Saturday, December 18, 2010

Learning Lessons of Love

Tara Weaver is curious to know what the best lesson I learned about myself in the past year is, and how I will continue to apply it going forward.

This year I discovered my previously dormant talent in catching mostly-extinct-rather-rare-and-horribly-inconvenient tropical diseases. I excel in the fevers: dengue, malaria, a bit of yellow and typhoid in there. I do not, however, discriminate against parasites, stomach worms, or broken bones either.

I also learned, from ex-combatants and ex-pats worldwide alike, that people accomplish beauty when someone lights a fire under them, or when they carry a fire within them: a fire to learn, to give and to grow.

I learn about myself through others and through all they can teach me by their own example. The greatest lessons of the past year did not lie in conflict management 'best practices' or tips on what to do when a Middle Eastern border guard asks for your thoughts on marriage (though, if you are curious, this year schooled me in both).

This year, I learned that I am as much of an idealist as the "save-the-worlders" at whom I sometimes roll my eyes while doing field work. I learned that I am, and wish to remain, an Eternal Optimist. And most of all, I unlearned two lessons from my childhood and college years that may have been holding me back: I let go of the notion that happiness is not a useful guide for making decisions and found it to be certainly as useful a criterion as its step-cousins 'Accomplishment', 'Ambition', and 'Obligation'. And I let go of some skepticism and guardedness about love. I no longer roll my eyes at affection; I seek it, dole it out, revel in it.

I am lighter, happier, and more loving for it. And I am most thankful to those who have been teaching me these lessons over the years, with patience and with full, open hearts.

Love at an orphanage quinceaneara - Portoviejo, Ecuador
Love at the paralia - Thessaloniki, Greece
Love quarrel - Bogotá, Colombia
Winter love - Caesarea, Israel
Botero love - Bogotá, Colombia

Handholding love - Gulu, Uganda

Love at the flea market - Usaquen, Colombia
Love and salsa dancing (/stepping-on-feet) at the orphanage - Portoviejo, Ecuador
Aching heart- Bogotá, Colombia
Love in the fog at the top of the mountain - Monseratte, Colombia
Kitty love - Bogotá, Colombia
Love on the Ohio River - Northern Kentucky, USA
Teenage love - Antigua, Guatemala
Love at the doorstep - Antigua, Guatemala
Mario Benedetti love - La Havana, Cuba
Schoolyard love - Antigua, Guatemala
Love and street music - Candelaria, Colombia
Love and Jesus - Candelaria, Colombia
Love on the walls- Thessaloniki, Greece
Love - Cairo, Egypt

All photographs are my own, apart from the final image,
which is courtesy of the lovely and talented Dani

Monday, December 6, 2010

And then I brushed my teeth.

I am aware that Christopher Columbus would remind me that "you can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore." Columbus, however, lost the shore and found America, whereas when I try to cross the ocean, I find a too-friendly TSA agent in my path before I even get on the plane.

The literal ocean presents little trouble for me. I cross it  liberally, with some worry about carbon footprints and planes that get struck by lightning and split open. When it comes to writing, however, I am more reluctant to lose sight of the shore. The fear, in that case, does not stem from lightning; rather, I fully attribute it to tooth-brushing.

There were certain cliches that I had to promise myself I would avoid if I were to ever write about issues related to travel, women, conflict, and development. No waxing poetic about lost luggage or bedbugs. No "this-is-what-I-ate-this-morning-isnt-the-fruit-in-this-country-so-pretty." No poverty porn. In case you do not speak 'development pundit' (in which case, consider yourself blessed), the term refers to the sob stories/photographs/videos of smiling African children/broody Colombian women with no context or story and little purpose besides sensationalism. No meditating on what polluted water does to one's poop. And absolutely no "I saw a unicorn and a double rainbow on the same day and from now on will approach the world as an Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros song."

The list of items you are allowed to carry in your cabin luggage on a plane is longer than my initial list of acceptable writing-for-public-viewing topics. This is not only due to the comprehensive list of neuroses I also packed when I originally set out on this journey. On the road, I have (thankfully) violated every one of the rules -- yes, down to the double rainbows and the poop, but please do not go searching the archives for those. Yet, I still fear what a dear friend (and uncomfortably gifted writer) calls the "And then I brushed my teeth" genre. Unless you are Albert Camus, "I washed a dish. Then I dried it. Then I put on my sock." is not a viable style.  I was reluctant and afraid to write about what I ate in the morning, *insert photo of exotic fruit here*, how itchy I was in the afternoon, *insert photo of exotic skin rash here*, and how after that, I brushed my teeth, and went to bed, "peace, dudes." Many do it, and many do it well, but for me, writing needed to encapsulate more wonder than that. Writing needed to be magical.

Somewhere between the poop, the double rainbows, and the magic, I stumbled into the writing of other people - often women - who created magic a lot better than I did. [In case you are wondering, you can always find something to feel dwarfed by.] Their websites sparkle, and so do their words. They write about impact, poverty policy, the flow of energy through bodies, and true love, sometimes unrequited love, never sinister love, and creativity, and puppies and everything warm and lovely. They breathe creative. Unicorns and double rainbows are their modus operandi.

Gretchen Rubin would like to know this today: What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it?

It is 1.40 am and I have been browsing unicorns and double rainbows for a while. Gretchen Rubin, and magic, I hate to let you down. "And then I brushed my teeth", please welcome me into your ranks. What did I make today?

A Powerpoint presentation.

And then another.

And then a cup of coffee and then another and then chai because I had too much coffee and then, true to self, I made a mess of coffee and chai on sky blue pants.

I was a how-to person today. I put recommendations in bullet-point format and removed the periods at the end of each bulleted phrase because that is what my consultant friends told me one does.

I did not make a cake (or even dinner). I did not make a child happy. I did not make anything beautiful, and some would argue I did not even make anything useful. 

I made some room for Powerpoints, and days that fail the irreverently unreasonable standard of 'magic.' I made room for double rainbows, unicorns, and bedbug musings. I made room for "And then I brushed my teeth." 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Alive: yes; grammatically correct: no.

[For #reverb10, and for Ali Edwards, who wanted to hear about "one moment when you felt most alive this year."]

'Ustedes' is 'vosotros' in Latin America. What in continental Spain refers to "they", in Colombia means "you guys." They do not teach that to little-girls-who-learn-Spanish-in-Greece-whose-second-language-is-English-and-who-have-been-speaking-some-botched-version-of-practically-nonexistent-Arabic-for-four-months-prior-to-arriving-in-Colombia. I delivered my very first conflict management workshop blissfully unaware of this distinction. I also shuffled pronouns, spoke entirely in the present tense (which was particularly, um, instructive, when I was talking about memory reconciliation or wishes for the future), blended the imperative with the subjunctive, and was confused as to why my workshop participants, mostly ex-combatants and victims of war, kept calling me 'princesa.'

I cannot feel alive without feeling vulnerable. 

I got into my ustedes/vosotros/princesas mess because I shrugged at the wrong time. 

When I pitched a project on the reconciliation of ex-combatants and victims of war and their reintegration into peaceful communities through a series of vocational training workshops, I thought I would do what I knew how to do. I would conduct a Needs Assessment; after all, I knew how to ask questions and I knew it was important to ask questions in post-conflict development work. I would synthesize the responses, survey the 'best practices', and assemble a diverse curriculum. Finally, I would train individuals who could implement this curriculum directly in the communities of the beneficiaries. In my imagination, these community leaders would speak better Spanish and they would have a better understanding of the war, its effects, and the circumstances in which the project beneficiaries lived. In reality, they did as well.

But, they were also curious. "Why do you not implement it yourself, princesa? You know what you are doing and your Spanish is divino." 

If my Spanish were divine at the time, then God leaves a lot to be desired.

So I said: *shrug*

It was not a shrug of indifference. Rather, I did not know how to say "you are crazy and I am underqualified" in Spanish. I did, however, know that it would probably be a bad idea to start repeating "loco, loco, loco" in the middle of my meeting, so instead my shoulders did the talking. I thought *shrug* meant "you cannot be serious", but apparently they meant "huh, you are right, my Spanish is divine and I am Conflict Zone Barbie and I will charm everyone back to peace with my superpowers." The next thing they said was "Perfecto, princesa. See you next Monday"

Between Shrug Day and Next Monday, I drank a lot of coffee. Colombian coffee, it must be clarified, to explain how little I slept and how the few shut-eye minutes were spent having nightmares that they would all discover I was a Fraud and send me to the FARC to be executed (loca, loca, loca, cue Shakira). I listened to 'El Doctorado' an unhealthy number of times. I even sang along... and once more, with feeling. I outlined, and I Google Translated, and Word Referenced, and practiced delivering conflict management modules on our patio, with a view of the Bogotá mountains. Nearly 9,000 ft. above sea level, my audience for my first training consisted of security guards for the love motels across the street. I delivered three hours worth of material in my pajamas facing green peaks, scantily clad women, and a half-bitten neon apple.

The day came, and my new roommate came with me - because (a) she had been holding my hand through the coffee-induced and El Doctorado delirium and (b) if you are new to town, what better sight to see than a trainwreck? She snapped photos, so I could forever remember that the human body can sustain five hours of looking utterly and totally red without one's skin exploding off her face. She laughed and nodded along and was irreparably kind. Everyone else humored me too. They understood my instructions. They used the worksheets. They engaged and asked questions and corrected each other's mistakes and even got competitive about it in that way that showed that they really care.

During the last ten minutes, I almost came to not regret that shrug. I asked if there was anything else I could do for the group, anything else they would like to learn, any ways in which I could improve. "Princesa... you say vosotros, but we think you mean ustedes..." They had known this for five hours, but kept it from me. I was mortified, and then amused, and then relieved. We drank one more cup of coffee together, laughed, I promised to facilitate another 11 workshops (without shrugging), and I practically leaped out the door with an "Adios" that could be heard in the mountains. A brilliant storm was rolling into the city over those mountains and Karen snapped a photo of it to cap off my day of vulnerability. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Terror of the Invisible Reader

Google Reader. Facebook. Gmail. Work Email. Other Work Email. Tweet, tweet, twitter. Facebook. Google Reader. Gmail-Gchat-Twitter. Work Email. Other Work Email. 

Leo Babuata asks "What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?"

Maya Angelou claims that "there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." 

There is no amount of tweeting, facebooking, emailing or Gchatting that can block a story that wants to be told and words that want to be put on paper. Turning the distractions off certainly helps -- but it is neither Twitter nor my .org email address that is to blame for shortcomings in writing. Rather, the obstacle to my writing is often... me. 

My years in New England taught me to appreciate maple syrup, fall foliage, and privacy. Especially privacy. Erect a wall between the public and the private and protect the latter like a newborn kitten. This made me a more guarded, cautious, almost cynical writer. My implied reader was a potential employer who is trying to deduce from my writing whether I will work past 5 PM. Other implied readers included current girlfriends of ex-boyfriends (you would be surprised what a loyal readership they make...), sixth cousins fourteen times removed, and the Teaching Assistant who had to grade a response paper of mine that was shorter than one of my blog posts.

This semi-lunatic imagination of the invisible reader led to writing that was hardly disagreeable. It was accurate, it was grammatically correct -- and it was dull. 

My privacy wall began to crumble on my second day of working at a clinic for women at Paicho Internally Displaced Persons Camp in northern Uganda. Surrounded by posters singing the praises of mosquito nets and the dangers of typhoid fever, I thought about maternal and infant mortality, childbirth, birth control, and the spread of disease. The women in the waiting room, however, were curious about a different matter: "Do you have a boyfriend/husband/lover? Is he good at making the sex?" 

I knew that "I would prefer not to disclose" would not be an acceptable answer.

There was no room for not disclosing in Colombia either. Conflict management workshops about "John Doe's" fell on deaf ears; these women -- survivors of conflict, ex-combatants, and victims of war -- wanted to hear about my conflicts, my life, my fights. And so I had to learn to tell the story.

As the compartments of my life became more fluid and walls softened and lowered, I began to do away with my attachment to privacy in writing as well. Yet, to this day, I still worry about the unknown reader. What do you want to read? Why are you here? Am I professional/likeable/engaging/formal/informal enough? The more I ask myself these questions, the more I stare at a blank page.

And then I imagine the faces of loved ones. The benevolent readers. The ones who are curious and prepared to smile, nod their heads along with every line, or empathize. Sometimes I have a particular reader in mind and I write an article or a blog post as though it were an email to him or her. Other times, I imagine a sympathetic community of unknown readers. It is their imagined kindness that helps me overcome the privacy concerns that punctuate my writing. In the end, there is only one thing I can do to, as Leo Babuata would want me, "contribute to my writing." And that is, simply, to write.

It is a time of firsts for me. Yesterday, our neighbors lit the first Hanukkah candle outside our building in Israel. I had my first sufganiyah (ie. my first 3,000 calories in fried jelly doughnut form). I raised my first $1,000 as part of my $10,000 December challenge to support a fellowship for young people designing and implementing projects in conflict zones. And I joined a community of writers in reflecting on 2010 and looking forward to 2011. Join me -- I promise that both the word count and the calorie count will increase delightfully.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sit and look at the lava

Lava, in all its glory. Volcan Pacaya erupted fully a week after I climbed it. 

This was the year I observed exhumations of mass murder victims from graves, and the year I first saw live lava. The year I survived two natural disasters in three days, and the year I was serenaded in Greek by a Cuban band in the middle of Havana. And then I am expected to summarize the year in one word?

So Gwen Bell and her team tell me. In the month of December, a community of writers will be reflecting on 2010 and looking forward to 2011. Kundera warns:
We must never allow the future to be weighed down by memory. For children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.
Kundera proceeded, however, to ruin the rest of our magical innocences with twists of love and memory, so I will dare to violate his life prescription in order to sit with myself in the month of December. Remember, reflect, and look forward.

I never understood the Green Day song "Wake Me Up When September Ends." For me, September has always been the start of the new year. The new year comes with foliage and fresh notebooks, not jingles and midnight kisses. To borrow from Joan Didion, my "year of magical thinking" did not commence on a January morning; instead, it began in the June of 2009, in the middle of more rain than Boston had ever seen and without a string of Christmas lights in sight. December 2010 is an abrupt, almost arbitrary ending of a cycle - one for which I am not prepared.

If I could encapsulate 2010 in one word, it would be 'presence'. Ericka, one of my most cherished mentors, is a beast of mindfulness. Alive to her core, Ericka has a calmness that can temper a crying baby or a Greek soccer hooligan. When I asked her if she had any words of advice for me before I embarked on a string of projects in conflict zones, she advocated for "mindful presence." Not only did that sound threateningly crunchy-granola-hippie for me, but also I was entirely lost as to how to go about it. I excelled at living in the past or the future: reminiscing or anticipating. The presence was just a stop on the way to getting somewhere, anywhere, next.

I may have been clueless as to how to integrate Ericka's mantra into my life, but I was stubborn too. In the fall of 2009, I sat, really sat. I lingered next to a fire in the Sahara desert, I drank more sugary tea than my teeth could handle in the alleys of Cairo, I inhaled air so polluted that I could taste it. I was dead-set on being present. By January of 2010, as I found myself alone in Colombia, with nothing to tie me to the country but a work project, mindful presence started creeping up on me. Unwittingly, this was the year of presence. "We will cross that bridge when we come to it" became a silent mantra -- a mantra to which I do not know that I could have lent credence had I chosen it consciously. I would worry about the next place, the next project, the next apartment when the time came for that. For now, I would sit tight and look at the lava.

If I could pick a word that I hope would describe 2011, that would be 'clarity'. In one of my favorite speeches of hers, Drew Faust outlines the goals of a liberal arts education as follows:

 to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar . . . to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.
What Faust does not mention is that the "defamiliarization of the familiar" and the "unsettling of presumptions" often leads to a blurring of the lines beyond legibility -- perhaps because that is the intended effect. In the past year, I have witnessed love and hate in equal measures. Violence alongside tenderness, starvation alongside abundance, awe alongside wonder alongside repulsion. I have attempted to be mindfully present through it all, and that presence makes it difficult to make sense of it all together. To figure out how the pieces of life fit into each other, to navigate the contradictions and paradoxes, to make deliberate decisions. When I look back on 2011, I hope it will be defined by clarity -- defined as the space in my mind and heart to make bold, deliberate decisions and to not allow my mindful presence to obliterate my imaginative capacity for the days that lie ahead.

Today's prompt was "Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?" Join me in December as I try to do what I am not very good at: Asking for help, and rethinking my attachment to privacy in writing. And eating all the holiday sweets I can muster. That, I can do. Definitely join me for that.