Peace Corps Writers

Dancing Trees
from Poppy Lane

Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams
My Life in a West African Village

by Marcy L. Spaulding (Mali 2000–02)
Poppy Lane Publishing
247 pages

Read John Coyne's interview of Marcy Spaulding

Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98)
KEEP A JOURNAL,” I urge my creative writing students. “Share with it as you would a friend, aPrinter friendly version confidant, even a therapist. ‘Talk’ to it every day, for at least ten minutes, preferably in the morning. Use it to write out your thoughts, plans, worries, fears, observations, hopes — anything you wish. Keep it to yourself, though. Don’t show anyone. Not even your mother. Especially not your mother.”
     Journaling, in my view anyway, has always been something meant to be private, akin to piano practice — not intended for an audience. But RPCV Marcy Spaulding’s book, Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams: My Life in a West African Village, which bears the added subtitle, Journals from Two Years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, has changed my mind, and for the better.
     Spaulding’s memoir weaves selected (and presumably undoctored) chronological journal entries spanning her Peace Corps service in Mali with mass-mailings (letters and e-mails home), a handful of her own poems, plus short, poignant essays, called “Retrospectives,” in which she shares her thoughts in hindsight. (See “Balance” excerpt.) The success of this literary tapestry lies in Spaulding’s authorial voice — honest, unpretentious, clear, highly intelligent, personal, yet universal.
     Spaulding’s thoughtful and thought-provoking journal musings are not your typical egocentric navel-gazings. The questions she wrestles with — especially her favorites, “Why am I here?” and, “Can I really do this for two years?” — will ring utterly true for most RPCVs, regardless of where or when they served. Her grappling will help PCVs’ families better understand what their loved ones in remote villages are going through. Most of all, Spaulding’s forthrightness will help prepare prospective PCVs for the realities that lie ahead of them. Spaulding uses her journal, as she admits, to “write the roller coaster ride,” and readers of this book will want to join her on that ride.
As I did when I served in the rainforest of Gabon, Spaulding frequently uses her journal to make lists, pro and con. On May 10, 2001, just one year after graduating from Vassar with a degree in Anthropology and nine months into her Peace Corps service, she writes from her Malian village, Bendougouba,

“How is it that I’m crazy enough to stay here? [given the fact that]

  • I have to fight daily battles with termites and cockroaches
  • I’m always dirty
  • My body has become a home for several internal parasites
  • I’m an object of endless amusement and ridicule . . .
  • I’m in a constant state of having very little idea of what’s going on . . .
  • I’m forced to suspend, in part, my own culture and values . . .
  • My family and friends are thousands of miles away . . .
  • I’m here in part to help, but I often feel helpless . . .”

But to balance the scales, she quickly adds

“the reasons why I am here and why I do this job:

  • For the immeasurable and invaluable learning and experience derived from immersion into another culture
  • For friendships that transcend difference and make ‘the other’ no longer the others, but my brothers and sisters
  • To defy and challenge stereotypes and preconceived notions of whom I am and where I come from
  • To know another way of living . . .
  • Because my work is interesting and important to me
  • Because 9 to 5 in an office is not my thing
  • Because I’m young and free.”

Spaulding was indeed young — just 22 when she went to Mali — and her youthful exuberance sometimes shows up in too many exclamation points in her journal entries. But on the whole, her Peace Corps memoir is one of the best I’ve read yet, the only one I’ve happily read twice because I so enjoyed spending time with her and listening to her voice. From now on, when I advise my students to keep a journal, I’ll point to excerpts of Marcy Spaulding’s memoir to prove journaling’s potential.

Retrospective: Balance and Self

Balance is a recurring theme in my life. I need balance to feel whole, to be at peace. It’s no wonder, then, that finding balance became an important and constant goal for me in Mali. It was something I became aware of each and every time I went to the pump to get water. I’d fill the bucket, place a rag on my head for cushioning, and ever so carefully position the heavy weight in just the right place on my head with both arms stretched high. If it wasn’t quite right, I’d either compensate with the way I held my arms, or I’d have to try it again. Then, once I was satisfied with the positioning of the bucket, I’d begin the careful walk home, one foot in front of the other, grounded by the liquid weight above me, and wholly aware of the importance of balance. If I lost my concentration, a cool and wet reminder would tell me to be aware.
     I found being aware of balance was extremely important to my life in Mali. I needed to find balance between cultural integration and preservation of self. Between being the way others wanted me to be, and being myself. Between work and play, public life and personal life, being led and leading, learning and teaching, socializing and being alone. All of these things pulled me in different directions, and I discovered that although all of these things were important, to be happy and sane I needed to set limits. I discovered that in order to be respected in the community and to do my work without also losing my self, I needed to find balance . . . .
     And, if I ever flew off center, which oftentimes I did, I always had my buckets of water to ground me.

Bonnie Lee Black teaches English and Creative Nonfiction Writing at UNM-Taos.

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