Thursday, September 8, 2011

The summer school of life

"Do you always have to learn something?", a friend asked on a walk around the Guatemalan town of Antigua.

"Well... no. If I do not learn something, I need to be moved though. Shaken in some way. Affected."

That was my response -- a true and honest answer, stemming from a place of shame. Part of the hope of my journey in international development, conflict management and a life on the road was that I'd be able to unlearn some habits. I had deeply hoped that I'd make a new friend somewhere down the line who wouldn't be able to guess that, at an earlier point on the same line, I had been the kind of goal-driven, lesson-driven, achievement-driven person who would likely get an ulcer by age 30. My walking companion in Guatemala met the girl who would climb a volcano on six hours notice, but saw straight through her and discerned the girl who always needed to learn something along the way too.

Two summers have passed since that conversation. The changing seasons brought a certain clarity to my response during that walk. I have realized that I learn most vigorously when I am moved. Being shaken, affected, and moved are not alternatives to the lack of a lesson for me -- they are the best way for the world to teach me and for me to pay attention.

I have returned "home" to Greece and have been thinking about what "home" means, home in quotation marks. I woke up two days ago to glistening red roofs, a purple sky, and a shy sun. The fall looks good on Thessaloniki. With the glistens and the purples, it also a brought a sense of urgency to capture the learnings and unlearnings of this summer so that the magic of being moved does not wash off with the first rain.

This summer, I danced salsa in a square in the middle of a city and drew joy from the giggles after stepping on your loved one's foot. [He should have worn close-toed shoes, that's-my-story-and-I'm-sticking-to-it.] I drew joy from the way a coral dress fluttered with every sway of the hips.

I learned a thing or two about loyalties, in sides of armed conflict or in families.

I realized that time silences soreness and saturates fondness. No memories of self-suppression float to the surface when a glorious Harvard Square morning greets me any more. The glory fully registers now and with it, it brings relief.

This summer, I went to my first Sam's Club... and my first Lowe's... and my first CostCo. I spent 6.5 hours at IKEA in a day. For someone who is not attached to stuff or purchasing, that is a personal best (worst?).
This was the summer I fell in love with Kroger and its maple walnut ice cream.

I fell in love with August moons rising out of the Ohio river, Kentucky storms and United Dairy Farmers milkshakes.
I defended vanilla as a milkshake flavor and as an occasional life-style choice. Not everything needs to be triple-chocolate-hazelnut-with-extra-pink-and-dotted-sprinkles.

I pet my first shark (and found out what kind of shark I would be at my weight if I were a shark at all.)

This was the summer I was driven to the airport by a clan of people who would serenade me with a Brandi Carlile sing-along as I walked away. This was the summer I'd baffle a TSA hand luggage screener with the tupperware of muffins squeezed in there. This was the summer I marveled at how the families you find along the journey of life can supplant the memories of the families you were born into or those you lost.

Whom am I kidding -- this was the summer of Brandi Carlile.

And of Chihuly. Glass miracles.

I remembered confidence: You know some things. You have come to deeply know them, through trial and error, and effort, and sleepless nights and just plain intuition. Listen to what you know and lead with it.

I remembered optimism. Thank you, Tali Sharot, for your "tour of the irrationally positive brain." I remembered that I am at my most optimistic when I am surrounded by the comfort of books and the igniting spark of ideas.

I drank bubble tea till it came out my nose. And gorged on cupcakes and burritos and everything else on my Food to Eat in America list. And I already miss the cilantro and the frosting.

I comforted a crying child, and sometimes became the crying child too.

Children are rib-achingly funny. I became grateful to the ones who taught me something I really should have learned earlier in life.

I was deeply scared and deeply scarred by the realities of the work that we do and the stories that haunt us even after we board the flight "home." I have never been more scar(r)ed in my life. Part of me is still scared.

I met strangers on planes and buses and dove hungrily into their loveliness.

I worked on perhaps the hardest project of my life so far, and am still sworn to secrecy about it. I unlearned everything I thought I knew about international development and learned a thing or two about reliance: about leaning on those on whose life boat you are a guest, and about leading with love.

I tried 'writer', 'photographer' and 'storyteller' on for size, and decided to keep them all.

I thought about behavioral neuroscience, empathy, and compassion. Alone, and in relation to each other.

I experienced the sheer joy of being in JFK Park in Harvard Square and exhaling because your body, your mind, your community and your hopes are sharing a zip code -- even for a bit.

I got sick of life in a carry-on bag, and of the clothes in it.

I watched friends buy homes, make homes, nest in homes -- and I wanted that. I wanted the putting in of the drywall and the venting about how the roofers are late again. I wanted it for more than a minute.

I sat at the "fun table" at the closing of an academic/professional seminar. I wondered where I was for all the other fun tables of my life, and promised to seek them out with fervor in the future. The clinking of the glasses still echoes in my ears.

I learned about non-violence, civil resistance, and movement formation and allowed that to nuance my understanding of conflict. I had to reteach myself how to learn in a classroom, squinting at Powerpoints, turning off the urge to do 17 things a minute and just paying attention. Beautiful things happen when you pay attention.

I met some of my "blogging friends", as Elijah calls them, as though they were imaginary. And what do you know, they are not only real, but also present, engaging, and full of life and love.

I missed and I missed and I missed, to the point of frustration. I missed him, and then we were back. Sitting at the same breakfast table, my heart returned to its rightful place. Now I miss him and I miss him and I miss him again, but the breakfast tables of the fall are giving me hope.

I shed skin next to old and loved friends, making room for all of us to grow together, and allow one another to grow into different women than the girls we were when we met. I danced in their living rooms with them, ate ice cream on the steps of libraries, and drew with crayons on brunch tablecloths. [Paper tablecloths, people. We are not in the vandalism business here.]

I sat at a table with a trusted mentor and friend. I felt my heart explode with gratitude. I love moments when you can feel the mind stretching, the heart muscle growing a little bit bigger to accommodate the bliss.

I asked the hard questions, sometimes too urgently, sometimes too circuitously, sometimes in that deep voice that comes from a soft and vulnerable place inside.
I walked and I hugged and I kissed my way to some answers.
I had to reteach myself to let some questions hang.

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