Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The middle of the story

Sometimes you have to start at the middle of the story.

And that middle of the story has me squeezed somewhere between Heavenly Jade and Aquatastic, Edwardian Lace and Peachy Kiss. I weigh how a Dew Drop trim would look on a Water Sprout wall.

These are the Home Depot dilemmas I live with now. I was a snob when it came to these questions. I thought they existed just on Pinterest, that real couples do not have a 15-minute conversation in front of a "hue specialist" about whether Contemplation would look too dark on a cloudy day. Real couples do not debate whether Peacock Feather or Mermaid Treasure would go better with the kitchen cabinets. Or, at least, non-Pinterest humans would pause to ask themselves why Edwardian Lace refers to a wall color and not lingerie. Why they would ever want to live inside Peachy Kiss.

The colors start to blend in, as do the roads on the map. After three years of working in conflict and post-conflict communities, the wiring of my mind is having a difficult time adjusting to the American notion of intricacy. For three years, navigation involved figuring out whether to go North or South on the one road that connects the two points in the country -- or picking one of the unmarked lefts to be our left, only to be wrong, turn around, and take the next one. "Take the sixth exit off the rotary" was not a command I had had to process.

For three years, choice had shrunk. Fewer consumption choices did not mean our preferences were any less informed or fixed. We still debated the "fluffier mousse" or "tangier yogurt" and missed wasabi peas and muffin tops. What made all the difference was that we could wrap our mind around the choices - they were limited and finite enough for us to experience them.

Two nights ago, we stood next to each other in a Walgreens aisle. The giddy novelty of it all made it feel like a date: a giggle at all the flavors of ice pops, a stop to marvel at vanilla blueberry almond popcorn (no, really, pause to think about that), awe at all the ice creams. Then it was time to buy face wash. There was an aisle of it: Pore Cleaning Face Wash, Blackhead Removing Face Wash, Face Wash To Remove Shininess, Face Wash to Make Your Face Shiny. And, my favorite, "Stress Reducing Face Wash." I could feel myself breaking out just contemplating the options.

Perhaps this is what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls "the paradox of choice." In a TED talk by the same name, he introduces his hypothesis: "choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied." This debate between Aquatastic and Peachy Kiss, between Pore Clearing or Pore Clogging Face Wash, between Edwardian Lace and Dew Drop wall trim is a debate of deeply privileged choices. Nobody's survival hinges on the color of my kitchen cabinets or the size of the blackheads on my nose. I'd even venture that nobody's well-being or happiness hinges on the clarity of my pores or the soon-to-be-"pastel jade" bedroom.

After three years lived inside suitcases, painting the wall trim above our kitchen cabinets feels at once overwhelming and small. I hyperventilate in Home Depot, I am paralyzed in Walgreens. The magnitude of making a home, from the logistics of it to the decisions about wall trim and bathroom tile, chokes me to the point of silence. And at once, so does the fact that I have not used the word "impact" since landing here.

In a sense, I have landed in the middle of a story. I have catapulted out of field work and parachuted into Boston, sliding straight from asking questions and measuring impact and hopefully making some impact too to making a home and grappling with a magnitude of permanence my mind cannot yet process. Edwardian Lace is my reality now -- or, at least, the reality of our soon-to-be new and freshly-painted staircase. Gem Turquoise? That's the kitchen wall. We did go with Dew Drop for the trim. Vermont Cream for the den. Peachy Kiss never left Home Depot.

My schedule for tomorrow reads: "Post-project impact assessment. Write closing report. E-mail mentorship curriculum handbook to new scholars. Start painting new house." The worlds are blending into one another, but to me, they are still separate colors.

I am slowly realizing I do not know the first thing about being here, or about making a home. I knew how to imagine one -- I imagined one enough to want it, enough to be here staring at it. I know how to design, implement, and assess the impact of a post-conflict development curriculum in communities worldwide... and I could not tell you the first thing about paint primer. I had not thought about paint finish before today. "Eggshell, flat, semi-gloss or satin?" was not a choice I had ever contemplated. I always imagined that when the time came to inhabit this world, to make these questions my own, I'd tackle them the same way I do my work: I would research and learn and understand it all and then show up at Home Depot all prepared and knowledgeable and ready to face the "hue specialist."

But, here I am, in the middle of the story -- in between stories, really. This time last week, I was wrapping up my last field work in Mexico City. This time in two weeks, I will be sitting at orientation for my graduate program. And between the past and the future, I have to sit with the paint swatches and stirrers and rollers and learn about the difference. I have to make this new story my own. And, apparently, it all starts with Pastel Jade.

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