Riding the Wave

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I must start by berating myself a little. I have let this blog slip out from under me. I cannot believe how much time has past since the last post. If I’m being honest – as busy as I was – I could have made time for it, but at a certain point once I had missed so much to write about, I didn’t know how to pick it back up. Being an ETA is an experience in equal parts exhilarating and exhausting – physically, mentally, emotionally, professionally, and spiritually. I wish I had spent more time in the moment reflecting on it as it happened, but as I assimilated into the depths of living here, it seemed counter-intuitive to try and step out of it for even a brief time. Now that it’s rapidly reaching its end, I have more liberty to look back on the experiences of this year both individually and as a whole. Expect more blog posts in the months to come, even after I have returned to America.

I am currently in the throes of my final two weeks of school. Because of the always-frustrating Malaysian school calendar, these two weeks are split by a week-long break for the Indian festival of Deepavali (also known as Diwali in some communities). Even more aggravating: my final week at Semesra aligns with the students’ final exams, which means my last classes are happening this week instead. The emotional impact of this is pretty complex. My inner grief at saying goodbye to my students is coming in direct conflict with the not-insignificant length of time I still have left with them. Saying goodbye to each class this week has felt very odd with the knowledge that I will still see them several more times before my true farewell on 27 October.

The best analogy I can think of for this sensation comes from my March trip to Bali. At Dreamland Beach on our last day, shortly after lunchtime, the waves started to get pretty ferocious. Adventure-seekers that we are, my friends and I continued to “ride” them in spite of their increasing strength. After maybe half an hour, I turned around to see the biggest wave I have ever encountered cresting right above my head. In that moment, there was nothing I could do to escape it. I gasped for breath just in time as Mama Nature threw me under and tossed my body around like limp pasta. As the waves retreated, my consciousness hanging on by a thread, I felt myself getting dragged along the bottom of the sandy floor. I managed to plant my feet down and pull myself up just in time. I stepped out of the water and collapsed in a beach chair, savoring each breath. I probably looked terribly out of shape, but those terrifying moments below the surface were a marathon in their own right.

Flash forward. This week has felt like my moment of stark realization as I laid eyes upon the mini-tsunami usurping the skies above me. I have just enough time in this moment to gasp for air and brace myself for impact. The coming weeks, full of lasts and goodbyes, will invariably throw me for a loop. Still, there is no use in crying just yet. I have no real control over these dwindling days. I merely have to ride along and wait for the ground to find me so I can stand up, stagger away and finally give myself a moment to breathe.

This is especially hard given the absolute butt-load of work I still have on my plate. Grad school applications are a virtually never-ending exercise in patience and uncomfortable self-promotion. Additionally, I was humbled to be asked to make an end-of-year video compilation for MACEE of all the ETAs’ work from this year, but with 98 peoples’ photos to wrangle, that’s a hefty challenge. I also volunteered to put a video together for my state’s final presentation and was tasked with collecting Superlatives for my state-mates. I still have to plan large portions of my post-grant travel to Europe, a two-hour lesson for all the Form 3 students and end-of-year gifts to give the teachers at my school. In the midst of all of this, I am trying to savor every last minute: visiting my last pasar malams; saying goodbye to my favorite places in Kampung Gajah, Sungai Ranggam, Kampar and Teluk Intan; giving my guitar to Azamy; hosting a camping night at Imza with Clay for six of my Form 5 boys and six of his Form 3 boys; helping at “Hari Suka Negara” – National Sports Day; attending Muiz’s graduation ceremony; experiencing Deepavali with Mr. Poobalan; going fishing one more time with Cikgu Abu; visiting the home of my school’s kantin family; finishing my MACEE paperwork; packing up; cleaning my house; buying some last-minute souvenirs; and still finding time just to smile every day… and all of this in just two weeks. Maybe you get some sense of why this cresting wave has rendered me momentarily numb.

This numbness has led to some uncomfortable situations with Ros. I understand that she wants to make the most of the time she has left with me, but while I feel certain that I will see Ros again someday, I cannot say the same for the students. Ros and I will maintain contact, but for the vast majority (if not all) of the 340 kids at my school, October 27 will be our official last goodbye, and that’s weighing heavily on my heart. While Ros and I love each other unconditionally, our anxieties are very incompatible and in many ways I think we will have a happier relationship once we do not have to see each other every single day. I suppose that’s true for most people – absence makes the heart grow fonder after all – but for the time being, her constant reminders of how little time I have left are chafing against my own internal emotional struggles. I don’t need reminders. I know it’s coming. It’s just too hard to internalize.

Yet, whether I like it or not, the flood of emotions is quickly approaching – saying goodbye to both my Malaysian community and my American friends in Kuala Lumpur. As I type this in the bilik guru, my desk still an utter mess, I feel completely, entirely overwhelmed and fatigued. I don’t want my last impressions on my community to be seeing me in this sad state, but I also want to recognize that it’s completely normal to feel this way and that – like I originally intended with this blog – I have to give myself the space to process it all as it happens. That’s difficult with Ros asking me why I look so upset, but it’s just a balancing act. I hope it levels out soon. Perhaps the Deepavali break, as annoying as its calendar placement may be, will be good to settle my soul a bit before the big goodbye.

After that wave knocked the wind out of me in Bali, I took some time to breathe and let my heart return to its normal resting state. Once some time had passed, I lathered on some more sunscreen and jumped back into the water. As I come to the end of my grant year, the typhoon of emotions hovering just above me, I feel relieved to know that is waiting for me on the other end. It’s a bittersweet irony; I must say goodbye to one family in order to see the other. You must tear your muscles to strengthen them, and the heart is a muscle too. Saying goodbye – tearing my heart open ever so slightly – is the only proper way to end this adventure. The tide of these last few weeks will be treacherous and draining – another marathon in its own right – but I am comforted by the knowledge that I will soon be sitting in my pajamas by the fire in Aunt Leah’s house in December, mug of cocoa in hand, Lucy by my feet, carols on the radio and family all around me.

In the meantime, I felt the need to return to the blog briefly to give myself a moment to sit with these thoughts and float them out into the ether. As I’ve been writing, my students have continued to smile and wave at me through the window to my right. It’s those little interactions I’ll miss most of all.

This encroaching wave may be the biggest I’ve ever encountered, but all I can do is ride it out. See you on the other side.

Deep breaths…

Nate

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One thought on “Riding the Wave

  1. You are right about the heart being a muscle, too. You have grown so much this year already, but I believe that in the next couple of weeks, you will grow the most. I love you. Thank you for such a beautiful, honest post.

    Like

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