Tuesday, December 22, 2009

the possibilities of 2010...

For many months I have been a psychologist on the outskirts of two identities: one being a trauma psychologist and trainer of local counselors in international disaster environments, another being a clinician maintaining a much more traditional role, gradually building a private practice in Denver. Nearly every morning since my return from Burma I drive to my favorite fitness studio. I have done so on snowy roads, rainy roads and fall time roads. This ever-changing driving experience makes it feel like I have been back much longer than I have. During the day I see clients, attend meetings and write grants with the hopes that both worlds can continue to be a part of my life. Currently it seems I am existing in limbo between these two identities searching for sustainability and nourishment.

I wake up early because mornings are my favorite. Waking up before the sun makes it feel as though the world is my secret. I walk the dog in the dark, pleased to see there are no other lights on in my building and return to smell the aroma of fresh coffee grounds from the canister. The ritual is pleasing because it is something I do in both lives and it is one of the few consistencies in my exceptionally inconsistent life. The one thing I miss about doing this in Burma and Thailand is watching the monks walk the streets gowned in red and gold, humbly asking for alms.

Inwardly I feel both at peace with my role in life and suffer quiet trepidations of a woman who has witnessed too much global human suffering in all its forms. My clinical practice is growing slowly and has been blessed by the dedication of brave souls who desire happiness in all its forms. In the end I do the same thing here as I did abroad; listen, reflect and empathize. That’s the thing about humanity, in the end we are more alike than we are different and I tend to feel sadness for the western who thinks that I couldn’t possibly practice here after seeing what I’ve seen abroad in conflict zones are counties enduring horrific government oppression. That for some reason I might feel bored with the stories of my clients in America baffles me. The truth in the matter is I have seen just as much pain, just as much suffering, just as much torment in the West as I have seen abroad.

It’s the dead of winter, the mornings darker longer and my window only gets a short sliver of the direct sun before it passes over the building and leaves for the evening. I can’t quite tell if it is this that affects my mood or if it’s something bigger, something more existential. While most of the time I am deeply, seriously happy and content with my life, in part because I am deeply, seriously and contentedly in love with an amazing man, I also experience moments where darkness rumbles through me as if my soul is suffocating in cement.

While my personal life is in a great place; blessed by love, family and friendships all over the world, I hope I find a way to make my professional life work. I love my life in all its colors but given the painful loss I endured just over a year ago and the complicated nature of my work, it has been a tricky life as of late. For example, it is painfully hard to hear that psychiatric treatment and child protection are not a right or even an option in most parts of the world. The good news is that as I close my eyes, my tired self is swept by waves of gratitude for what I have and the possibilities of 2010.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

remarkably different meanings

One of my funniest lost in translations moments to date began with a simple question: how long?

It was a typical training day, one like any other. For me, this meant a fine balance between didactic lessons and experiential trust building activities that facilitate self-disclosure and the feelings of the therapeutic experience rather than simply an intellectual understanding of the therapeutic experience. With time and experience I have found that my students all over the globe are much like I was when I was a green inexperienced therapist: suckers for a good case study and a deeper understanding of all the fascinating diagnosis that touch our captivating species. So the idea was to first teach a wide variety of diagnosis from depression to anxiety with PTSD and Bi-Polar mood disorder at the spectrum ends (for those of you who are curious these are all diagnosis I have seen in the numerous developed and undeveloped countries I have worked in).

As I explained each symptom constellation I stressed that the point was not to diagnosis just to diagnosis but rather to enlighten the patient, the counselor and his or her family about their experienced emotional or psychological struggles and to create a plan towards less suffering, less confusion and an experience of feeling less alone in the world. After I explained the 9 most common disorders, disorders that occur on average in 1 in 20 individuals at least once in their lifetime in a stable environment (now for a minute consider what the rates must be in environments that have been impacted by war, human rights violations, discrimination and mass violence has on psychological well being), I told them we would be would be playing a diagnosis game. I shared 8 case studies and they were to diagnosis each case base on the symptoms presented and described. The two most important features to differentiating between spectrum diagnosis (like dysthymia and major depression or acute stress disorder and post traumatic stress disorder) are frequency and duration; or, “How long and how often?”

This is where it all began. In my dramatic presentation of each diagnosis full of tears, hand wringing, lethargy, flashback and obsessive checking behavior I always ended with, “always remember we should ask for how long and how often the symptoms have been present.” Each time I said this I sensed something. It wasn’t anything that was said or even any non-verbal signs just something in the air I suppose. As I got more dramatic in my acting out of various symptom consolations came a more relaxed audience who were getting a kick out of me making a fool of myself. As they became more relaxed, the more noticeable reactions I started to get to my “now remember always ask for how long and how often the symptoms have been present.”

The module went on and they got completely enthralled by the case studies and the diagnosis game that I forgot about all the subtle confusion I was feeling and went on with my day. The next day I was enjoying a cup of 3-in-1 Nescafe while groups of trainees prepared for a pending presentation when one of the participants approached me quietly and asked if we could chat. He shared part of her personal story and then, as others started moving towards us, quickly changed the subject and said, “Gwan I have to tell you something funny about something you have been saying a lot lately.” At first I was worried that maybe I was saying or doing something that was culturally inappropriate and he was trying to be nice about breaking the news to me, but instead he said, “it’s when you say how long.”

“How long?” I replied. “Tell me more” (tell me more is my classic therapy reaction to just about anything to keep people talking in a non-directive manner).

“Well in Burmese…” he replies, “How long means without longyi.”

“Like someone who wears pants instead of the classic Burmese skirt” (that is commonly worn by both men and women albeit in a gender specific wrap style), I reply.

“No not exactly,” he says, “like when someone’s longyi has fallen off accidently.”

I start laughing which causes him to give out a sigh of relief as he must have been worried I might feel ashamed when I heard such news. I yell out “How long!” and look down at and pat my skirt to make sure it is there and we both crack up. His laugh was so fantastic that I fall into one of my silent laughing fits that lead to tears and breathless gasps (I know those of you who know me best are shaking your heads right now with deep understanding). This loss of control on my part causes everyone in the room to be briefed on the fact I had been briefed by the “how long issue” and after a collective sigh, everyone bursts out in laughter.

From there on out “How Long” was our group’s inside joke and it did wonders for the togetherness and connectivity and I didn’t mind in the least that it was at my expense. When on the final day I wrote “Mr. How Long” on this gentleman’s compliment card it was a sealed deal: we would all always remember an ever so slightly strange and potentially awkward lost in translation moment that turned into an unforgettable shared moment. Given unadulterated shared laughter is such a rare event in environments between foreigners, where language and culture and power and respect and a ton of other potentially disconnecting elements prevent such simple yet important playful events to occur, this lost in translation moment will forever remain a cherished memory for me and I will never again be able to say “how long” without a small smirk and giggle.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

these are the things I must never forget

My history, my friends, my adventures and this country: its plight, its struggle and the amazing capacity that resides within.

To capture my reasoning for the final memorable item I would like to share a story.

I will call this story "bit dine thow: throw ever stand."

Bit Dine Thow is the name for a famous toy from this country; the meaning also seems to capture the resilient aspects of the civilian population here, forever being tossed around; forever managing to land on their feet.

I learned about this special toy a few days ago. It occurred during a training I was facilitating on Child Development and Experiential Education for a number of local Community Based Organizations (CBOs). After presenting on maternal health, the importance of reading to children between the ages of zero and three, mental health problems in children and the Mozart Effect, I asked the group to break into small groups and design a toy that would help foster the healthy development of all aspects of child development (i.e., physical, motor, cognitive, social-emotional and language). Interestingly, rather than design what I imagined (a high tech futuristic toy with all sorts of gadgets and interactive educational parts) each group choose a simple yet highly effective toy that have been around for ages. One group selected a jump rope and described how all 5 aspects were developed, another chose the game of musical chairs with an added trivia component to push participants in the cognitive realm. The final group chose a Bit Dine Thow.

Bit Dine Thow is one of those round weighted balls that always lands right side up. I have seen them before but I can’t quite remember where I saw them or how they were designed. I will never forget the Bit Dine Thow and just in case I ever would have this group of trainees were kind enough to gift me one as a remembrance for our time spent together. I will cherish it for its appropriateness to my training as well as for the manner in which it was presented to me.

A day to never forget:

I start the day like any other in Y: up early at my relatively swanky hotel with a cup of Nescafe instant coffee and time to work on flip charts. I enjoy getting up early in general but I appreciate it here a bit more because it is one of the rare windows of opportunity I am given to connect with friends, family and other cherished ones who are living on the other side of the globe. There is a 12 and half hour time difference between here and Colorado (10 and a half to Tennessee). After a shower and coffee and a few skype conversations I head out for my 30 minute walk to the training center. It’s a complicated walk of traffic jams, intense drivers whose cars are made for British style driving but the rules of the road match American ones, busy buses, buzzing markets, calls to prayer, musical request to give alms to the monks, church bells, curb side tea shops, load music houses, internet cafes, kids playing football, adults playing caneball, women sweeping, men hustling, women selling flowers and women and men escorting uniformed kids to school.

Upon arrival to the training center I find my very reliable very organized tag team of county coordinators and interpreters waiting for me. They are quick and they are energetic and they are passionate about learning and incorporating new skills into their already diverse portfolios. Typically we have a quick meeting of minds and then start preparing for the days training; but today was different, today I would travel. Today I would see more than my hotel and the training center. Today I would taste some freedom and meet some local kiddos. Today was a special day.

The plan is to walk another few short blocks from the training center and meet the rest of the 21 participants near the post office. They are a team of teachers, community developers and doctors. After connecting we will visit the school they built for a convent of nuns to run with at-risk/poverty stricken kids and apply the new skills they learned in the training. This team knows these kids because they volunteer their time at this school teaching English and offering medical care.

Upon arrival to the meeting spot we find 7 of the participants sitting on short stools at a curbside tea shop enjoying a breakfast of samosas and rice curry. They are all laughing and chatting and it is clear they are a close team that enjoys each other both personally as well as professionally. They welcome us warmly and I order a tea (strong not too sweet). The tea here is truly unique and there are unique ways to order it mostly based on how sweet and strong you want it. After finishing a cup of milky/sugary tea you are welcome to have as many glasses of green tea as you like and tea kettles sit in the middle of the table for the purpose of a quick endless re-fill. This endless cup of follow-up tea facilitates the opportunity for folks to linger in tea shops and pontificate on all sorts of things. I firmly believe this is one of the many reasons the interpersonal skills here are beyond reproach.

This place has a tea culture and being a tea or a coffee culture is a welcoming sign for any outsider to any country. Without a tea or coffee component to the culture it seems a bit harder to break into the local realm of socializing; it’s not impossible, but it is definitely more difficult. Sometimes I wonder if this issue alone isn’t one of the primarily reasons outsiders believe Liberia is a difficult culture to live in. Although the average Liberian is exceptionally giving with their food and will say “let’s eat” (and mean it) to any stranger that passes by when they are eating: for some, this offer of food seems like too much to give when struggling and thus the offer is denied and the opportunity to sit and share time and space with locals is denied. Without coffee or tea (which is common in places such as Afghanistan, China, Bosnia, Nigeria, much of South America and most of the Middle East), there is a void of opportunities for casual connectivity in places like Liberia that does not involve alcohol or food, which can get expensive and/or rowdy, and thus the disconnect.

But I digress, after a quick tea, supplemented with a lovely conversation about romance and dating in Burma, we jump in the back of a flatbed truck that has been set up with seats along the sides and a hard top cover. Once all 21 of us were safely inside, teaching supplies and guitar in tow, we are off. Although I am delighted to see someone had brought along a guitar, I assume it is for the school based activities and sit back to take in the scenery for the 45 minute journey. Fortunately for me, and all my travel companions, the talented musicians in the truck wouldn’t give up the opportunity to play and sing and begin singing a series of traditional and modern songs with energy and passion. After a few brief moments, 90% of the riders delightfully join in on the singing. The young woman who sits next to me thoughtfully translates the words. The songs are about not being able to live without seeing the sparkle in a girl’s eye or the inability to think without knowing the next time they will be together.

Romantic, cheesy loves songs: can it get any better than that?

Along the way we cross a bridge where we see hundreds of fishing boats hard at work. We also pass by farms, houses and storefronts all busy with people trying to make a living. Feeling the impact of the numerous pot holes and observing the many severe shades of poverty is so much more difficult to witness here in a country when, one knows, deep in the back of one’s mind, that the suffering here is not due to lack of resources or wealth, just due to an all powerful all greed driven leadership.

Upon arrival at the school house the first thing I notice is thatch roof houses that make up the living quarters, outhouse and kitchen of the school…..bustling about is about 100 pink clad junior nuns, 60-70 matching adult nuns that are either playing the role of teachers or spiritual leaders and about 90 civilian kiddos all gathered together for a day of school and learning.

The teachers did a great job with their experiential education lesson plans and following the completion of all the psycho-social activities we shared lunch and had a brief reflection session about the training and what they took from it.
Following a brief certificate ceremony I was showered with gifts and a Bit Dine Thow.

As I sit once again in my swanky hotel working on flip chats and skyping with loved ones back home I realize I’m happy and content in this very complicated place and I feel blessed to have this new orb of people in my life. In Buddhism it is said that every person you meet has played a part in a past life and we are destined to cross paths in every life to come. I like that idea very much and know that with people like this around me I will indeed land on my feet and if I ever feel thrown away or thrown down I will land on my feet forevermore.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

these are the things i know as true

My name is Gwen and it is not an easy name to say around the world. My dear sweet country director in our Fang project, Pao Hom, reminded me of this when, shortly after I arrived, she noted that her father said, “oh dear that’s the one with the difficult name.” The good thing about that is I have been gifted many variations of my name and delightfully turn my head to Gwan, Glen and Gwoon in this corner of the world. I also know I am prone to adopt stray dogs wherever I go. The good thing about returning to these places is that I have learned dogs have fabulous memories and if for some reason I have done everything wrong in this life I will be happy to come back as a dog in my next life. My only hope would be that the dogs that have colored my life come back as dog pals or as humans for me to love as well as I’ve felt loved by them.

I know all this, yet there is much I don’t know or have failed to learn. A hundred times over I have been trying to figure out what I love about the place I am in now and although I try, the truest reason constantly eludes me. While I seem to know exactly why I have come to cherish the continent of Africa, specifically the West African region, the reason for loving this place is less clear. Regarding Africa, if the idea of past lives turns out to be true, I know deep in my heart I once lived a life there. My gut tells me I was a large graceful woman with 10 children, with magnificent head wraps and a fabulous singing voice. I also enjoyed laughing until I cried. This last quality seems to be the only quality that remains in this reincarnated life where I am called Gwen or a variation thereof. I can no longer sing and for some reason I am now fiercely independent with a bland sense of fashion. I appreciate the brazenness of Africa superimposed on its wisdom and eternal beauty. When given the opportunity, I also love to call it home.
My love for this place is different, no less powerful, but different in many ways.
What I do know is that I love the people first and then the environment. The universal character of the people here is awe inspiring and I feel deeply pleased every time someone smiles at me or says hello. Collectively they are gentle, and sweet and smart and quick to smile. They also are deeply curious, playfully sarcastic, self-deprecating and passionate about learning. The environment is beautiful no doubt, but it pales in comparison to the everyday person you meet in the street.

I also think that in this place the suffering has indeed led to amazing moments of enlightenment. I am surrounded by survivors but no one appears to be that distressed. It makes me think of the Chinese pictogram for crisis. In it is a combination of two symbols: danger and opportunity. Although there is nothing to suggest there has been opportunity here for decades, people persevere and shine and enjoy none the less.

So as I was saying I have much to learn but I have realized that there is something interesting about the quest for wisdom. It’s not the material you find on masters level examinations that matter; the art of knowing starts not in big lessons but in small nearly unremarkable experiences of everyday life.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The fear of not being discovered

I held onto the handlebars tightly as I glided along the heat-choked streets. Unlike my time abroad, everything about me blended in. Strangely enough I was suffering from a fear of not being discovered. For the majority of last 3 years I have stood out like a sore thumb and people were constantly attempting to know and understand me. Oddly enough, now that I was amongst my own, surrounded by people who looked just like me, I felt unknown by all.

The concrete buildings and jumble of rush hour traffic was familiar, but the streets were lined with faces that although similar to my own were strikingly foreign. I parked, locked up my bike and headed into the meeting. Even though there was no apparent reason I should be at this meeting about Denver's new bike share program because as I mentioned I had ridden my own bike there, I felt the need to go because I knew many of organizations that would be in attendance work in developing world countries and were passionate about it. These fellow explorers were my new tribe and I knew, without words, I would feel amongst my own.

After the presentation was finished the crowd broke into a challenging Q & A session. These presenters were not going to get off easy and with each successful response the crowd turned up the heat as if finding their weakness or mistake would make the evening all the more enjoyable. I had to laugh because although I can appreciate a challenge and got a kick out of the intensity in the room, the topic didn't really call for such intensity and sometimes I wonder if sheer boredom sets a president for prescribed intensity.

After the meeting a gentleman I had met and chatted with over a year ago approached me and asked me about my recent trip and our organization. He had on this fabulous set of thick rimmed glasses and clearly is passionate about his life's work and I was thankful I had come. I wanted so much to belong again. I didn't know what 3 years away would do to my internal compass. I have returned home with a strange mix of expectations and a desire to strike a true balance between my two lives, my two worlds.

Since my return I haven't written much and I can't quite figure out why. It seems my ideas rotate from being ensnared by ordinary life and ensnared by a longing for a connection with someone who lives on another continent. My writing has always been one of my first priorities, but now given I am facing so many unknowns and long for someone and something that is not here, it has lost its urgency. Writing involves imagination and for some reason imagination has been a low priority. What has mattered more is establishing myself in a place while I miss someone from another place. Exploration too, has been problematic because I seem to be playing catch up with the felt anxiety about the economy and given I was away for much of the crash I seem to be working through it at a warped speed and with each new piece of data I feel frozen in fear about the future.

With that said I feel very lucky to have the friends that I have here and with every dinner, BBQ, bike ride or phone conversation I feel myself reconnecting. One thing I always miss is sarcasm and having people see me as a dimensional being with needs and wants is refreshing. The amazing divas in my life having been asking me delightfully penetrating questions and each session spent with them feels like free therapy and I cherish them for that.

My bicycle slows to a stop and I am home. As I walk in I realize I love this little space that I call home and I am excited to get upstairs to be greeted warmly by my dear sweet Tuesday. Later that night I watched the sun set over the mountains from my balcony and could almost taste the shades of orange, yellow and red.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

a dance of submission and resistance

I read somewhere that life in a foreign country is a dance of submission and resistance. Although I would agree wholeheartedly with this statement, what I find to by more intense is the dance of returning home. To me, the adjustment to the familiar calls for a much deeper level of submission and activates a much more intense urge of unrelenting resistance.

This is my first post in some time. Some of this is due to the nature of the situation I faced while residing in my last country as the security issues were unlike anything I have ever seen before and I experienced things I have yet to find the words to describe clearly; some of this is due to something else altogether.

Three days ago marked the 6 month anniversary of my mother’s death. What has become tricky is that I don’t know how to talk about it anymore. In the beginning anything was appropriate – tears, giggles, regrets, anger…they were all accepted as normal. I knew I was a slow processor and unlike my beautiful emoting brother I knew it would take me much longer to work through my connected emotions of this unprecedented loss; what I didn’t realize was how others would deal with my delayed reactions.

Although many people in my orbit are outstandingly well meaning and exceptionally supportive they also seem a bit shocked when I start talking about this loss in a raw/emotional way now, months later. I think they expect me to thank them for their condolences and move on. Instead I find myself talking about my feelings and becoming quite tearful; they adjust beautifully and I am thankful it is they who I turn to when I feel vulnerable and yet with every thoughtful hug and caring question I fear they are wanting me to hurry up and cope….The funny thing with loss is that there is no steps, no cycles - just longing for what is gone.

The beautiful thing about writing about my internal experience is that now that I have put my thoughts on paper I realize this last paragraph is absolutely bogus. My anxiety about how I am coping has nothing to do with how my orbit is reacting to me and has everything to do with my ideas about myself. My biggest fear has always been to “look crazy” by expressing too much emotion and as I just put my thoughts and feelings on paper I realize it was my fear of feeling, not my experience of my support system that I was describing – thank you dear sweet friends and family for being you and being unrelentingly available! I wouldn’t be getting through this without you.

But I digress………let me return to the here and now.

I’ve been home for 11 days now, and I’m not sure where I belong. I’m struggling to reconcile the reality and vista of the place I departed with the daily grind of a more or less upwardly mobile life. I find myself shifting from feeling exceptionally anxious about my financial situation and resume building successes in a fast paced achievement oriented country where occupational success means everything to willfully spacing out, trying to slow down, trying to hold onto that sense of other places I know to be true, the sense that time is simply time, not money.

Perhaps I have become a permanent expatriate – neither fish nor fowl, forever lost no matter my location. But this fluidity also means that I am like a unicorn – a magic creature that always knows there is another way. Let me end this post my accepting the unicorn in me, a magical creature that was my most favorite childhood collectible, and strive to be as unreal and magical as possible for as long as possible in a country where magic and fantasy are diagnostic rather than extraordinary …

Monday, April 20, 2009

introducing thailand and a nearby country personified...

thai is a young, handsome, slightly effeminate male frequently seen sauntering down a busy side street, cell phone and plastic bag in hand. In the bag is some sort of cooked meet on a stick covered in a slightly sweet, slightly spicy, sauce. His ring tone is set to a popular Thai pop song. On his head is a perfectly styled, perfectly hip, modern rock bandesque head of hair. His pants are slightly snug but it looks good on him because he is exceptionally thin and his shirt is simple yet slightly ironic in a witty playboy sexual innuendo kind of way.

Thai is a good kid who works hard but his job is in the tourist industry (just like the majority of his friends) and he finds it slightly infuriating. When he is feeling bold and willing to challenge his parents ingrained conservative view of work and life, he questions the point of focusing so much on a job that is meant to please others, but this thought is quickly pushed away by his hope to make his parents happy and desire to make money. He dreams of finding a good partner, girl or boy he is not quite sure, but either way he hopes they have work ethics that are similar to his own, conflicted thou they are.

The unspeakable place
This country is embodied as a couple. Personified, it is a young relaxed couple walking down the street, comfortably in love. The young man is slim and dressed in a tradition longyi and lose shirt. The young lady is beautiful in a youthful curveless sort of way with gold circles of sunscreen on her cheeks. While they clearly express this love outwardly and in public as he can frequently be seen gingerly placing his arm around her shoulder while she leans into him, no one would suggest they were publicly displaying inappropriate levels of affection. They are simply in love and can’t handle not touching each other. They are both quick to smile in a very genuine sort of way but this smile hides much pain. During the day they are exquisitely well behaved and act in ways that are deemed appropriate by their powerful ever-watchful government. Late at night they can be found attending secret rallies that speak of change, revolution and uprising, if only in whispers.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

things I didn't know or denied knowing

First, in Buddhist countries it is currently the year 2552. Buddists’ base their calendar on the day Buddha was born and therefore in this part of the world it is not 2009 AD JC style; it is 2552 AB venerable Gotama style. I feel like if we in the West would have known this simple truth in December 1999 we could have prevented a lot of the chaos and looming notions of the end of the world during the millennium. I know some of you might be thinking, "But Gwen the fear was tied to the computer systems and their inability to make the change over" and in response I would say, "Please! It didn’t happen here and I am either writing you from the future or we need to remember there is simply no such thing as an objective truth. Even time is only a notion."

Second, denial can be a collective state of mind, not just a defense. In the simplest of terms denial is the rejection or denunciation of an event or state of mind. Most commonly people can be heard rejecting that they behaved in a certain way when in fact they did do the alleged action. For example someone might say, "That’s a lie I didn’t steal her wallet!" when, in reality he or she did, in fact, take it. In Thailand and Burma denial isn’t just an optional refuttal to a claim – it is a literal state of mind. It’s as if you can close your eyes and believe strong and long enough and what ever you are thinking about actually becomes a truth. In some instances there is not even a word available to describe the denied event. For example, during our recent training we covered the topic of rape. According to our participants there was no word for rape in Shan. To them, the term rape means the same thing as sex. Even though they could eventually admit it did happen and was not the same thing as sex, some of them still continued to believe that "it doesn’t really happen." If we don’t talk about it, "it" should therefore not be a word, there was no need.

Third, I am really really bad at working with an interpreter. I talk way to fast and I have very little patience for not being understood. This really sucks for the interpreter because they not only have to try and understand me talking very fast they have to translate words that don’t even exist in their native language (let me take moment and give a little shout out to anyone on this planet who has ever tried to play the role of interpreter for me – I am deeply sorry for any unfair pressure I have placed on you; you did a great job).

Seriously though, I seem completely unable to slow down and yet I can still allow myself to feel frustrated when my point does not get made. Talk about ego-centricism – look at me calling the kettle black. And, although I keep saying I need to work on this if I am going to continue working internationally, I have somehow managed to not slow down in the least and only get more frustrated when I am not understood. All I have done is become more animated in the presentation of my thoughts with the hopes that by acting everything out, I will be understood. For that reason alone, I kind of suck and really should think about only working in Anglophone environments.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

one courageous group

The word courage arises from the old French work cuer, meaning heart. To be courageous means at bottom to be heartfelt. What I have come to understand in my time here is that if one understands courage when it comes to work, one will understand the Burmese and Thai way of life.

As you could likely tell from my first post about my experience here I did not have an easy emersion experience to this part of the world. The faces I attempted to read were unreadable and the first defense I typically encountered was denial. According to the people I interviewed there were no problems here; no crime, no domestic violence, no child exploitation – no problems, period. I may have been living with a community of displace Burmese who had been forced to flea their home country due to phenomenal human rights violations only to find themselves in a new country that was not that much more welcoming and frequently arrested people without cards and exploited vulnerables; there were no problems here, period, full stop.

I hate denial. Use humor, use minimization, use repression, use avoidance but please sweet Jesus don’t use outright denial. It’s an insult to you and it’s an insult to me and it enrages me. While accessing the human heart here felt downright impossible I knew everyone around me was in fact human and therefore I knew that, if only for that reason, they were also suffering. Accessing emotions took much more time and finesse than it had taken elsewhere, but with patience comes enlightenment.

Today Becki and I find ourselves at the tail end of a long week of training about mental health and trauma. When we started our participants didn’t know what mental health was, didn’t know what emotions were and didn’t know what counseling was.

I had a lot of work to do and until now I felt as if maybe they wouldn’t be able to do the work I was asking them to do. They were undimensional, flat, guarded, unenthusiastic and detached and it wasn’t clear if they wanted to be at the training, let alone engaging with me. Had I left on day 3 I would have continued to believe all those things and I would have been gravely mistaken. This group of individuals is not only none of those things, they are also very passionate about many things, including but not limited to helping their community.

Interestingly this community suffers from the exact opposite of what we suffer from in the West when it comes to work. Where our bodies can be present in our work while our hearts minds and imaginations can be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere, many people here seem to suffer from the exact opposite. Their bodies can be present in emotional affairs while their hearts minds and imaginations tend to be placed firmly in neutral or engaged in work. Work is everything, for good or for bad, it defines them. They are on time, they are conscientious and they are strategic to the core. Given we all tend to spend more hours at work then anywhere else, maybe they are more present than the most present poet or lover who has ever been.

While some may read what I just wrote and think the people I am speaking of are focused on the wrong things, I would respond by saying I think we need to take a closer look at work and our identity and how they are intimately linked. Once we have kindled our desire for something better in our work, we have immediately raised the stakes and although that can be profoundly terrifying it can also be deeply inspirational.

In taking our work seriously as an expression of our belonging, we hazard our most precious sometimes our seemingly most fragile hopes and dreams in a work that is more often than not associated with a hard and destructive bottom line.

Sitting here in this very simple, very primitive, very hot house I have begun to shiver due to an awful sense that I am suddenly about to play by different rules when it comes to work. If that ends up being true and I am able to remain present in my work for the long run I will need to thank my training participants and surrounding community for that.

If I am completely honest with myself my inner light of youthful imaginings about passion and feelings had been smothered by hard bitten adult notions of work. Work dominates our life in more ways than one and we need to work on preventing ourselves from one day looking back and realizing that our eyes were dimmed and our professional smile had been false and forced for more years than we would have liked to admit. Ultimately striking a balance between work and play is they most important thing we are ever asked to accomplish in the modern world. If I am able to do it, I will have my experience in Thailand & Burma to thank for it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

three books and a story

For the last couple of days I have been wondering the streets of an amazing city to the west of Thailand. Between meetings and stops to admire the sheer beauty of the local people and pagodas, I sauntered into local tea shops and sip on sweet tea while engaging one of my most favorite past times, people watching. Following my tea breaks I would wonder in and out of local book shops and jam packed alleyways. In one of these book shops I purchased 3 books. One is by George Orwell. One is an ancient weathered book by Cheiro about the 12 signs of the zodiac and the meaning of the number of each day and their influence on humanity. The third is about the teachings of Buddha.

Each book spoke to me for its own specific reason. I will skip the first because it is obvious and will try to explain the others. My senses were seduced by Cheiro’s book for many reasons. The first was tied to an olfactory memory of old books. Amazing this torn up old book across the globe smelled exactly like the old books I inherited from my grandfather, Paul Skelley. I was half way around the world but it appears old cherished books smell the same anywhere on the planet and I was taken aback by this memory trigger. For that reason alone I was going to buy it. I hadn’t fully processed what the book was about but as I lingered over the pages I realized the second reason I had to have it: it captured a part of my experience at a famous pagoda I had visited a few hours earlier.

According to legend Shwedagon is 2500 years old. The story begins with two merchant brothers who were blessed with the opportunity to meet the lord Gautama Buddha. He gave them eight of his hairs to be enshrined in a land of changed names. The two brothers made their way to the land they were directed to and found a hill where relics of other Buddhas had been enshrined. When the hairs were taken from their golden casket to be enshrined some incredible things happened:

There was a tumult among men and spirits ... rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell ... the blind beheld objects ... the deaf heard sounds ... the dumb spoke distinctly ... the earth quaked ... the winds of the ocean blew ... lightning flashed ... gems rained down until they were knee deep ... all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.

Pretty amazing no? But I digress because this is not a history lesson, this my friends is a present lesson.

Today there are four entrances that lead up a flight of steps to the main platform of this famous pagoda. The eastern and southern approaches have vendors selling books, good luck charms, candles, gold leaf, incense sticks, prayer flags, streamers, miniature umbrellas and flowers. A pair of giant chinthe (leogryphs, mythical lions) guard the entrances and the base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and men can access so when I stopped to pause and admire the gold plated pagoda, I saw only monks and men ascending into the glistening gold tower (allow me to take a moment to bite my pink feminist tongue). The crown or umbrella of the pagoda is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and the very top is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond.

Although all of this was undeniably impressive what enchanted me the most about this place were the fantastic rituals.

Visitors must remove their shoes before the first step at any of the entrances and once you reach the main platform you are encouraged to walk around the stupa clockwise. The day of the week you are born on will determine the planetary post you are to stop at. There are eight in all as Wednesday is split in two, a.m. and p.m and they are marked by animals that represent the day: galon for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday a.m., tuskless elephant for Wednesday p.m., mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and naga (mythical dragon/serpent) for Saturday. Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees are encouraged to offer flowers and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, underneath the image lies a statue of the animal representing the day. By asking a young novice monk if I could look up my birthday in his book I discovered I was born on a Thursday and therefore I made a wish and poured 3 small silver cups of water, first on the buddah and then on the mouse of my planetary post.
I was surprised by all the astrology but I later discovered that astrology is at the heart of Hindu Brahmanism which was embraced by the awakened one before he was in a good faith of Buddhism. It is therefore no wonder the Buddhists where still adopt some parts of these old beliefs. For those who know me best know that I was thrilled to discover that people here recognize the day of their birth, such as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday etc. as very important as I would have to agree days of the week are noteworthy.

I also discovered that most people in this country approach an astrologer for something or another. Themes of consultation seem to be most frequently tied to whether or not one should go ahead with a move to a new house or get married or pass exams or engage in new business. The consulted astrologer does some calculations according to the magic formulas he alone knows and then he arrives at a certain conclusion. With this conclusion he informs the curious one if he or she is under the bad influence of a certain planet. To counter this information the client goes to his or her birthday planetary post and pours a certain number of cups of water on their planetary animal to symbolically counter the bad influences.

The rituals I did after praising my planetary post were fantastically strange. The following is a list of things I did in this beautiful house of gold with 12th century Buddha’s enshrined in colorful electronic halos worthy of a rave.

After visiting my day of the week shrine (and stopping by Tuesday’s to send her some motherly love from abroad) I walked to a small stage that housed a massive bell. According to legend this bell was to be taken back to England by British troupes but during a fluke accident while trying to move the bell to a ship, the gigantic bell feel from the British soldiers’ grasp and lodged itself deep into the sand of the shore. The British tried and tried but could not bring it up and were forced to leave sans the beautiful stolen bell. A few weeks later a team of natives quickly and easily moved the bell ashore and put it back in its rightful place. Now the bell is used to grant wishes to devotees. All you have to do is pound it gently three times with a rather large pole. I did as much and made a wish.

Following the wishing bell I sauntered over to the next platform that had a small piece of black jade sitting in front of another Buddha enshrined with a rock star hallo of electronic colors and flashing lights. The legend of this stone is that you are to knell in front of it and make your wish. After you complete your wish you are supposed to try and pick up the stone. If it is light and easy to lift your wish will be granted. If it is heavy and unmovable, it will not. Apparently Richard Nixon had knelt before this stone at the tail end of his vice presidency. Hum? I knelt down, furrowed my brows in wishful concentration and easily picked up the rock. Whew.

Next I made a brief stop at a massive Buddha that had a silk fan hanging above his head. According to tradition you are to take the belled rope and pull it three times to cool off the Buddha. While fanning the Buddha you are to make a wish. If you do a good job your wish will be granted.

Following my visit to the hot Buddha, I went to a cove to visit a large female statue. Legend has it that if you make an offering to her she will help solve an irritating problem. As I looked up there were plenty of offerings and she was remarkably ugly. Her face was shimmery plates of gold that were all wrinkly and folded. In front of her was a woman praying intensely with another woman quietly whispering in her ear. I was informed the whispering woman could channel sprits and she was helping with woman with her nagging problem.

So there you have it – a brief summary of the delightful little rituals and activities I did while visiting the beautiful Buddhist pagoda. The only thing I didn’t tell you was what I wished for during my 4 interesting stops. If any of them come true, I will let you know. It was an action packed and ever so slightly bizarre experience and yet with each strange ritual I felt more and more like these enlighten Buddha’s understood that life is, in reality, just a series of strange occurrences happening over and over again. After all was said and done I was a little bit converted to a faith that no longer felt like a faith but felt like a wonderfully ritualed but intentionally unstructured philosophy of living.

thailand and beyond

My journey to Thailand and beyond began 22 days ago. It has been everything that work and travel abroad can offer and the most consistent thing about this region seems to be its phenomenal contradictions.

In Thailand, the famous Thailand smile greets you everywhere you go, but what lies behind those smiles is a little less clear. For a week straight I unintentionally moved from one tourist attraction to the next while trying to get a sense of what this astonishingly beautiful environment would be like if you deleted this veil of tourism from the equation. For some reason I couldn’t. It was as if it all was all created and maintained for the tourist and there was no way out of the gigantic theme park that had no discernable entrance or exit aside from Suvarnabhumi international airport.

In some ways I felt like I was a character in Chuck Palahniuk’s book Choke. Now forgive me for any mistaken variations in my memory of this book (as I read it quite some time ago) but from what I recall the gist of it is this: A med-school dropout takes a job playing an Irish indentured servant in a colonial-era theme park in order to help care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. The entire self-medicated staff blearily endures abusive bused in tours while hiding out from the world. Another side plot was that the protagonist was apparently a direct descendant of none other than JC. While fans of Palahniuk might say, welcome, once again, to the world of Chuck Palahniuk; I would say, add a few twists and turns and welcome, my friends, to Thailand. I don’t mean to be harsh and if you continue reading you will discover my feelings about Thailand have gradually changed and evolved since my arrival but I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t own up to the thoughts and feelings I had for the first 127 hours of this adventure. To be totally honest the only thoughts I was having during the first 5 days of this trip was ‘please dear Buddha get me out of here and if I happen to die getting on or off one of these tourist traps, please reincarnate me in Africa.’

It was not until late into a dark night on day 7 of my trip that I was offered the opportunity to see some genuine Thai personalities. Although it seemed to have occurred if only by a fluke mistake, I was glad it happened and I realized it might be possible to get out of the freakish theme park I found myself in. It was the end of a long day of hiking and our group was gathered around a camp fire during what was pitched as being a laid back ‘off the beaten track’ elephant trek, but was, in reality, a welcome ladies and gentleman, come one come all and get in line for a highly organized trip to a series of fake villages and some jungle strip malls. Did I enjoy it – sure; was it as contrived as contrived could be – no doubt.

It had been a day of beauty but it was an organized event and I felt like I was visiting Thailand’s version of 21st century Gettysburg. Villages were there and people were ‘doing’ things but it remained unclear if any of it was genuine. I sat sulking in the dark imaging the hundred of thousands of flongs (i.e., foreigners) who had trekked this trek already. I know it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. At the darkest moment of our ever so slightly elusive trek our guide and three young elephant tenders came out from behind a nearby hut with a guitar. They joined the circle around the fire and started, predictably enough, strumming out some familiar American tunes. Once a few of us joined in, they brought out a laminated karaoke-esque booklet and a few candles so that we would have no trouble reading the words to long forgotten hits from the 60s and 70s. It was laughable but I was finding myself in a slightly better state of mind because Noong, or trek guide, was a good musician and clearly enjoyed playing the guitar. I was still annoyed it was all for show and remained to be so damn organized, but I am and have always been a sucker for musicians and so I tried to stay focused.

A few songs later the crowd lost interest in the songs from the book and just sat back to enjoy the music. Given it became less structured and there was no pressure on the guys to play for us, the ticket holders, they started to play for themselves and began to sing what could only be described as Thai love ballads. A few of us became intrigued and our silent interest and curious positioning encouraged them to continue…..All of a sudden they were singing and enjoying themselves as if we were not there. It was unprompted and personal and would have been occurring with our without our paid entrance fee and I sighed one deep sigh of anonymous relief. I was no longer inside the theme park, I was sitting around a camp fire with a few other human beings enjoying some music, passing the time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the wonders of middle

Basketball / n: a game played between two teams of five players each, the object being to throw a ball through an elevated basket on the opponent's side of a rectangular court. Players may move the ball by dribbling or passing with the hands.

In my last post I spoke a lot about beginnings and endings. Since writing that post I have started to believe that it might be a human fallacy to believe we are forever in the midst of them. Life is really about middle. Sometimes we are nothing but middle for years.

David Whyte, the poet, wrote, “real beginnings and real departures seem a distant memory, and after a long time without the rawness of those firsthand experiences, they become something we are not sure we want anymore, something we want to hold at bay.”

While I would agree that it is true that for some people beginnings and endings feel like a state of fragile aloneness, I think that some people feel so acclimated to the experience of walking through new doors, that they experience chronic change as a new baseline level of existence. This baseline leads to a nagging feeling that demands chronic beginnings and endings; middle, to them, is milquetoast. Although by now I’m sure it is evidently clear that I am one of those primates that can appreciate beginnings and endings for what they are and may even have a tendency of chasing them, I too like middles and am trying to find more of them.

On of my middles is basketball. I have been playing it for as long as I can remember and although in the beginning it was somewhat of a competitive experience (with others as well as myself), in recent years I found myself playing simply because it felt like freedom compared to all my other responsibilities and worries. Putting all my injuries and stitches aside, it is ultimately a soothing experience for me. I don’t play for an escape. I play because it feels like a comfortable wonderful insulation from work and aloneness, especially when I am an outsider living in an insider world. So like I said, basketball is one of my middles – until it comes to an end of course, which in my recent experience came sooner than I would have liked.

With the tragic ending of my middle in mind, I want to take a moment to give a yell out to all my Liberian ballers. First there is my partner and well respected coach of a group of young ballers in Voinjama - Mohammed Kromah. Mohammed stands out as extraordinary in every imaginable way. He is a great player, an inspirational coach, a fabulous dad and a good human being. Then there is the young group of players: Massaley, Valley, Dexter, Michael, American, Charlie, Fakuma, Zor Zor, Anthony, Musu, small Valley & his big brother; the list could go on. Each and every one of them knowledable beyond their years: each and every one of them there for me when I lost my mother. I will always remember them for that.

Next there is a group of much more advanced ballers. They are all from Monrovia. These guys are serious and rightfully so, they are extraordinary athletes. They basically let me play with them simply because they were nice guys and could tell I liked the game. I could barely keep up and was rarely any help, but they always let me have my middle and I will always cherish them for that. These guys include the one and only Jolomi, Carl, Jo, Magic, Tristan; once again the list could go on…..I thank them all from the bottom of my heart, for letting me play, for letting me in.

Now basketball doesn’t have to be everybody’s middle. Anything that allows someone to preserve a sense of freedom in the midst of rules and regulations and is identity preserving without being exceptionally defining is a middle. Basketball is not a middle for Kobe, it is a beginning, middle and end.

Basically what I’m saying is that we must all have a place we can chronically go to in this big bad beautiful world that neutralizes everything else in life. It can’t be something big, because then it’s not a middle. It’s got to be something unremarkable yet remarkable in its own right. Once you have a middle you know it. If you are getting paid for it or searching for it you might be in trouble. A middle is in fact milquetoast, but it is such a milky toast, it’s fabulous.

Thanks fellas for letting me have my middle in such a way that it allowed me to get away from and yet connect to two very important things in a world where everything is actually simultaneously living and dying, beginning and dying….

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about "and."

~ Stanley Eddington

So it is…life and the confusion about the meaning of and.

Over the last 11 days I have learned a lot about and.

I have learned that it is possible to be intensely sad and intensely happy in the exact same moment. With grief at the core and love surrounding it, it is possible.

I have also learned that being the one who stays and being the one who goes can feel extraordinarily similar and exceptionally different. Each with its own perks, each with its own drawbacks.

On one end of the continuum lies utter freedom. With the choice of movement one is gifted the liberty of independence and the avoidance of the monotonous responsibilities that can hold people back from choosing change. But, with this freedom one can feel a lack of sustainability highlighted by a long series of similar beginnings and endings. An experience of recurring beginnings can eventually start to feel a lot less substantial than the task of remaining in one place for an extended period of time. With all the ceremonies comes a ceremonial feeling of existence and a lack of dimensionality or depth.

On the other end of the continuum lies the monotony of pointless routines and a sense that one has been forced to settle. This nagging feeling is frequently connected to unnecessary contracts, unavoidable obligations and a fear of change. People too tied to responsibilities and bills can spend the majority of their time wishing they were doing something else; not being present; not being themselves.

Both ends of the continuum are precisely the kind of disengagement that I fear and believe is so damaging to our souls. It is therefore my aim to feel that what I do is right for me and good for the world at the same exact time – this and figuring out more about and might be a few of my greatest triumphs yet.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

the time of extremes

I stop wanting what I am looking for, looking for it.

~Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin

August 8, 2008 - January 18, 2009

The last six months of my life will always be earmarked as ‘the time of extremes.’ On the one end of the continuum lies paralyzing grief, on the other intense love. Inside is as astonishing adventure, predictable routines, quiet down time with friends and family, an exciting exploration of a new country, lazy days in my hammock, early morning strolls on the platte river, exhausting basketball practices in Voinjama, relaxing time spent in my brand new loft in a metropolitan city, exhausting time spent filing buckets for showers and washing clothes in the bush of Africa, going away parties, welcome back parties, yummy food, tummy parasites, and so much more….In six short months I watched myself get ripped to shreds and then felt the pieces get mended back together again by simple acts of kindness, goodness and love.

On August 8th I took my last stroll with Tuesday on the Platte and packed for my journey back to Liberia.

On August 14th, in a disturbing expression of an addict’s stupor, my mother and I watched nearly every moment of the Olympics for 10 straight days. From table tennis to water polo, the only thing we enjoyed more than the actual competition was the exciting back stories of these renowned athletes.

On August 24th I arrived back in Liberia and found a piece of my heart I had left behind.

From the 1st of September until November 5th I focused predominately on work, feeling passionate about the trauma recovery groups and equally as proud of my staff for accepting the challenge of a new training module. They were anxious and nervous and were forced to work hard and study hard and yet when it came time for their 25 page comprehensive examination, they excelled and clearly showed me they had learned much and grown tremendously. This success was accomplished in a country that, according to the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, has an abysmally high illiteracy rate of 63%. Broken down by gender, 73% of women are illiterate, 50% of men and only 25% of rural dwellers can read or write. All of my staff got their high school diplomas in the refugee camps of Sierra Leone and Guinea and all of them would be considered rural dwellers. Their professional and scholastic accomplishments are clearly an exception to the norm.

On November 6th, I lost one of the most important people in my life and realized I would simply have to find a way to recover from it. For the next few weeks my father and brother and I spent time together, shared stories and turned to friends and family for support. One of the most touching expressions of support was given to me the day before I left Janesville. In a moment of gentle concern, a friend I have always called Fav, gave me a comforting hug and then handed me a small stack of cards. Each envelope denoted the day in which I should open the card while I am away. The day that was chosen was Tuesday. The contents were supportive remarks and one simple expression of support that Liberians say to those who have been bereaved, “Take Courage.” She had remembered the day I had told her how comforting this simple statement had been for me in the minutes and hours after I heard about my mother’s death and she had decided to borrow this tender expression to show her support for me. I still don’t know if it was the statement or the selection of the choice of Tuesday that moved me to tears each and every time I opened one of her weekly gifts but I will always remember what she did and how she did it.

On November 18th, I celebrated my 32nd birthday dressed in black with a heavy heart. Putting my grief aside for a brief second I felt intensely loved by three special men who have always been in my life. Together we toasted my life and the life of the woman who gave it to me.

On November 30th, I departed from what will always be my mother’s nest, her home, and thus by extension mine, and I started the long journey back to Africa. On the coast of this small African country someone very special waited patiently for my return. This person held my hand, wiped my tears, listened when necessary and took my mind off things when possible. Because of this, and so much more, he will always have a special place in my heart.

From December 2nd until January 18th I have been trying. Some days are better than others and yet I have finally reached a point where I know things will be ok. There will always be a void and some topics simply remain off limits but so is life and somewhere along the line I have stopped wanting what I was looking for, looking for it…..

Saturday, January 10, 2009

the little guy

A child is born and a mamas torn about the life that it’s bound to live
A sun and moon and a modest home is all they asked can the lord to give
But politics and big events never seem to notice the little guy
So make a plan, or simply hold a hand, but don’t ever be a passerby
Tolerance or violence and the whole world goes to war.
Is one enough? Or is one too many, before we say no more?

~ Michael Franti

Because I doubt I can capture it better than Michael Franti, I will start with the lyrics from one of his songs and go from there. I chose this song because it is about the little guy and the little guy is who I feel incredibly connected to when I am based in the bush. Politics and big events never seem to notice him and so I will take a minute to honor the idea of him.

I unexpectedly returned to Liberia 6 months ago after having been back in Denver for 5 short months. It was not planned, nor was it necessary the easiest thing I have ever done (especially given the events that unfolded at home while I was away) but I do not regret my choice and, as I prepare to depart, I am left feeling once again humbled and touched by my experience.

I came to help build the local NGO our international NGO hopes to leave behind when we leave. This group is the ultimate representation of the ‘little guy’ and although it was a rough start, fraught with corruption, dishonestly and failure, this small group of dedicated psycho-social counselors have managed to recover from a series of impressive blows and are now well on their way of becoming a sustainable entity.

Since my return they have managed to solidify 3 grants and two more are in the works. This is their life support. These small successes are amazing, especially given the state of the world economy; and yet, I knew they could do it if they were able to capture exactly who they were and what they hoped to do. My part was small. What has happened concretely means less to me than what has happened abstractly and my only hope is that the outcome of this endeavor is not what thet managed to accomplish but who they became while accomplishing it.

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