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?

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