Thursday, August 21, 2014

Our honest places

It is the smell that catches you first.

You open the front door gentlya skill you learned when you were 15 and tried to glide into your house without anyone noticing you are wearing blush. You didn't know then that mothers can detect makeup on their daughters with infrared vision, even if the teen magazines swear that it's a "natural neutral look." But you did know just how to turn the key so the door doesn't squeak and which tiles to step on so you do not wake up the whole house. This is how you still enter your childhood home, even though your cheeks can shimmer without inspection.

It is always the smell. It does not emanate from the people. It is steeped in the place. You have left and returned here before, but you always somehow forget about the smell.

It escorts you from room to room. You feel larger than life and play Alice in Wonderland with the objects of your childhood. Were the shelves always quite so low? Were the curtains always quite so… pink? You were as tall when you left this home at the age of 17 as you are now, but everything feels miniscule.

You notice how carefully curated your lives here had been. Your mother had always loved the details. You open a drawer and it is filled to the brim with tablecloths. Each one of them is gleaming white and smells like soap, because she always hid soap between them. It was her fragrant curating. Your grandmother had hand-stitched designs onto the fabric in the era in which tablecloths were part of a woman's dowry. Your mother had asked you once to take them with you. You didn't know if you should tell her that you don't quite have a dinner tableone that would be worthy of the hand-stitched grape patterns and soapy smell, anyway. Or that sometimes you do not eat dinner at a table at all. You just wave her off for now, but ten years later, you are filling your return luggage with tablecloths full of grapes and soap. You will find a table worthy of them and you will eat dinner at it. You are an adult now, filled with the nostos of your revisited childhood.

All those years of change and migration and grief and a robbery later, and everything still feels like it belongs in space -- like it was placed there deliberately, with care, and with thought, probably because it was. The blue and white lanterns sit on the balcony where you had last left them, with unburnt candles waiting to be lit. Homes keep us honest, one of your wisest colleagues had said.

The balcony is your honest place. It is the view to which you remember waking up every day. You will return to America and you will instantly miss having a balcony onto which to step barefoot and stare at the sea. You will miss the mother too, who would have told you to not dare climb back into the clean sheets with those now dirty feet. It did not matter that neither was the balcony dirty nor were your feet. You wouldn't dare.

It is on this balcony that you memorized IB Biology for your high school exams and that you read every Nancy Drew book that made you want to become a curious, mystery-solving girl with auburn hair, even when you didn't know what 'auburn' meant.

You sat here on the summer days when the beach felt too far -- call these #Greekchildhoodproblems of the most privileged kind. You dangled your legs over the railing. At 4 PM, like clockwork, those legs would be attacked by mosquitoes. Your mother would soon emerge holding what Greeks call a "tiny snake," named for its coiled form. The mosquito-repelling aroma it emits is one of your smells of summer. Every Greek balcony has a 'tiny snake' of its own and the smoke it releases shares Greek summer with us, with the mosquitoes who love us, and the cicadas that interrupt our afternoon naps. Home is where the cicadas are.

On this balcony you had kissed a boy who had flown across the world to see you. You took a teary photo together -- on film -- when he left. Many years and loves later, you dragged another boy onto the rocking chair. It didn't matter that it was Christmas morning, that it was not 'balcony season', that the shiny new Kindles you had brought with you felt like incongruent balcony reading, or that you were each wrapped in a bathrobe, two scarves, and three blankets to be able to tolerate the balcony at all. He loves you. He needs to sit at your honest place.

You still feel that not having brought him here in the summer is robbing him from some of the honesty.

Your honest place is conducive to many emotions: nostalgia, remembrance, hope, grief, anticipation, celebration. There is a noted absence: worry. Where did you learn how to worry? How did you get so good at it?

What is it about our honest places that keeps the worry away?

You have weathered all the storms here. Here is where you learned resolution, relief or loss. Here is where you learned that potatoes and feta and melitzanosalata are the food that will remain palatable even when you are too worried to eat. When in doubt, add wine. In severe crisis, add tsipouro. Here is where you learned what comes after worry. Here is where all the "after's" have dawned. A place that holds all the memories of afters is inhospitable to worry.

No longer a native in the city's eyes, you are a guest here now. Luckily for you, in Greece, "guest" is a term of art. "Guest" comes with glasses of wine refilled, and food shoved down throats, and a bed made for you by your friend, with instructions on how to close the balcony door ifyou guessed itthere are too many mosquitoes. It comes with questions about the life you now lead, questions based more on how others imagine "America" or the conflict zones you've called home. The reality rarely registers and is rarely the subject of truly curious inquiry. You trade imaginations.

You grit your teeth when someone comments on your weight, your vacant uterus, your unadorned engagement ring finger. You are appalled when you realize you don't quite know how to explain "gender analysis" in Greek. Surely in a language so rich in words, there must be a term for it, but for now, it eludes you. You end up telling people you work on 'women's issues,' even though you once had a 45-minute conversation with a border officer who thought "gender and conflict" means "women and war." It mattered to you then, standing at an international border as the passport holder of a different land, to explain that gender does not 'just' refer to women and not all conflict necessarily looks like war.

Here, though, on your own turf, you shy away from the fight. Embarrassingly, you lack both the words and the stamina. You remind yourself how many feminist battles and social movements alike were born in the home and find it cowardly and condescending alike that you don't feel like these, here, are yours to fight. You vow to find the words for "gender analysis" next time. What would Cynthia Enloe say if she were Greek? In the meantime, for good measure, you point out every narrowly conceived idea of masculinity on a TV ad. "Πολύ ξενέρωτες οι γκόμενες εκεί που ζείτε," reacts one of your guy friends when you do that. Just like gender analysis, you can't translate that.

By the last week, you are no longer a guest. You are at home here. This is where you belong, next to the soap-fragranced tablecloths and the macho commercials and the glasses that get refilled because the recession robbed Greeks off many things, but not of their hospitality.
You move easily between the rooms.
Everything is right-sized.
You no longer bruise your calves by bumping into furniture at night (or, as an aunt notes, "maybe you're just not as anemic with all the meat we've fed you!").
You know just what time the mosquitoes will appear and when the hot water will run out in the shower.

You have amassed enough intimacy, enough familiarity, enough memory to tackle the basement. The trove of all Memory. In one of your favorite poems, titled "The Plural form,"  Kiki Dimoula had the following to say about memory:

noun, proper name for sorrows,
singular in number,
singular only, 
and indeclinable.
Memory, memory, memory. 

You open the door and remember that when you were little, you thought the basement is where burglars come from. How could you ever be Nancy Drew after fearing burglars for so many years? You open the door to the basement regardless. You are assaulted by the smell: cigarettes, books. You hadn't been here in years, perhaps since the day after your father died.

You leaf through the books. His chemistry manuals, her Simone de Beauvoir. Your copy of Love in the Time of Cholera -- that first one, the one that taught you how to read, really readif not how to love. 

Next to the books, you find the cards that you used to send your parents from camp and those little wooden boats that you used to "buy" them as gifts from summer vacation. You feel compelled to pack it all up and bring it with you, along with the tablecloths and the balcony, but you also want to leave it as is, undisturbed. A moment in time. 

You are part of this moment now. You are here, at home, in your honest place. And yet you find yourself watching these weeks unfold as though you have floated up above your body and are observing your life from the ceiling. You've lost your narrative "I," ever so present in your stories and you are instead observing -- at once the storyteller and the interlocutor. 
This is not a full story. If homes are our honest places, part of their honesty lies in being able to hold a piece for ourselves. Like all stories of memory, it is marked equally by its absences, by its silences and erasures.

You will soon find yourself at a border again, carrying more luggage than you have ever traveled with. You ask yourself how 'people' can travel like this. You are carrying a briki and a frappe maker because somehow you cannot leave the country without at least four different nationally-appropriate modes to make coffee in the morning. You tried to pack the memories and the silences. And a tsoureki too, because everything becomes more surreal at a border when you are holding what amounts to a nationalist, nostalgic pie. 

You are here. Again. 
You will walk out of this front door and instantly miss the Aegean.
You start your day with tsoureki. You make frappe. Your mornings are consumed in recreating.
You unpack, you hope the smell of all the books you hauled back can linger a little longer. 

You must find a dinner table. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hereditary travel neuroses of a Greek childhood

Things I learned in Greece: Never rush your coffee, summer is everything, always chase the dust.

This is my last morning in the United States for some time and I have spent it shaking my head at dust.

Let me explain.

Ever since I was a child, I could never sleep the night before a big journey. "A big journey" then meant a car ride from Thessaloniki to Larissa, 2 hours away, where my father's family lived. I prepared for those trips for days, lining up all my stuffed animals, deciding which of them get to go on this trip, making packing lists (for them, not me, because the beauty of being six years old was that I could live in a single pair of shorts all summer), writing up itineraries (again for them because, um...), and packing car snacks.

In the summer, my aunt Mina would move from her home in scorching hot Larissa to the seaside town of Platamonas. At least two weeks before my family descended on Platamonas to join aunt Mina, cousin Neni and I would spend hours on the phone exchanging packing lists for our dolls. "Are you bringing the pool or shall I?" "You have a bigger bag, you take the pool, and I'll bring the outfits," the conversations went. When our respective mothers were not yelling at us to get off the phone ("do-you-know-how-much-it-costs-per-minute!"), they would shuttle our dolls' pools and shoes and luggage from my house to Neni's until my cousin and I could come to some sort of agreement about who is packing what. Over the course of this process, Neni and I would have at least three fights, at least one of which would involve tears and threats not to go on the trip, even though we always knew that she and I and our two dolls both named Artemis would be squeezed into the sweaty back seat of my mother's 1992 Volkswagen on the way to Platamonas.

In retrospect, the fact that we had dolls that shared the same name and that the name was one of the goddesses of Olympus and that we put that amount of time into making travel itineraries and packing lists for them explains a lot about my later life of wander and neuroses, but at the time, it was just 'cute.' [Yet another reason that 'cute' should worry us.]

Neni and my litany of preparations for those trips could never match up to my mother's. First, she would pick out the outfits for the entire family, given that 'the kids' were picking outfits for the dolls, not themselves, and my father never successfully dressed himself in his life (despite many unsuccessful efforts to 'match', whatever that meant to him.) Then she would meticulously wash the clothes that were obviously already clean because they would not have been allowed entry into the closets otherwise, and then she'd iron each of them, even though Neni and I would proceed to sit and sweat on our shorts within five minutes of getting into the car (and then for the entire summer). Then she'd ask me to pack the bags because she had a unique talent for making them swell like the back of a hippopotamus -- and, let's be serious, all those years of packing Artemis' toy pool and ten pairs of shoes really taught me a life lesson about how to live out of a suitcase.

And then -- then! Then she'd clean every single corner of our already spotless house. It was drilled into me from a young age that there were two prerequisites for trips: (1) We can't leave until Neni and I have picked at least three fights and (2) We can't leave until there is not a single speck of dust left. The latter was always a bit of a mystery to me. We swept and mopped and dusted every day of my childhood. We washed the dishes. We shook out the sheets (which mystifies my American friends, but if there are any Mediterraneans reading this, you'll recognize the ritual of hanging the sheets from the balcony and then hitting them with an object whose name I obviously don't know in English so you could "tap the dust" out of them). We did the same to the carpets, but luckily, there were no carpets on the floor in the middle of July. It was explained to me that our house always had to be clean, in case someone decided to stop by without calling, or in case something unexpected happened and we needed to come home with people without having a chance to straighten up. It will surprise nobody, therefore, that when I broke my ankle and foot on a particularly terrible day this year, a panicked Elijah met me in the hospital to ask what I needed and I did not say I needed painkillers, a hug, help learning how to crutch around, help processing the sheer amount of now laughable tragedy that coalesced in one day, or help running one of the dozens of errands that piled up. Instead, I insisted in a very urgent tone that "you need to go home immediately and clean the house - people are coming over!"

Cast in this light, my mother's insistence that we clean up extra well before trips made even less sense. Who would visit while we're gone? "We're cleaning the house for the burglars," my father would grumble, but he knew better than to disobey the marching orders of mopping. You could say, as I do now as a still neurotic Greek adult in the diaspora, that we're cleaning for our own return. Who doesn't love coming back to a clean house? Ahh, though! Every time we came home, a new cleaning spree would commence, consisting of laundry and more ironing and dusting everything again because "you may be on vacation, but dust is not." Looking back, I now know that we were cleaning for the sake of cleanliness, which was a goal and a character judgment and an aspiration in itself.

Fast forward 20 years to find me alone in Elijah and my attic, treehouse-like apartment on the morning of a transatlantic departure. I had spent the week finishing a journal article and book chapters and watching the World Cup and reading about my new work project and avoiding tornados and not sleeping out of anxiety and travel anticipation alike. And also doing load upon load of pre-trip laundry because you can take the girl out of Greece, but you can't take Greece out of the girl. On Thursday night, after hours of writing about the politics of victimhood, I found myself in the stroller and baby car seat aisle at Target, which is where this lovely store decided they should also sell their luggage. Every carry-on bag insisted that it has the packing capacity for a "1 to 3-day trip," and I scoffed, recalling my years of practice in packing my mother's perfectly ironed summer dresses and both Artemis dolls' six-changes-of-outfits-a-day.

Six hours before my flight, everything is as 'done' as it will be, which is a small miracle given the amount of sleep deprivation, bureaucracy, and mind-devoted-to-victims-not-ironing that this week held in store for me.

Except. Except! I woke up shaking my head at dust.

You see, I didn't have time to vacuum. There were stray hairs on the bathroom floor, which are invisible to the normal eye, but I see them. I know they are there. Some of the laundry that is not packed in the "1-to-3-day-but-really-18-days-of-carry-on-luggage" was sitting on the couch and I had not put it away. There were dishes in the sink. It did not smell like chlorine in the house. I confronted all this with the same facial expression of shock and judgment that my mother put on when she called me on my first week of college and I reported to her, with joy, that "in America, we (we!) don't iron the sheets."

When I was in the shower, half-washing myself and half-inspecting the state of the bathroom around me, I had a few nostalgic realizations. I don't know where all this fits in the 'nature versus nurture' debate, but to me, it is as close as you get to hereditary travel neuroses. My mother set a standard for what a peaceful home looks like, and apparently I'm incapable of peace as long as there is hair on the bathroom floor, however invisible it is to the human eye. This is particularly baffling, considering I have spent a good amount of my working life in the world's conflict zones, where there is often not a functional bathroom and, if there is, it most certainly is covered in all sorts of things. This prompted the next realization: My mother set a standard for what home looks like - my home. I am much more likely to want to iron the sheets in my attic, treehouse-esque abode than, say, in yours (much to the chagrin of many friends who have jokingly sought to take advantage of my stealth ability to spot invisible hairs), or in West Darfur.

I also realized there was something very instructive about both the gendered division of labor and what constituted work in my household growing up. My father was not a traditional Greek patriarch by most senses and I remember him regularly helping with the cooking and other housework. My mother would self-identify as a feminist, and both of them were committed to raising a feminist daughter. By circumstance and choice alike, and by virtue of the fact that they were both older when they had me, both retired and were able to be at home for much of my childhood. In my father's case, this meant he could insist that I redo my homework until the handwriting was perfect. In my mother's case, it often involved chasing dust. The social expectation that our home be clean "in case anyone drops by" and that the sheets be ironed fell on my mother, not my father, highlighting the gendered expectations of femininity, motherhood, and housewifery. When my father left crumbs all over the kitchen, Hansel and Gretel style, he would be promptly reprimanded -- but there was still something gendered to having the disciplinarian matriarch safeguard the spotlessness of her kitchen against all odds.

She imbued in me many of the same values and neuroses, but I have faced this mandate with mixed success. On the one hand, the first thing I did when I graduated from crutches to an orthopedic boot that allowed for greater mobility was to to get down on my knees and mop away the rubbery grey marks the crutches had left on our floors. I notice the absence of the smell of Chlorine in the air on the morning of a long journey. On the other hand, the amount and type of labor in my own day looks different… and it crowds out (not without some shame on my end) the chasing of the dust. It takes a small miracle (and, let's be honest, all of Elijah's patience and help) to bathe, feed, and clothe myself, without having expectations of culinary wonder, glimmeringly clean bathtubs, or crisp ironed shirts. On some nights, dinner is popcorn and wine and I feel the universe of disapproving mothers I have now acquired in my life shake their heads in unison. On some Sundays, we wake up to piles everywhere. Piles of the books and notes we dumped on the desk when we wearily came home for twenty minutes between meetings, the clothes we dumped by the bed, the life we dumped everywhere, instead of folding, creasing, and putting it away.

Then again, I would be lying if I did not tell you that before one last pre-trip breakfast with my friends and a mandatory trip to the bookstore, I could not resist looking for the Chlorox wipes. Just for a quick wipe, "just the surfaces." The deep cleaning will have to wait till I am home again. Or maybe this is home. With just a few extra hairs on the floor.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Soccer, injustice, and Colombia beyond the single story

This image is not linked to the post in any way other than the nostalgia it triggered when I was going through my archives, and the memories of this quiet moment, during Ramadan nearly five years ago, at an oasis in Upper Egypt.

My days are split. I spend half of them typing narratives of loss, injustice, and victimhood, courage, and resilience from Colombia, in an air-conditioned library that can afford me a cooler temperature and the kind of peace that my own apartment can't provide. I spend the other half consuming the national drink of whichever country I'm cheering on: Ouzo, German beer, American beer, caipirinhas, aguardiente -- all in the name of a soccer-themed nationalism. A friend even remarked today that I showed up to the Brazil-Colombia quarter-final game in my "most Colombian outfit." She wasn't wrong.

I am not sure how I feel about most of the reflective moments in my life at the moment alternately emanating either from the dungeons of a library or from a (fairly corrupt) (fairly gendered) (fairly classist) (fairly is the wrong word) sporting event.

And yet. 

I spent last week cheering on Greece -- unlikely, for reasons I've written about before. And I spent my afternoon cheering on Colombians, in a Brazilian restaurant at that. It seems like all the teams I root for require a little bit of gall. 

Soccer has become much more democratic these days. Between Facebook and text messaging, WhatsApp and instant replays, we ask questions about what we all saw. "Did you think that was a penalty?" "Such-and-such a country was robbed!" And in the world we all inhabit, we also inhabit multiple, sometimes contradictory, sometimes competing loyalties. Today we are Colombian, tomorrow Greek. Today we are German, tomorrow Brazilian. At noon we are Argentine, at four Italian. The loyalties shift, depending on which team is winning, or which memory is more salient -- or which nationalism is feeling more nostalgic.

Earlier this week, I was drawing lessons from my Greek compatriots, some of whom -- at the age of 37 (hello, Karagounis) -- played 120 minutes against Costa Rica with all the fire one could long for in a game. With all of the longing. Those were lessons about resilience, and want, and resisting age-ism, and burning our expectations to the ground. Numerous commentators said the result did not do the Greek effort justice. Yet others claim penalty kicks are not a just ending to a World Cup match. Growing up, I always disliked the "life is not fair/life is unjust/learn that when you are young" line of explanatory consolation about the injustices of the world. It felt lazy and complacent and not fulfilling --and, in part, as infuriating as injustice itself feels. Somehow, though, I could always deal with injustice in soccer -- with the penalty not called, the mispronounced off-sides, the game the team "deserved to win" but didn't. In a way, I felt like if there is a place that could hold the world's injustices, a soccer field could be it.

Today, the lessons come from Colombia -- the country I deem my adopted home, even though I share no bloodline with it, no family relations, no legitimate, verifiable claim of calling it a home, other than the memories I have made there, and the way I feel when I'm within its borders.

There is beauty to watching a team want something, and to observing a country rally behind that want. There is genuine inspiration to watching Facebook status after Facebook status roll in, in the spirit of the democracy of jointly-commentated soccer, declaring that Colombians are proud of their national team and grateful for its victories, despite its most recent loss to Brazil.

Most critically, there is a lesson in celebration amidst the loss. Not every story about Colombia and its losses or victories has to be linked to drugs or the conflict or all the losses Colombians have suffered. Not all narratives need to be underpinned by pain or suffering to earn their 'just' celebration. Some days are for gratitude, for joy, for letting the sheer amazement of where we are flood the compartments. That joy does not need to be earned, nor does it need to be counterbalanced against the ills and injustices -- not all the time, not in every breath. No part of me proposes that we forget the profound inequalities, silences, injustices, and forms of violence that underpin the Colombia of James and Cuadrado today.

But every part of me believes that we owe it to them, and to the joy of the Colombians who cheer them on, to celebrate them without having every sentence about them be punctuated by the country's heartbreaking past and present. We owe to them to move beyond what Chimamanda Adichie would call 'the danger of the single story.' And we owe it to us to see a place, and its people, in a different light other than solely through the prism of its scars.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hugging strangers

A gift by my Greek friends, lovingly nicknamed "the tavern girls:" a carafe & tavern glasses with our names on them.

2004 was the summer of hugging strangers, in the country in which "don't talk to strangers" was something Americans said in the movies, and not a dictum by which to live. Then, at least.

On the special Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the Champions League games would take place, Ajax would face Juventus, Real Madrid's Roberto Carlos would make the otherwise bored Greek sports commentators jump out of their seats, and-once in a blue moon-the odd Greek team would qualify only to lose 5-1 to a Norwegian soccer club none of us had ever heard of. On those Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we would get to order pizza, stay up past our bedtimes, and gather around the TV to listen, almost with worship, to a few bars of the Champions League theme song blare through the screen. The commentators always said "we" were outclassed, then proceeded to raise "our" hopes that maybe Olympiakos or Panathinaikos or occasionally AEK would surprise us all, quickly followed by an all-knowing proclamation that nobody ever seriously thought "we" could compete in this league.

Every evening of watching soccer went something like this: The dads would compete with each other over trivia in the Pre-Internet era when they couldn't pull out an iPhone and "just look it up." One of the aunts would inevitably complain that Neni or I had not had enough food. Neni would then recite how many slices of pizza she had eaten, an aunt or another would boast that Neni is such a good eater, and I would be harangued to eat more. The same cluster of mums and aunts would also occasionally ask "what does off-sides mean again" and "how many minutes does this last," even though they had the answers. They had to have known because they had watched their husbands (and us "kids") watch the sport for years, so their asking had become a sort of ritual that accompanied the reminders to eat, the ceaseless smoking when the game got tense, and the assured opinion-offering. On the rare night when I counted just how much pizza I had eaten and could join Neni in boasting about it or, more rarely, when we "the kids"offered an opinion that was not entirely out of sync with whatever was going on in the soccer field, one of the dads would be impressed with us, brag about his daughter or niece, and then get back to the rest of the Dad Conversation.

This was all before the elitism of international soccer (and of something called "The Champions League" of all things), or the sexism of the commentating and advertising alike (and of the aunts feeding-dads offering opinions dynamic, while we're at it), or the corruption of the institutions governing these athletic events had ever registered on me. In a sense, that was the purest memory I ever have of loving not just the sport, but also the act of spectating as exactly that: an active endeavor.

By the time we got to the summer of 2004, I had graduated to watching soccer at the dining table with the dads and uncles. There were fewer of us then, already. This was the table at which I did my homework, ate every meal. This was the site of every bout of anxiety before a school exam, every life conversation, every celebration, ritual, and loss. Not even the most self-assured prognosticator had predicted the joys the summer of 2004 would hold for Greeks. In the opening match of the Euro Cup, Greece stunned its Portuguese hosts with a 2-1 victory (the kind of victory that comes with shocked shouting by the commentators, which I highly recommend you click on at full volume in the hyperlink above if you are not at work and don't have babies as your neighbors. No, not all Greek sounds like that all the time.)

We poured into the streets. Hardly 18 years old, we hugged strangers, all night long, and nobody thought anything of it. We made up songs, in the way that you do when victory is neither expected nor replicable. Except we did it again, tying the Spanish team of Raul and Morrientes and a very young Iker Casillas. And again, in the quarter-finals against Zidane's France, and the semi-finals against the Czech Republic at the very last minute of extra time, and all the way to the final, where Cristiano Ronaldo shed some of the first now (in)famous tears of his career.

Every time, people poured into the streets. People hugged. We all bought Karagounis or Charisteas jerseys. I don't know how many of us believed that winning the Euro was possible, but I was not among them. Every time we grabbed each other and launched ourselves into the streets, I joined because I thought this was the last game we could win. This was as far as we would go. There was nothing reasonable about what the Greek National Soccer Team accomplished that year. In the years to come, I would often hear from non-Greek friends that "Greece played the most boring soccer" or "Greece did not deserve it." My uncles would likely argue the technicalities of these points, but for me there is little that is reasonable about the joy that sport had inspired in all of us as a community, as a collective noun of spectators.

Between my homeland hosting the Olympics later that summer and the joy we derived from the Euro, that was The Summer of Greece. For me, it was also the summer of transition. I watched games between reading my pre-college preparatory documents. I already felt foreign within them. I have yet to figure out if that was because there is nothing earnestly home-like about an H-shaped cookie cutter and the "Harvard cookies" recipe that we received in the mail or if the summer of Greece had inspired the kind of nationalist fervor that would forever trigger nostalgia in me wherever I went.

In the ten years that have passed, I have moved house over 30 times -- sometimes across the street to a different Adams dorm room, and sometimes across the world with all my belongings crammed into two suitcases. I am not sure what possessed me to pack my Karagounis jersey. I am also not sure if I am more surprised by the fact that I held onto it for a decade and did not unload it at a particularly tricky border crossing or by the fact that Karagounis himself, now 37 years old, played in the World Cup against the Ivory Coast just last week. 

The cynics said it began then, in the nationalist fervor we caught that summer. They trace the beginning of Greece's collapse to the shiny stadiums we couldn't afford and the fancy vacations some took in a delirium of national joy and the debt into which we, as a collective, plunged ourselves. Like most other cynical explanations, this one did not appeal to me. It is too easy to blame all our national plights on that moment of joy. Such explanations erase the agency of the decision-makers at every level that helped steer the country to its plunging point and invisibilize the deep, institutional, structural violence and corruption that had underpinned my homeland -- and, arguably, the global financial system at large -- for years before the crash. 

Even if we try to push what is short-handed to "the crisis" out of our minds, watching the World Cup is an unsubtle reminder. There are noticeably fewer Greek fans on the stands of this year's World Cup -- and it's not just because Brazil in 2014 is quite a bit further from home than Portugal was in 2004. The team is less shiny, though Karagounis continues to make me smile within it. The grumbling about corruption is more persistent, and the national voices of cynicism and jadedness are louder. 

I am no longer baking Harvard cookies with an H cookie cutter, but somehow, I am in transition again. I got my college and graduate degrees, I got used to leaving and arriving. I am no longer watching soccer at the table at which I did my homework for 17 years, though the table is still at the same location in my Greek living room, waiting for my return. 

In the meantime: We have formed other tables, all of which are too small to hold all our spectator friends and most of which shake from side to side when we reach over each other to feed ourselves something fried and awful for us. Someone still asks what off-sides means, and I love them, whoever they are each time, just for bringing me back to my childhood living room, in the company of the aunts and mothers. Then I look around the table, and notice that almost every time, one of our friends is either from the country that is playing or has lived and worked there. I find myself very far from learning to watch soccer among my family in Greece, and yet very near family at once.

We cycle through conversation in concentric patterns. Someone always has the latest gossip on X player's love affair. Someone else claims they had predicted the underdogs' success all along. I usually complain that we only eat fried food at 'these things,' and I'm usually the first offender to order it. This time, the sexism of the comments and ads and elitism of the ticket prices and racism of the fans and corruption and violence and and and -- they all register on us. Then the referee blows his whistle, and we glue our eyes to the screen for 90 minutes, and I quietly wonder how anyone might ever bring about change within these corrupt institutions when we are so enraptured by the spectacle they provide that we forget about all the -isms the second the ball crosses the midfield. 
There is a wistfulness to watching your national team play when you are an immigrant. It feels understandably more distant. You do not recognize all the names on the squad. You lose the urge to root for your national side when you see they are passing the ball poorly, when they appear to not even be able to approach the goal, let alone strike within it. You wish you could hold on to the memory of the underdogs of 2004 and the merriment they inspired. And, at the same time as you mourn the distance, you become more invested in their success than even you yourself had predicted -- and suddenly it's the 94th minute of what looks like the last game in a mediocre tournament for Greece and the referee calls the penalty that will mark the difference between qualifying into the next stage and going home. 
You are at home in the suburbs of Boston, taking turns editing your latest research on patterns of gender-based violence and the passage on love you have been tasked to write for a friend's wedding. The surrealism of the parallel worlds does not evade you. The game is unfolding in a different tab on your browser because you can't bear not to watch it, but you can't bear to watch it in the same breath. Then that penalty is called and you find yourself rooting for your team harder than you ever had before. You switch tabs, watch Samaras score, watch Greece qualify to the next round in disbelief. You scream, scaring yourself and the neighbors alike. Your boyfriend comes home from work to find you laughing and crying at your desk. Your girlfriends call from Greece, screaming into your ear too, and you can hear the TV in the background. Suddenly, you find yourself wishing that were the commentary you could hear. You wish for the honking horns and irrational exuberance. 

You want to go out there and hug strangers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reconstructing the everyday

The view from Spectacle Island in the Boston Harbor. You can see where it gets its name.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Greek, I spend a lot of my time thinking about debt. The debt in question at the moment is a narrative one. Is there a shelf life to the stories we haven't told, but wish we had? Is it best to consider them told, wipe the slate clean, and start the new story right where we are?

I have also been thinking about our capacity to write. As I have learned this year, I can produce words, hundreds of words, thousands of them, almost on command (and caffeine). But I can only produce one type of thousands of words at a time. When my capacity to write is entirely consumed by footnotes, the more reflective, personal words do not flow. And thus this space has been gathering cobwebs, as I have been caught between hesitancies: I am hesitant to write the this-is-what-I-had-for-lunch posts, orthe my-life-is-sparklier-than-yours posts. In many senses, this has been a time of constants: I am still relearning how to walk. I am still recovering, still grieving.  I am in awe of spring and blossoms every time I walk out my front door, and even more in awe of the fact that I can indeed walk. Writing comes with a pressure to report on the rupture and when those ruptures are more private or oblique than the continuities, their stories remain untold.

Here we are, then. In the middle of the story.

The parts that came before: Writing, ceaseless writing, of the footnoted kind. Books making their way back to the library shelves, leaving my home feeling empty, but for the post-it flag notes they left behind. Gabo dying, taking a piece of my young adulthood with him. Making maps. A Presidential Award. The Ladies Who Law. Ladies who law making flashcards together, ladies who law debating legal cases, ladies who law on a boat. Synchronized gardening because that is how Boston engages in all its seasonal sports: coordinated leaf-blowing, followed by synchronized shoveling, followed by the day we all garden in sundresses in 40-degree weather as a silent pact that it is finally spring. Dancing until the building shakes, then icing my foot the morning after. Round upon round of nostalgia for grad school, and the people we shared it with. Nostalgically formatting more footnotes, nostalgically dancing, nostalgically walking home, nostalgically going through the motions of graduating. Caps and gowns and tearful family members, and the surprise realization that happy occasions do not always feel lonely for the grieving. Further realizations that, in the US, graduation means barbecue and young people recklessly on boats. Thoughts about the families we make and stumble upon, in addition to the ones we were born into or  lost.

And the parts that come now: reconstructing the everyday life.
Day after graduation: Morning walk.

I had not anticipated reconstruction to be a process (which, trust me, is equal parts remarkable and embarrassing for someone who works on conflict and post-conflict issues…). The rest of the world moves fast on the Monday after graduation, because it is another Monday. The facilities crew take down the tents, the vendors fold away the chairs, the field is used for baseball again. There will come a time to reflect on the many lessons of graduate school. Now, though, is the time for noticing the subtle processes of piecing together the next stage of life. This time of transition is one in which coffee is not an urgent thought. A calendar can be stripped of its colored blocks. It really is possible to meet you for breakfast on Tuesday, or lunch, or coffee, or dinner, or drinks -- because I am free. All of the time. And yet, my mind wanders back to the unfinished projects, the footnotes not yet formatted, the stories not yet told, the big and little work to be done out there in the world. This is a space of yearning for sleep and missing the momentum of driven dedication; a space of mourning the loss of community and celebrating its transformation; a space of cautious optimism and utter fright about the future.

I have been here before. I graduated from college. I moved halfway across the world. To a war zone. And then again, and again, and again. I said goodbye, I cried on planes, I attached myself to people and places again, and then cried on the flights that took me away from them anew. I learned -- in classrooms and in people's homes, formally and unexpectedly alike. I broke myself, literally and metaphorically, and recovered. I learned how to learn and how to leave love behind, how to find inspiration and structure where there is seemingly none and how to cherish the lack of rigidity.

This is, therefore, a familiar space and one which, for now, I am navigating from memory. "I should eat well again," I say, buying a juicer and stockpiling the kale (someone please explain to me how, while I was living in a footnote, kale became so trendy). I take a walk during the daytime. I rearrange the desk, shuffle the photos on the wall around. I should rest radically. Read for pleasure. Return those emails. I try to remember all those other times I had to build a life anew, as though I am recalling steps from a dance I once knew.

This is a period for re-reading: re-reading old emails and love letters, re-reading field notes from my very first ventures into this professional world, re-reading the underlined passages in my favorite books. I inevitably return to Joan Didion. She writes, in a passage about her husband's attitude towards their trip to Paris: "He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them, but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living."

As Didion would have it, reconstructing the everyday lies neither in the should's of a juicer and kale (no surprises there!) nor in the expectations of others for what shape this new life may take. Rather, it hides in figuring out what to want after this: what to want after all the effort has been channeled, all the feelings have been expended, and we are sitting here, out of steam but full of ideas, with our diplomas in our laps. Joan Didion's husband "meant wanting. He meant living." Reconstructing the everyday means revisiting the wanting and living questions and being prepared for the answers to be different than when I left Uganda, or Colombia, or Guatemala, or… or… or…

There is a social impatience for the ellipses. Every congratulations is followed by an exclamation point followed by a question about my future. For now, however, the ellipses feel like home.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relearning how to walk

"Limping is in the mind." 

This was one of my physical therapist's pronouncements earlier this month. 

I find physical therapy a deeply frustrating process. Progress is slow, so slow that it is impossible to tell the difference from one session to the next, requiring that you keep showing up only on the faith that 'this' is helping. 

I am re-learning how to walk. Having no memory of the first time I learned how to walk, given that I was about a year and a half old and such a chubby baby that I took longer than my peers to conquer this milestone, this is an unnatural process the second time around. The physical capabilities are slowly returning: I can lean on my left ankle and foot without wincing in pain. I have left the orthopedic boot behind, and I spent a whole afternoon on my knees scrubbing the grey-ish, rubbery marks that my days on crutches had imprinted on our wood floors. 

But, I am told, limping is in the mind.

I remember that in the middle of December, I could think of no greater freedom than being able to walk barefoot to the kitchen (this coming from a Greek woman whose mother irrationally but effectively drilled into her head that she can't ever ever walk barefoot lest she contract some unidentified uterine pain from such activities). I longed for the freedom of bare feet, for not having to plan my every step methodically. For not assessing whether the patch of snow on which I was about to steady my crutches hid ice underneath it. I also longed for vanity: for pretty shoes that matched, for suits and heels, as opposed to suits and a grey astronaut-like boot that, at best, made me look half like a bionic superhero and half like a stocky, wobbly young professional. I longed for things I do not wish for now that I am mobile and not entirely dependent on everyone around me to fetch me a glass of water.

The return of the barefoot days (and sea breeze).
When the first barefoot day came, I was elated. It did not matter that my broken side had atrophied to the point that my foot was tiny and limp, or that I was under strong advisement to "take no more than 1,000 steps a day." 1,000 steps were better than 1,000 crutch hops or 1,000 wobbly orthopedic boot limps, and I was determined to cherish each one. It almost felt like showing off: "Look at me, I can walk to the coffee maker! (and none of you have to walk behind me to carry my coffee back to my desk for me while I crutch along.)" My demonstration of my newly re-acquired skill was met with exclamations that I'm sure my younger, chubbier self got when she first started walking: "Lookatyou! Walking on your feet!"


I did not notice the limping at first. I am sure everyone else did, but like me, they were too excited to see me regain a level of mobility that was unattainable during earlier stages of recovery. I first started noticing when crossing the street. Cars would fail to slow down because I crossed the street more slowly than the driver expected when she or he looked at a twenty-something girl standing at the edge of a crosswalk.

Strikingly like the grief I have also been battling in the past few months, losing the boot and crutches meant I lost all visible injury -- rendering the quieter, more invisible forms of hurting difficult to navigate.

Limping is in the mind, I am told. I have spent hours in the past month wiggling my toes and flexing my calf next to football players and marathon runners, with me being the least athletic person in the room. I overhear their conversations about plays and training routines and girls, all the while re-learning how to stretch and balance and pick up little glass pebbles with my toes so they can remember how to curl again. The physical injury is increasingly a relic of the past, but the mind is harder to recover. As it turns out, one's brain can get used to the adjusted forms of walking -- the limping and wobbling. This mental rewiring, the adaptation itself, can become the new normal and, to shake the limp, I need to think without it. Or so I am told.

My freshest memory of walking is a limped walk, with one foot dragging slightly behind the other, one hip doing more work than its counterpart, one part of the body carrying more weight. Much as I try, I cannot shift my mental wiring in a way that redistributes my body weight and allows me to walk as I did before. So my best bet, my only one now really, is to learn anew.

I do not limp when I walk slowly. Thus has commenced a new era of strolling, a pace frowned upon by New Englanders who praise efficiency and resent the frigid climate alike. I notice everything now: the buds on trees, the longer light, the shrinking piles of ice on the sidewalk. The walk to the library that previously took 12 minutes from my house now takes 27. The mile from my office to my home took 57 minutes on what felt like the warmest day of 2014 so far. I can credit not only my limp for the delay but also every friend I encountered along the way, and the conversations at street corners that ensued, punctuated by our marvel that it was, at last, warm enough to stop for a few moments and chat on a corner. I may not remember what it was like to walk before the fall of 2013 and its debacles, but relearning comes with its own exhilaration.

I do not remember what the pre-grief era felt like. I have spent the past decade steeped in successive losses, mourning followed by coping followed by more mourning, followed by a familiar recognition of the patterns and cycles of grief -- a recognition that, unfortunately, brings little solace. One of the major milestones in this process of navigating grief has been not being defined by the limping - not letting the loss and the gaping holes it left behind puncture the entire narrative. Yet, as I have realized lately, there are few aspects in my life that are impermeable by it. Grief has colored the way I see.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the process of re-learning how to walk, only to discover that I simply need to scrap the pressures of memory and learn anew, slowly. I do not remember what it was like to live without grief -- it was too long ago and too definitive a series of losses to undo. I have spent the past decade attempting to fight the small pangs of pain that strike in moments when grief resurfaces: at graduations, when others' families gather together to celebrate, or at my loved ones' family dinners, where seemingly endless streams of parents and uncles have inside jokes from years of living alongside one another. As far as grief is concerned, I always did think that limping is in the mind -- that I could train myself to not be in pain, that I could manage it if I could just teach myself how to walk again.

Increasingly, though, I am making my peace with the limping, with the lack of memory of a grief-less period. I am making peace with the idea that learning how to walk again, in life and in the shoes of grief alike, may not be a recovery that looks like my pre-injury self. I am making some slow, wobbly, fragile peace with a new gait that carries the weight, however unevenly, of the losses I have suffered.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Self-reflection and failure in academia

On Friday, Nicholas Kristof published a column titled "Professors, we need you!," in which he argued for the need to make research more accessible and relevant to the general public. While his point on relatable, open research is well-taken, Kristof drew heat from a rank of academics who have been attempting to make their fields more accessible than they have been for decades. One of the more salient critiques, titled "Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!" is at the Washington Post, while others are available at Duck of Minerva and the incredibly titled Mischiefs of Faction. The response that most resonated with me is by Erica Chenoweth at Political Violence at a Glance.

I agree with the critics who have pointed out that Kristof has not acknowledged some of the steps social/political science have taken to relay their research and findings to the general public, but I still think there is room for self-reflection on academic conversations in slightly different terms than the ones in which Kristof casts the issue. On the same day as Kristof published his column, I attended Unlearning Violence, a World Peace Foundation conference on early childhood development, conflict, and peace, drawing together scholars and practitioners from the fields of social science, education, neuroscience, humanitarian policy and more. A Storified list of tweets is available here.

One of the narrative arcs underpinning Unlearning Violence was the acknowledgment that we need to scrutinize how we learn as scholars of violence. Being honest about our failures is a critical part of the collective process of learning. Failures abound: Failed hypotheses about how people survive armed conflict and its aftermath, failed assumptions about which interventions may work, failed interventions, practices that blur the boundaries of the "do no harm" approach that we seek to embrace. One of the panelists spurred some of the most stimulating debate of the whole conference by asking: Where do we read about those failures?

Sure, there is Admitting Failure, a terrific website to "encourage new levels of transparency, collaboration and innovation across the for-purpose sector." There are the conversations we have with fellow scholars and practitioners about what we thought may have worked, but didn't. And there is the private sector, in which - as another panelist stipulated - there is some room to be honest about failure. But our journals, our scholarly writing, are largely centered on successful findings. Telling the stories of what did work, preferably at a certain statistical significance level, often drowns out the narratives of our failure. Interestingly enough, as any humanitarian practitioner or researcher on Twitter can attest, there is no shortage of critique or scrutiny in our field. Yet, as a different panelist noted, there are deeply entrenched reasons for the frequent omission of narratives of failure in academic research. Quite often, continued donor funding depends on being able to show successes. Reputational issues in tenure processes and the publication race also influence the process.

All this to say: Even if we grant that Kristof is wrong in assuming the scholarly world is still opaque to those who do not identify as academics, there are still questions about what the conversations actually look like, whether they occur in the 'Ivory Tower' or in the public domain. To begin with, making our research relatable cannot stop with publishing a paper, as Theresa Betancourt noted at Unlearning Violence. Building the types of relationships that allow us to identify key stakeholders at our research sites is crucial for then relaying that research to them and thinking of ways to make the research useful to the people at the heart of it. Furthermore, being honest about our failures -- both our failed assumptions and our failed approaches -- is important, particularly if we can carve out some more space in which to openly and candidly discuss these failings. As panelist Michael Wessells asked, "do we build the skills of ethical reflection among humanitarian practitioners and researchers?" And as audience members added, do we carve out the space for the discussions that may flow from this reflection? This may require setting aside our 'expert' identities, which are often out-of-step with the realities of researching violence. As Wessells asked: "Who can claim to be an expert in a war zone? We don't live there [most of the time]. We are all students. That's the attitude we need."

Kristof may have miscast the issue of the role of academics in policy, politics, and broader social conversations and, in doing so, ignored the many scholars who work hard to foster a public conversation and make their research relatable. That said, questions still remain about the nature and openness of that conversation and the institutional and professional prescriptions that limit what we do (not) discuss. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Healing and failing expectations of sunniness

This is the second post in a series of reflections on grief, inspired by recent loss, injury, and an abundance of pain. Part I is available here.

"I'm sure you are starting to feel better… aren't you?" 

"Look at you! You are getting so good on your crutches!" 

"Are you… feeling happier yet?"

Forty days after the death of a loved one in Greece, we conduct a service called μνημόσυνο -- a 'mnemosyne'. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was a titaness who was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, quite literally the daughter of Earth and Sky. At a mnemosyne, we remember the person we lost and begin to let go of a layer of the grief. In traditional circles, mourners wear black until that first mnemosyne, 40 days after the loss. For some, that is the permissible return of color into life. For others, particularly in rural areas, it is not unusual to wear black and keep the grieving rituals for a full year.

Well-versed in the traditions of my homeland as I may be, I am not sure how we decided forty days is the appropriate time to mourn and that the 41st ought to mark the beginning of letting go. And yet, I do know that in every period of grief I have survived until now, it is around that seemingly arbitrary 40-day mark that something starts to shift inside. The pain does not magically evaporate, nor does memory. After all, the word 'mnemosyne' refers to the personification of memory. But something little cracks, rearranges itself, propelling you into the next stage of recovery. 

What happens when that next stage of recovery is not the 'healing' you and everyone around you expected? 
In my professional sphere of conflict management and transitional justice, 'healing' is a charged term, right alongside 'reconciliation'. Some, like Martha Minnow, have acknowledged that 'healing' may be "an absurd or even obscene" notion to impose as a requirement for survivors and victims of violence, and others, such as Miriam Aukerman, have concluded that "transitional justice can strive for at least enough forgiveness, reconciliation, or healing to make coexistence possible." While I can wrap my mind around both their arguments, I have to ask: What is enough? And how do we know that this level of sufficiency has been met? How do we know we, as individuals or communities, whether in the realm of conflict and violence or outside of it, have healed enough? How do we know others have healed? When can we pronounce ourselves healed? And what about the un-healable pieces that linger after the spotlight has moved on?
Shifting from the transitional justice realm to the personal one, Cheryl Strayed tackles that question of 'sufficient healing' and the expectations others have of our own recovery after loss in an essay about everything from sex to mourning. She writes:
"We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into basketball, or Buddhism, or Star Trek, or jazz, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to "let go of," to "move on from," and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, hospital workers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was alarmed by how many people knew them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only was I supposed to feel these five things, I was meant to feel them in that order and for a prescribed amount of time."
There is an impatience to the process of recovery from grief and its emotional bruises or even from physical ailments. Some of it is our own; it is self-imposed impatience, and there is a degree of needing to give ourselves permission to not be well -- as my beloved friend Erin puts it, permission to just "lie in the mud." But some of it is social impatience, born out of an eagerness on the part of our loved ones to see our pain subside, taking with it our fragmented pieces and returning us to the world with wholeness. They want us to lose the crutches, they want us to wear bright teal instead of black, they want us to behave in ways they do not associate with mourning. 

I am a teal and sunshine and rainbows kind of person, the kind some would scowl at in New York City because she's smiling on the subway. Failing those social expectations of a timely recovery, arbitrary as the time frame may be, breeds a little extra impatience. It is the holiday season and the whole world smells like gingerbread, twinkling lights, and jingles. There is a heightened degree of dissonance to not being able to match the sunniness around me, both because my own state of grief and pain is seemingly out of pace with the universe and because it is out of pace with the typically sunny disposition of my ungrieving self. 
As I slide on sheets of ice on the sidewalk on my crutches, I am tempted to think to myself that "this would all be easier in the spring," but then I realize there is never a good time for pain or grief or loss -- other than "not now." I am also tempted to think that 'this' would all be easier if it were 'just' my broken bones, or 'just' the loved one's grave illness, or 'just' grief for my lost family, or 'just' another blue holiday season, as opposed to one stacked on top of the other simultaneously like a messy mille-feuille dessert. When I ask friends about their engagements or homework or their time at the gym or their fatigue, they look at me with guilt, as though none of those stories are worth sharing in light of the mind-numbing cocktail of pain in my own life. Layered misfortune stuns conversation into silence.

Over time in my work in conflict-affected areas, I have witnessed the dangers of creating hierarchies of suffering, of privileging some pain over other, of placing experiences of injustice on a ladder, rendering some of them more worthy of attention or sympathy than the next. I insist on remembering that when contemplating personal suffering outside war zones. My trauma does not trump yours. There is no trumping because there is no winning. Simply put, there are no prizes for most scarred -- so tell me about the engagements and the stressful homework and your worry that you are getting fat and your loneliness. They are allowed to exist alongside mine.

Cheryl Strayed, in the same essay I quoted earlier, disagrees. She contests:
"After my mother died, everyone I knew wanted to tell me either about the worst breakup they'd had or all the people they'd known who'd died. I listened to a long, traumatic story about a girlfriend who suddenly moved to Ohio, and to stories of grandfathers and old friends and people who lived down the block who were no longer among us. Rarely was this helpful. 
And there is a difference. Dying is not your girlfriend moving to Ohio. Grief is not the day after your neighbor's funeral, when you felt extremely blue. It is impolite to make this distinction. We act as if all losses are equal. It is un-American to behave otherwise: we live in a democracy of sorrow. Every emotion is validated and judged to be true as any other. But what does this do to us: this refusal to quantify love, loss, grief?"
I like to think that this is what the refusal to quantify love, loss, grief does to us: It makes us empathetic. It makes us keenly aware of the abundance of pain in our world, of loss in all its forms and suffering with all its faces. It reminds us that we are not hurting alone, that our pain may be unique to our circumstances in ways that only we alone can know, but that Pain at large is a shared, recognized, recognizable emotion. The shared experience of loss is, in itself, paradoxically, part of the fabric that connects one life to the next. We do not all hurt equally all the time -- nor do we need to. This need not be a meritocracy of pain. We do not need to earn the right to our mourning, we need not live, as Strayed puts it, "in a democracy of sorrow." But given the choice to grieve at the top rung of a ladder of pain or in a shared community of loss, I know I'd choose the latter.
I am not 'better' 'yet.' I have not healed. Sometimes the healing itself, from my broken bones to the grave illness to the lost family, is so imperceptibly slow that I am not sure it is happening at all. When I venture online and am confronted with images of happy families with at least ten people who are related to each other sitting around a table and a pile of presents, I feel a tinge of envy, as though the universe deprived me of the ability to ever take that photo with myself in it. When I stumble upon a "10 resolutions to make for 2014" listicle online, inevitably involving eating more vegetables and being more mindful, I groan because I cannot muster thoughtful reflection right now. I cannot dream up a year because my whole energy is channelled to dreaming up the day that just dawned, starting with gathering the courage to get out of bed and facing. It is when you say this out loud that you can feel yourself failing social expectations of sunniness and recovery. 

I am not in constant pain any more, nor am I so overwhelmed by shock that I cannot get out of bed in the morning each morning. But I cannot pronounce myself healed and happy and whole yet, much as I wish to reassure everyone around me. So I long to carve out an in-between space of grief and recovery, a space in which the suffering is not so loud that it obliterates everything around it with its sheer weight but is also not so distant in the past that you feel you can get through the day unaccompanied by pain. 

It seems that such a space does not come easily in this world on December 29th. The expectation is that we reflect and rejoice, dream up resolutions, pop the champagne. Count our blessings. And it is in this light that failing others' expectations of sunniness, or even our own, becomes especially harsh.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When grief becomes the teacher

My world is rife with loss right now. From a broken foot and ankle to a family emergency to the memories of grief revisited, I am swimming in pain.  In no particular order -- because that is what grief does to me, it disrupts order and my capacity for it -- here are some of the lessons that have emerged from the past month, written with the awareness that there may not be lessons at all in these processes, with the acknowledgment that perhaps we look for lessons so we can hold on to our faith that there is something to be learned, something salvageable to all this. 

"The art of losing isn't hard to master," claims Elizabeth Bishop in her famous poem One Art.

What she quietly neglects to share is that there are no prizes for the mastery of grief and loss.

I once heard someone describe Joan Didion, one of my favorite authors, as "the high priestess of grief." I remember thinking to myself, "what a dubious title! Would anyone really want that 'honor?'" And after developing my own little corner of expertise in the art of loss, I have learned that having mastered the art of loss, in the ways that would inspire Bishop to write poems about, still leaves one entirely naked in the face of it. There is no excellence in grief. All that the mastery of grief affords you is a recognition that you have been here before. You recognize this space. Its rhythms feel familiar to you, but that familiarity does not shelter you from their impact.
In the ears of some, 'grief' is a term of art that exclusively refers to death. Yet, as my community navigates the effects of the symptoms of loss, I wonder whether grief might be a relevant concept for non-fatal losses too: the loss of a job, a cherished relationship, a dream, a particular vision of life. Or even to that memory of loss that still strikes years after the funeral, after the initial cycle of grief is complete and you have walked along the path to healing. And if one were to embrace this expanded conception of grief, then my world is aching with loss right now.

That is one of my newest lessons in grief: It comes in patterns. I'm not sure if we construct these patterns out of a need to make sense of the non-sensical, or if experiencing loss prompts us to be more aware of the losses others have suffered, but it feels as though we are hurting collectively right now... as a community, nursing everything from funerals to broken feet and broken hearts. We are wobbling alongside each other as we move slowly from numbness to anger to acceptance -- to the rest of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' typology of grief. Perhaps we make up typologies because we feel a need for them -- we need the reassurance that "this" is intelligible, that someone else has been through it, and that there are recognizable stages that we will, almost inevitably, move through -- that there is a logic to this madness that appears non-linear and our experience, too, falls within it.
I try to recall the last non-aching memory, the last time I was standing on two feet and nothing hurt, the last time my world felt at balance and at peace. I know it was not too long ago, and yet I cannot picture it. Pain makes it hard to remember there ever was a period without it.
We revert to our earlier wounded selves when grieving. I had to learn lessons of loss at a very young age, and then again really learn them during my senior year of college. They are crystallized in a single memory: Me sitting on top of a washing machine in the basement of Adams House. In the washer were the clothes I was going to pack for the funeral and across from it, against a dryer, was my friend Cooper, silent, not uttering what all of us were thinking then: Why is this happening again? How much loss can one life sustain? It has been years since that moment. The funeral came and went, I graduated, I moved to Washington DC for a brief second, I moved to Egypt, and then Uganda, and then Sudan, and then Colombia, and then and then and then, and somewhere along the lines I learned that life can sustain a lot of loss. Just as we might think we have run out of resilience, we stumble upon a depository of strength of whose existence we were previously unaware. We carry on, and there is an exhilaration that kicks in -- a sheer exhilaration to be able to pull ourselves out of bed and face the world another day.

Since that moment atop the washer in the basement of Adams, there have been moments of healing and moments of grief-- mine, that of others, the memory of grief, new losses. Every time, every single time loss pays me a visit, I revert to that girl. I become my 20-year-old self, sitting on top of scrunched up dryer sheets in a room too hot and too humid, bracing herself for impact.

The numbness sets in soon after. There is an unexpected mental clarity to loss, propelled forward by the inability to generate any more emotion. As I cycle through those motions again, I do it with the confidence that I have been here before, on top of the washer. I am no stranger to the numbness. I sit atop the washer in my head now, confident that the feelings will come again.
Even when surrounded by conflict practitioners who reflect on loss of human life on a regular basis, I realize that we do not quite know how to talk about grief. We do not know how to sit with the discomfort of someone else's helplessness or tears. At times in the past month, I have felt an unreasonable--and entirely self-imposed--responsibility to reassure everyone who seeks to help that I am okay. I find myself comforting those who wish to comfort me. Every time I tell the story of 'what happened', I feel its weight on me. As a researcher and humanitarian practitioner in conflict areas, I have read countless books on the retraumatization that may occur when victims or survivors of violence recount stories of trauma. My circumstances are different and so is the scale of my pain, but I feel compelled to print T-shirts to save myself yet another retelling of the story.

It does not feel fair to me to expect others to magically intuit what kind of compassionate care would resonate with me in my moments of pain and grief -- so I am trying to articulate my needs and it boils down to this: I need to feel whole. I need to feel agency, in moments when seemingly, in the face of the universe's sense of humor, I have none. I need that semblance of normalcy.

It, further, does not feel fair to feel a responsibility to sunniness itself. I am, at heart, an unbridled optimist, but I have no sunniness to supply at the moment. Fundamentally, this has been a time of reflecting on permission: giving myself permission to say I am not okay when asked, to share that which hurts instead of the reassurance that it will not hurt a month or a year from now.
I keep returning to that Leonard Cohen Song: "There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Last night, two friends from my international law study group carried me up their icy front stairs so I don't fall off my crutches. I have been bathed this month, physically lifted in and out of bathtubs. I have been carried up flights upon flights of stairs. Friends have shielded my head from the staircase corner as I scoot up it on my butt. There have been more hugs than I can count, and more offers of rides and food than I could possibly need. 

My instinct is to feel guilty -- guilty for absorbing so much of this world's goodness, for not being able to immediately reciprocate these massive feats of kindness. And, in the same breath, I try to quieten the guilt and replace it with gratitude. 

These are my lessons: We have no obligation to be graceful in grief or patient with pain. We may forget what comfort and stability felt like, what anticipation looks like, what mindful presence really is -- because that is how grief functions: it erases our ability to experience an array of emotions, it rearranges our internal worlds into an incoherent narrative. We may not be able to muster optimism. We may feel a need to comfort those who seek to comfort us. We may bump up against our own limits, physical and emotional, in ways that invite endless frustration. But the biggest lesson of them all has been this: to shed the guilt, to let the gratitude inspire humility, to let love flood everything.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A fall diary of the moments in between

If this fall were to have a narrative arc, it would read like a bibliography full of texts on narratives, memory, and patterns of violence, with titles like Killing Civilians and Precarious Life and Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community. 

James Dawes, whose own book Evil Men has also dominated my thoughts and research this fall, speaks of the moments in between. Dawes and his team, consisting of a photographer and a translator, interviewed convicted war criminals who committed atrocities in the second Sino-Japanese war. He had the following to say about the moments in between the interviews and, while he is referring to interviews and field work in situations of mass atrocities, his words also ring true of the moments next to those consumed by research and thinking about mass atrocities:
"I don't understand how to put these things next to each other. It is like somebody has taken a crowbar and pried open the seams of the everyday, so that the evils we cover over, block out, are now suddenly there, implacably next to us. next to everything. In fact, that is how I think of the time the three of us spend together. They are the "next to" times: what happens next to the interviews. This makes them sound unimportant, and at first I think they are, but over time I begin to change my mind. It matters so much that there is a "next to," whatever it is. I keep thinking about what it means to be next to something, about what fits together."
When I read that passage, I think about what it means to transcribe interview after interview of my own research on enforced disappearance and then step out my front door into the crisp air for the sheer purpose of photographing a leaf.

The 'moments in between' have consisted of not letting a single leaf fall unphotographed.

They are made of walks - walks from work to class to the library, walks home, to the sounds of Fonseca and Carlos Vives and Carla Morrison. They are the sounds that accompany me as I walk bundled in all my knits and which transport me to a time of sweat drops forming on my head in a jungle, away from the crispness and closer to the topics I now read about. We carry all our homes with us.

The moments in between are made of notes. Notes scribbled from my reading on Ralph Waldo Emerson or Oliver Wendell Holmes. Notes scribbled at conferences, like journalist Michele Montas' reflection on the earthquake in Haiti as "having erased our last places of memory," or Professor Perry's prompt to "not write the kind of book that can be read just by browsing the index." The moments in between are also made of talks -- talks constructed in the old-fashioned way by putting pen to paper and letting the blank page stare at me until I either panic or muster the courage to walk onto a stage and lay claim to a tiny corner of narrative as my own.

The moments in between are made of plane rides, and my newfound fear of them. They are, incidentally, the only moments in which I watch television, courtesy of JetBlue, and either become engrossed in cooking shows even though I don't understand half the terminology or become fascinated by how differently one approaches the news when she watches them, rather than reads them.

The moments in between unfolded between Texas and Guatemala, where I have continued to face my demons of paralyzing self-doubt and my ever-recurring questions on where the "I" fits in a narrative about conflict, violence, and atrocities. They involved eating what felt like all of Guatemala's avocados within 48 hours, grinning at the "do not pee here" instruction graffitied onto every street corner wall, and realizing - upon searching for food at a Texas airport - that I was the tiniest thing within view for miles.

There were moments for meeting a self-pronounced mentalist, and the astronaut who hopes to be on Guatemala's first mission to space. Moments for hugging the women who make the International Peace Scholarship possible, thus enabling my own education, and moments for explaining to yet another person at yet another airport "what a girl like you is doing in war zones." Those, incidentally, were the moments I chose to explain the difference between "gender" and "women" and "war" and "conflict," telling you everything you need to know about what crossing an immigration checkpoint with me may be like.

The moments in between were the moments of Indian food, usually on Wednesday afternoons, always with the same girls, always with garlic naan, always with giggles.

There were moments of dancing and red wine -- but those are never the 'next to' moments, they are the moments. They are part of the main narrative. As was the search for beauty, and the hope, and all the love because it is only 'next to' them that the study of atrocities can become more palatable.

But mostly, when I recall this fall between the moments of transcribing interviews and researching mass atrocities and collective memory and writing writing writing and reading until I am bleary-eyed, I see leaves. I hear them crunching under my feet, I hear their rustle in that crisp wind of New England fall that I have so come to love. I see autumnal light.