There's a quiz on the Internet that gives you twelve minutes to type in the names of all 197 countries in the world. I discovered it back in April, tried once or twice, and forgot about it.
In the last few weeks, though, I've been playing it more and more. Once a day, maybe more. I couldn't figure out why it held such pull for me, but I memorized the countries in Oceania as I navigated the process of setting up my work schedule and classes, and then the power struggles and confrontations that resulted. I worked on the Caribbean during a bacterial infection, the flu, a knee injury, and asthma that just kept getting worse, but I stopped after Ferguson and Eric Garner because I wasn't really in the mood to think too much about the Americas. I began memorizing all the African countries and their location on a map as my town received three days of the heaviest rain I've ever seen, but I had to finish that process out of site when the rains worsened and roads flooded and they told me that if I wanted to make it home for Christmas, I needed to be in the next taxi. I stopped taking the quiz for a few days, but as the floods in southern Morocco spread and homes were lost and people killed, as roads were blocked and I found I couldn't have gotten back to my town even if I wanted, as tendrils of guilt crept in because I was safe and warm while my friends were dealing with I didn't even know what...well, that was when I started playing three or four times a day.
My obsession with this quiz still didn't seem all that strange to me, though. Not until the day I got the news that some colleagues of mine, people I knew decently well, and liked and respected immensely, had been killed in Afghanistan. I mourned them that night, both the expats and the Afghans killed in those many attacks, and it was the most heartsick and angry and bitter that I've been in a long time. The following morning, I was on Facebook reading some of the tributes there, and I started to tear up again. Two seconds later, Facebook was gone and my twelve minutes had begun.
Not the most normal reaction, I know. But in the midst of everything, it felt good to have one activity that placed all the control in my hands. Where only I could make my score increase, and only my follies caused harm to me. In that game, Morocco was a blank shape, not the site of floods and danger and friends who weren't answering phone calls. Afghanistan and America were just words. The map showed no injustices, no deaths, no fear. The world was, truly, black and white, and it was lovely.
When I realized the extent of my escapism, I shut off my computer. Because I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn't hide from the world. That I would mourn and I would celebrate and I wouldn't give in to the desire to stop caring. Because I can't help, can't solve anything, if I pretend it doesn't exist. And most of all, because I owe it to my friends down south and my friends in Kabul and the friends I've lost to keep going even when it's hard. To tell them that their lives matter, regardless of who they are or or where they are or how many others seem to have forgotten them. To tell them that I won't take for granted the fact that I'm still here. To promise them that even on the days when rainstorms or sandstorms or political storms or emotional storms make me want to hide inside my house, I won't. Because storms are precisely the moments when I most need to keep fighting.