Congo Reflections Part 4: Coasting In Silence

David Law flew me back to Wembo Nyama. I was 14 and had spent four weeks away from my family. I needed a break from them, and everyone knew it.

The last straw was the night I smacked my little sister with a steel bowl, right on top of her head. At five, she was prone to running about naked, which embarrassed me, especially since we lived in a fish bowl. I mean that, at night, in one of the few houses with electric lights, it was not unusual to realize that neighborhood children’s eyes were peering in the windows. They were only naturally curious, wondering what these whites did at night in their closed-door, brick and tin-roof house, without a grasp of any social taboo of going to see for themselves. Seeing my sister, the nudist, in all her blonde Caucasian glory. As if we needed more reason for people to gawk. I was angry, peerless and alone, culture-shocked, stressed, dealing with my sister’s exhibitionism so my concern about the “paparazzi” was too much to bear, and I thumped her with a bowl and it sounded like a gong. And of course she cried quite a bit.

So they sent me to stay with the Laws for a while. A half-hour flight or so, in a single-prop Cessna to a different mission station. Take a break. Grow up a bit. Get some perspective. Stop fighting with dad. Socialize with some other Westerners.  Go for hour-long runs on the savanna where I could focus on my breathing and watch the occasional dung-beetle who also had to deal with his crap every day as he rolled his treasures across the same dry plateau; it was a chance to think only about as much as the beetle was thinking. I fell in love with running. It was one foot in front of the other, thoughtfulness without the need for a specific idea. You got your second wind, found your pace, and coasted along the dirt track in silence and slid back into the house unnoticed, sweating out my toxic anxieties in the process.

Before I went to stay with the Laws, I was going a little bit crazy, maybe a bit beyond the tolerances of normal adolescence. ‘Maybe’, I say, because even in retrospect, I realize that I only grew up once, and it happened to be in the middle of Zaire. So how would I know for sure if I was beyond my own ability to cope with being 14 in any way worse than it might have been in Illinois, on a strawberry farm where I knew the difference between fruit and weeds? But I’m pretty sure the added stress meant I was not coping as well as I might have in the States.

At the end of my retreat, as we flew back into Wembo, David said over the noise of the engine, “Check this out. I can cut the engine and we can glide the last two miles to the strip. Nobody will hear us coming.” Usually the arrival of an airplane was a major deal. Hundreds of people would show up at the strip to gawk at the plane, welcome strangers or say goodbye, help out with luggage somehow, hoping for a tip. To surprise my parents by walking in the door without anyone in town noticing, I liked this idea very much.

He cut the engine and turned the Cessna into a hang glider. The wings would bear us up just long enough to reach the strip and coast to the end. We began to lose altitude. I might have been afraid we’d crash, but my pilot was confident. The air rushed by, our velocity kept us moving forward, and all was still. A half-dozen noticed us coming, but there wasn’t the usual dozen-times-a-dozen spectators as we rolled down the last bit of clay airstrip, touching down like an ace at Wimbledon in that hush of the serve, just before the audience erupts in applause.

It’s significant for a person like me, who likes the bright lights of a stage, to have that desire to walk unnoticed. Coasting in silence on the outskirts of Wembo taught me that the ability to be at peace, and, at the same time, to be unnoticed while falling out of the sky, is a valuable art. That’s what I like about the riskiness of coaching someone – I can turn off the engine that drives my own decision-making process and let the wings of listening interact with the air of my client’s living and breathing and let them land on their own runway — or take off for jungles and oceans, all successes unknown.