Concrete Jungle

Part One: The Commentator

When people learn I lived in Kenya for two years, they often ask me, “What was it like?”

For a while, I found it nearly impossible to answer this question. But I’ve gradually whittled down an answer that is fairly succinct: I tell people what it was like to walk around town. “The ironic thing,” I say, at the end of my little spiel, “is that in America, the only way to recreate the kind of community you have in a Kenyan village is to live in the most crowded city you can find.”

This is all to say that this place…

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… is the reason I live in this place.

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I went to Kenya in large part because I was trying to figure out how to live. And in fact, my two years in Kajiado did indeed help me figure that out.

In Kajiado, when I walked out of my house and headed to town, particularly on market days, I met dozens of other people who were doing the same thing. Everyone ran errands on foot, so everyone maintained regular face-to-face contact with a large number of family members, friends, acquaintances, and random people. This struck me then, and continues to strike me, as a very good way for people to live. In America, lawns, cars, air-conditioning, television, and internet reduce random human contact to an absolute minimum. We make up for this by spending hours a day on Facebook, where each of us is the mayor of a personal village stripped of all function except socializing.

The Feed is just a village market where you can run into anyone you know, but you can’t buy avocados.

But human contact isn’t the only reason I live where I do. There is something the city offers that I could not find in my Kenyan village, and that you will not find in any other small village. I’m talking about art, of course, saturating levels of it, propulsive densities of creativity inspiring more creativity. I’m convinced that to witness the fullest flourish of the human spirit, you have to live in the city. Something in the city produces a compulsion to express our existence. You see this in cultural venues of course—museums, theatres, concert halls—but the expressions are everywhere, once you start looking for them: anonymous attempts to assert meaning in places so manifestly utilitarian any meaning outside their intended purpose usually seems impossible. The city, any city, is a vast and grungy constellation of words.

I remember taking a class on Homer when I was an undergrad. The Greeks lived in a world whose explanations were written in the stars. They had no reason to stand around in parking lots wondering about the meaning of it all. Everything they needed to know was coded in the constellations; shouted by the god of thunder; garbled by the god of wine; murmured by the Naiads in each stream, who fell in love with fishermen and ruined their lives; whispered by dryads in every tree, lucky to live out their few hundred years without being raped by a demi-god.

But for most of my life I could only see a few fuzzy stars at night, and the only voices I ever heard were the ones in my own head. Those were less like rustling leaves or murmuring streams and more like a play-by-play announcer and his color partner: terrified of dead air, critical of every play, questioning every decision. I recently read an interview with Jill Bolte Taylor (who gave a legendary TED Talk about having a stroke) in which she explained this voice succinctly: “You know that little voice. You wake up in the morning and the first thing your brain says is, Oh man the sun is shining.”

My commentator only shut up when I was reading. For this reason, I took a book wherever I went (something grownups mocked me for then, and that I feel vindicated about now whenever I see someone whip out an iPhone to kill a few minutes). The books all told the same story: of a coherent character making well-defined decisions to achieve a clear purpose in a world of stark consequences. If the consequences didn’t involve dragons, androids, or assassinations, the stories were called “realism.” This made me think they must be an accurate representation of real life. I decided I would go out and find my own real life as soon as I had the opportunity. I already knew exactly how I would do it.

When I was six, my grandfather became a Peace Corps Medical Officer and moved with my Grandmother to Sierra Leone. I’d decided after their first trip back to the U.S. that joining the Peace Corps and going to Africa would be how I found my own real life. And this is why, at age 23, I found myself living in the house of Mama Naomi. She had lost her husband in a matatu accident and was putting her four children through school with her salary as an elementary school teacher and the milk money from her three cows. Every morning before dawn I woke to the smell of eucalyptus branches burning in Mama’s hearth, where she was heating my bathwater and boiling milk for chai.

We lived in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains, a place that uncannily resembled the medieval England of my storybooks—Robin HoodThe White Company, and The Black Arrow.

But being on an adventure in the landscape of my storybooks wasn’t enough to shut up the voices. I remember one particular evening, when I went with Mama to visit a neighbor. Here you are, remarked my commentator, with everything you hoped for, walking with someone cheerful and loving in a beautiful place. Here are the footpaths, meadows, fields, streams, distant mountains, and stone houses lit by lamplight you read about. So why aren’t you happy? Because the question could be asked, I was sure there must be an answer. Mama Naomi couldn’t give me the happiness I wanted, clearly I needed something, or someone, else. Not a mama, a girlfriend. Or maybe just to be alone.

When our ten weeks of training ended, I swore an oath to defend the constitution of the United States then traveled to Kajiado, in the semi-arid savanna of southern Kenya, where I would live alone for two years. Every evening, I took a long walk. Sometimes I saw another figure in the distance.

Usually I didn’t.

On the savanna, I felt more alone than I ever had. Yet I was never alone. The commentator managed to make itself more present than anything I ever witnessed on my walks. It lost the unruffled cadence of a commentator and became the chatter of a stand-up comic, desperately trying to put together the right words that would rouse the invisible audience and make the dark theatre come alive. I was both the vast and silent theatre and the man under the lights, dying up there.

But I was gaining a more sophisticated understanding of happiness. It was not just a thing you possessed, it was a state of being. I read the Dalai Lama. Clear-headedness became the thing I desperately wanted: a single calm voice that I could silence at will. I knew I was an incoherent character, a confused bundle of voices and longings. But if I could only put the right words on the world, tell the proper story to myself, I could have that thing that permeated every book I’d ever read, that sense of meaning. I wrote for hours at my kitchen table, trying to work out in my journal the exact way of thinking about the world that would show me who I was, and how I should be, and release me from the agony of not understanding the point of it all.

I read Emerson. I didn’t make it much past “Nature,” but the first image in that essay crystallized my longing to appreciate the stuff of my life: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!”

I had never seen stars like the stars of Kajiado. At three thousand feet on the edge of the Rift Valley, the air was cold at night and dry. The Southern Cross was pinned to the horizon; the Milky Way poured from one horizon to the other; the moon, when it was full, illuminated everything: I could see the boulders on the Enkorika Hills as clearly as I could on the brightest days. When the moon was full, I could cross the wasteland that lay between the town and the school where I lived. I could visit my friends in town after dark. This, having friends, had become very important. It hadn’t occurred to me that happiness could be something as ordinary as having friends. But the longer I stayed in Kajiado, the more relationships I built with my students, my fellow teachers, the women in the market, and the people who lived out on the savanna, the less I heard from the commentator. Instead of compulsively writing about “happiness,” I began writing about the people I met and the things they said, about the odd little corner of the planet we inhabited together, why it was the way it was, and how it worked.

I came home seven years ago thinking I knew what I needed. But after a year in Stevens Square, the most crowded city neighborhood I could find, I’m not sure anymore. The words I find written all over the city still delight me, but they also remind me of what words cannot capture, that ineffable and permeating thing. Nothing I can buy with my city salary is more beautiful than the stars above the savanna, and no lock or alarm can make me feel safer than a full moon over Kajiado. No matter how great it is to run into my neighbors in parks, alleys, buses, shops, and restaurants, there’s something greater, grander, that I used to feel on the savanna. I’m much happier now. I’ve forgotten exactly what the loneliness felt like, and the abiding unhappiness I felt for so many years, but my happiness is riddled with what I haven’t forgotten: the grand feeling that I could only  get at in writing by describing how the light hit the clouds, that I’ve tried to capture in this essay by posting picture after picture of the savanna, that I can’t make palpable to you, or to myself anymore.

I know I’m going to have to leave the city. I’m going to move to some rural county where the roads are dangerous for biking, my nearest neighbor is a fifteen-minute drive away, and if I want to encounter anyone I’ll have to join the old men drinking coffee at the diner, or the Shoney’s, or the Wal-Mart or wherever else the old men drink coffee at seven a.m. in whatever redneck town Liz and I end up in. Because what mattered most about Kajiado wasn’t that I could turn left and walk into town, it was that I could turn right and walk into the wilderness and walk and walk and walk  before I had to turn around.

This is the first in a four-part essay.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.