Monday, October 25, 2010

The New Get-Well Prescription: Kristof, Ellery and Burnt Bread

Week 3 of 6 of bed-rest. I have not written about conflict, or development, or my projects, or life outside four walls because I am still not partaking in any of that in any significant manner. It kills me. But life goes on, and so does learning, even from one's bedside. Here are the ways in which the world continues to make me think and laugh these days (cue "brown paper packages tied up with strings, these are a few of my favorite things." When I start quoting The Sound of Music, you know it is time for this bed-rest nonsense to end.): 

  • Nicholas Kristof's, The D.I.Y. Foreign Revolution. For the cynics: Yes, I am aware that someone writes some version of this article every month or two. I am also aware that there is a pattern to Kristof's articles: Write about (a) women, (b) the importance of salt in African diets, (c) some obscure mosquito or worm and the ailments it causes, (d) Pakistan, (e) Greg Mortenson, (f) his son's blog in China, (g) rinse and repeat. I do, however, and appreciate that he uses a forum as powerful as the NYT editorial page to shed light on issues that are otherwise not glamorous enough to garner the attention of the readership. I also appreciate Kristof's way of encouraging young people to transform their ideas into actionable community service. And I very much recommend Half the Sky, which he co-authored with his wife Sheryl WuDunn (and became the first couple to be joint Pulitzer prize winners... no pressure on the rest of the marriages on this planet.) Update: Foreign Policy has published a critique of the article here.
  • Anything Sloane Crosley writes. In January 2007, Chris Hitchens penned a Vanity Fair article with the title "Why Women Aren't Funny." Sloane Crosley exists to prove him wrong. She reads like a female Sedaris and manages to be both insightful and funny, both sweet and biting -- all without once dipping into the 'chick lit' genre of which some female essayists are wary. Her second collection of essays was published this summer and they chronicle tales of being a 20-something in New York City, traveling woes, apartment stories and the requisite heartbreak. Follow her on Twitter as well for extra laughs.
On the Reading Wish List (oh, English language bookstores, where are you?)
  • Freedom, Jonathan Franzen. I just finished his How to be Alone, the collection of essays critics seemed to hate. And now I want to read the book that critics seem to love to the point of outrage.
  • A Bed for the Night, David Rieff. Anything that makes the ICRC write this review, I want to read.
  • Women Travelers, Mary Morris. Recommended by a dear friend, and on the wish list for obvious reasons.
  • If A Place Can Make you Cry, Daniel Gordis. From Publisher's Weekly:  "In 1998, Gordis, his wife and three children left their home in Los Angeles, where he was vice president of the University of Judaism, to spend a one-year sabbatical in Jerusalem. While in Israel, though, Gordis began to feel that it was not only his home, but "an experiment of cosmic significance," that he wished to be a permanent part of. This volume gathers e-mails-some excerpted previously in the New York Times Magazine-and private musings that record Gordis's impressions of his new home up through the current turmoil." 
  • Ellery: It is no secret that I love female singers and songwriters. I started out with Neko Case and Norah Jones, continued with Regina Spektor and Rachael Yamagata, and fell uninhibitedly in love with Cat Power, whose Good Woman still gives me the chills. Now I am adding Ellery to the list. Listen here for free. (Thank you, P, for the fantastic suggestion). 
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela: The first notes on the guitar make me want to peel myself off the bed and dance. They instantly transport me back to my Latin America of dance and happiness. 
On the Watching Wish List
  • Sin Nombre. A journey through life and Latin America. An award-winner. But, most importantly, a recommendation by a friend with impeccable taste.
  • Norwegian Wood. I loved the book and know I will love the film. Recommended by the same friend with impeccable taste.
Baking (and burning)

[Yes, I have become the Woman Who Bakes For Her Loved One And Waits For Him To Come Home and Taste The Banana Bread, but please do not judge. Six weeks of bed-rest, people. I promise I will go back to not being able to boil an egg as soon as the doctor lets me out of the house.]
  • Pear Bread. A word of warning: Do not use your new oven to bake something you have never baked before. This one ended in charcoal. Pure blackness. Epic Bake Fail. It also resulted in laughter and the scraping of the burnt layers so as to eat the rest with some peach jam. Cheers to yummy, gooey, still-not-charred cake interiors and oven baptisms by fire.
  • Banana Bread. Because who said a bad beginning will discourage you from using the rest of the 24 eggs that are sitting in your fridge? This was a delicious success. Also, there is nothing about the Smitten Kitchen food blog that I do not love. 
  • Nutella Pound-Cake. The writer titled it "Nutella Pound Cake - Need I Say More?" Amen. 
What are you listening to, reading, cooking or learning these days? What moves you, excites you, prods you to think? Save my oven from having to suffer from my imposed restlessness and send me your suggestions. As for how you can help my recovery... Take a walk. Admire the fall foliage. Snap a photo. Eat some apple crisp, drink some hot cider, smell the first fireplaces of the season. Do all those things that I cannot do at the moment and enjoy them for both of us. And do so in the knowledge that I may be reveling in fall-induced nostalgia, but at least every place in which I have lived and worked and, indeed, this very place, may be missing the fall light, the turning leaves, and the pumpkins, but it is certainly still brimming with love.

Love - the Be'er Shevah, Israel edition.
 Photographed on my first adventure out of the house.

Monday, October 18, 2010

For the voice from the kitchen - and for those who cannot ask for help

The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in. [...] Let it come in. We think we don't deserve love, we think if we let it in, we'll become too soft. But a wise man named Levine said it right. He said, "Love is the only rational act." - From Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie, which has become very dear to me.
There was a time in my life when my luggage weighed as much as I did. Kind strangers would ask me if I had stuffed a human in there - it turns out that one rolled-up cardigan too many renders a suitcase into a body-bag. These kind people would then offer to help me with my baggage. Then I would typically smile and say I had it under control. I did not. There were multiple times when I nearly rolled backwards down an escalator, courtesy of my bags and my stubbornness.

"No man is an island", but I sure as hell have tried. If self-reliance were a competitive sport, I would have seen some more tangible rewards of my insistence to go it alone. 'It', in this instance, is broadly defined: Luggage schlepping, grief, applications to jobs or schools, anxiety, insomnia. I was determined to carry my baggage, literal and metaphorical, alone. I was hard-wired to not ask for help.

In The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich ventured a subtle but powerful critique of enclosing oneself within oneself:
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. 
I began to learn this lesson slowly outside her writing as well. I cried during an entire walk by the Charles river on a grief-filled November morning, as a very dear friend walked beside me with clouds of frozen breath trailing us both. I have been fed Kinder chocolate until the last malarial parasite left my body. Loved ones have stayed up with me, on Gchat or on park benches or by sharing a bed with me and a stuffed panda, on the eve of major decisions or the day after major transitions. Anais Nin claims that "life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage"; I have found that one's courage shrinks or expands in proportion to the strength of one's friendships. Life may have chosen to test my courage amply in the past years, but I have been blessed with the kinds of wonderful, loving people who can hold one's hand from across the world.

You would, therefore, think that by now, I would have learned to ask for help. I would have come up with some type of smoke signals to communicate the need for this kind of international hand-holding. It took my getting hit by a truck and, consequently, being prescribed 6 weeks of bed-rest to realize that in some ways, my emotional development is no greater than that of a coffee table.

I cannot wash my own hair. I cannot extend my arms to reach the toaster oven on top of the fridge (for the quick-witted among you, I would be able to reach if I stood on my tippy-toes and did not have a broken ribcage, thankyouverymuch). I cannot refill my own water bottle because the Brita filter is too heavy for a dislocated shoulder to maneuver. The list of cannot's and must not's is oppressively long. The hardest restriction to overcome, however, is not doctor-prescribed; rather, it is the product of my own shortcomings: I cannot ask for or accept help.

A dear friend has been the witness of the following dialogue between me and my loved one, who is currently fulfilling the roles of caretaker/cook/cleaner/nurse in addition to managing his own life:
R: *sneaks out of bed, locates broom, sweeps living room.
Voice from the kitchen: How did you get out of bed!
R: There are some floating hairs on the living room floor. It will only take me two seconds to clean it up.
Voice from the kitchen: Please go back to bed. Let me clean up the hair. 
Now replace "hair on the living room floor" with "I just wanted to get my computer" or "I was craving another Kinder chocolate" (they are magical, I tell you) and you will understand why my friends' emails are not primarily laden with recovery wishes for me, but with vibes of strength, support and solidarity for the Voice from the kitchen.

I have several broken bones and one broken spirit. The former are easier to care for than the latter. Do not sleep on your stomach. Keep your calcium intake up. The broken spirit presents a more complex problem. I miss working. I miss being so tired when I go to bed at night that I can feel my spine decompress as it hits the mattress. I miss making contact with the world outside a computer. I miss people, communities, impact. I miss the sun. I miss taking more than ten steps within four walls each day - running, hiking, stretching, bending to shave my own legs. A Voice from the kitchen astutely remarked two days ago: "You are having trouble loving yourself, aren't you?" Indeed. 

Most of all, I resent the fact that when that same voice asks what he can do for me, I tell him that there is little that he -- or I, for that matter -- can do to heal faster and put me back in the world that I miss. The inability to articulate how I can be helped is perpetuating the feeling of helplessness.

So, I had a major breakthrough this afternoon. I was home alone, attempting to sweep (I am incorrigible, I realize). I acknowledged that as long as I am unable to work, move about, or lead the life I want to lead, I will inevitably get nostalgic for "sucking the marrow out of life." I can cry if I want to and whine and wear pajamas all day. But I cannot continue to lose sight of positivity. I cannot continue to go it alone or lament the learning and doing that might have been. In that spirit, here are a few of the things I have learned on my week of bed-rest in Beer Shevah. A list of things one can learn from her bedside.
  1. Ted Talks are a bed-ridden dork's best friends. Listen to Melinda Gates talk about what development workers can learn from Coca-Cola.
  2. Shiny eyes are the sign of a person who has been moved. Benjamin Zander - yes, courtesy of Ted again - talks about music, passions in life and the "untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections."
  3. Sometimes, you just need someone to refill your water bottle for you. And wash your hair. And it will not kill you to ask.

I am just coming to terms with my own fragility and vulnerability. I am beginning to see the unwashed bits of the hair, the uncomfortable tears, the unflattering positions in which I sleep at night so I can shelter my ribcage. I am beginning to understand how my own self-sheltering hurts me more, and hurts my loved ones with it. I am beginning to see why Louise Erdrich continued the passage in The Tin Drum as follows:
You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.
There are so many more apples to taste in the world and I cannot wait to be back out there and harvest them. Until then, I will taste the apples closer to my bedside with patience, resilience and some much-needed sunniness. The sweetest apple of them all is the knowledge that there is a lot of support and love in the world - as long as you can bring yourself to ask for help and open your heart to it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Home is where the mosquitoes are

Elijah is standing on the couch, bare feet sinking into the cushions. The intention is to slap the ceiling. One of my favorite lines in Kurt Vonnegut's writing reads:
It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it. 
The ceiling and I were treated to the slapping version of that. What motivates one to stand on furniture and reverse worship the walls? The usual culprit: Mosquitoes. The ceiling is low enough to see clouds of cigarette smoke float in the glow of the single light. The smoky journey is interrupted by the mosquitoes in the path of the same light and two minutes later, someone ends up standing on the couch. There is a jump, then another, then fits of laughter, then a smack against the white walls. A miss leaves a dirty handprint that will quietly nag me for the next three weeks (until I secretly climb a ladder sponge in hand and erase its existence). Gazes pinned to the ceiling, palms ready. It is raining mosquitoes. Meanwhile, an upstairs neighbor is left wondering what gives rise to the unorthodox sounds beneath the floorboards. It is an itchy Saturday night in October in Beer Shevah, Israel.

Without the mosquitoes, it would not be home.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The makings of a leap of faith

How do you get out of bed in the morning, brush your teeth, get dressed and then put yourself in the field amidst the rebels, or the paramilitaries, the mines or the malaria?

How do you find the courage to do the same if your field is a classroom, an office complex or a glaringly blank Word Document?

How do you leap?
I can find the audacity to do work that seems far too big for me because I know that the work is bigger than me and because I know that I’m not doing it alone.

This is what faith looks like to me right now: I am not the whole story. I am only a very small part of the story. And I need only do the work that I was born to be doing right now – with integrity, with compassion, with courage.
Those are the words of Marianne Elliott, a woman who has trudged through war zones from Afghanistan to Gaza to dedicate herself to causes and people very dear to my own heart. I have yet to find the right words to describe my own conception of leaps of faith - but I know that reading Marianne's words reinforces my faith in humanity.

The rest of her beautiful post is available here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dinner napkins and barbecue ribs

"Adversity is like a strong wind. I don't mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be." Arthur Golden, The Memoirs of a Geisha

You get hit by a truck. Not in the figurative "I feel like I got hit by a truck" sense. In the literal, "truckers were on strike for two weeks in the Balkans and they still made an exception so they could ram into a car in which I was riding." Your body creaks as you move. Broken ribs here, dislocated shoulder there. And what is on daytime TV, ready to welcome you to Day 1 of six weeks of prescribed bed-rest? A cooking feature on barbecue ribs and lamb chops.

The world has a sense of humor.

Besides learning how to cook other mammals' dislodged ribs, daytime TV enlightened me in the following ways today:
  • The synthetic traces of women's hair dyes will always help investigators pin the murder to them.
  • And, by the way, it is no longer the butler or the eavesdropping maid who killed the boss in crime series. It is now the wife or the estranged daughter. (Learning credit: CSI, Law and Order, and NCIS)
  • There are at least twelve different ways to fold a dinner napkin for a wedding. 
  • Penelope Cruz is pregnant.
  • Capricorns are having a great, stable, healthy month. (Learning credit: Καφες με την Ελενη morning talk show. Clearly misinformed.)
Last time I was bed-ridden with malaria, my loved ones got a glimpse into how impossible it is for me to actually stay in bed. I am the delinquent patient who will be alphabetizing a bookcase thermometer-in-mouth when you are not looking. The trait runs in my family and I inherited it from the womb. My then ever-energetic mother decided to paint the nursery by herself while 7 months pregnant and with osteoporosis plaguing her bones. Slipping off the ladder splattered paint on our wood floors and kept her in bed for two months, contemplating the fetus in her belly and paint removal techniques for her floors. For the first time, I am going counter to her and my rhythms and hitting the brakes (Because, Mr. Truck Driver who hit me, someone ought to.)

Worry does not require mobility. As Ray LaMontagne put it in one of my favorite songs, "worry just does not seem to leave my mind alone." I cannot help but worry about the effect of my injuries on my job, my field work, my ability to be as animated and energetic as I like to be when I am delivering workshops and interacting with communities. I am worried about feeling like a blob. I am worried about being unable to engage with the world in any way that does not involve a remote control or keyboard.

Then I remember: I have been walking on this earth for less than a full quarter century. There is a lot I do not know and a lot I have yet to learn. There are bucket lists of places I want to visit and projects behind which I would like to throw my full weight. I want to see Iguazu Falls and the volcanoes of Iceland. Contribute to a conflict management initiative in East Asia. Learn more about public health interventions. There are days when I feel this need to ingest the entire world by the time I am 26. Hanging in mid-air held by a seat-belt reminds me that these plans and wants are not only ambitious, but also unnecessary.

There will be time for everything. My transition to the Middle East will be bumpier and more uncertain than I had hoped. There are many questions to which I do not have the answer. It may be a while before I can return to feeling productive and doing what I love. But that does not mean that I cannot still love it. I can continue to dream and learn and try hard and look forward, while taking a cue from Kavafis and "not hurrying the voyage at all." So, for now, I am embracing my bed and consuming my energy in my four de facto pastimes: Learning how to fold dinner napkins, reading every article, manuscript and business school application my friends send me, becoming an expert criminal investigator by way of CSI: Miami and devising ways to laugh and hug despite the pain.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Scars Revisited

Today the United States apologized for a 1940s study which involved deliberately infecting Guatemalans with STDs. Sex crimes in wartime continue in the present day, most recently evidenced in the mass rape of over 500 women and children in DR Congo, not far from a U.N. peace-keeping base. In terms of the violations of human integrity in which it resulted, the Guatemalan case constituted a very particular-but sadly not rare-form of sexual violence. Specifically, the New York Times report:
In Guatemala, 696 men and women were exposed to syphilis or in some cases gonorrhea, through jail visits by prostitutes or, when that didn't infect enough people, by deliberately inoculating them, reported Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby. Those who were infected were all offered penicillin, but it wasn't clear how many were infected and how many were successfully treated. She reported that the U.S. had gained permission from Guatemalan officials to conduct the study, but did not inform the experimental subjects.
Brutality of a different type became a motif during the Guatemalan Civil War and moved President Clinton to precede his wife in apologizing to Guatemalans in 1999. The Washington Post quotes:
"It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong," Clinton said, reading carefully from handwritten notes. "And the United States must not repeat that mistake. We must, and we will, instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala."
Eleven years after that moment, humanitarian personnel and justice professionals are still fighting for a comprehensive and honest reconciliation process. Just last week, forensic analysts were still performing exhumations of mass graves in an effort to account for over 45,000 forced disappearances and detentions in the 1970s and 1980s. Images and a write-up of this process can be found here

I have reflected before on the ways in which the simultaneous existence of a "tourist trail" and a "conflict trail" in the same country can be disorienting. On a day like today, I miss my Guatemala of Cafe No Se and the Guatemala of opportunities for transitional justice initiatives, reconciliation and post-conflict development. Even when the hyperlinks speak of exhumations and syphilis and mass murder, I like to believe that a modern day Guatemala of cafes fostering community late into the night exists alongside opportunities for justice investigations and reconciliation initiatives-- and that the two Guatemalas can weave themselves semi-harmoniously into a narrative of post-conflict development and peace.