My footsteps–fast, faster, frantic, almost–echoed in the dim concrete stairwell. Though I knew I had to reach the top, the sight of the nearest landing tempted me to slow. Stop. Surrender. But even before I fully conceived the rebuke, I felt it: If you stop, it’s true that you aren’t good enough. You better keep going.
I obeyed, regretting that I ran because of, rather than away from, that taunt. I soon reached my summit, grateful that the stairwell was only three stories high. I began to pace the open air hallway to recover, my steps slow. Hands on hips, I deliberately pushed and pulled oxygen out of and into my lungs. When I inhaled, the dirt and sand in the air constricted my throat, and rattled around in my chest like sawdust.
Even at dawn, hazy heat cloaked the Nigerian air. Its thickness made everything seem groggy, though this empty school building would soon be energized with the presence of children: darting, singing, whirling, shrieking. I had only been staying with the Sisters of Notre Dame and volunteering at their nursery and primary school for a few weeks, but I had already assimilated to the rhythms of the school day. The singsong chants of the students when they lined up for morning assembly. The clank of the rusted hubcap that announced lunchtime. The screech of the gate at day’s end as the kids stampeded to freedom. These sounds had become hands on the clock of my days.
I smiled at the depth of my affection for this place, and its people. How effortlessly, how thoroughly, I already valued these near-strangers. A bold question knocked at my consciousness: Could I possibly begin, finally, to value myself?
Something within me slammed. Stop that. You don’t deserve to value yourself. Why would you think you do?
Even my endorphins felt feeble. When I reached the end of the hallway, I trudged down the stairs that just moments ago, I had sprinted up. It was only then that I noticed the faded handmade sign taped to the wall.
We turned off our flashlights as we entered the dining room, where candlelight waltzed across the blackness. My fellow volunteer, Malika, and I sat among the nuns.
“Sisters,” an affable postulate, Christy, greeted us. “You are welcome.”
We had not discerned if the nuns called us “Sister” out of habit, or because Nigerians often address one another in familial terms, but Malika and I had quickly adjusted to this title. “Daalu, Christy,” Malika said brightly.
Meanwhile, from every direction, we heard praise for mangoes, which had recently come back into season. “Chai! I loved to eat mango again today, Sister!” Julie said. “I put mango in my mouth and mmmmm. Thank God, oh.”
“Eh-hehhhhh. When mango season come, Harmattan go!” Caroline pushed her arm to the side emphatically, as if trying to shove the entire dry season as far away as possible.
“Oooooo, do we have mangoes?” Malika, often more outgoing than I, asked.
The Sisters nodded with near reverence. “We do,” Helena, a British nun, said. “I believe Happiness has some for our dessert.”
I recalled again something Malika had mentioned the day before–“I’ve gone down a belt loop since we’ve been here”–and wondered if eating even mango as dessert would prevent me from going down a belt loop, too. Can’t you do anything right? Everyone is better than you.
I closed my eyes just as Helena suggested, “Shall we pray?”
As the Sisters murmured grace, I soundlessly offered my own thanks. Candlelit dinners. Bucket showers. Dusty dawns. I felt unworthy to live here, to serve here, and expressed gratitude at this opportunity.
At the heel of my prayer, subtle surprise surfaced. “I haven’t actually felt selfish for being here–at least, not yet,” I mused, almost as a question to God: But I should. Why haven’t I?
Then, robust trills pierced the room just as shooting stars would the night sky. My eyes opened to the sight of Theresa and Ifeoma, two other Sisters who lived in the convent, dancing and singing their way through the doorway. They paraded into the room like a pair of skipping stones, clapping and spinning as they bounced around our tables.
As I witnessed these women spontaneously exalt life, I wanted to drop to my knees in beatitude.
Instead, I whooped with delight.
I didn’t mean to–I couldn’t help myself–but I began to binge on blessings in Nigeria. They were simple: laughter, frequent; music, inescapable; community, unassuming. They were everyday, and every day, they immersed me in a new lifestyle. Here struggles were not shackles, but spectacles: tools to make marveling easier. I began to understand the buoyancy of a people so burdened.
But my blessings had always warped into shackles. You don’t deserve that. Or that. You’re not good enough to receive such gifts.
You have so much that is wrong with you. How do you end up with what is right? Other people, more worthy people, should have it. Not you.
You need to change. Now.
Stop being who you are.
I didn’t know how to feel grateful without feeling guilty. I wrote to a friend, seeking guidance.
“It’s like I want to vomit out those disgusting parts of me so there’s room for better stuff in there.” Hopefully he would say what I needed to hear.
He never wrote back.
I wandered from the bedroom I shared with Malika to the kitchen, and passed Caroline, perched, strangely, on a stool in the sunny courtyard.
“Hello, Sister!” I crooned the standard greeting. I wanted to ask what she was doing, but didn’t. In fact, I barely listened to her response—until she repeated herself.
“You look gorgeous. I can just see it in your energy. Beautiful, very beautiful.”
At her words, I slowed. Stopped. Celebrated. My spirit had not rejected her praise.
Clouds, like the tendrils of smoke that meander from the Sisters’ frankincense, brooded in the sky. I noticed them listlessly, as I had not slept well the night before. Because I was too tired for my morning work-out, I wrote instead.
“Something is wrong and it–I–can’t just stay broken,” I began. Moments of the previous night’s dream plodded into my consciousness: I had been with my dad and brothers, and we were using bricks to build something. A foundation, maybe?
“Ever since I first arrived in Nigeria, I’ve been particularly haunted by my feelings about myself–more than any other time in my life,” I continued. “I believe that I’m meant to, that I can, change this year. I have so many reasons to change. I have to.”
I felt shackles quietly unlock. My vision sharpened.
“I’m going to change. I’m going to do whatever it takes to start loving myself.”
Sta-cca-to. In a nation of song, this was one we had not yet heard.
From our separate beds, Malika and I glanced at one another, our books already forgotten. We waited.
Again. Sta-cca-to. Something was landing lightly on the convent’s tin roof.
I articulated our hope. “Is that rain?”
Malika nodded, clambering to her feet. I threw down my book and joined her at the window, where perfect, precious beads slipped from the sky. I plucked mismatched flip-flops off the floor and, squealing, we glided to the courtyard.
The raindrops were so sparse I could count each one as it graced my skin, but Malika and I persisted in rejoicing. We knew to honor the rain’s return as the father did his prodigal son’s. We skipped and sang our welcome, and thunder growled its thanks. Cool air caressed our flailing limbs. I laughed as sandy pearls splashed my face.
We watched, waited, whirled, as the sky ripened. The rainfall crescendoed into a deluge, and Malika and I relished the symphony of the storm. Listening to the downpour collide with the earth, I imagined nature singing us her favorite lullaby. Our wet clothes grasping at us, we danced to the serenade. Buckets in hand, Ifeoma and Helena scurried from their rooms to collect water. Holy.
Remembering that morning’s clouds, I reached high into the rain they now released, grateful for new seasons.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes, runs, and photographs in Baltimore, MD. Her work has appeared in The Three Quarter Review, elephant journal, and 20 Something Magazine. She hopes her severe case of wanderlust never fades.