John Michael, March 6 @ 19:54 via whatsapp: “Hey, do you want to come downtown tonight? A friend and I are going to a concert.”
Katie, 19:55: “Alas—I’m sick again.”
John Michael, 19:56: “Follow-up question: are you always sick?”
Yes, I am.
Not sick sick. Nothing life threatening, or even body mass altering, like Brenna’s bout of dysentery or the food poisoning Nathan got last week. I’m just congested a lot—not even congested. It’s more like a thickness in the upper back of my throat that never really goes away. I generally enjoy spending quiet weekends with my books and computer, but it’s one thing to choose to stay home. It’s another to be unable to get to the grocery store and purchase actual food, which would, in fact, be better for your struggling immune system than Pizza Hut.
So my cold keeps me home, removing primary external stimuli and leaving me to wallow over how much I hate being sick, how hard it is to be alone here, and how much I want my mom here to take care of me. Or, how much I want a fictional mom to take care of me, because my real mother would probably tell me to drink more fluids and get my butt out of bed. It’s a vicious cycle, I think—the more awful I feel, the more I wallow; the more I wallow, the more awful I feel. And sick becomes homesick, and homesick becomes weary, and weary becomes discouraged, and discouragement is infectious.
I’m a born-and-bred Dutch Calvinist, which sometimes means that I believe in grace for everyone but me. But I do. But I don’t. So I hear my mother in my head telling me to get up and go to work; life is hard; deal with it. And I hear echoes of Mennonite Central Committee orientation sessions on self-care, on being patient, on not comparing yourself or your life to others. And I hear my body telling me that it does not like living in a city where daily air pollution intake is “akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes,” and I hear kids playing tag in the courtyard outside my office as they wait with their mothers for humanitarian services from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and I think, girl, you’ve got it good.
In some ways, struggle is relative. By most standards, I’m doing well. Plato may not have told us to “be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle,” but someone did, and s/he was probably right. It is hard to live in Cairo in a flat by myself working at a job for which I am not trained with coworkers with whom I don’t share a native language and it’s hard to get out of bed when I can’t swallow no matter how much tea I consume. It’s hard to balance self-care and self-challenge. It’s hard to be wise and gracious when crossing cultures. It’s hard to know how to respond to gender inequality, sexual harassment, low literacy rates, air, water, and noise pollution, environmental devastation, traffic and dust and ugliness.
I haven’t discovered any resolution to the twin tasks of gratitude and lamentation, a word I may be using to sanctify my grousing. Nor do I know how to carry out the equally paradoxical project of loving the corner of the world in which I have found myself and loving my limited self. I’m tired. I have had this cold for two weeks. I have lived in Cairo for six and a half months. And like everyone in this city, I am breathing thick air. Like everyone in this city, I am looking for hope.
I don’t have an answer for that either. But I have a line of poetry, from T.S. Eliot: “Teach us to care and not to care/ teach us to sit still.” Which I guess I’m doing with my mug of tea and box of kleenex and my sore throat, on my crumbling mattress in my empty flat in a crowded city in a war-torn region in a broken world.
 “Ash Wednesday.”
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.