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.

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