Thursday, January 27, 2011

The power of storytelling

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." - Joan Didion

I have been thinking about stories lately. The stories we tell, the stories we build for ourselves, and the stories in which we wish we were living.

Gender Across Borders is hosting the "Women and Peace-Building in the Middle East" series this week and I am excited to be the first contributor. You may saunter over there and read my thoughts on storytelling as an instrument of building peace, even if - or especially when - it stirs conflict in hearts. I have focused on one writer, one activist and one photographer whose stories draw attention to the lives of women in the region.

Every story they tell, every word they write and every photograph they take can be matched by a web of other narratives that move us and activate us. Who are the storytellers who inspire you and which narratives do they bring to light?

Monday, January 24, 2011


A year ago, I arrived in Bogotá, Colombia knowing that it was notorious for organized crime. A week later, I found out that it should instead be famous for its organized districts. There was a neighborhood for everything: the pet shop district, the sinks and bathware district, the lighting fixtures district. The more specific the modifiers that defined the character of the district, the better; one could not possibly fathom  light bulbs, electrical outlets, and cables coexisting harmoniously for sale within the same zip code. As such, each neighborhood - stretching from one block to twelve - boasted punishing uniformity in the shops it hosted within its boundaries. This had two implications on my daily life: I learned that you cannot live near the electrical cables neighborhood and go looking for a store that sells, oh, soap. And I discovered that for the rest of my life, I would miss the privilege that is waking up, stepping out your front door, and being blinded by a row of glistening toilets for sale.

The blinding toilets came back to me while I was sitting on a bench in Beer Shevah, Israel, where I am currently staying with my loved one in the "you can wear slippers out district." He was the one to note the pervading unhappiness that lingers in this city and, particularly, on our block. While being here, I have developed a fondness for popsicles that taste like Coca Cola. A well-intentioned writer for the Well blog of the New York Times would probably tell me the treasured ice pops are horrible for my teeth/thighs/ability to pro-create, and I am sure someone else would proceed to worry that the 12-year-old Ethiopian boys who also live on our block are the only other demographic that seems to share my love for this treat. The other day, my loved one set out to procure one of those popsicles for me. Upon his return, he proclaimed: "I was the only person between here and the store who was not wearing slippers."

The slippers are not - sorry, fellow optimists - a sign of a comfort revolution the residents of this neighborhood have staged. They are, as my loved one would have it, yet another indication that nobody cares. You can hear the dragging of the feet, the unwillingness to be here. This pocket of the world seems to be nobody's dream pocket. I have tried to fight this hypothesis. I have gone dream-hunting. I have taken my pen and camera on an inspiration crusade and unearthed sadness, neglect, and abandonment instead.

It seeps into one's veins, this dreamlessness. I woke up this morning to the news that my loved one was headed to Tel Aviv for the day, in an attempt to reconnect with friends and crowds and the background noise that reminds us that we live among others who are also creating and doing and being. I refused the offer of a cup of coffee, choosing instead to stare at the wall. I could not bring myself to get out of bed unless I was compelled - unless Beer Shevah could shake me by the shoulders and move me and inspire me in the ways I crave in life. It was selfish and Debbie Downer-like and, for all intents and purposes, an adult tantrum.

So he lined up my pink fuzzy slippers next to the bed. Lifted the covers, carried me up, lightly teased that it was too early in the morning for his back to be performing such 'feats.' Watched me brush up against the Declaration of Independence that, almost ironically, sits tucked onto on our white sliding door. "Hey, that's the original copy you know, watch where you are going!"

I noticed the people in slippers today. I tried to find joy in their gait. Twelve hours later, I am back in my own slippers, with a cold spot next to me in bed. At times, I have resented the dreamlessness of this place. I have been mad at myself, and at the city, for allowing me to make generalizations as to its character and I have been disappointed at my difficulty to uncover beauty. I have been stubbornly silent - because it is still terrifying to feel that I can no longer utter "I can live anywhere" with full confidence and even more terrifying to admit, publicly, to the falsity of a choice or the shortcomings of an 'Eternal Sunshine' disposition.

So, until I can abundantly find the beauty and community and stimulation and triggers and conversation that will feed my soul, I will hold on to my own pile of dreamy: The dreamy of pink fuzzy slippers, and of a love that enables me to step into them when my own sunniness fails.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

When the words run dry: Inspiration hunting

I am having a quiet week, the kind that can be distinctly alarming for those wedded to words. While I look for my own words, here are the words of others that have inspired me, moved me, caused me to think, and given me hope:

1. The future of humanitarianism in Afghanistan: Free online recording of the seminar in which I participated this week and whose panelists included field representatives of Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders, international humanitarian lawyers, and a Lieutenant Colonel. The issues discussed range from competition among NGOs for resources, guaranteeing the security of aid workers, navigating the question of the militarization of aid, and securing independent funding for NGOs. Attending the seminar rekindled my desire to work in Afghanistan (no, not until I have fully recovered from the accident, worry not.)

2. On writing, the personal essay, and 'artful artlessness': Carl Klaus interview in The Millions. Among other subjects, he discusses the illusions of the personal essay, developing a writing practice, and where blogging fits into the modern writing world. Also in The Millions, I loved this essay on the joys and dangers of readership. Made me think of my own reflections on the "terror of the invisible reader" last December.

3. The slow photography movement: The idea that this is a 'movement' or that it is 'new' was a bit foreign to me, but the basic premise of the article had me nodding along: Stop, look, really look, and then click. A prescription for photo-taking and for finding and capturing beauty.

4. "Kids these days": It is no secret that I love Sloane Crosley, her How did you get this number, and her ability to artfully weave insight into humor. In this brief essay of hers in The Independent, she won me over with these words:
 "When we grow up, we put a premium on a wide-eyed wonderment of the world. We value a lack of the jaded and the bitter in each other, and do everything in our power to stave off these qualities in ourselves."
5. Zainab Salbi on "Women and Power": It is also no secret that Zainab Salbi's work and life story compel me to get out of bed in the morning. In this talk, she discusses her work with Women for Women International, her experience as an Iraqi refugee in the United States, her coping with PTSD and her interactions with women in war zones nowadays. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Self-kindness, dreaming, and other radical acts

Self-kindness Step 1: Panda nutella. And pancakes
Self-kindness is a radical act. It sets us free to serve others, to live a life of courageous compassion, to create positive change. - The lovely Marianne Elliott

I used to think that positive and negative were terms better suited to describing battery charges than human dispositions.

I used to think energy and vibes and the-feelings-one-projects-to-the-world were fluff. I have a confession: Part of me still does. When I hear people talk about how they "commune with their spleen" or they "shift the electromagnetic energies permeating a space," I still roll my eyes. But I do believe this, with not a hint of shifting my pupils upward: Positive attitudes and kindness are contagious, inspiring more positivity and kindness wherever they land.

Here is another confession: It has been a difficult time lately. Post-conflict development work takes a heavy toll on the heart and, compounded with conflicts in other aspects of life, conflict is weighing me down. And so I decided that this will be my year of what Marianne Elliott has dubbed "radical self-kindness." I will extend kindness to others and to myself because it is the kindness of others that has fed my faith in humanity and it is kindness to myself that enables me to continue dreaming.

I hope this will be a year of dreaming. Aware of my apprehension about anything reckless, a dear friend dubbed it "a year of realistic abandon." Perhaps it will be the year that I become less shy about writing and photographing - the year that I will, as Mary Oliver would want me to, "let the soft animal of my body love what it loves." I hope it will be another year of love.

So, cheers to kindness and self-kindness and the enabling of dreams. It will be a good year.

Friday, January 7, 2011

For last year's words belong to last year's language

...and next year's words await another voice. - TS Elliot

Tavern chairs - Monastiraki, Athens
Tavern chairs - Monastiraki, Athens
"Mhtrwou Street" - Monastiraki, Athens
Two broken chairs - Plaka, Athens
Two frappes (Eternal Greece) - Thessaloniki
Two cups of coffee - The harbor, Thessaloniki
Christmas Eve - Thessaloniki
A couple's reflection on the Acropolis Museum patio after rain - Athens
Puddle jumping - Acropolis Museum, Athens
The world in my wine glass - Acropolis, Athens
The Acropolis on a rainy day - Athens
Girl plays in puddle reflecting the Erectheion - Acropolis, Athens