the butterfly, purple and golden, translucent blues, intricate designs, the fragile hairs that look like snuggly fuzz. Look at where they came from. Those ugly caterpillars, slouching along tree branches, dull, bland, goofy-looking. How does such a beautiful butterfly come from such a dumpy caterpillar?
Through suffering and destruction.
That’s the part we don’t want to think about. We like the before and after pictures. But what goes on in the middle? That mysterious period when the caterpillar disappears into the cocoon, what is going on in there?
The caterpillar digests itself, turning into liquid mush, goop, soup. I don’t know if this is painful but I imagine it is. If you slice open a cocoon at the right time, liquid will drip out, no longer caterpillar and not yet butterfly.
The path to transformation is fraught with destructive pain.
Did I know this, when I packed up my life in Minnesota and set it down again in the Horn of Africa? I probably did, in theory. But pain isn’t pain in theory and neither is transformation.
It is when you get on that first plane, the one that turns a person into an expatriate, that the transformation begins, like crawling into a cocoon and letting the digestive juices flow.
My husband and 2-year old twins and I moved to Somaliland in 2003 where I peed all over my ankles and pink plastic flip-flops.
Squatty potties in Somaliland were going to take a bit of practice. The Somali language was going to take a bit of practice, too. I used incomplete sentences primarily composed of infinitives and inaccurate, singular nouns. Me to pee shoe.
My husband taught Physics and English at the only functioning university. I did what I did in Minnesota: change diapers, discipline toddlers, dress and feed and entertain two miniature people.
I was a mother, wife, Christian, stay-at-homer. I did these things well, or well enough, and thought I could pack up all that faith and talent and knowledge and confidence and replicate it in Somaliland. My outsides might become draped in scarves and my language might change but my insides – ideas about how to live and believe and love and laugh wouldn’t be affected.
No problem. Except…
“As soon as my feet hit the tarmac in Hargeisa, capitol of the north, as soon as my flimsy headscarf slipped around on my curly blond hair and the twins started crying because they thought the swarming flies were bees and I couldn’t carry them both plus the carry-ons plus keep my hair covered and my attempt at greeting the man at the visa desk (a make-shift counter set up exclusively for us) came out like a whispered croak and there really were guns everywhere and it hit me that I knew exactly three people in the entire country (married to one, practically still attached via umbilical cord to two), I changed.” (reprinted from an essay on Babble)
I was lonely, confused, isolated.
I could no longer hold my husband’s hand in public or even go out with him in public. I tripped over my long dress and over the rocks along the path. I got ripped off in the market, almost every day, and felt ashamed of my failure to speak, failure to bargain, failure to understand. I accidentally insulted people with hand gestures that didn’t translate. I couldn’t cook, couldn’t keep my kids out of the cacti, couldn’t form a complete sentence, couldn’t use the bathroom.
Not long after our arrival was when I peed on my shoes. This was only the first of many peed-on-shoes adventures. I was careful to avoid touching anything in bathrooms because mysterious puddles and brown piles littered the cement floors. Before leaving Minnesota, a professor of linguistics told me I would have to step in shit a million times before becoming fluent and before learning how to thrive in a different culture. I don’t think he meant it quite so literally.
I have been known to strip entirely while using a squatty potty, if the situation calls for it. Balancing over a steamy hole with my clothing rolled up and set on top of my head while holding my breath and hoping no one can see through the widely-spaced wooden slats and trying to ignore thegeckos/flies/cockroaches is not what I would consider having things under control. It is also how I felt much of the time in Somaliland. Welcome to the soupy goop stage of transformation.
Incredibly, inside the cocoon this soup isn’t a jumbled mess. It is organized into planned groups of cells that will eventually turn into wings, eyes, legs, antennae. There is purpose to it, reason behind it, vision of a better future driving the self-digestion process. This is what I hold on to in my expatriate life as more and more of who I was is stripped away, the conviction that the end will be worth it.
Caterpillars are lucky, they sit in their soupy stage approximately four weeks, depending on the species. I think I’m still in mine, almost twelve years after climbing into the cocoon. I suspect I always will be, sitting here in my self-digesting juices. I will cannibalize myself over and over again until the day I die. I hope I do, I hope I don’t stagnate, that I can stand the pain. And I trust that upon my death, I will be given wings.
About the Author
Rachel Pieh Jones
Rachel Pieh Jones is married to Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and has three children (one named, loosely, after Indiana). Raised in the Christian west saying ‘you betcha’ and eating Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Family Fun, and Christianity Today, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
You can also read more about why Rachel moved to Somalia.