Sunday, October 23, 2011

Taking a cue from Joan Didion

In Blue Nights, her most recent memoir about the death of her daughter 18 months after the passing of her husband, Joan Didion writes:

"What if I can never again locate the words that work?" 

In "One Art", Elizabeth Bishop writes that the art of losing isn't hard to master. But the art of losing gracefully, or even of losing all grace in grief, the art of unravelling in grief to reveal beauty and insight alongside the pain -- that art is a hard one to master and Didion has perfected it. She has lent her voice to grief. A friend cheekily remarked recently that Joan Didion can embody the dictum "my grief is more articulate than yours." I doubt anyone begins her life by wishing to become a Universal Spokesperson for Grief, Pain, and All Things Tear-Worthy. Yet, in writing through her grief, Joan Didion made magic for many by revealing that, in the case of grief,  the magic lies in putting words to pain, in sitting with it and through it. Didion wrote her way through sadness - perhaps back to happiness, perhaps simply back to a new, different place of softness, vulnerability, honesty and, why not, love and joy.

These days, Joan Didion's words ring more true than ever: "What if I can never again find the words that work?"

I need to answer a series of why's. Why am I the best candidate for this graduate program? Why am I best prepared for this degree? Why am I a good match? The biggest challenge through this process has been placing myself at the centre of my own narrative.

There is an online portal called Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. The gist of it is that we are all carbon copies of one another: individuals with a knights-in-shining-armor complex who helicopter into conflict-ridden places to save ourselves from ourselves. What we like, according to this portal, are acronyms and aid jargon, "trainings of trainers", airport horror stories, untreated PTSD,  talking about poop, having had malaria, finding ourselves, describing ourselves as nomads, and Randomized Control Trials.

Oops.

I see myself in those stories.

I have lived those stories too.

I have tweeted about the quintessential Friday night dilemma in a Middle Eastern conflict zone: Is it fireworks or gunshots? Ironically, I have written about the need for conflict professionals and storytellers to carve out some room for themselves in their stories. There is a certain kind of hyper-awareness that makes me hit the brakes before submitting to an admissions committee a collection of acronyms and jargon as the story of myself. My story cannot be a Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog post. My biggest hesitation with the portal is that it prizes cynicism; indeed, cynicism is listed among Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. Maybe, rather than rewarding it, the portal merely reflects the existence of cynicism in this field. There is a jadedness to the narrative about aid and development, a mechanical tone: wash, rinse, repeat, pause to laugh at yourself, wash, rinse, repeat.

I have been warned about jadedness; I have been cautioned that distance and even cynicism may be central to one's professional and emotional survival. I have been told, by colleagues and bosses and fellow writers, that one day I will not be so "green behind the ears" -- although I must admit that as an English as a Second Language speaker, I had to--with some horror--look up what that meant. I am not there yet, though. I am still an optimist and an idealist. I look for the magic, believe in it, and write about it. It is the magic that keeps me doing the work that I do.

Why did I apply for the fellowship that took me out of my scholarly and professional pursuits in the United States and put me in the middle of conflict and post-conflict zones for the first time? Because I desperately wanted to be moved by the world. I desperately needed to be shaken by the shoulders, to feel alive. I had been a scholar of conflict starting with my fascination with Otto von Bismarck and the wars of the German Unification at the age of 16 and culminating in my thesis on the topic of visual representations of leadership in film and photography of the Second Reich. That very first step 'in the field' was motivated as much by a desire to serve as by a personal need to experience conflict more immediately -- to demystify it. That first step was about me in many senses, about my feelings, about my need to zero the distance between scholarly narratives about war and the realities of conflict. Some may say that was selfish, quintessentially "save myself from myself", and they would not be wrong.

Why have I stayed? Because of the magical thinking. Because somewhere between the acronyms and the jargon, between "writing a curriculum for the training of Egyptian women parliamentarians in negotiation and public speaking" and "training trainers in the implementation of a post-conflict reintegration workshop for female ex-combatants in Colombia", I learned about compassion and empathy. Because I have experienced kindness in its purest form and believed in it as a way to lead life. Because between the hurricanes and the shoveling of mud, between the grief and anger and gross injustice, I encountered people whose resilience, determination and spirit inspire me to the core.

I have stayed because I have found a way to serve that feels true to the person I am now.
I have stayed because this is the work that makes me come alive. I have stayed because I am shaken by the shoulders to the point that the world spins like a washing machine on its last rinse. I have stayed because, though disoriented and tired and whiny sometimes, I still savor the spinning.
I have stayed because I wake up in the morning with two new questions for every question I think I have answered.
I have stayed because the stories of the people I have met along the way, be they participants in a program, local partners, community leaders or colleagues, fuel my faith in humanity.

There is a danger to believing your own story when you are in a service-oriented field. You can become bigger than the story, bigger than the service itself... and then priorities and perspective and all the different actors at play become warped and you end up jaded or self-involved or self-deprecating or just utterly lost, recently broken up with, and full of malarial parasites in East Africa. How do you stop that from happening? In my mind, by asking the questions. To me, it is important that I be part of something bigger than myself - it is important that I continue to find this work dwarfing, and humbling and inspiring, even if that sometimes comes with an off-tune dose of self-aggrandizement or a touch of jadedness that creeps up even on Eternal Optimists.

"What if I can never again find the words that work?", Joan Didion asks. I write one sentence in my application essays, I erase two. I dislike the girl in them who is a collection of I-Did-This and I-Went-There. I also dislike the girl in them who may be "showing, not telling", but the showing still feels like incongruous bragging about acts of service. I also dislike the navel-gazing that is inherent in this exercise and that imbues this very post. It becomes very difficult to find the words that work when the process of assembling them sketches a portrait of yourself you either do not recognize or do not love.

I recognize myself these days when I am vulnerable, when I uncover the soft places that do not often see the light. Yet, I feel like it is taboo to write a story of myself that is so full of feelings. Feelings are not the currency of applications and achievements and admissions. Where do feelings fit in the narrative of law, diplomacy, conflict management, conflict resolution and post-conflict development?  "What are you going to write your essays about? Mush?," a friend asked. Even Elijah, the biggest Proponent of Feelings and my own teacher in them, said "Darling, you need to assume that Danielle Steel won't be on that committee reading your essays."

These questions of feelings and words and application packaging would not have concerned me years ago. When I set out to start my first field work assignment, I had the emotional maturity of a coffee table. Grief and self-sheltering had rendered me a fairly emotionally stunted human being. The past couple of years have thawed me, shaken me and breathed life back into me. As I result, I have shattered and reassembled my own mold as many times as I have used an acronym. I am struggling to find the words that work for the mold of applications -- and that work for me, for all of me, for my feelings, for the person I am now: for the woman who is proud to have feelings and to write about them.


I want to argue with myself here. I want to make it my business to carve out space for the softness, for the emotional and the unquantifiable in the academic study and professional pursuit of conflict-oriented service. My goal is to study international negotiation, conflict resolution and diplomacy -- and I want to make room for empathy and compassion as instruments in the process. I want to continue my exploration of the intersection of gender and conflict and I wish to bring my passion for stories into this journey. I wish to academically explore storytelling as a vehicle of peace-making and conflict resolution. And for me to get there, perhaps I need to churn out a final draft of an application essay that has not been robbed of its every "I feel."

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