Here is the What

I started this blog in 2004 with no explanation as to why I picked the peculiar title that I named this blog. Yesterday, while sitting at 8,000 feet above sea level at minus four degrees Fahrenheit, the blog title came into complete focus. My husband’s family chose to go snowmobiling on this particularly chilly day and I opted to sit inside of the Beaver Creek Lodge and read Blood River, by Tim Butcher, a travel book about the author’s decision to re-enact Henry Morton Stanley’s journey of discovery through the Congo River Basin. Butcher decided to do the trip in 2004 in the midst of the ongoing civil war in the DRC. I chose to read a book about the horrors of a particularly brutal war tinged with the threat of human cannibalism over snowmobiles. That explains precisely why I chose the title to this blog.

I don’t like cold. This is particularly well-documented both in my life and in this blog. But in particular, I very much despise the cold and snow of Utah. I can only explain it in this way. Before moving to Utah for college, my experience with snow was extremely limited. The only experience with snow that I remember with particularity was the day the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded. A freak snow and ice storm had moved through the Southeast and on that day, my family had packed the Buick station wagon and were leaving North Carolina and moving back to Pensacola, Florida. I remember the listening to the excitement of the launch and the devastation its aftermath on public radio and stopping at cold rest areas in Georgia with snow and ice piled on the sidewalks. Having no prior experience with snow, I remember trying to pick some up from off a picnic table. I wasn’t wearing gloves. The snow/ice burned my hands and I wailed for the next twenty minutes in the car until I wasn’t sure if I was crying about the tragedy of the shuttle or my hands.

The next experience that I had with snow didn’t come until I was a freshman living in Provo, Utah. After a few clumsy slips and falls, I remembered that precise feeling of distrust that I had for that frozen precipitation. Snow seemed to magnify my insecurities and remind me of all of my clumsiness and awkwardness. It so happened to mirror the annual feelings of doubt that I felt about myself every time of year the first snows rolled around. Inevitably, as the temperature grew increasingly frigid I found myself looking to external sources for warmth. Quite sure that I was only looking for something only frivolous and fun (because after all, the only thing that I know to do when it is cold outside is to kiss someone), every year I would would look for someone to casually kiss. By February or March, my plan had inevitably backfired and I was left feeling sad and lonely because the boy that I found to kiss didn’t think of me as anything more significant than someone just to kiss. Meanwhile, in contrast, I realized that I couldn’t just kiss someone without it meaning something. April rolled around, and in Utah it was still snowing. I needed an out, and it was still snowing.

My sophomore year the boy’s name was Ben and we had absolutely nothing in common. I took him to the symphony and he slept through Mahler. Yet, all he had to do was insert my name in a Beastie Boys song in just the right place and I was hooked. Shockingly, I knew this would go nowhere, but the night before I left for East Africa, I was still sad and crying because he fell asleep on his couch as I was telling him goodbye.

Enter Zanzibar. It was warm. I flirted with cute British boys and danced with Harvard business school grads blowing thousands on a big trip through Africa. I danced on deserted beaches and over the course of the summer, completely forgot about Ben. But it was more than just forgetting about Ben. That summer, I was able to sense the person that I wanted to become for the first time in my life. Sure I still wanted to be well-read, emotionally intense and interesting, but I also knew for the first time how much I wanted to be in the world and do something for it. It was the first time that I understood that life was about more than the sum total of my own heartbreaks. I could walk the streets of Stonetown at night alone, but not feel like a stranger in a strange land. In this far away place with an exotic name, I felt keenly like I was at home. That warm, humid, alive feeling that I cultivated in Zanzibar was what I wanted to feel everyday.

When I returned home at the end of the summer, that feeling soon faded and I was up to my old patterns again. But since then, there have always been moments when I have felt Zanzibar. Sometimes, when I least expect it, I feel Zanzibar. When I do, it is that feeling of warm. Usually, it is accompanied by the realization that someone other than myself is real and that I have the ability to bring some good in someone else’s life. Other times it is the realization that someone else has brought something good into my life. My insides feel warm and I feel like I am dancing on some deserted white sandy beach with sand so fine that it is like flour between my toes.

So that is why I read books of the Congo instead of enjoying the snow. I don’t enjoy the snow. This isn’t to say all of my time in the snows of Utah were sad. Quite the contrary. I have so many happy memories, and in retrospect, even the sad ones make me laugh and smile now because I love the people with whom I shared those memories. However, I don’t enjoy the self-pity that I bathed in when I wallowed for six months out of the year in the snows at the time when I lived in Utah. I don’t like remembering myself as such a self-absorbed person. Instead, I want to feel Zanzibar.

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