Tuesday, December 30, 2008

indroducing leon

a personification of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone (aka, Leon) is a slim yet muscular fisherman with ebony skin and a knack for keeping a beat. After years of pulling in his family’s wooden fishing boat and massive net, he naturally positions himself in such a way that he is standing at a slight tilt. The most obvious place this can be seen is when he is pulling in his boat each night; but, if one looks closely enough one will notice that it can also be seen in other places. It can be seen when Leon is standing near a wall at a street corner hustling to sell his caught fish and it can be seen at a local club where he is flirting with Amadu, his childhood sweetheart. It can also be seen in his bed where he sleeps at an angle across his mattress dreaming of one of three things: crashing waves, far off lands he has only seen in books or the above referenced girl of his dreams. One peak at the coastline of Sierra Leone will give you many examples of the groups of people it takes to accomplish the task of bringing in small fishing boats on this West African coastline. In each snapshot a group of individuals will be captured slowing moving backwards at an identical lean dancing with the ocean and its endless give and take momentum.

Now, even though Leon knows little else than his duty to send his boat off in the morning and bring it back at night and he endures moments where he longs for something more, he does not regret his position in life and has learned that if he lives his life completely and with happiness, good things will come his way. He misses his parents, both lost to him during the war, but he has found safety and love in his aunties home and with time many of his experienced emotional wounds from the war have healed to a tolerable point. His parents would be proud to learn that Leon is well respected by his friends and appreciated by his team. In addition to taking pride in his ability to mend strong nets he can also create the most enchanting of beats in which his team collectively moves to in order to get the job done. It’s a unique blend of sounds, one of words, clicks and whistles, and yet it seems to be the perfect sound for the task at hand. A sound that was likely created centuries ago, on the day man decided to dance with the waves; a sound that was handed to him on the day he rightfully earned it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

drying off words

For those of you who have noticed, there has been a bit of a pause in my writing. For those of you who know me, likely understand why. The loss of my mother has been the most difficult thing I have had to deal with in my life to date and for the last couple of weeks I have lived in two states. Numbing pain from the thought of what has occurred and unconsciousness from this felt pain, only granted to me in sleep. As a result, I have been sleeping a lot.

Rather than examine what this feels like, I will try and move on as I believe that on some primal level every human being on this planet is aware parent loss is painful. This post is my attempt to continue something I loved to do before I lost her. I learned much from those who have come to our side in support. Those that have experienced similar losses have empathized with me in the most genuine of ways that even today I am moved deeply by some of these heart felt expressions. Those of you who knew her well shared such touching memories about her that I guarantee you will likely be hearing from me again as I am a sucker for the “retell” and I will want (and possibly need) to hear these stories again at a later date.

The delay in my writing seems to have been tied to a few things. One, with the loss of my mother came the loss of my most loyal, most unfaltering audience member. She would religiously read my blog posts and listen to my stories. She would track and follow them in such a way it seemed she was preparing for the biggest examination of her life. Every detail, every nuance was filed away and she would frequently reference the characters in my stories by name, age and other identifying characteristics. Two, the words in my head seemed to have gone silent for a while as if suffering from their own form of depression. In the past I needed to write because the words started dancing around in my head. I would lie in my hammock in Africa or sit in my loft in Denver and words would come forward in such a way that the easiest way to organize them was to turn on my computer and just let them fall out.

Today I try and write because I don’t want my pain to rule the day. Today I want to try and get back to some sort of equilibrium. So, today I will go searching for some words. They are not falling on the page like they have in the past. They are static and heavy as if they were fully dressed for a cold winter’s day and somebody came by and threw them into a pool. I witnessed this happen and pulled them out of the chilly water. Now they stand at the side, cold, shivering and unable to comprehend why someone would have done that. Their suffering pains me too but I am happy to see that I have found them and I will try and help them dry off and recover from this insult.

While they dry off I will be traveling to Freetown, Sierra Leone. I plan to spend the holiday season there with someone special. Hopefully the words I have found will dry up quickly so that I can use them in describing this new place I am about to explore.

Friday, November 7, 2008

the size of one woman's heart

The size of one woman’s heart is difficult to capture when one is thinking of my mother. In many ways her heart defined everything that she was. From a very young age she gave herself over to the welfare of others in such an unrelenting manner that I sometimes worried that someday she would get lost in that heart of hers.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a daughter. As an innocent adolescent she bravely and unrelentingly supported her parents and gave herself over to the welfare of her younger siblings when her mother fell ill and couldn’t do the things that needed to be done.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a student. She excelled at her courses and in her early 20s continued her selfless acts of kindness in Hospital School. Day in and day out she willingly took on the most difficult of cases and helped patients and their families create new strategies of living and engaging so that life became easier to bear.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was a wife. As a married woman she lovingly supported my father during the early years of their marriage and then proceeded to contribute every cent she ever earned to the welfare of her family. She helped my father through medical school and then helped my brother and I in such a way that we were never, not once, left suffering from an unmet need. Over the years she was so swollen with pride for him that she needed nothing else for herself and with each added moment of their marriage came more hand holding, more kisses and more endearing shared moments. In some ways it was if her illness allowed her to let down her guard a little, if only with him, and he relished in his position with pride.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a teacher. As a well trained LD specialist, she passionately labored over IEPs and spent endless amounts of time advocating for the most vulnerable of children. And, even though many of us believed more was being asked of her than could possibly be done, she never gave up because with each child that came before her in need her desire to help, protect and fight for their rights trumped any rational side of her brain that spoke of restraint or the risk of burnout. In the last years of her service to the Janesville school system she honorably served as a volunteer and refused to take a cent for her contributions to the development of our country’s future.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was a friend. As a companion to many my mother would drop everything if someone was in need. With friends in all age groups she could frequently be seen going from babysitting the grandson of an old colleague to visiting a retirement home to spend time with a dear neighbor. Instantly befriending anyone in her path she carried caramels to her pharmacist when filling prescriptions and invited a friendly new house painter into her orb with pleasure. This gentleman, a kindred spirit of sorts, soon became a staple in my mother’s social life and he would energetically show up to the house to chat about world affairs, his home country and life for hours on end.

Part of her heart was defined by who she was as a mother. As a nurturing mother, she loved my brother and I so intensely and so deeply that sometimes it felt like she might disappear in all that love. But, she did not disappear, not once, and she was there for every meaningful and every circumstantial event in our lives. From basketball games to golf matches and graduation ceremonies to dove hunting she stood by and supported us, cheered for us and loved us so deeply and so proudly she was frequently moved to tears by this felt love.

Now one might say that’s a lot of parts for one heart and you might be right, but as I mentioned before, we aren’t talking about just any heart; we are talking about my mother’s heart and it was a very big heart indeed. When it came time to give to others outside her family she gave so graciously that people were frequently moved to tears by the veracity of her giving. For soccer matches Drew and I would have enough orange slices to feed all the participants of the World Cup; for catered events, either at school or the hospital, she would bring enough food to feed a small village. No matter what the occasion, she outdid herself each and every time.

In the few short days since we lost her each every person who has approached me or contacted me has commented on the size of her heart. The collective memory of Joanie Vogel seems to capture this core aspect of her with absolute clarity. Each thoughtful gift stands out in stark relief from what could have been done has she cared less. In this moment, without the passage of time to smudge the memories of her existence, I am comforted by each vital detail of her heartfelt contribution to people in her life and the sheer amount of heart that was involved in her interactions with others.

In some ways I think this might be why it hurts a little bit more now. In this world we’re living in, a world where self-interest rules the day, my mother was such a striking contradiction to the norm that I think there were times she suffered as a result of her nature. By that I mean it appeared as if she periodically became so overwhelmed by her desire to give, to love, to show she cared that she could get lost in the emotions of it all. As her daughter and someone who has chosen a helping profession, I have tried for years to emulate her sprit but have constantly fallen short. Even today as I work with torture survivors in Africa I can’t touch the level of innate humanitarianism she embodied.

So dear audience if you remember anything about Joanie Vogel please please remember the amazing size of her heart.

wisdom in a little room

Today is a national holiday which means no work. No work means a morning of basketball followed by a lazy afternoon in my hammock. I love these days. I get to let off steam while connecting with my community of ballers and then I get to sit back and rejuvenate while connecting with myself and the thoughts in my head. It’s a chance to participate in a cherished routine, making my life here in this far off land more established, more mine.

While lying in my hammock my thoughts took to me a recent conversation I had with someone in a small room in Dukkor. I’m not sure exactly sure where the conversation had started, nor am I that clear on where it ended but the details of the middle bits are as clear and lucid as glass. While sitting in this little room in the heart of the city we began discussing what it meant to have survived a difficult childhood, followed by 14 years of civil war and the present stress of living in an exquisitely corrupt and confusing environment. He could have somehow gone numb or become jaded about life, but he had not. He had held strong and somehow managed to gift himself many things in a very difficult environment: freedom, time, independence, comfort, and knowledge, to name a few. His life, in that very moment was a much deserved bi-product of profound effort and a palpable longing for something more, even if that something remained organic and unrefined.

His longing was an interesting thing to try and understand because even though he had been blocked from so many opportunities in his life thus far, he had developed a sophisticated sense of the world. From what I could see, there were his memories from his time in exile and these memories were superimposed on top of memories from childhood. All these memories were juxtaposed to his longing and hope for something more. This complexity of experiences and feelings has taught him much. It has created a sort of wisdom not of his own: a sense of the world inherited from survival, something like intuition, giving him a sense of union with the world and the futility of life.

People squirm with the subject of suffering comes up. Although I don’t blame them, they need to know there is simply so much to learn from it. As we sat and discussed the maltreatment he endured as a child, the flashlights around the room were set up like small floating lanterns. His floor, walls and clothes were spotless and the energy in the room was neatly welcoming. He took pride in how he lived and what he had accomplished and it gave him an air of confidence that was exquisitely appealing. It made it feel like it was an honor to be in this simple room furnished with only a bed and a desk.

He glanced down then fixed his gaze back on me. “I have this weird feeling that I am meant to do more than I am doing right now, that I have a purpose in life that I have yet to figure out and although sometimes I worry that the war and the hard times have messed all this up, I have to keep looking, I have to keep my eyes open for that opportunity. What I mean is that think I am meant to do great things. I just need to figure out what they are.” A fleeting smile crossed his lips before his face settled back into its relaxed lines. From what I could tell he was slightly worried I might think he was bragging or sounding cocky, but that was not the point of his statement; he only hoped I could see that without having to explain. I could.

At that moment he moved his computer to the side, as if to make space for what he was about to say but then he said nothing. It felt so intimate, like he was about to say something that would change everything, but then, just like that, he shock his head as if to shake the thoughts out of his head, and the moment was lost. I didn’t want to push it so we moved on. We seemed to both be trying to make sense of it all but didn’t have the words to express what it was we were experiencing so rather than force it was sat back and appreciated the moment for what it was. It felt like a conversations with something larger than us and we were connected simply by our shared participation.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

my country: my pride, my disappointment

I officially submitted my absentee ballot on October 20, 2008. The cost: a cherished Saturday in my hammock, some small back pain from 11 hours of travel on a bumpy road and an incredible amount of patience along the way. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly.

The reasons I did it are endless: patriotism, devotion, loyalty, partisanship. I also did it because I had promised myself I would never use my travels or work abroad as a reason to not vote ever again. 4 years ago I was living in Shendam, Nigeria and I didn’t vote. I didn’t take the time to figure out how to get to the Embassy in Abuja. I simply felt too bothered by the process and was a little disheartened by the stolen election of 4 years prior. I assumed that given the first election had been taken unfairly and his 4 years in office had been an irrefutable disaster that my countrymen, fellow Americans, would manage to get this man out of office without me.

When I heard the announcement that he had won again on my little transistor radio sitting in the back yard of our compound with a Brit, a German, a Dane, a Dutch and an Italian, I literally cried. Looking back on it I think I cried for two reasons. I cried for my country and our freedoms and the men at Guantanamo bay and… well, the "ands" seemed endless. Second, I cried because there was nothing else I could do sitting in front of such a tough knowledgeable European crowd looking at me as if I were one of “them” - one of those Americans many outsiders hate. It was cry or it was run. I chose to cry. After I finished crying I panicked. I panicked because I was implicit in the process. I should have remembered the quote our newly re-elected president so inarticulately described in the months preceding his re-election – “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Well shame on me, I had been fooled twice and so I made an oath – I would vote from here on out, no matter what.

October 20, 2008

Upon arriving at the embassy I was ushered into a security room, somewhat aggressively, by a group of four embassy security staff. Upon entering I clumsily dropped all my worldly possessions and caught the men laughing gruffly out of the corner of my eye as I hurried around trying to pick everything up. Was it nerves or was it irritation at the monstrosity that was the American Embassy in Liberia? Who knows, but what I do know is that we Americans did good by our super size mentality when building this Embassy – the building itself and the surrounding compound is truly remarkable. After the big security screening, which basically amounted to locking my keys and cell phone in a tiny lockbox, I walked past the 4 unhelpful characters and entered a large waiting area. I was then told you “wait small” in the icebox that is the American Embassy and someone would come and get me soon.

After waiting patiently for about 33 minutes I was all of a sudden graciously ushered back to my own very private room just to the left of the four small windows where Embassy staff are seated to do visa application interviews. From prisoner to prom queen it seems like I continuously encounter bizarre, ever changing, environments as an American existing in developing countries.

The room I was ushered into was garnished in red white and blue and had a burgundy couch and matching love seat with a large American flag hanging in the background. The furniture faced a standard banking window that separated me from my Embassy associate with a large pane of bullet proof glass and a small hole to pass documents through. On the counter sat a high-tech fingerprint machine with a huge sign hanging above giving directions on where to place your fingertips. I went through the process of proving my identity and getting the correct information for the election commission in Colorado. I was then handed an oversize Absentee Ballot form with all those fancy edges and requirements of tearing off one section only to place it inside another.

This was the moment I was struck by a feeling of intense pride. Everything that had surfaced during this election started to run through my head and I experienced a feeling of clarity I rarely achieve. I was drunk with partisanship and started to fill out all my forms with confidence. The forms were quite simple really. They called for my name and some identifying information and then directed me to tear off and fill in a small piece of paper with a blank line on which I was to print out the names of my chosen presidential and vice presidential candidates. It skipped all of the sitting judicial positions that I have shamefully filled in during elections prior. I say shamefully because I usually know little about these candidates and end up blindly endorsing the incumbents. This ballot skipped of that and asked me to focus on “the man” and I knew who I wanted “the man” to be.

I wanted to make it last and so I wrote slow and purposefully, knowing I would not have the chance to do this again for 4 more years. Given the state of my country, this one felt very, very important. Just as I was proudly filling out my home address in Denver, reflecting on my newly established residence, three individuals walked into my little private room and I was startled.

When I’m startled I get tend to drop or break or ruin things and in due course I dropped my pen, while attempting to pick it up, I knocked over my purse. I hurriedly gathered everything up and moved from the couch over to the chair to make room for the guests. Two were dressed in western attire whereas the other was clearly local, dressed in a beautiful lappa with a slightly mismatched head wrap. She quickly sat down on the couch and put her head down and stoically focused at her hands while the other two approached the window and started with some big hellos and how are yous. He (P) announced he was a pastor from the south and she (P2), also a pastor, was here to help with the process. They were warm, well spoken individuals whose presence suggested they had caring natures and resolute dispositions.

The woman from the Embassy (E) seemed instantly annoyed and was quiet short.

(E) Hello.

(P) Yes, I’m not sure if you remember us but we were here a couple of moths ago?

(E) Yes.


(P) Well… We have sorted everything out and have everything arranged; now we just need to finalize the visa for our friend Musu here.

(E) You do not finalize the visa sir; we determine if it a visa should be granted or not and there are regulations about this.

(P) Oh yes of course we understand, of course. What I meant was you should know is Musu is very sick you see. She has cancer and she will die if she does not get the treatment she needs. This treatment is possible, but not here in Liberia and we want to help so she can survive.

(I was startled into a frozen state of disbelief about what I just heard while writing the zip code for Denver…I paused and looked over at the woman who very clearly did not speak English who looked over at me. We caught eyes and I smiled. She smiled back. My eyes filled with tears and I looked away….)

(E) Yes but what about Ghana?

(P) Yes you are correct there are some very good doctors in Ghana and we went there and spoke to them and if you see here in all of our documents there are also very expensive, actually they are more than twice as expensive as the doctor we found in America. But, the good news is that this doctor in America is willing to the treatment and surgery for free, pro bono. And our church is…

(E) Sir. You do realize that treatment for cancer is not just about one time surgery or one time treatment. It takes multiple procedures, expensive medications and hospital stays and who do you think is going to pay for all of that? And how do we know this woman will return after the procedure?

(P) Yes. Yes. We understand your concern but we can vouch for all of this. We are prepared to take on all financial obligations so that this woman can get the treatment she needs. We have done this in 3 different countries including the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone, we understand our responsibility.

(E) Sir. I don’t care where else you have done this. What you need to know is that we can’t just let anybody into the country who is ultimately going to be a financial burden to the state. The treatment of cancer is a very expensive matter. I should know, my sister just died of it and her hospital bills were over a million dollars so don’t come at me trying to explain the process of all of this. I am well aware of the process.

(Everyone just froze. There it was, this was personal or at least it was hitting a very personal cord and this woman had lost her capacity to maintain neutrality in her grief.)

(P2) oh Madame I am so incredibly sorry for your loss. I too am a survivor and I know what my family went through. We are just trying to help this woman who, if given the chance, can get treated and can recover and then return to Liberia, to her home and her grandkids. She doesn’t speak an ounce of English and wouldn’t know what to do if she stayed there. She just wants to live.

(E) Ok. Enough. Yes this is very tragic but like you are aware there is a treatment option in Ghana which means there is no reason to grant this Visa application so I am sorry. This Visa will not be granted. This interview is over.

And, just like that it was over. The three of them gathered their things and quietly left me sitting in this little piece of America in Liberia.

I was slammed by the juxtaposition of such conflicting emotional states I felt nauseous. How is it possible to go from intense pride and hope to heartbreak and grief in a matter of seconds? Isn’t this the type of thing that can cause insanity?

When you’re young and privileged and from America you think it’s going to be like the movies. That this woman was going to get her medical visa and get her treatment and return to Liberia just in time for her grandson’s graduation ceremony. And thanks to the Government Press department, the story is known by all and rumor has it Oprah is considering playing the role in the soon to be blockbuster movie. But, in reality, this rarely happens and movies aren’t made about what I had just witnessed. I had no idea where to put it and I didn’t even say I’m sorry or good bye. That was it. It was over. I took my ballot to the counter, silently handed it over and left.

Being free with the option of getting your basic needs met is so rarely a reality that the impassable distance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is constantly illuminated, even in the halls of the very embassy that strives to deny it’s existence.

I don’t know how to end this post. I’m not sure I ever will.

Monday, October 27, 2008

joining the harvest

Although it was only 7 AM, it was already ninety degrees and Mada’s Town was bustling with activity. Two teenage brothers were fixing large palm branches to build a new roof for their kitchen. Their younger brother was sweeping aimlessly yet somehow productively; and, Yassa, the youngest of the bunch, was standing naked in a blue container splashing water while her older sister, Korpo, scrubbed her backside furiously with lathery soap. I knew this little band of siblings because I knew their mother. I had met their mother 9 months ago. She was a former client of ours and when a visiting journalist from the Carter Foundation asked me if there were any clients that might be willing to talk to her about the counseling process and her progress since her participation in therapy, I thought of their mother instantly. She had gone from severely depressed and functionally debilitated to emotionally stabilized and socially functional with the help of her group and the counselors. She embodied the success story of someone who benefitted from the healing process of a reparative relationship with a therapy group and my sense was she might be willing to talk. Her individual counselor asked her if she would be interested in sharing her story, stressing she had the right to say no and that only she would determine what would be shared with this stranger. The former client contemplated it for about a minute and then said “yes, I‘d like to talk to her.” She later noted she was shocked anyone from America would be interested in her or her journey.

Deddeh, one of the local counselors (who would be playing the role of Loma interpreter), took the former client and the journalist inside the house for some privacy. Once comfortable, she willingly shared her horrific trauma story. She shared her story for two reasons. First, due to therapy, she had been able to “master” her story in such a way that it no longer felt traumatizing to her when she thought about it or told it. The second reason she shared was because she felt empowered by the curiosity of this foreigner and impressed people wanted to know about her and her experience.

I didn’t want to cause any more reason for anxiety so I remained outside. After a while I became bored and decided to join the game of knock foot that was being played by a few of the girls in the shade behind the next hut. Knock foot is a girl’s only game where players hop on one foot and kick toward their opponent with the other foot. While hoping and kicking out a foot, the participants collectively keep a well known beat with a quick clapping sequence. It’s sort of like rock, paper, scissors but, instead of playing with your hands; you play with your feet. For every kick one player makes, the opposing player tries to kick out in such a way that they beat the play of the other kicker. The winner is determined by the type and placement of the kick. Once the winner is determined she quickly faces a new opponent and so on, or until she is beat.

Although the above description of the game might suggest I know how to the play knock foot well, I have to admit I still have a few lingering questions about the rules of the game. These questions never seem to get answered because all the girls who I ask are busy giggling at the fact that I am trying to play the game in the first place. “Look at that why wo ma, she tryin to play kna fo oh!” was all I could get out of the girls who surrounded me during my last attempt to play while ignoring my questions. Needless to say I keep trying play and didn’t care if I looked silly. I’m a sucker for games and a bit of a competitor so I’m basically always ready and willing to learn just about anything anyone is willing to teach me.

After just three rounds of knock foot beads of sweat start collecting on my forehead and so I decided I better switch the game before I passed out from heat stroke. I started teaching them the one joint clapping game I know put to beat by one very bizarre song I learned as a small child. The song was originally sung by Tom Hanks and his boyhood friend in the movie Big. It goes something like: “Dutch babes go down down baby down down the rollercoaster sweet sweet baby sweet sweet don’t let me go…shimmie shimmie coco pop shimmie shimmie rock…” It’s somewhat of a ridiculous song and when you think about it, it makes very little sense but my brother and I loved it and it has stuck with me ever since.

The reason we loved this song is still unclear to me but during the third or fourth time we watched the movie we decided we needed to know every single word to this song. The only problem was it was such a fast song we couldn’t pick up the lyrics in real time. At first we thought we could keep rewinding the movie and learn it, but as the weekend drew to a close, we realized our BETA movie would be due back at blockbuster the following evening and so we took matters into our own hands and placed our eighties style boom box next too the TV and recorded the song. We then were able to return the movie and play the song we grew to love over and over again until we memorized it in full. Drew memorized it much faster than I. He had and still has an amazing ability to memorize the lyrics of any song he hears and smokes me in every game of music trivia we have ever played.

The strange thing is I had completely forgotten this tiny little childhood experience of mine until, for some unknown reason, I blurted out the song a few months ago while I was hanging out with my little 5 year old twin princes back in Denver. It came to mind crystal clear and I sang it as loudly as I did when I had been sitting on that brown L shaped couch with Drewbers in our living room more than 20 years ago. If any part of me thought it was silly or useless, this part of me was quickly quieted by their excitement about the song. They couldn’t get enough of it and so the song quickly moved from a place in my subconscious to a much more accessible place in my consciousness. After the shift it subsequently infiltrated many interactions I had with small children. In Liberia it has taken on a life of its own as my already speedy American English becomes decipherable to the little kids I share it with but they LOVE it just as much as I did when I was as kid and end up requesting it over and over again. So now I can periodically find myself surrounded by kids in a village I have previolsy visited chanting variations of the song. The last time it sounded something like, “dune dune tabbies by by me toasters…swe swe babies roller coasters…”

It’s pretty fantastic and totally reinforcing to me a woman who has been diagnosed by her local counselors as someone who, “din’t get to pla enough as a small child and loves to laugh too much.”

Shortly after I had failed to learn the true rules to knock foot and the kids had failed to learn the true words to the song I was trying to teach them the journalist and our former client exited the hut and told us we would be going to the farm for harvest. It wasn’t really a discussion it was simply a decision based on the fact that is what the family would have done if we hadn’t been there.

We quickly got in a line and followed one another into the bush on a small trail that only allowed for us to travel one at a time. The two youngest led the way, the mother resolutely followed, Jessie, the journalist was next, then Deddeh (our translator) followed by me. Lonely the dog was also along for the journey as well and resolutely moved from the front to the back of the group in a proactive yet playful manner. I of course adored Lonely and quickly befriended him.

Our trek to the farm took about 25 minutes. At first we were surrounded by thick bush which amounted to huge palm trees and solid forest. After about 5 minutes we hit the pineapple farm which essentially looks like extra large Alice in wonderland versions of pineapple tops sticking out of the ground, separated thoughtfully by the farmer who planted them. Next came a log bridge over a milky brown marsh with a tree branch handle set up for safe passage. Following that came a 5 foot wide lagoon of dirty water that the locals were sure we would reject passing through. But Jessie and I were adventurous. She somehow managed to hold onto tree trunks and pass around the side without losing her clogs while I decided to wade right through the water just like the kids because I had on slippery flip flops and feared slipping and landing on my tush in the mud. Later I somewhat regretted my decision and ruminated about the possibility of picking up some sort of still water worm like the ominous scitizosomicion. The good thing is I look asymptomatic to date.

Approximately 10 minutes later we reached a bush kitchen. The kitchen was surrounded by about 10 children, 3 teenage girls, 5 women, 1 man, a large cement round structure used to make palm oil, 3 charcoal fire pits and baskets full of peas, okra and bitter ball. To the side was a large group of sugarcane resting against a fence. The group welcomed us casually and without ceremony (which was somewhat refreshing) and the women quickly started changing clothes from their regular lappa wraps with t-shirts and matching wraps form their hair some sort of strikingly unmatching yet still beautiful wrap to keep the baby child resting on their back in place. What they changed into was essentially men’s ware – dirty flannel long sleeve shirts and oversized jeans. I rarely see women outside their lappa attire but quickly realized they were changing because the harvest process must be scratchy and they wanted to cover as much skin as possible. Although I don’t really know why I assumed this (aside from my theory that the reason I love Africa so much is because I was African in a former life; more specifically I was a large and powerful African woman with 7 kids with an amazing singing voice), I was right.

In another unceremonious gesture a woman approached me and tied a wicker basket around my waste and placed a small knife in my hand. It was clear that if we were going to go into the fields, we were going to help with the harvest. After another ten minutes of trekking we arrived at a large rice field. The growth was high and surrounded by random stalks of corn. I quickly reflected on my experience in the rice fields of Vietnam and was amazed by how different everything felt and looked. This field grew much higher, was not swampy and appeared less organized than the rice fields I had seen in Vietnam. With that noted, there was still a very clear system of harvest and I needed to pay attention if I was going to earn the respect of these women.

The impressiveness of my surroundings was quickly trumped by the impressiveness of the women’s quick harvesting maneuvers that put my shabby attempts at harvesting to shame. They didn’t seem to mind however and after a few minutes we were engaged in a classic harvesting coup, a well known collective act of survival.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

free associations

Over the course of the last few weeks I have been inundated with events, experiences, thoughts, ideas, stories and random occurrences. When over-stimulated I tend to freeze. The delay in my writing emphasizes this. But, just like anyone who likes to weave a tale and gets used to putting it to paper, the thoughts start to pile up like unprocessed files on the desk of a professional who had been forced to take an unexpected leave of absence and returns to an inability of knowing where to start.

These next few posts are my feeble attempt to return. I have a feeling they will be unorganized and disjointed but rather than waste more time in an attempt to shuffle things around I will trust you my reader to organize things as you see fit.

the event: the tale of the magic rock

On a recent drive to a new village I saw a large boulder surrounded by bamboo fencing and barbed wire. I was struck by the man power it must have taken to build that study fencing and found it odd it appeared to have only been done to fence in a rock. I said as much and was subsequently enlightened.

Once upon a time there was a rock. This was not just any old rock; It was a magic rock. The problem was nobody was aware of this for a very long time. Generations of families came and went and still nobody knew about the secret powers of this rock. Every time it thought it was going to be discovered something happened to prevent its discovery and so it lived on, undiscovered. For a very long time this rock was the only one who knew he was a special, magical rock. Before it was discovered little was known, after it was discovered much….

Once upon a time there was a man who had his heartbroken in the most painful of ways. The love of his life and his very best friend went off and demolished his heart and punctured his hope for happiness in the most classic of ways. Although he was not a vengeful man or a man who festered on past events, this event changed everything. Every waking moment he thought about retribution and every sleeping minute he dreamed about redemption. He ruminated so hard and so often he frequently found himself miles away from home or anything familiar because he would walk for hours on end thinking. After snapping out of one of these ruminating stupors he frequently found himself in unknown far away places. He also periodically found himself startled out of a dissociative state holding a bowl of rice that was cold and spoiled from hours of uneaten existence.

Once upon a time this heartbroken man forgot what he was about to do. He did this a lot. He did this because he could think of nothing else but revenge. In another dissociative state he sat himself down next to a rock. After a significant amount of time went by he back against this rock in a huff wondering if he will ever realize his fantasies of revenge. The mix of these two states, one of intense emotion juxtapose to one of intense dissociation, allowed him to enter into the state of mind that is required to become one with a rock. Interestingly in order to enter the rock you had to be in a state where you were wholly human (i.e., feeling a continuum of intense emotions) and wholly nonhuman (i.e., disconnected from your ego). And then, without warning, this man sunk right into this rock and disappeared. The only thing that could be seen was his eyes. But for him, he could see everything.

Once upon a time a man entered a rock and a new state of existence. Following his immersion, he could see everything that was in front of him and everything that was behind him, and in fact he could see and hear everything that was going on in that village at that very moment. He saw and observed everything anyone in that village was doing or saying or thinking without effort and he was amazed. He even lost himself in this new magical state of mind and was elated when he realized he could hear and see “them”. They had decided to move in together and the rumor was they were happy and in love. He hated to think about it and he hated himself for wishing ill will on them, but he couldn’t help it. They had betrayed him and he was damaged and enraged but he also was quite curious about what it was like for them behind closed doors.

Once upon a time their lived a man who frequently visited the magic rock for the experience of knowing all. Shortly after he started “joining with” the rock he learned that the relationship his ex love of his life and former best friend had established suffered from one fundamental flaw. This flaw would eventually ruin them. This flaw was the infiltration of their former acts of betrayal into their new relationship and he saw them suffering for it every day. Based on the fact they had both been so dishonest to their best friend and lover, neither one of them could truly trust the other and the lack of trust was destroying their relationship. They were both suspicious about everything and assumed on some unconscious level disloyalty from the other was enviable. What they didn’t know, and what the man in the magic rock had learned from his new power was that they had actually loved each other intensely and struggled seriously with the choice that they had made which resulted in his heartbreak. They both had genuinely loved him and yet they also had fallen in love with each other and although they held out and refused to allow this love to be realized for a very long time, they eventually lost the will to fight and decided they were willing to pay the consequences. The problem was the guilt was killing them and them and their love. When this very hurt man learned all of this his anger left him and he realized there was nothing he could do that would be worse that what they were suffering and so he moved on.

Once upon a time there existed a man who although it was known had suffered two very significant blows, managed to pull out of his funk and become the village mediator. His ability to read minds was awe invoking and his knack for seeing past the superficial presentation of problems became so well know he became a local Zo of sorts. What no one knew was that he owed his special perceptive powers to a rock. He never told anyone but he chose to use his newfound powers for good and with that was able to get over his heartbreak and help others.

Once upon a time the town counselor became very ill and decided to pass along his knowledge and special abilities to his favorite nephew. Although this nephew was worthy of this gift, the gift got the best of him because he loved the knowledge and power he gained from seeing things as they were seen through this rock. He began to manipulate the power he inherited for personal gain and quickly became very wicked and distrustful. He cheated, and blackmailed and did anything he wished to exploit those that he had knowledge about. This man was eventually killed for his wicked acts. Although the village never truly realized how all of this connected to the rock their collective intuition knew it was somehow connected and therefore with the death of the wicked nephew came the partitioning off of the magic rock. And so now the rock sits, wishing to be utilized for what it was in a state of nonhuman humanness. The tales about its strength, as ire as they were, came from a place of truth.

And so the story goes..........from love to hate and back again and everything in between.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

an urge to remain cloudy

Oddly enough even though I am a psychologist and my whole purpose in life is to make meaning of things, events and feelings, I have this strange urge to remain cloudy, even to myself. Sometimes this is because I don’t think clarity is necessarily the truth. Its simplicity, isn’t it? But then I start thinking about secrets and think, “yes but gwen you know secrets turn powerless in the open air.” What’s left unsaid grows and morphs and takes on a life of its own. If you can break things apart and figure out where they came from you will inevitably find meaning. That’s also an acceptance of complexity, isn’t it?

And there it is, my struggle between complexity and simplicity which results in a strange desire to remain opaque.

Stated another way I seem to have this strange tendency to struggle with the fine lines between what initially appears to be an issue of extremes. Explorer/abandoner, nomad/nester, conventional/eccentric, helper/hinder….the list could go on…..
I don't want to move from this place becuase I firmly believe the differences between the two extremes are in fact a matter of fine lines. The tricky thing is my resistance to choose periodically causes confusion in my life.

This is where I realize I could take a few lessons from my dear sweet brother. He is a purist. He sees things in black and white and although there are times where this too causes troubles for him, more often than not he is not conflicted or frozen in fear over making the wrong choice, like I. He lives is life intensely, passionately with a level of confidence I can rarely muster. I adore him for that.

At this point I am hearing our landcrusier idling at the gate sounding eager to pick me up and start its journey from the interior to Monrovia. I am heading to NYC in a few short days to attend a benefit concert an amazing musician, David Calkins. He is performing at Carnegie Hall and is dedicating this performance to SalusWorld. I am very excited and nervous about it and just like that I am doing it again – existing between two extremes and relishing the cloudiness of it all.

Friday, September 12, 2008

even paranoids have real enemies

Due to war, secret societies and painful life lessons, many Liberians have learned to be efficient in their privacy and rarely reveal their true selves to others. This way of being is tied to the a few humorous yet ever so slightly accurate statements about paranoids. The first is that even paranoids have real enemies; the second is that a paranoid is frequently someone with all the facts. Maybe in a land recovering from a long and bitter civil war, these are the only truths.

It’s strange but the individuals I trust most here often talk in the vaguest of ways and stress that they do this so they can avoid becoming the object of someone else’s vengeance. May it be about money or success or happiness, they highlight examples of people falling victim to other people’s jealousies and I tend to believe them. At the end of the day the ones I respect most are rarely found taking an outward stance about critical issues and frequently fade into the background when you would expect them to be animated. But, what comes of a society that forces its brightest and most trustworthy into the shadows?

Although we don’t like to admit it most laws are uncertain and fear is everywhere. I was recently reminded of this fact when I discovered the newly elected executive director of the local NGO I returned to support had become corrupt and deceitful in the few short months I was away. I literally shuttered in disbelief when I was briefed on the developments. From what I understand it happened quickly and on the heels of solidifying their very first funded project. This newly elected leader, a fellow Liberian who had managed to earn a masters degree in Marriage and Family therapy while in refuge, simply accessed the bank account and used the money from their very first grant as if it were his own. After that it turned into a long and drawn out game of cat and mouse. He not only lied, manipulated and stole money; he also failed to hold true to his promises. This information made my heart sink. I too trusted and liked this guy and felt as if the local group of counselors that were hoping to become a functional NGO before CVT departed had picked the right man to lead them into independence. The plan was to have their NGO up and running by the time CVT finished their last grant and pulled out of the country.

A few days ago this man called me, was near tears while pleading his side and claiming everything I was hearing was a conspiracy against him. He wove a detailed and exhaustive story. After attempting to listen to both sides and sort out some sort of objective truth, I realized that truth can bounce between gossip and vengeance and objectivity is fleeting. Rumors about why he did it slip into side conversations I hear in hallways and offices and I once again find myself feeling skeptical about everything. Maybe I too am on my way to becoming a full blown paranoid. Sadly enough, maybe this is not a bad idea in this world of ours. Maybe most of the time, truth is just an opinion.

In my years abroad I have courted foreignness and have been at ease whether in the woods of Wisconsin, on the 1/9 subway line heading towards the Bronx or in a hut in Yelwa. In some ways I feel as if I completed myself abroad and am now able to slip back and forth between my two lives with much more ease and grace than I was able to muster a few years back. But trust is a slippery topic. On the one had I have been forced to blindly trust strangers either due to language or cultural barriers or because I found myself in a vulnerable position. Fortunately for me nothing bad has happened yet and I have been incredibly moved by a stranger’s willingness to help another stranger. And yet, with each road I have explored, I have learned that many roads are not clearly marked and some have a tendency to change direction. At first I thought my lost feelings were simply due to my bad sense of direction but with time and experience I have come to accept the fact that my paths in life may be bumpy, circular or even end up at a dead end. My only hope is that I learn from each journey, irregardless of the final destination.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

the trip up country

Exactly 7 days after I arrived in the chaotic city of Monrovia, I started my long journey into the bush. The two of us who were planning to travel together had initially arranged to get on the UN chopper around eight, but we changed our minds when we once again observed the clouds were getting feisty. It looked like it was about to rain and when rain comes the UN airfield staff make everyone wait. Everyone sits around hoping it will clear and the choppers will fly. On a good day it only takes an hour or so; on a bad day people wait for hours on end to find out if they are going to give the clearance they need to move. For some reason this pregnant pause fills the airfield staff with delight and the remarkable levels of enjoyment are easily observed on their faces. It’s likely this enjoyment is a direct result of the power they feel over the waiting passengers as such power is infrequently given out so freely. With power comes a very quick attempt to push the limits and flex their powerful muscles. This disposition should not to be held against them, as they don’t know any better, but it takes a little added patience to not get annoyed.

So we chose to avoid the potentially disheartening experience of rejection and hours of hopeful desperation and load up for a 9 hour road trip on muddy pothole ridden roads. Half way to Gbarnga we see another land cruiser stuck in some mud. Our driver recognizes the passenger of this NGO vehicle as his former physics teacher from the high school he attended before the war. He looked over at me, “Gwan, do you think that maybe we could stop and see if we can help?” “Of course, let’s see what this thing can do” I reply.

The first thing we realize is that they are truly stuck and two of their tires are completely hidden in 2 feet of thick mud. We are riding in a flat bed pick up and they are in a four door land cruiser. Do to the fact there is not a hitch on the back of the truck we have to turn around and tie the rope to the front of the vehicle and try and back them out. Given we too are at risk of being pulled down the side of the muddy ravine, we are forced to pull them out at an angle. Our first three attempts fail and smoke starts to come out the back end of our truck and tires. We move a little closer to the ravine and try again. This time it works and we manage to get them out. And then, just like that, after a few quick thank yous and your welcomes, we are off.

Approximately 1 hour later we hear a funny noise and the car starts to pull to the right. Alvin stops and we realize we now have a flat tire and it appears that it was caused by the extreme heat from pulling out of the memorable physics teacher of years gone by. We quickly fix the flat, with the help of three 9 year old boys who thoroughly enjoyed the pizza flavor combos I gave them as payment, and we manage to get to the swap point an hour or so later than we were to be expected. Luckily for us, our colleague had clearly departed Lofa on Liberian time and arrived a few short minutes after our own arrival.

Entering an old home

As I mentioned in a previous post I have questioned my capacity to settle and create a place I can call home. Now I realize that maybe I have somehow managed to have created a few. Coming back to Lofa taught me this lesson. Aside from my childhood home, this was my very first experience of ‘coming back’ to a residence that I knew very intimately. After months and months of being away I unlocked the door and quickly recognized the space and noticed everything was exactly how I liked it. The clean crisp covers were on the furniture, my coffee percolator sat stoically on the shelf and my bright Guinean rug covered the floor in my bedroom. It was clear Korpo, my dear sweet housekeeper, went of her way to do all of this and I appreciated it (and her) with all my heart.

This experience left me feeling all the more confident about my recent purchase of a small home in Denver. When I left it felt strange to lock the door and image everything gathering dust while sitting around waiting to have their reason for existence realized. Now I know what it will feels like to go home and I can state with ease that somehow it is possible for our hearts to be and belong in multiple places at the same time. The only problem is that re-arriving often involves a lot of dusting.

So I end this post thinking about being and belonging. What i know is that there are those experiences that open you up to something new and exotic, those that are old and familiar, those that bring up lots of questions, those that bring you somewhere unexpected, those that bring you far from where you started, and those that bring you back. But the most exciting, challenging and significant life experiences are those that make you reflect on yourself. And if you find some people to love and be loved by while you are living these experiences, well, that's just fabulous.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

as if I never left

“Don’t go chasing butterflies, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to,”
sing my talented mixed clinical/admin team in the new CVT office/compound on 14th Street. The TLC version of the song is playing softly in the background on UN Radio. It’s Wednesday, a typical work day, and everyone is working independently on their training, finance and fuel consumption reports. Each one of them intensely focused on their own work, each one in their own little world.

They continue to sing and never make eye contact with one another or recognize they are singing together. As an outsider, it fells as if they must have practiced this little performance for hours to reach the level of harmony I am hearing. This is not true; however, and the fact that they are participating in this activity in perfect unison is also completely unconscious and unrecognized. The process was organic, unrefined and so very un-American as there was no sign of neurosis or underlying fears of being judged or rejected to speak of.

I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all, But I think you're moving too fastlittle precious has a natural obsession for temptation but he just can't see. She gives him loving that his body can't handle but all he can say is baby it's good to me…,” chants the CVT choir as they shift through paperwork and cross reference data sheets.

And just like that, I am back. No one missed a beat and I managed to fit right in, like a missing piece of the puzzle. I find myself familiar with everything and know what I am supposed to do. A brief smile passes across my lips and I savor the moment of observation; but, then, just as quickly as it hit me, it is gone and I am back to work amazed by how it all somehow works in the midst of utter chaos.

Speaking of chaos, I think I might be addicted to it. When things come too easy I’m suspect. Back in Denver I would arrive home after a day at work and sit behind my steering wheel for a brief moment feeling strange. Then I would realize my day included no major logistical constraints or peripheral events that impeded on my agenda and I found myself slightly underwhelmed. Do things have to get complicated before I believe they’re for real?

I’ve been raised to believe that life is not meant to run smoothly and it’s is the bumps in the road that typically teach us something important. And, for some strange reason I have always believed that there has to be obstacles in Act Two before you can live happily ever after in Act Three. This is so ingrained in my psyche that I suspect that if the obstacles aren’t there, something is missing. Does this mean I need drama to make life work? Is this why I choose dramatic environments to work in? I can think of plenty of people who would save they need drama to make love work, so why not life in general?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

returning to voinjama

It’s been 4 months and 22 days since my return to America. Today I depart once again for Liberia. This return was not exactly planned, nor was it fully expected. I am not nervous, nor am I worried; I’ll let everyone else in my life deal with the weight of those feelings. And, although a few other humanitarian workers who have worked in Liberia have expressed mild confusion about why I am choosing to return, I am returning and I am delighted. My memories of Liberia are filled with profoundly moving experiences. There may be a variety of explanations for this domination of positive memories over negative (as I know I had my fare share of rough times), but I believe it is the origin of our species to improve memories of the past by natural selection. We filter memories just like we filter bad news and we tend to see and hear what we want, when we want. While in Liberia I was influenced in a myriad of ways. I have tried to capture this myriad in past posts, the success of which is likely left wanting, but at least I can say I have tried.

Before I head back to Liberia I would like to quickly examine my time at home. I proudly say home because I recall feeling quite confused by the concept of home when I first returned. I wasn’t sure if a nomad, like myself, could ever truly feel at home anywhere but in-between. Now I say with certainty that Colorado is indeed my home, or at least it is indeed my home, for now. During these 4 months and 22 days I was welcomed back with such warm words and thoughtful gestures it frequently moved me to tears. My last night there was no exception. While packing and thinking about how hard it was to, once again, abandon my tribe, two very special individuals came to pay me a visit and brought along with them some pots and pans. They had learned I managed to go the entire 4 months and 22 days without a single pot or pan in my possession and this troubled them. Clearly a lack of cooking utensils in my possession says something about my capacity to cook; but, it also say something about them. The gesture was to them an easy decision - they had some extra kitchenware and thought it would be nice to give it to me. To me this gesture said so much more as they very clearly were not vexed or confused about my going and they knew I would eventually be back and in need of a pot and/or a pan.

In Denver I worked hard, tried to organize my new home and rested as often as I could. I fully appreciated hot showers for approximately 37 days and then the impact of this visceral experience unfortunately wore off. I can’t recall which shower it was exactly, but there was one day when I started to step into piping hot showers only to discover or fail to consciously discover the remarkable effect of warm water on my skin. To me the opportunity to take a hot shower after months and months of cold and dirty bucket showers tops my list of re-entry activities, I miss appreciating that.

I also fully appreciated my dog, Tuesday. Fortunately for the both of us, this feeling did not wear off, even for one second. Every day I cruised home from a local jail or the office, having just completed an evaluation, excited to see her. I was welcomed home with delight every single time. I loved our walks and our car rides and our trips around town to visit her friends or to get ice cream cones. She is likely one of the most delicate eaters of ice-cream cones and I periodically enjoyed watching her do just that. The support I have received in helping care for this canine has moved me right to tears sitting here in O’Hare airport. I can’t help but cry when I think about Sherry and Laura and Kristy and Dan and Yophy and Terry and Karla and Brian and Sarah and Rick and Stephanie and Jim and Joanie and their collective willingness to help me out whenever I was about to embark on another adventure. Each one of these individuals expressed their love to me by expressing their love towards this four legged creature and I am so incredibly touched by their willingness to help. To top it off, just last week Sherry and Laura, graciously welcomed Tuesday into their beautiful Telluride home for the next couple of months. They did it out of sheer love for dogs, a little love for me and some experienced pride in my work and I feel incredibly appreciative of their act of kindness and their e-mail updates informing me that Tuesday has been dashing back and forth between their log piles hunting chipmunks as well as flirting a little bit with their youngest, yet massive pup, Wilson.

So as Tuesday and I acclimate to another brief change, I am left feeling impressed by animal and mankind alike. For dogs their capacity to acclimate is impressive and yet their time limited memory serves to prevent from the angst of ruminating. We human beings spend a significant amount of time ruminating but then again the act of acclimating is truly one of our greatest strengths. The underlying tragedy of it is we never realize exactly when full acclimation has occurred.

So in a timely announcement I am just been called to board my plane………….
Expect more tales from me soon.

Friday, July 25, 2008

the psychology of evil and personification of berlin

The lucifer effect and the psychology of evil.

So, I totally had a celebrity encounter while attending a conference in Berlin. Or maybe to be more accurate, I should probably say I totally had a celebrity encounter for a psychologist. And, when I say celebrity encounter I mean I walked by this aforementioned celebrity and nodded my head; he looked back at me and said hi.

Yes that’s right. If you can even believe it I was in the same room with the one and only Philip Zimbardo. Ok, I know for those of you with careers outside the field of psychology this means very little; however, if you took a social psych 101 class you might actually know who I’m talking about. Professor Zimbardo was the principle investigator on the Stanford Prison Study, a very famous study that had to be terminated 4 short days into a two week study because the participating college students took their jobs (as prison guards) and their incarcerations (as prisons) so seriously that the abuse and maltreatment of the prisoners very quickly got out of hand and the study had to be terminated for ethical reasons. It’s a basic study about the power and effect of positions of authority, the autonomy of uniforms and losing ones individual identity.

Well Professor Zimbardo is back and he is trying to explain the psychology of evil. He is doing this because he was called as an expert witness for the young soldiers who participated in heinous acts of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He noted the whistleblower, a measly 18 year old reserve (whose conscience simply wouldn’t allow him to not report what he witnessed on a take home CD burned by one of the participating privates), was stalked and threatened so severely by fellow military men and former friends and neighbors from his very small home town in America (as they saw him as “anti-patriotic” to the Bush administration), that he and his wife and small child had to go into a witness protection program. Unbelievable. Really.

But enough about that…………..let’s move on, or rather let’s return to Berlin.

Berlin seems to be a city marked by the disappearance of a wall and an uncanny desire to judge nothing too critically. This city overflows with art and culture. Everywhere there are tributes to philosophers and activists. Everywhere there are galleries and museums. Its universities allegedly became Mecca’s for students of the 60s & 70s who wanted to experience the intensity of those political times in an environment that was on the edge of politics and the dynamics of history. And, according to my patriotic hosts, Berlin’s underground culture flourishes with an eclecticism that can’t be claimed elsewhere with the possible exception of New York City. In Berlin, the people seem to live simply yet this does not by any means mean they have simple lives.

If I were to personify Berlin I would say he is a tall, young, Caucasian, thin man who works with computers and plays jazz in the wee hours of the night. He is a serious fellow who moves briskly with lips tightly pursed. During the day his face remains expressionless, neither breaking into smile of satisfaction nor frowning with disappointment at the results of his work. The cuffs of his white shirt are typically rolled up to the elbows. His pants ever so slightly snug, his collar button open, his bright tie loosened. Now and then he stops typing to scribble note on his scratch pad next to his keyboard. Interestingly about half of his scratches are work related and half are music notes. Even though he tries hard and has a remarkable amount of self-control, the music can drift in, unexpectedly. After work he changes into a short black leather coat, wrinkled olive-green chinos, and brown work boots.

Inside a local deli, saxophone case hanging from his shoulder, this young man stops for a quick snack before a late night session with his band mates. They play in an abandoned building in East Berlin. It’s likely this neighborhood will be vibrant and in a few years to come, but for now it’s a carcass of a former soviet structure and if you look closely enough you might even see a few bullet holes from WWII. Backed up by a piano, drums, an acoustic bass and a clarinet, young Berlin finishes the night by playing a solo. His performance is not bad, decent technique with a love for the process that allows his personality to show through and make the listener's experience more personal, more intense. And this is his life. Somehow he manages to ride the fine line between good citizen and darkish explorer of the night; he does it well and is happy doing it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

a white flag in surrender

“The wounds are going to need some drains to prevent infection and the bite on the top of her leg is going to need a few staples.” Her tone was kindly yet assured. Dr. Sylvie was charming and caring yet ever so reliably professional.

"What should I do?” My tone was indignant yet shattered. The only living thing presently in my care (this blogs very namesake) was attacked by two stray dogs on our run earlier in the day. In that very moment I found myself sitting in the office of an emergency veterinarian hospital being informed that poor tuey was going to need surgery and have to wear one of those horrific e-collars (aka: doggie lamp shades) for a number of days.

When the attack occurred I was just as surprised as Tuesday. The two massive strays approached us from the back and one of them simply picked Tuesday up by her neck as easily as a lion would pick up a baby faun sipping water from a pond. The other, an enormous pit/husky mix, just as quickly put his fangs in her rear. In the next moment tuey was on her side; the big black lab mix with a severely wounded back leg kept his teeth deep in her neck. I screamed at the top of my lungs, threw my zune at one of them and starting kicking at the other. I’m sure it all happened in a matter of 3 seconds, it felt like an eon.

On the way home we walked slowly. Tuesday had her tail down the entire time and I was noticeably shaking while I waited for the woman at animal control to take my call. 47 minutes later she superficially took my complaint, harshly said she would “send someone out” and hung up the phone. Thanks for the support lady, I thought. I hung up and tried to say some compassionate things to Tuesday. Just one look at the two of us and it was clear neither one of us felt reassured.

I was hoping to write this post with elegant detachment and measured passion but one look at any of my previous posts suggests elegant detachment and measured passion are not typically part of my repertoire. Sure I can periodically manage them when it comes to processing my own feelings but for others, rarely.

I’m sure one day I will reflect back on what has happened and view it as a lesson learned. But, presently I feel bitter and annoyed this lesson was taught to me in the manner in which it was because dear sweet Tuesday can’t turn to me and offer her version of events or feelings tied to its occurrence, leaving me trying to feel and process for us both. There is a painful injustice to much of what happens in life but this feels especially unfair at this very moment.

So I will stop for now. This was a hard post to write as I didn’t really want to think about what happened; but, I have made one promise to myself with regards to this wee blog of mine. I will continue to chronicle my journey to and fro foreign lands and I won’t try and filter. My hope is that my dear readers will realize that neither I nor those we hold most dear are necessarily safer on western soil and what happens in life will forever remain uncharacteristically unpredictable. For now I will put up my white flag and surrender.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

a week full of smiles, bliss and a little contentment

a few small events made me smirk with glee this week.
I was told something sweet and I was given something special.
just a few words, just a few small gestures, but I recognized them as genuine and real and I found myself smiling through the cracks of unhappy contemplation that I have been existing in over the last 71 days.

I almost let them pass and didn’t take a moment to write them down but then I realized it was just as important to write these small measures down as it was to write the tougher more painful ones down. It is just as important to recognize these moments as real so that they too can be internalized and savored. Without that, I am not offering myself some much needed balance and maybe it is this process of acknowledging the good and the bad, the remarkable and the unremarkable that gives us balance and ultimately saves us from ourselves.

So to those of you out there who offered me these small gifts this week – thank you for the stories, thank you for the silverware, thank you for the invitations, thank you for the roses and thank you for each small thoughtful act of kindness that may have been done unconsciously, but were done nonetheless, ultimately easing my discontent and leaving me feeling as if a feather brushed across my face and brought me back to my current, pleasant reality.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

re-engaging with the clamor of the west while residing in the gap between misery and enlightenment

Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.
~ Sai – The Inheritance of Loss

Despite the fact that there are over 588,000 people live in Denver Colorado, I have been fluctuating from feeling shipwrecked and alone to re-energized and connected. And, although my re-entry experience has felt much easier than last time; in part, due to the what I now conceptualize as vicarious resilience **(or the internalization of all the amazing strength I witnessed with survivors of horrific war trauma in Liberia) I still find myself tripping over myself and when I trip I tend to bruise easy. So although many individuals have assumed I have moved on, moved back to my old life, there are still times I struggle and times that I feel the urge to put a message in a bottle.

My points of destabilization seem to creep up on me and take me by surprise and more often than not I end up in tears. But the tears are not the issue of concern because as a dear friend of mine pointed out – tears have always been easy for me. Whenever I start to feel something, anything really, I tend to cry. Rather than label the feeling or share it I simply cry and cry until the water dries up and then I move on. Tears are to me what love was to Sai: the ache, the anticipation, the retreat.

What I have realized is that traveling and working abroad in areas of need of humanitarian action makes one modest - you are forced to see what a tiny place you occupy in the world and what a crap-shoot it actually is that you just happened to be lucky enough to be born to a privileged family in a privileged country devoid of horrifying events in your immediate environment. Seeing the world also reminds you that the horrifying events – the poverty, and war and trauma is the real global REALITY and what we’ve got here is layers upon layers of denial and dissociation. How is it that we can be at war and I (nor any of my closest friends) have been immediately affected? And, how it is that things like genocide, torture, kidnapping, environmental degradation, violent repression of political rights, the release of toxins into pristine environments, discrimination and the conscription of child soldiers all over the globe occurs constantly and we don’t stand up and swallow up such brazenness in one gulp?

So I’m left feeling miserable. No, that’s not right. I don’t actually feel miserable. Maybe I am just feelings some sort of chronic level of mild unhappiness. Well not unhappiness exactly but more like the absence of the ecstasy that I would periodically feel when I was surrounded by people who had been enlightened by their experience. I also feel overwhelmed by the bullshit. I have to admit I have already started to worry about things that simply shouldn’t matter and am concerned I am chronically being underexposed to the things that truly do matter.
What I keep doing to check my misery is simple. I just keep reminding myself about the true mystery of the world. For me, the true mystery of the world is the visible. People carry grief and I am amazed by its weight. Young boys give me directions and I am awed by their innocent kindness. A woman holds the glass door open for me at the bank and waits patiently for my empty body to pass though.........all day long it continues, each kindness reaching toward another, strangers reaching out to strangers.........and I am thankful these things find me because they keep me from myself, and this is my faith: humanity.

** the concept of vicarious resiliance was developed by (HERNÁNDEZ, GANGSEI, ENGSTROM, ET. AL. 2008)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

dot dot dash. dash dot dot dash.

In the middle of an unremarkable chilly day the voice of the roaming nomad started to whisper in my ear….”you’re kidding yourself you know. You have to go……There are so many places you have yet to see….you have to go back….you belong out there…you must move about…there is work yet to be done.”

At first I didn’t listen. No, that’s not it exactly. At first it just felt like a lack of silence where there should have been some. A Morris code of sorts repeating itself like a broken record to someone who can’t decipher it.

Dot dot dash. Dash dot dot dash…

I went on with my day. Visited the Fuel café for some coffee. Completed an eval on a minimizing perpetrator. Took the dog for a walk. Studied paint samples. Then I ran into my dear friend and mother of my most favorite twin boys in this whole entire world. She indicated she would stop by with my little mangos after she picked them up from school. The idea was I could see them while she took a look at the latest paint swabs I have put on my wall. There were many. Paint seems like the biggest commitment of my life.

Dot dot dash. Dash dot dot dash…

They entered like a tornado. Bubbly lemonade in one hand crumbs on their face and updates to tell…
Aidan: Auntie Gwen! We’re here. I made this for you at school. It’s a fire truck!
Patrick: Auntie Gwen! Oh, hey Tuesday! Look I made this for you too! Can you open this for me?
Gwen: Sure Sure yes yes! Come in my little mangos. How was school?

Dot dot dash. Dash dot dot dash.

As I look for the bottle opener and rummage through drawers the undecipherable white noise continues to play in the back of my head.

Dot dot dash. Dash dot dot dash.

It’s still repeating when Aidan asks me, “where do you sleep Auntie Gwen?” I inform them there’s a bed in the mezzanine and they can check it out if they want. Tuesday adores these two little boys and therefore follows them everywhere they go when they are around. Due to the fact the stairs going upstairs do not have backs on them she has been experiencing some anxiety climbing them and looks a bit like a serpentine on her way up. This makes the mangos giggle. I can’t help but suffer from breakthrough smiles just experiencing them doing simple everyday activities. They come back down and we talk about the things in my loft. Then they start burping, which of course leads to more giggles. We all head down to the second floor to check out paint schemes. Clearly I’m seriously lost and a bit preservative about this issue. I may need an intervention soon.

We head back upstairs to my tiny little loft and continue to play and giggle. After a while their mother decides it is time for them to head home for tacos. Patrick has decided he wants meat. Aidan is presently a vegetarian and declares he will be having bean tacos.

Aidan asks when they can come over again. I inform them that I will be going to California the following day and plan to return on Saturday so maybe they can come next week. I start to teach them the surfers hang loose hand sign and we practice together. On a related note, I am proud to report they both know how to do the classic Liberian handshake (i.e., the shake-snap) and they proceed to practice it once again with gusto.

All of a sudden Patrick looks confused and hides his head in my pile of African fabrics. We all pick up on his emotional shift but his mother and brother, much more astute about Patrick’s emotional states than I, move closer to him and his mom gently begins to brush through his bushy blond hair. Aidan quickly asks me, “Auntie Gwen how long will you be gone?” I tell him, “just until Saturday.” “How long is that,” he replies. I show him four fingers and say, “only four days.” He whispers, “that’s not long” and his mother wholeheartedly agrees while patting Patrick’s back. Patrick raises his head and looks at me with tears in his eyes and patchy red spots on his cheeks and it’s clear that he had begun crying because he believed I was going to leave once again for a much longer period of time. Still speechless he studies my face and my fingers. Satisfied with the scenario he gets up and everybody prepares to go.

Tuesday and I walk them out and we talk about the next time they would like to come over. It was decided it will be next week before school. I ask about their plans for the weekend but, by then, we are at the car. They managed to walk through a massive pile of mud before climbing into their car seats. Their mother doesn’t seem to mind in the least. Aidan quickly rolls down the window and keeps asking me a series of questions. “Where is the water? Where are you taking Tuesday for a walk? What airline are you taking to California?” Then, while I sit there fully appreciating the fact they are still waving to me out the back window of their car, I realize the Morris code in my head has stopped. As if it somehow got lost, I finally experience utter silence.

In that moment, feeling lost in the silence, I realize what the noise was all about and I sigh…..my enviable struggle – should I stay or should I go?

The fine line between explorer and abandoner was captured in the emotional experience of a dear sweet boy who had lost his aunt, a flawed aunt no doubt; but, an aunt that has managed to mean something to him and an aunt who has left him for one third of his short life to date. To him the thought of losing me again was like the injury pain I referred to in my previous post. To me the thought of staying and the thought of going is equally as painful but I remain thankful that the choice and the struggle are there because a life without it suggests I am not wanted nor needed anywhere in this big loving yet scary world………..

Monday, May 5, 2008

a shadow of sorts

I long, as does ever human being, to be at home wherever I find myself
~Maya Angelou

Strangely enough even though Maya’s words truly resonate within me, I find myself longing for the home I recently left behind; and, this my friend, is the blessing and the curse of the roaming nomad. If one chooses to move around and truly be at home wherever one finds oneself, then they can then say that they have been blessed by the experience of having not one but many homes. The opportunity to explore and settle into a new environment is an unexplainably illuminating experience, and yet, with every new home experience comes the tragic yet ever looming necessity of saying goodbye. Goodbyes are never easy and if anyone says they are then they are minimizing the pain or avoiding the connections. As human beings we are not good at it; therefore, we avoid goodbyes like we avoid the plague. But if we chose to connect and engage with others, then leaving will most definitely be exquisitely painful.

As I sit here thinking about my most recent home, Liberia, I ache. I realize now that I did not consider it home simply because I lived there for an extended period of time; I considered it home because I felt so incredibly understood there. A few exceptional people who knew nothing about my past, nothing about my future, decided to take a risk and let me in. What’s unbelievable about that is that simply based on random circumstance, their pasts have been filled with heinous events and their futures are for all extensive purposes, unknown. I was moved by it all and miss each and every one of them.

It’s nice to come home to my nest in Denver and with every touching reconnection, every sunny day, every walk with Tuesday and every conversation with a curious acquaintance I am reminded why I feel so exquisitely loyal to the life I have created here. It wasn’t handed to me; I earned it by making meaningful interpersonal connections and memories with people so incredibly dear to me that it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. And yet, for every day, every month, every year that I decide to call another place home, I am left being experienced as a memory, an idea, a shadow of sorts by all the people I hold dear on domestic soil.

Being experienced as a shadow is very painful but truly being present and engaged when we reconnect is a healthy reminder that proximity is not always the answer. Being close doesn’t always solve the problems or make people feel more connected. Sometimes being close allows people to take things for granted; reunions are a chance to express and reminisce. So it seems there is a fine line between comfort and pain when it comes to interpersonal relationships. In fact it is a common belief that a relationship without pain is a relationship not worth having. To some pain implies growth. But how do we know when the growing pains stop and the injury pains begin? Am I an explorer or an abandoner if I close to walk that fine line? And, what happens if I make the wrong choice?

So the question remains can I continue to do this work (and move around as I do) and still hold on to those I hold dear? I fundamentally believe my work is a calling of sorts. For every second of my life I have felt lost, I have felt comfort in the fact that I have always known what I was meant to do professionally. But am I a whole person in any given world I chose to live in if I am chronically leaving it? My biggest fear is that I am in fact living my life as a shadow and am more frequently referenced as someone from the past rather than someone from the here and now.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

a trek across the globe.....calabash in tow

For those of you who thought I would disappear after my year in Africa – beware.
For those of you still interested in what I have to say - please know I am still here.
For those of who were unaware of all of the above – welcome.

This is the story of a girl who was once there but is now here.
She still has a story to tell………………so here goes…………………….

I departed Liberia on April 4, 2008.
I arrived in Washington DC to the smiling faces of my dear friends and glowing newlyweds, Sharon & Abi. Sharon had just arrived from DRC a few hours prior. We needed to prepare for a conference in New Haven so we gave each other a quick hug and got to it.

The presentation went well aside from the fact that the proctor apparently had no idea what the job of proctor actually entailed. By that I mean he not only started late and spent way too much time on the introductions, he ultimately failed to keep any sort of schedule, leaving Sharon and I with only 11 minutes to present what was scheduled to be a 20 minute presentation of our research findings followed by a short question and answer session.

The most amazing part was that, when asked by the first presenter how he was "doing on time", the young man quickly shook his head positively and said "oh fine." This young proctor was, might I add, not wearing a watch. It bothered me slightly that, out of pure ignorance, he was lying; it bothered me more that he was not doing his job.

Given Sharon and I had practiced non stop for three days to get our presentations to fall within the allotted 20 minutes, we were not exactly happy when our turn surfaced and the proctor only shrugged his shoulders and said "opps sorry." We had practiced and tweaked and practiced and erased power point slides to make our presentation exactly 20 minutes in length. Now this little Princeton punk was checking his text messages and picking lint off his new suit rather than doing the one job he had been asked to do.

We tried to push it (i.e. talk very fast) but we were unsuccessful. After everyone moved on to the next panel sessions, we packed our things slightly shocked and feeling as if we had disrespected our subjects. We had decided to use narratives as a mean to research our hypothesis. To us each quote was not only a poignant example, it was also very personal. The push to rush was insulting not only to us as professionals, but to our subjects as the human beings who chose to share their trauma stories. The only reparative experience I had out of the whole experience was being approached by supportive friends and a number of people from the audience praising our research and inquiring about our work. That, in addition to the fact that Sharon and Abi and Karen and I immediately went across the street to an adorable little Italian restaurant and shared a bottle of wine over a delicious conversation, skipping the rest of the conference.

But I digress….

The conference was only a beginning to my long trip home. After two weeks with friends on the east coast I find my self mid-air in route to Chicago. NYC was everything I needed it to be - an emersion into a city with an intense pulse where I could be anonymous, yet confronted by my own tribe. I shopped, I people watched and I sat in central park sipping coffee. One friend commented that it was a bit extreme to go from the bush of Africa to the Big Apple. But, to me the big apple is a former home and it is the best form of re-emersion one can ask for. No questions, no tears, no glazed over looks – just the hustle and bustle of big city life. The living was far from simple but it was living full speed no doubt.

As mentioned in a previous post I left Liberia carrying some calabash. These versatile bowls are made from large fruit that hang from trees. When split and dried out they make the perfect cooking bowls. They withstand heat as well as cold and as one of my drivers mentioned the perfect instrument in which to prepare rice. Dirt is easily captured by the graining interior of the bowl and you are able to extract clean rice for cooking. At the end of the day these bowls are exceptionally versatile, very useful and, to me personally, simply beautiful.

What I came to find out during my long journey home is that I am clearly not alone in my respect for the calabash. It was amazing to see how many people along the way ended up engaging with me simply because of the bowls I carried at my hip. From Africans to South Americans to Asians, people constantly stopped me and asked me what became a predictable series of questions. First, where did I get them. Second, did I know how to use them and third, why did I keep them. After explaining my humble attempt at an answer to each of their questions, they all told me a detailed story about how they used to use a calabash in their home country. I’ve never in all my travels held such a universal instrument that managed to provoke so many fond memories but I was very glad I was holding them when they started their tales.
If food is a staple of life, then the instrument we use to make food is the key to survival and having in my possession one of the few universal keys to living made me feel connected to all of humanity the exact same moment I felt so tragically disconnected form a few specials ones that I had recently left behind.

Thank you dear calabashes - I look forward to showing you your new home.

Monday, March 31, 2008

a psychologist who tries to write

Gwen/Gomah/Garmai’s Departure…

Goodbyes make me feel old. Yet, as expected, whenever I feel something in Africa something else happens to directly contradict what I’m feeling. This time it was the rain. When I say rain I don’t mean light rain fall on a cloudy day afternoon. I mean serious fence breaking, window shaking rain. The good thing about rain is that I know I am not older than rain. It’s been falling for years and after I go it will keep on falling.

I will depart Liberia on April 4, 2008.
I’ll leave a different person than who I was when I arrived.
Even the way I sign my named has changed.
I’ll leave with a suitcase full of country cloth, calabashes and a pair of worn out jeans.
Mercy and Morris and Dama will stay.
The change is fluid yet vague.
I am confident I will miss my hammock.
I will carry with me my found soothing stones and know they will work when called upon.

I will arrive back home feeling known and unknown by the people I left.
They knew me before; they know me well.
There is one individual here who knows me better than I know myself.
Sometimes I’m not sure I know myself at all.
I will ache for this place and I won’t be able to explain it, so I will be quiet.

Really, there isn’t much to say.

Gwen is a psychologist who tries to write.
Gwen fell in love with a place and its people.
It was her life for 12 months and 11 days.

Friday, March 14, 2008

greetings and misappraised misfortune

handshake, snap, side hug, one kiss, two kiss, three kisses, a-frame hug, shake, wave.

Being a global citizen is not easy-o. The mix of traditions about greetings can lead to some very awkward first encounters. As an American girl with a rather large pre-established personal space it can be a disaster. What I have learned is with the French its two kisses no matter what: sitting, standing, coming, going, male-female, male-male, female-female. With the Dutch and German it can be three kisses, but not always. With West Africans it’s either a handshake that ends with a snap of the fingers or a rather large hug with a lingering moment of hand holding while beginning a conversation. Other Africans also seem to appreciate the lingering handshake or a side hug. With a fellow American it’s typically a “What’s up?” with no body contact; on some occasions so you get the closed fist jailhouse bump or a clumsy a-frame hug.

I could go on but I think you get the point. For someone who gets a little anxious when people invade her personal space all of this is a bit disorganizing. Secondary to this experienced encounter confusion, I tend to make a lot of mistakes and end up head butting Swedes or jailhouse bumping proper Kenyans. At the end of the day everyone involved is about as confused as I am about the encounter.

misappraised misfortune

A few posts ago I mentioned I had suffered my third battle with malaria. Well guess what folks, last weekend recognizant forces brought in some reinforcements and world war IV was declared against your pal, Gomah. Ironically I was sitting in the aforementioned men’s group I have been ever so enjoying in Massabolahun and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I was struck by a series of bone shaking chills. Even though it was 99 degrees, my goose bumps were the size of nickels and I started to literally feel the parasite multiplying in my blood. The poor group members and local facilitators initially watched me attentively but did not comment on my rapidly changing state of being. This changed after I myself commented on it and jokingly mentioned that I might need to go get some sun to warm up. After that they quickly expressed genuine concern and started to convey a tremendous amount of empathy and a series of theories about what was happening to me. Excellent diagnosticians, their theory was confirmed once I returned to Voinjama and once again visited the local clinic.

Upon entry the staff quickly welcomed me with a “hello Gwan.” Apparently Gwen is an exceptionally bizarre and difficult to say name here. To them it sounds like you have something stuck in your nose. I love my name nonetheless and failed attempts at saying it doesn’t phase me because I also love all my new names and embrace each one of them like I have been given a chance to redefine myself.

But I digress…once at the clinic the physician assistant instantly grabbed an intake form and was able to fill out the first 7 lines without consulting me. I was briskly directed to the lab, given a paracheck for confirmation and then back to my car with my special malaria fighting formula in hand. Fortunately, I once again recovered like a rock star and was back at work on Monday.

Then came Tuesday. Typically a very lucky day for me (or maybe more appropriately a day I have turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy of lucky moments given I named my adorable canine at home Tuesday and started to adore the actual word and day as much as my mutt) this Tuesday was an exception.

After a day in the field with my staff I returned to the office a bit late; it was 5:33 to be exact. On any other day I typically start playing basketball between 5 and 5:15 so I was contemplating skipping it for the day. However, one of my buddies called from the court to inform me it was a good game. Given I felt the need to get a little exercise because I had relaxed in my hammock the ENTIRE weekend (recovering from the malaria) I quickly changed my clothes and headed to the court. Upon arrival my local boys promptly stopped the game and asked that I sub in. I was shocked by the sheer number of people around and all the new faces. Apparently a bunch of people were in town from Monrovia participating in the census and this game was serious because it was village versus big city. You see, just like every other country in the world, small towns can, at times, struggle with inferiority complexes when comparing their lives to that of those who live in the big city and those in the big city struggle with Napoleon complexes even if their lives really aren’t that great. They find it necessary to bluff with the best of them when they return to their home village and the locals find it necessary to prove that the cosmopolitans are not better men because they just happen to live in urban centers.

On my second run down the court something very unfortunate happened. I was heading back to play defense. We were playing a zone and I was a low post. I reached my spot and turned and I saw this giant 6 foot 4 monster of a guy heading straight for me for a lay-up. In my head I contemplated taking the charge but they don’t really understand the concept of an offensive foul here (and rarely call it) so I moved slightly to the left to get out of his way and just hoped that maybe I could knock the ball out of his hands. Before he took his first step he lifted the ball above his head and started his jump. This caused him to come down a little bit earlier than I had expected. His elbow ended up landing right between my eyes, knocking my forehead exceptionally hard. It hurt, no doubt, and I was a bit irritated by the experienced force of the knock but I knew it was not intentional and figured it was no big deal. That was until I looked at the faces of my teammates.

Everyone quickly gathered around me and started yelling, “Garmai you are bleeding bad-o!” I stepped off the court and realized I was in fact bleeding profusely. I went to my land cruiser and looked in the side mirror and revealed that the reason I was bleeding profusely was because the cut was incredibly deep. Everyone was freaking out so I became very calm and grabbed my phone to call my friend Enrica who is a nurse for ICRC. She didn’t answer so I called her teammate and even though he didn’t quite understand me he told me to come over (later I was informed he thought I still wasn’t feeling well from the malaria). I had one of the guys from the court drive which, due to his inexperience and high levels of adrenalin from playing and seeing what had happened to me, drove incredibly bad. We were stalling and shifting at all the wrong times and our entire trip to the ICRC residence was a disaster. Upon arrival Enrica took me inside and asked me to sit while she washed her hands. I realized I had forgotten to tell Enjamal, the volunteer driver, what to do so I went back outside. Enrica came back only to find me missing and came chasing after me to get me back in the chair. At that point I realized I was shaking; finally allowing myself to let the shock settle in, one giant tear dropped from the corner of my eye.

Enrica called the doctor who works at my malaria clinic. He told us to meet him at the clinic. She transferred me across town with a huge bandage on my head. When Dr, Berhanu arrived he gently patted me on my back and quietly said, “Why am I not surprised it is you.” At first look he didn’t think I needed stitches but then he went to disinfect it and made a clicking noise in this throat and said, “oh yea we will need to stitch this up a bit.” 25 minutes later I excited the clinic with a 3 inch long zigzag on my forehead. Having inspected it today Enrica thinks it’s very good work and I will likely have no scar. Dr. Berhanu is an exceptionally well respected surgeon from Ethiopia and Enrica later informed me that I was very likely living in the best village in Liberia to receive a surgical procedure in.

So now I have a week of trying to be creative with my head wear as the bandage is huge and wrapped around my head in such a manner I look like one of those guys in an old World War I war movie who had just stepped off the front lines with a battle wound. Good thing is all my African sisters are masters at the head scarf. Last night I sat in front of my mirror practicing what I had been taught so I can make it through the week without frightening our clients and small children on the street.

With all this being said a few of you might be thinking I am suffering from some bad karma right now. I might have agreed had the following not occurred to suggest otherwise:

This very kind doctor invited me to his home so he could change my bandage. While sitting there I was introduced to the regional health delegate who was here visiting his team of doctors in the field. Utilizing my usual defense mechanisms I was trying to crack jokes and ease the evident concern in the room. I mentioned I have suffered from four boughts of malaria in the last three months in addition to dealing with this wee gash on my forehead. This health delegate quickly became very interested and said, “This shouldn’t be happening tell me everything about your episodes and treatment.”

I proceeded to tell him my long story starting at my first battle where I was med-evaced out of the bush and vomited all over the chopper to the most recent experience of bone breaking chills. Somewhere in there I was able to make it explicitly clear that the doctors in Monrovia had informed me I had the Vivax strain of malaria. Right there he stopped me and said, “The Vivax strain, are you sure?” I was in fact pretty sure because my very concerned father had asked me to find out what strain it was while I was hallucinating in the bizarre container the Jordanian docs had put me in Monrovia and I had saved the text message on my cell phone for a number of weeks.

The doctor became very animated and said, “In West Africa this strain is exceptionally rare occurring in only 1% of the cases and this strain needs different medicines than the ones you are currently taking. What you are taking treats the majority of the symptoms and causes the strain to go dormant for some time but it does not kill it off,” hence the break through episodes. Although they do not have this medication in Liberia he would send it from Dakar as soon as he went back.

I was instantly reminded of a fable that my dear friend Andre brought to Liberia last October when he was completing his Human Rights Fellowship on the Utilization of Story in Therapy. It goes as follows:

One day a man woke up to find a beautiful horse in his yard. No one came to claim this horse so he kept it and used it to help farm his land. His neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend it’s amazing how this horse just showed up and stayed with you, you truly have been blessed.

The man said, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.

A few weeks later this horse ran away. The neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend how tragic that your horse ran away it seems that you have been cursed.

The man said, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.

A few more weeks passed and the horse returned with a herd of horses and the man kept these horses on his property. The neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend how amazing not only has your horse returned but has brought all these other healthy horses with him, you truly have been blessed

The man said, maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad

Another couple of weeks passed and this mans son decided to try and ride the horse. He was bucked off and broke his leg. The neighbor heard the news and came and said, dear friend how tragic this horse has hurt your eldest son. It seems that you have been cursed

The man said maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad.

A few days passed and the King declared war on the neighboring county and made an announcement to be spread throughout the land that all young men were to report to the border to defend the country. Due to the fact this boy had broken his leg he could not go fight. Then neighbor returned and said, dear friend how amazing you son will not have to fight because his leg is broken.

The man quietly walked away whispering...maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad
So you see I have indeed endured much in the last couple of months with regards to illness and misfortune. Dealing with these things in unison with my pending departure has been a bit overwhelming, to say the least. But for some reason this recent accident, a massive gash on myhead, seems to have been a blessing in disguise.

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