Until now, most of the stories I’ve shared belong to people I’ve met in places like Vermont, Chicago, and Southern Africa. I recognize that I have neglected stories which belong to the place I called home for the longest time, and to the people I called neighbors then. There are many worth sharing, especially now that political pundits reduce swathes of the United States into ‘voting blocs.’ Those who were once people are now percentage points in a preference poll. Moreover, one of the major candidates this year is a man who claims to have all the answers for those people I called neighbors for 18 years. Liberals worry that my neighbors will ‘turn Pennsylvania red’ if they vote for that man. They are called rednecks, hicks, and stupid. Let me tell you about one of these people reduced to .01%, hick, and stupid. Let me tell you about my neighbors.
A good friend of mine just returned stateside from South Sudan. There, she was working with the Carter Center to track and treat guinea worm. Guinea worm, if you haven’t heard of it, is a nasty parasite that tears up insides and forces its way out through skin when it has finished. The Carter Center has done unprecedented work to nearly eliminate it throughout northern Africa.
My friend lived atop a plateau in rural South Sudan, and she walked daily half-marathons to visit the communities she served. These communities were typically nomadic groups of Toposa people. My friend shared with me some interesting interactions she had with the Toposa.
I didn’t ask Lucas for his story. But, he told me.
Walking through the city, I have a habit of making eye contact with strangers. Sometimes it’s people watching, but most times it’s for safety. It’s a trick that an embassy security officer taught me. Most people considering robbing someone on the street target individuals who aren’t paying attention. Thus, passively and unthreateningly making eye contact shows someone that I see them; and I see that they see me–pick on someone less prepared, pal.
There is a someone–or rather, a something–that has accompanied me on every journey. Yet, I have neglected to share that something’s story. I regret this, and I feel that it is time I acknowledged my poor skin. It’s been patiently waiting for its story to be shared.
My skin has strayed only a few times from the Rust Belt of the United States; that strip of land between lake and river sacrificed for American industry–for automobiles, airplanes, and railways. It knew different versions of this old place: Michiana, the Allegheny side of Appalachia, Green Mountains, and a Windy City; but versions hold similarities. My eyes are used to farms atop filled-in coal mines and the rusted mills where that coal was sent. My ears have always heard gun shots, demolition derbies, and the slow hum of tractors. My nose is accustomed to bonfires and summer sweet corn. My tongue knew goulash, halupki, pierogis, pepperoni rolls, and homemade maple syrup. But, my skin–my skin has felt many sensations.