Sunday, February 24, 2013


I love yoga’s tree pose. From the clear mind it requires to its hip stretching potential, holding tree connects me to my practice more deeply. It involves: choosing a non moving focal point and concentrating your gaze there, placing the sole of one foot on the thigh of the other leg so that you’re balancing with the grounded foot, and pressing the knee of the elevated leg back such that your hip opens without your torso turning. Also, you should be able to lift the toes of both feet from their respective positions to prevent yourself from gripping instead of balancing. That last bit is what still throws me off sometimes, turning my graceful tree into a timber pile. It seems so much easier to grab hold than to trust clarity to come, to exert energy versus letting go. I’m learning more and more though, that when one relaxes, opens their mind, and becomes fully present, balance comes.
For my first few months in Tandjouare, I clung to what I perceived as my identity like a scared child would to their security blanket. If I relented, and changed who I was to fit in, I thought I'd be sacrificing some essential part of who I am. As though the man I’d become could be erased and replaced with someone I no longer knew. I introduced myself as Matthew to everyone I met and treated the local name I’d chosen, Kombat, as a joke. I refused to wear pagne, the brightly colored and patterned local fabric popular among Togolese, and rocked my American clothing at local functions. I preferred speaking in broken French for all interactions, despite it being their colonial language and one I barely felt comfortable in, instead of even attempting Moba. It felt as though I was still the same American me, albeit a much less satisfied version. The work required to copy and paste Minneapolis Matt onto Togo was taking its toil and I was often unhappy, grasping at every chance for a taste of my America. Misery made me grip memories so hard, they began to lose their meaning. And then, I let go.

If everything in the present is constantly compared with the past, especially that which has passed under very different circumstances, it may never measure up. If you live in the moment however, relax and let the new introduce you to unexpected people and places, I think you’ll find joy in what comes your way. It took me four months to realize that my Togolese life will never equal my American existence by the standards I carried over, but that, when taken on its own with an open perspective, it offers as much or more fulfillment than anything else I’ve experienced. By waking up every day and truly trying to integrate, be it through language, clothes, or deed, I haven’t lost anything about who I was. Instead, I’ve become someone better: more adaptable, more empathetic, more pragmatic, stronger. As I’ve opened up, the world’s reacted in turn. My first few outreach projects have been successful, and more work opportunities are presenting themselves. I’ve become closer friends with other volunteers and people in my community, so I’m never without someone local to share experiences with. The days are passing much faster, and I often recall a favorite saying of my first grade teacher, "Little by little the days go by, short if you sing through them, long if you sigh." I’m delighted to be here, and excited to see what the next year and a half will bring.

Focus straight ahead, through the window and on the cement courtyard outside. Left leg lifted and pressing into right thigh, hip open without a torso shift. Morning sunlight bathing the room and sweat, glistening, drops from body to floor. Finally, no toes touching Earth, hands at heart center, and balance on the ball of the right. There’s no wind today and my tree could stand for ages if allowed. It’s growing, enriched by each African day’s unknown potential.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Day Dreams

Under trucks parked on the highway. Sprawled across benches lining city streets. Face first in merch bowls and boxes. Regardless of the location, many Togolese enjoy taking an afternoon nap. The practice forms an inescapable part of life in their West African nation: many businesses incorporate an afternoon closure into their operations, students receive several hours to return home in between morning and afternoon classes, and farmers come in from the fields to eat, drink, and doze. Commonly called siesta in much of the world, after Spain’s traditional daytime sleep, the practice of napping around midday is prominent in many tropical countries like Togo. Culturally, it offers a chance to relax, reconnect with family over a meal, and avoid the sun’s hottest peak. Physically, research has shown that napping is an innate response to internal pressure and has health benefits. As mainstream American culture begins to adopt its own version of the siesta, Togo may be a dream example of repose done right.

Morning’s well underway, but you’re still lying in bed wearing last night’s clothes. There’s obviously been little reason to move and you’ve no intentions of letting another sunny metropolitan day rush past. Your best friend walks in the room, gives you a push, and announces that more productive people need to get moving. Breakfast is ready before you are. You yell at him to save some eggs, and he takes off mocking you as you throw a pillow and leap up in pursuit. It’s the beginning of a youthful day in the city, with no plans, but brimming with the energy of the streets you hear outside.

          A person’s sleep timing is governed by two biological factors: homeostatic sleep propensity and the circadian rhythms. The former is the need for sleep as dictated by the time passed since one’s last rest, and its pressure begins to build after waking. The latter determines the best time for restorative rest based on an individual’s average sleep schedule, thereby creating an awakening drive to negate homeostatic pressure. In most adults, the circadian system sends out wakefulness signals from the late afternoon to a few hours before their typical evening bedtime. Because there’s a gap with pent up pressure prior to the circadian override arriving, the body’s response is to sleep the strain away. That early afternoon imbalance, coupled with the fluctuating levels of glucose brought on by lunch, helps to explain how effortless it can be to nod off in the middle of a busy day. And the intelligence of establishing the early afternoon hours as a cultural repose, a la Togo.

           It’s pouring rain and all you can think is, “why on Earth did I decide to go for a drive?” The streets of your college town are familiar but, in this deluge, they become an alien blur behind the smeared windshield. Whatever day was breaking through the clouds has since waned; the world surrounding you is deep blue, black, and grey.  You advance through a stoplight sitting close to the wheel, as though proximity will help the situation. Suddenly, your world and the water slow to a crawl: the wiper’s stroke brings brief clarity and the image of a bulldozer parked dead ahead. It’s too late to brake completely and buildings block a swerve, all you can do is move back in the seat, cross your arms over your face, and begin to mouth a scream that never quite escapes.

           Faced with natural pressure and modern stress, many Americans are discovering afternoon sleep’s value. Their common version, termed the “power nap” by Cornell social psychologist James Maas, typically lasts between five and thirty minutes and is aimed at maximizing sleep’s benefits when time is scarce. Because starting a full sleep cycle and leaving it incomplete can cause disorientation and further fatigue, the power nap ends before the average person would enter deeper rest. This approach’s advantages include improved vigor, focus, and learning ability after the nap, all without the initial grogginess a longer siesta can encourage. Though, studies show, napping for one to two hours often creates more long lasting improvements following the initial confusion. In the end, whether one is able to power nap the American way or leisurely repose like the Togolese, naps, both short and long, can be revitalizing. With scientists from NASA to Harvard publishing on daytime sleep’s benefits, there’s little reason not to curl up midday and drift away.

           You’re lying in bed with your first love, their arm wrapped around your body as a warm light envelopes the room. You both look older than when you were last together, time never lets either ex – lover go, but the flush colors of a freshman summer seem rekindled on your faces. Their embrace firms and a whisper dances across your heart, “All those days apart, I never stopped needing you.” You reply that those days, our days as they were then, are still the best you’ve ever known. Tearing up, blissfully, your eyes and theirs close, in sync.
          A loud alarm and you’re awake: alone in bed, wrapped in sheets and sweating through. You shut your eyes and longingly reach for the unreal. For that time, in that bed, with them. Animal sounds outside the window cement you in the now. There’s only this moment, with its sticky heat and pigs rooting through dry fields. You stumble out of bed and open the door: afternoon light rushes in to fill the emptiness. Neighbors amble past on the trail outside, likely in the same half awake state. It’s dusty and relentlessly hot; another Togo day is half done and calling its Americans. You’re increasingly put together, undeniably restored post – repose, but you can’t help feeling wistful for what you never had. You look forward to tomorrow, when you’ll steal time after lunch to slip into subconsciousness. There’s no map to where dreams may lead then.