Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Migratory silences


From the moments-in-between, on the cusp of things.



















September 1, 2014, Acadia National Park

"I feel like we have done this before."

We are at a campsite at the very edge of the woods near Acadia National Park on what feels like the last weekend of summer. He loves it, the privacy, the vastness. I wish I had googled "bears at Acadia National Park?!" before I lost reception.

We are wearing all the clothes we brought on top of themselves, sweater above sweater, shorts above jeans above leggings. He makes a comment about how "tight European pants" are no good for layering when it's 38 degrees at night on what should have been the last weekend of summer, but we both know he hates those pants in the city too -- at all seasons.

He is making me my first ever s'more.
I am watching for bears.

We both forget I didn't grow up here sometimes.

He insists I must have eaten a s'more before. We are now at the deep end of splitting hairs: "a marshmallow yes; a s'more per se? No!"
"What about at camp? Not even at camp?"
"No. I stuck to marshmallows there too. I had my first marshmallow at camp."
I still watch for bears, and I stare into the distance with the kind of intensity that might fool you into thinking I actually know what I'm watching for.

"I feel like we have done this before," Elijah says.

We have, in fact. It is our anniversary and anniversaries are built on repetitive memory -- on being able to say "we have done this before." We have worn all our clothes before, regretting it when we wake up and everything we brought smells like fire smoke and tent floor. I have ruined whole nights of what could have been camping sleep before, watching for bears or other monsters in the night.

But the 'this' on the night of my first s'more was memory-making in the face of liminality.

***
Thessaloniki, somewhere between the ages of 5 and 6 or 6 and 7 - or whenever you learn to multiply

My father was a big believer in repetition. "Repetition is the mother of learning," as the Greek proverb would have it. When I returned to my home in Greece earlier this year, I was confronted with the relics of that early childhood repetitive learning. In the attic that holds our Christmas decorations and old suitcases, I found my elementary school notebooks (because we are all apparently repetitive sentimentalists). Multiplication tables brought back memories of lunches that would go on forever, prompted by my father's single word: "Again!" And there we were, pushing soggy fries around the plate, until he could be convinced that I knew the value of 7 times 9.

Sometimes, when I count in my head, I still do it in his voice.

Over twenty years later, a friend insists life keeps giving you the same lesson until you learn it. By her Buddhist tenet, I must be a bad learner. One round of surprise grief, then another, then the reverberating waves of loss. One round of injury, then another, echoing with fragility.  Ten migratory years, punctuated by applications, waits, passports-in-the-mail and days of hoping against hope that they will return intact. Cast in this light, when you stare at your childhood multiplication notebook, you ask what the lesson is. You ask how to signal to the world that you have learned it, how to raise your hand and say you are ready to move on.

***
Athens, Greece, what feels like every second summer 

I did not use to be this sweaty. 

The country is clad in denim shorts. When I walk through a protest to get to my embassy appointment -- a commute rife with the irony and incongruousness of my worlds - I get catcalled by the riot police. I keep walking and hear them whistling behind me. 

"Κοπελιά! Εσύ, με τη γκρίζα φούστα!" 
"Leave her, she's not from here," says one riot policeman to the other. 

There is a repetition to my migratory routines, and it is unperturbed by grief and recession alike. Every few Julies, I line up outside the embassy in Athens, ready for my visa appointment. The protests are the same. The riot policemen. The street harassment. The denim shorts. The tears of relief outside the embassy, and the embarrassment at my telenovela-esque display of relief in the next breath. Only the sweat is new.
***
Our Boston attic, August 2014

My passport with its brand new visa sits on my desk. My work permit, on the other hand, is nowhere to be seen. The details are not essential to this story and they are the kinds of details that begin to fade into the background once the relief of resolution sets in, but the repetitiveness of the routine of migratory uncertainty doesn't evaporate quite as easily. 

You track your application online. Read the message that your application is "under review." Read it every day, even though it was the same yesterday. Tomorrow, you will read it again, and you will start to notice the words. Was that word there yesterday? It did not feel quite so weighty then. What might it mean?

You catch yourself. You acknowledge your own repetitions. Once you have your 12-digit application number memorized from logging in to the site ritualistically, Elijah takes you camping. You pretend to read other things in between the 'Under Review' messages, but none of them quite register. 

This will have been the first August when you do not remember a single book you read.

***
September 2014, somewhere between a porch, a terrace, and a wine glass

One day the words on the screen change to "request for further evidence in support of your case." The screen does not, however, clarify what the requested evidence is, stating instead that a letter is on the way. 

This marks a rupture in the routine. You wait. Staring at the postman becomes part of your sequence. You joke that this is how people must have felt in Victorian England or in a Marquez novel when they were waiting for their lover's letter to arrive, but that's just part of how you tell the story. It is part of the narrative that keeps you from unraveling.

There are moments of presence in between, but you can't shake the consciousness that they are, indeed, moments-in-between. Immigration anxiety has that effect: it suspends life in mid-air. 

The moments in between are filled with the kindness of friends who cannot imagine you facing all this uncertainty without a glass (or six) of Malbec. You cannot start your new job or earn money until your work permit is in your hands. You can't help but think that the work part of your brain, the part of you that is ready to be back in the humanitarian sector as soon as immigration lets you, would think that buying Malbec at this juncture would be a "maladaptive livelihood choice." Your friends keep you from making it and, on an optimistic day on the cusp of fall - on the cusp of everything really - you think that maybe this is the era of wine and walks, of friends feeding you while you wait. Or rather, that this has been every era of your adult life so far, and not even the uncertainty of this particular limbo can rob you of it.

***
That optimism no longer comes easily. In its darkest moments, the immigration process wipes out the capacity for gratitude. It wipes out a lot, in fact: it occupies space by clearing away the nooks that used to be filled by other emotions. One of the first to be edged out is the ability to imagine the future. As Miranda Ward put it in a beautiful essay on immigration limbo in Vela, "if the decision is not in my favor, then there is a great blank space where our future used to be. All of the assumptions we've made about our life […] will have to shift. At the moment those assumptions are greyed out, un-clickable, just out of reach, but I can still see their frail outlines."

Once immigration uncertainty and worry fills all compartments, it becomes a single, dominant narrative that squashes all others. It is also a narrative that is conducive to hierarchies of suffering and competitions of privilege. It is impossible to think of immigration, transitions, and uncertainty without thinking of the other migrants in line -- some of whom are migrants without my privilege, facing different challenges and prospects. Again, in Ward's words: "The freedom of choice, of mobility. You have to be in a pretty privileged position even to be able to consider it an option. This uncomfortable period of powerlessness is actually a direct result of my privilege."

When one places Ward in conversation with Roxane Gay in the recently-released Bad Feminist, the spotlight shifts to the uncomfortable balance between expansive compassion for those facing uncertainty with even less privilege and acknowledgment of how privilege can ebb and flow in the same moment in one's life. Gay writes (emphasis mine):
"In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or the lack thereof? We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege."
***
There is an 'untellability' to some stories and the veil of silence against which Roxane Gay cautions permeates narratives of immigration. In the beginning, when your whole life is under scrutiny, the very consciousness of that process propels you into silence. You do not want to look like you are complaining or criticizing, like you are ungrateful or blind to privilege. You are caught between patience and impatience, between wanting to meet yourself where you are and wanting deeply to be the kind of person who can go through this process without holding her breath till she turns blue in the face. Soon enough, repetition sets in: the 12-digit code, the same message on the screen, the same anticipation for the time the mail comes. Everything is measured and you are on the wrong side of the measurement. "Please do not contact us before 60 days have elapsed." "You will hear within 3 months." There is a choreography to these prescriptions and it is so uniform that it is at once soothing and infuriating. On some days, you tell your friends that you just want to talk to a human on the other end of the line who can yank you out of your static place and press play on your paused life. But even that, the talking to a human, has to wait -- until you have received your letter… or until thirty days have passed since the day it was mailed.

"We have done this before," Elijah says, and he is right. The 'this' is the yanking -- the yanking ourselves out of uncertainty, out of the anxious unknowing place, to go camping of all things. Camping! Camping feels like a defiant act, "considering everything," and just like that, you watch your definition of defiance shift a little.
Look at me, I'm eating my first s'more.
No mail, no cell reception, no bears (he swears).
The only way to yank yourself out of stasis, as it turns out, is to keep making memories, even when uncertainty narrows the bandwidth of your imagination.
On most days, that's too much to ask, but you have a hunch that you will remember this anniversary as the time you were anxious about bears, and not the time-in-between. At least that is the memory you want to will into posterity.

***
By the time your work authorization document arrives, you are so sick of living in this story that you cannot tell it again. You thought you'd want to shout this moment from the rooftops. In reality, you are simply ready to live in a different narrative. Hanif Kureishi claims "others only have the power we give them. The immigrant is a collective hallucination forged in our own minds." Perhaps that version lives on because many of us in the middle of a process succumb to its voicelessness, and many of us who have crawled out of it are too grateful, too exhausted, too tired of the story to tell it again. And thus the silences perpetuate and multiply…

The glaring complement to this interpretation is, of course,  that the story itself is not a rewarded narrative, it is not a prized trope, it is not welcomed or celebrated or encouraged. In Judith Butler's terms, we need to ask: "When is life grievable?" Which lives are grievable? And where do migratory lives and narratives fit within this scale?

*** 
In a class on fiction in college, the professor said: "Don't tell a story unless you know why. What is your purpose in telling it?" I can file that away under tenets I am violating, apparently right under "life keeps giving you the same lesson until you learn it" and "repetition is the mother of all learning." I do not fully know what the purpose of sharing the process of four months of uncertainty and immigration-fueled anxiety is. Yet, I do know that I cannot tell the next story until I tell this one -- and I am ready to tell the next story, so I must tell this one. Call it a clearing of space, an attempt to be honest about the moments-in-between. Obscuring them would feel like an act of insincerity.

I do not know what the lesson is, or even that there is one. The abundance of lessons makes the experience read almost like a horoscope, in that you can pick and choose which vague outline of a lesson most fits the prescription you want to take away. Friends have joked that perhaps the lesson is that I should stay put somewhere - anywhere at this point! - and not put myself through the uncertainty of transitions through which I can preserve very little agency. Others have suggested that perhaps the lesson is to sit less clumsily through the agency-less times, to fidget less through the uncertain waters, to embrace the powerlessness. There are also lessons about love and care in the face of uncertainty, about making memories, about exhaling a little, even if you know that what will come out may not be a full breath. The lessons I keep coming back to, however, are questions: How do we make immigration a kinder process? How do we design a policy and process that takes people's lives and livelihoods into account and treats them with dignity? How do we make the story more tellable and the lives more grievable? 

And, selfishly, how do we move our own personal story along, signaling that we get 'it', that the lesson has been learned, that repetition is indeed the mother of all learning? How do we avoid another round of repetition? And if that is our goal… have we learned anything at all?

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:

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.