Friday, October 17, 2014

The Day I Learned to Read

18th Oct 2014

During my free time in Rwanda— when I’m not teaching, playing with kiddos, greeting my neighbors, or drinking copious amounts of fresh milk and tea (which is about one part tea and ninety-nine parts fresh milk)— I often read.  Actually, I’ve been reading obsessively.  I made a pact with myself that, upon college graduation, I would immediately trade my textbooks for the literature I’d never found time to read, that I would breed myself into a well-read adult, that I would not let my reading muscle go unused and get flabby.  

So far, I’ve held fast to my promise with force.  First of all, I packed far more books than I should have; my carry-on suitcase is a portable library of about thirty books, and I’ll use a Kindle for more.  I’ve made lists of hundreds of classic books to read, and lists of recommendations from professors and well-read friends.  And I’ve been reading every morning when I wake up, most evenings before I sleep, and usually some long chunk in between.  Certainly, reading has been an escape from the exhaustion of teaching around eighty toddlers and from stumbling through the simplest of conversations with townsfolk and from being the object of endless staring.  But to say that it is only an escape is a poor excuse for my habits.  Here’s my public confession: I’m unhealthily addicted to reading.

I say my addiction is unhealthy because I’ve reflected that most times when I sit down at my desk to read, it’s not been so much because I’m deeply immersed in the book; but because I’m eager for the satisfaction of checking another book of the list, of saying I’ve read such-and-such book, of adding to my list of conquests and silly little achievements— of slowly constructing, for my own dignity’s sake, another element of an Identity to make myself feel accomplished.  And ironically, the result is that I sometimes don’t truly read the books: I exhaust hours as my eyes scan over the words, but my mind is not fully open to savor them.  I often catch myself and correct myself, but it’s a whole lot more trouble than it would be if it weren’t for two of my general personal flaws (or qualities that sometimes harm me): 
1. my tendency to towards the checklists of achievements (Examples: having been to so many countries, read so many books, seen so many good movies, tasted so many weird foods, climbed so many mountains); and
2. my concern for time and pace, and a tendency to hurry (Examples: knowing exactly how long I spend reading and how pages I’ve read, and devouring meals in five or ten minutes).

Perhaps it seems a silly problem, but I think it has sometimes inhibited me from living fully into the community here— which, to me, is a big problem.  But yesterday, as I was struggling through the middle chapters of Walden by Henry David Thoreau and counting the pages until I’d finish the chapter, I found a solution.  

I decided, after spending too much time for one day reading by myself, to go outside.  My neighbor kids (ages two through four) charged at me and we played in the grass.  We were then surrounded by one hundred kids (not exaggerating) walking home from the Catholic school across the street, and we performed Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.  Then I retreated to the more private backside of the house, where I chatted with Martin and several neighbors as the sun set.  In none of those experiences did I really “do” or “accomplish” anything, in the sense that we seem to depend on in America; rather, I just was.  I was, with people— an action that is not means to an end, but rather an end in and of itself.  

The solution was to join the rhythm of Rukira— the rhythm of being together.  It is a rhythm without concern for the time that has passed; and a rhythm with no aim or purpose but to enjoy the time together, the blue of the sky, and the softness of the grass.  It’s the same rhythm by which Thoreau spent entire days watching the sun rising and observing interlacing streams of melted snow and ants battling in the dirt and listening to the moonlight serenades of loons and owls, and reveling in every little bit of it.  It’s a rhythm that comes so naturally to these people, but which I must practice; and a rhythm that, when I can follow it, becomes a catharsis— the peace which comes from the experienced promise that the good stuff in life can’t be checked off a list or completed in hours and minutes.

I returned to Walden after I’d stayed a while with the neighbors behind Martin’s house, with my mind newly clear and relaxed.  I wasn’t concerned with the time, or the last page, or the list of Books I’ve Read.  And I really read the ending— comprehended it, savored it, enjoyed it.  Once I’d finished, I looked at the watch, and discovered I’d also read at a faster pace.  In all ways, I read more effectively.  

Who would have thought that a group of toddlers and adults who can’t afford books would teach me to read?  I have discovered once more how very much more I have to learn from these people than I could ever teach them.  Moreover, I have experienced that, when I’m struggling with a problem privately (i.e. reading), the remedy is often as simple as re-entering community.   That is not to say that I will give up alone time and reading time altogether (moderation is key); rather, I think that time spent together, rich in and of itself, also enriches time spent alone.

I’m going to change the sub-caption of my blog: “Where Luke can’t help but turn every experience into introspection! TA-DAAAA!”  I think it fits nicely.


  1. Africa is a good fit for you, my friend. This was really fun to read (about reading), and I love hearing about all your adventures! Love you, cousin!