Song of the Traveler

Music is my first language; it’s how I understand and relate to the world. When I listen to music, I feel things I can’t describe in words. The sounds, the blending of notes, encapsulates and pulls at emotion better than any language.

Each place that’s influenced me, each important event, is marked in my mind with a song. It’s a song that we played over and over again to get us through dark times. Or, it’s a song we sang at the top of our lungs while driving, dancing, running, hiking, whatever. Still, to this day, I can listen to these songs and sing along without getting tired of them.

There’s only a handful of songs that do that for me.

But I couldn’t find that song in Madagascar. I don’t know why. I’ve listened to dozens of great songs, and learned a handful, but nothing pulled at that part of my heart where words don’t reach. That one song that is imprinted in my heart was somehow missing…

…and I’m wondering now if it made me feel somehow less than settled here. Or maybe I couldn’t find that song because I wasn’t settled. Nervous, anxious, couldn’t relax, couldn’t let music speak to me. Couldn’t put my roots down. I had this honest, angry thought that maybe I just don’t belong in a small village of Malagasy people…because I’ll never be Malagasy. No matter how good my language is, how much I dress or eat or act like the locals, I will never be one of them.

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And then, just recently, it hit me like lightning: Well obviously. I can never erase my skin or my face or my heritage, or rewrite my past, or will myself into being born in another part of the world instead.

But what I can do is learn, and try, and allow that learning to inform my behavior, my thoughts, and my responses (I almost said reactions, but I’m working on responding rather than reacting.) I’m still me; I’m still Melanie. I’ve been Melanie all along. Only, now, I’m Melanie who speaks Malagasy and sometimes braids her hair and dresses in colorful clothing and understands a little more about a little part of the world.

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Which brings me to this song: this beautiful, Malagasy folk song by two singers written and performed by two musicians from the East Coast of Madagascar: Mika and Davis. The lyrics, roughly summarized, are as follows:

How are you all? It’s so good to see you. What’s up? What’s new with you all?

There’s nothing new here. Our health is good.

There’s not a lot we’re bringing with us. We’re looking for goodness, we’re looking for happiness, we’re looking for wonder, we’re looking for love, we’re looking for things that will make us happy.  That’s what brought us here…

There’s nothing to make us sad. And there’s nothing that should make us fight.  But we missed you all, so we came to visit.

–Oh, it’s good to miss people. Thank you for visiting.

We’re happy to be here. We’re full of happiness to see you. We’re so happy to be with you.

I can’t stop listening to this song. Watching the music video, that little part in the depth of my heart came alive again and told my brain this simple lesson: You can belong to people who aren’t like you. That’s what makes friendship real. True friendship, the kind Malagasy call “havana,” meaning family from different blood, means that ‘I see your difference, I enjoy it, I learn from it, I appreciate it, and I accept you with it. With all of it.’ That is what this song means to me.

And that’s what this journey has been for me…me seeing my blaring difference, feeling like a white-bellied fish laid out on the ice in a grocery store, yet people saying to me, “just be here with us.”

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Home

It’s that time of year again.

Yes, it’s spring time, and somewhere outside of Bangkok there are flowers blooming. But the time I’m referring to is decision time. Transition time.

I have always associated the months of March, April and May with stress, stress, stress. As a student, this is crunch time: exams, final projects, papers, recitals, formals, etc. etc. etc.

But on top of that, at the end of spring comes the highly anticipated yet simultaneously dreaded summer break, which we are taught must be for furthering our still kind of amorphous career aspirations. Get an internship! Volunteer! Go abroad! Then come with just enough time to kiss your family and head back to school.

Man, I’m glad that’s over…

Except, here it is again, nearing the end of March, and it’s my decision time again.

Do I stay in Bangkok?

Do I stay in Thailand?

Do I go home?

I admit that, as thoughts of summer time pools and hugging my dogs fill my mind, I get so overwhelmed that I want to pack my bags right now and hop on the first plane to Tennessee.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

I’m not exactly homesick, or even nostalgic. I’m just trying to find my place. Sometimes, I think home is my only place.

I thought about home, and what it means to different people. A line from the Hobbit [movie, unfortunately] popped into my head as a young Bilbo Baggins admits to his courageous friends “I do miss home. I miss my books. And my armchair.”

I feel ya, Bilbo.

Everyone around me is soaring off on grand adventures and making wild summer plans, and I just want to go home. Not because I’m lonely, or unhappy, or disappointed. I just love home.

Yet the word “home” also stirs up something else in my mind: a popular song by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, bearing the same name. When I studied abroad in Israel a few years ago, this song became our anthem; not only because we were young students half way around the world, but because home, in Israel, is a contested thing, not always permanent, and often transitory.

I struggled with homesickness a lot in Israel, and my close friend and counselor reminded me of the lyrics of this song:

Ahh, home
Let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

He doesn’t say “home is a two story brick house in Mississippi with a front porch swing and a lot of dust bunnies.”

Anyone who’s moved a lot can tell you that a home is much, much more than the infrastructure; it’s the people.

And though my biological family isn’t in Bangkok, God has given me many satellite families. He has a way of bringing everything together in ways that are impossible by ourselves.

With men, this is impossible.
But with God, all things are possible.
Matthew 19:26

I’ve been blessed with many friends and new family members who, like me, have uprooted themselves and replanted in a crazy new country. A very wise friend  reminded me recently that “lemongrass and celery plants” can regrow in a new pot one they are uprooted and replanted.

Maybe this is us, she thinks. Uproot, replant, grow. This is the transition time, which comes from the decisions we make that we may never be completely confident in. But somehow, God keeps giving us soil, water, and sunlight. We just have to have faith.