Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Seven Ways to Live Life on Ever-Changing Paths

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaption, though experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste.
~ Wendell Berry – The Art of Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry

I was once giving a guest lecture to a group of graduate students who had some interest in international disaster work. I tried to speak from the heart and balance the good with the bad; the exciting with the mundane; the frustration with the successes. I also tired to truly capture how life can be lived off the beaten path. What I have witnessed and observed over the last six years of doing international humanitarian work, predominately in war torn countries or in the developing world, has been both tremendous wealth and extreme poverty, both literally as well as figuratively, and I am still discovering which is which.


With these students I wanted to get away from the “sexiness” of international work, and get downs to the real essence of it. Because the truth of the matter is, work can be “sexy” in the place you and your ancestors came from, in urban metropolitan cities, in small unknown villages and in far off foreign lands. As I moved through my lecture one student stopped me with a puzzled look on her face and simply asked: “How do you know if you will be a good traveler?” By that she meant, what type of qualities does a person need to be able to pack up and work in far off lands where you may not know the language or the nuances of the cultures, without feeling completely overwhelmed or fearfully confused most of the time.

I found the to be an intriguing question, because as a psychologist who shows up in places where people sometimes have had no one to talk to aside from co-workers for a very long time, I sometimes hear the deeper, darker side of stories international workers carry. Sometimes these stories are full of adventure and job satisfaction, but other times they are full of angst, regret, torment and longing. I am left wondering if all the good they are doing for the world has actually been harmful to them in some fundamental way.

With regards to the question, I fear I didn’t answer it as fully and as completely as I would have liked that day in class, so in the service of going deeper, I am pleased to present -“The Top Seven Ways to Live Life on Ever-Changing Paths:”

1) You must have the ability to cope with an array of unexpected feelings and treatments from others: from kindness to cruelty; weariness to exuberance, devotion to betrayal; carelessness to care; doggedness to awkwardness to grace. It is likely all will occur – some by accident, some by intent: all will affect you, deeply, intensely, and powerfully.

2) It is an enormous bonus if you have a healthy appetite and a strong stomach. Many cultures reach out to foreigners with their food. This food may be familiar, exotic, threatening, exciting or sickening. A willingness to taste all and explore the world’s cuisines will win you big points in the areas of cultural compatibility and emersion. For those of you who have the interest but hesitate due to weak stomachs or finicky tastes – I encourage you to travel, but I advise against nomadic living being your bread and butter. You may think you have avoided situations by pushing your food around your plate or graciously informing your host you have already eaten, but they know, and often times, people take offense. I can’t count how many times someone has disclosed to me how negatively affected they have been by a foreigner who arrived and evidenced a severe lack of interest or willingness to try the local cuisine. Each and every time I have been told this has been after I have finished off a huge plate of something I may have never have imagined eating before and 99.9% of the time I have truly, honestly, candidly, enjoyed it.

3) Accept the fact you never really escape the place you are coming from and acknowledge that deep down, even if tremendous pain or disappointment is tied to that place, part of you has never really left. There is no such thing as a geographical cure. May it be Janesville or Stockholm or Lagos or Phnom Phen: wherever you are from, it is in some way shape or form, a part of you, and in many ways, it will forever remain your fate. Yes people can relocate and yes people can call a new place home and mean it deep down in their bones, but they are still from a place and that place is mapped on their DNA.

4) Understand that it takes time to truly understand a place. No matter how good you get at traveling or how many places you have visited, if you arrive to a new place you are, in fact, in a living breathing place that has generation upon generation of personal histories and traditions. Even if you are an expert at international politics, UN policies or specific types of implementation projects, you are in fact a stranger in a strange land and it is important to take some time to recognize that. Until you are settled, you have not yet in any meaningful way arrived, and without having devoted yourself to some small part of it in a way that will produce an intricate knowledge of it, you will not be able to live there without misunderstanding it or in some way damaging it or your relationship to it.

5) Anytime one crosses a given stretch of land with some frequency, no matter how exotic it is, the tendency is always toward habit. The big secret of international workers around the world is that our lives don’t actually look much different than the life of a teacher in a small town in Iowa. We all wake up in the morning with items to check off lists, we all have a certain way we like to spend our mornings getting ready for a new day, and we all have ways we like to unwind. May you be in Kearney Nebraska, Dakar Senegal, Congo Brazzaville or Waing Wai Thailand, we are all just human beings trying to live a life, earn a living, and relate to other creatures that populate the planet. No life is truly more exceptional than another.

6) Know that an exceptional life is inherently based on judging your own life by what others are doing. After all, you can only be an exception if there are lots of other lives that are not exceptional around you. For the longest time, I was fueled by the desire to have an exceptional life. I was, as I often heard myself saying, searching for the extraordinarily life. I wanted a life that would inspire envy in others and pride in my parents. I wanted a life that made other people say, “Wow.” What I realized is that by chasing a goal that is heavily based on comparing my life to others, I’d never get there. I would never feel like my life was exceptional. I would always have peers, and I would always have people that made me think, “Wow. Their life is much more remarkable than mine.” Instead, I have turned inside and tried to listen. A great life comes not from comparing my life to the people around me, but from having a life that brings me contentment whether I’m by myself or around other people. What brings me happiness? The chance to listen to and truly hear the stories of others, sometimes repeatedly. The opportunity to write frequently. The ability to spend time with my friends and family. A small loft in a city that I can call a home. Spending time with my dog. Spending time helping others in the global community and in my local community. Those are the things that make me happy. I’m assuming that many would say such things aren’t exceptional at all. Some might consider them boring, unsophisticated, and so on. Frankly, it doesn’t matter what others think about what I do, but only about how I treat others. At the end of the day the only thing that should be extraordinary in life is love.

7) Paradoxically, some of the worst abuses inflicted on nationals by foreigners may have arisen from the foreigner’s discomfort with actually being in the place they so desperately worked to get to. Some of the most heartbreaking stories I have heard in the field about maltreatment has not been by a ruling government, raiding rebels, or a local power hungry business man, but by ex-pats in Embassies, NGO offices, UN building or international businesses looking down at national staff, forever believing in some sort of “us” and “them” mentality. Tragically, I have even seen it happen when a staff member has gone from national staff in their home country, to international staff in a neighboring country. Membership is something we all long for, and sadly a side-effect of seeking membership in places that are not our own tend to me viewing the world around you with a formula that searches for something one can call homogeneous to self. Be wary of that search and try to experience each and every person you come across as an equal. Our homogeneity is our humanity.

There it is, seven lessons learned that I would have liked to have shared to a room full of graduate students looking for meaning and adventure. The trick is to realize that any adventure had is an adventure lost as repetition is monotonous. So go forth and explore and practice your rituals of familiarity in non-destructive ways to others and the planet and try to be wholeheartedly present in what you do and where you go. Be able to sit and be quite at the foot of some tree, in a busy restaurant, in an airport or in your home and feel settled, both in the place and in your awareness of it and maybe, just maybe, you will be able to figure out your calling and know what path to take in a world full of roads.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My very own Once Upon a Time Story

Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a country during a time of confusion where everything was scattered and people relied on courage to get by. To stay safe he briefly moved to a nearby country. Things that he had known were lost, but many new things were found. Although some would say nothing was possible, he refused a fate of defeat and time and time again made the impossible possible with sheer desire, zeal and aspiration.

Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in a house, situated in a forest, in a town on a continent far far away from this boy. Although she was not touched by war and in many ways experienced an enchanted childhood, she was deeply curious about the world and decided at a very young age she was going to explore it. When opportunities surfaced she found herself in the very village this young boy had escaped from as a young man.

Once upon a time this boy and this girl met on the most sacred of playing fields - a basketball court. This game played a special role in both their lives and in many ways defined their adolescence. The moment they met a small spark ignited but the realities of the context and environment blocked either one of them from recognizing it for what it was: the possibility of love.

Once upon a time this boy and this girl both happened to be traveling back to the girl’s homeland. Their reasons for going were different and they landed in different states for different events: she a wedding in the mountains and he a family reunion in Philadelphia. Although they didn’t see each other while they were there, their communication about their respective adventures brought something new to their relationship. The girl liked his thoughtfulness and his gentle nature and the boy liked her playfulness and laugh. Months later they went on their first date. From that point forward she would get butterflies each and every time they spoke and he would feel as if something very rare was stirring in him. Their love was a secret they told very few. He told her that although he had this feeling that there were things he was meant to accomplish, he would always love her and knew they would be together. She told him that although her work was very important to her and it took her too many far off places, their love would always bring her back to him. When they are together, everything makes sense and her butterflies intermingle with his stirring nature.

Once upon a time this girl and this boy started talking about the future and began to work under the assumption their found love was something special indeed. He is constantly amazed by her relentless quest to do what is right and she is drawn to the fierceness of his convictions. Although they continue to be separated by time and space, they no longer question the specialness of their connection and they both know that what they have created is true and is real and is honest even if it is restricted by distance. Now anything seems possible.

Once upon a time this girl was looking for a way to end a story and the words that came to mind like a whisper were: and they lived happily ever after.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

the rewarding kind of travel

Most Travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life. This risky suspension of disbelief is often an experience freighted with anxiety. But what’s the alternative? Usually there is none.
~ Paul Theroux


There was no alternative for me in Sarajevo, until I met Verijan. There was no alternative for me in Nigeria, until I met Justus. There was no alternative for me in Kenya, until I met Henry. There was no alternative for me in Cario, until I met Nader. There was no alternative for me in Yangon, until I met Htaik and Hazlitt. In between such encounters I have been lucky enough to meet dependable taxi drivers in Sierra Leone, thoughtful guest house owners in Thailand, willing direction givers in the labyrinth alleys of Marrakesh, and helpful unsolicited translators all over the planet. This is not to say that I haven’t been robbed, swindled, cheated, or conned but, it is these experiences of angst that allow us to truly celebrate the kindness of strangers when we are at our most vulnerable.

I have not posted in a while. I’m not exactly sure why, but I have returned to share with those loyal readers who keep checking in only to find silence on the screen, what has been on my mind. What I have been thinking about since I returned from the unspoken place has been the listener-storyteller relationship. In my projects in West Africa and South East Asia I have learned much about being human and acting humane. Listening to survivors stories in these places has been painful but it has also been bearable because each and every story teller I have encountered was able to teach a lesson about survival and healing and it appeared the simple act of telling was reparative.

One Bosnian doctor explained this aspect of the listener-storyteller relationship in Mollica’s book Healing Invisible Wounds:

Whenever you tell a story you feel better. I will give you an example of the Bosnian people from the Muslim religion. They do not cry too much. The females go to the funerals and they speak a lot. They repeat and repeat the story. I have had a chance to listen to this several times in several tragic stories on many occasions. They stories are like a tape with the same words and sentences. And each time before they finish, the storyteller is much happier than before, and the listener becomes wealthier from receiving new knowledge. (Mollica, 2006)

The repetition of the story makes the storyteller more comfortable and in effect having listener is part of the therapeutic process. Many of my students, both graduate students from DU as well as community advocates and passionate volunteers in the field, ask me the same question after learning about trauma, PTSD and it’s impact on human functioning.............They told me their story, now what? This is the inevitable next question a counselor/therapist will ask after they are able to build enough trust to be gifted the trauma story of a survivor. Helpers want tools to “fix” the problems and the reality is that there is no magic wand, no super pill and no scientific procedure that can fix a wounded soul other than to honor the fact that they have lived to tell their story. I agree with Mollica when he says that “listeners need to remember that the inherent purpose of trauma stories is healing and survival. Survivors must be allowed to tell their stories in their own way” and “We must not burden them with theories, interpretations, or opinions, especially if we have little knowledge of their cultural or political background. “ Storytelling is in fact a healing art and listening is as growth promoting as telling if we just have patience and are able to integrate both the pain of the trauma sufferer as well as power of the survival tale.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

chai encounter


Today I finished my third 300 plus page novel in less than a week. Although I feel like a proud daughter when I find myself in a ferocious reading spree as my mother put all other casual readers to shame, I am feeling a bit nervous because I only have one book left and I have 7 days to go before I head back to Chiang Mai (the travelers book exchange heaven for well-read, well-traveled paperbacks). I decide to head down the road for a Chang, the local brew, in the service of creating something else to do, and maybe to slow down my reading spree. Last night I taught English to a group of three young ladies and one young lad at the local noodle shop. This has been a SalusWorld tradition in this project and at first I didn’t want to disappoint the consultants who came before me. Twice a week for eight months visiting consultants have been holding English classes at night in a noodle shop that sprang up a few short months after our arrival in this displaced Shan village in northern Thailand.

To be totally honest I didn’t really want to do it. I’m a psychologist for goodness sake. After spending 10 minutes with these kids I realized it was the best guilt based decision I had ever made. They were sharp and sweet and keen to learn. I pray I teach them as much English as they have taught me Shan, but I doubt it; one of them busted me last night for spelling Wednesday wrong. Based on the fact I so enjoyed myself with them and because they asked, we upped the evening classes from 2 to 4 times this week and I am stoked. My best lesson to date has been to teach them the alphabet in American Sign Language, the first foreign language I studied. The lights went out during our lesson and I heard them correcting each other practicing the signs as they walked home from escorting me back to my abode with candles.

I have a day and night free and I have no idea what to do with my time. Last month I was training, frantically prepping for a pending training or engaging in delightful supervision sessions with amazing team of coordinators. The sudden slowdowns in life have unfortunately never been easy for me. It seems I feel more balanced with a check list of activities to get done rather than relaxing in one of the most sought after travel destinations in the world. For some reason I can’t warm myself to Thailand. It is beautiful no doubt, but I find myself agitated whenever I am here, longing for other less developed and much less tourism savvy environments on the planet like Lofa, Yelwa and Dagon Plaza.

As I saunter down the street to the market to buy my Chang and some snacks of dried fish and rice cakes I see a guy from a distance. The first thing I notice is that he can squat on his hunches Third World-style, indefinitely. For some reason I find myself longing to speak Thai so I could saunter up to him and strike up a conversation. As I draw near, I realize I know this guy. It is Chai. Chai is a whisper of a man but hip in his own way and not in the slightest way anachronistic. Berkley cool in worn out clothes, wiry, muscular, flip-floped, well over fifty but doesn’t look a day older than thirty-five. A week of acclimating to the land of maybes and half-smiles, longing for a place and it’s people just across the border, I find him, or he finds me, sauntering down the road sweating and somehow fearful of the motorbikes coming at me on the empty paved road. For some reason I have this nagging feeling that a few of my local passer-byers have a itch to hit me and might even consider doing it they could be assured they could get away with it. He greets me kindly and I tell him I will be right back as I notice they are closing up the market and I want to get the treats I had been planning for (God forbid I skip the beer and barrel through my last novel). As I walk back I am given another chance to watch him and I am struck by how much I like this guy, given I know so little about him. The last time I was here I had asked after him and I had been told he was nowhere to be found and that maybe he had returned to Shan State. 14 months later, out of nowhere, there he is smiling at me, as engaged as I remember him. We smile and shake our heads in that this is unbelievable kind of way and then he moves towards his motorbike and says “home?” At first I baulk and refuse because that is what “we” should do when an oppressed illegal immigrant on a bike offers a ride to a privileged white gal in fancy sunglasses sweating along the roadside. He turns his head like a trusted dog does paying attention to you when you are telling them a story, trying to make meaning out of the nonsense coming out of your mouth. I quickly realize I am being foolish and awkwardly jump on his bike because the pegs are not out and I unconsciously have the residue of a long forgotten bike trauma (a burn on the leg from a Harley that was only slightly more dangerous than it’s driver) burned into my memory and my calf. Chai’s English ranges from profoundly good to non-existent; so, I chat away on the back of the bike showering him with genuine compliments based on what I remember about his participation in my first 2 week training on basic counseling and I ask him how his trip to Shan State went. I have no idea what he understood as he only grunted and then dumped me in front of my house, smiled, and turned around and left. He has an idle power I envy and I remain hopeful that is not the last of our ever so random encounters.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Saying all that cannot be said in words


They each step down from the truck taxi to say goodbye. The one driving suggests a group hug and we all quickly form a circle. They each place their hands on my back and I on theirs and we lean forward so that our heads meet in the middle, resulting in us each looking at our sandaled feet. Between telling me thank you in the most genuine of ways and asking me if I am packed, they manage to be truly genuine and in the moment as well as active and forward thinking. I like the way they each can fluctuate from a mindful relaxed presence to a multi-tasking high speed processor; I have yet to figure out how they do it, when I try I just look flustered. I want to hug each one of them but I can’t, I’m not sure if my newly acquired comfort with embracing and being embraced will translate here. I smile and think of how proud my friend Jules would be if she could see me now. Her relentless persistence gradually desensitizing me to touch has worked. I used to be awkward and uncomfortable with gestures of intimacy and would get confused with the three cheek kiss greeting of Europe, finding myself head butting unprepared recipients. I like the way I have changed and have learned to appreciate everything from a wink to fingers dancing on my arms to a warm embrace fluttering over my shoulders, to a gentle touch on my back. Saying all that cannot be said in words, the nonverbal world of communication has transformed my experience of the world and its people and I feel my throat get tight and my eyes get hot and I know it is once again time for me to cry the honorable tears of loss. It is only those meaningful relationships that we grieved when lost and I know deep in my heart and soul that the meaning I have found here has been deep and profound.

The approximate wetness of hope

What is the proper number of kisses
For a man to leave this world?
The average depth of melancholy?
The approximate wetness of hope?
~ Max Garland



Thingyan, which translates “transit of the Sun from Pisces to Aries” is the Local New Year Water Festival and usually falls around mid-April, the Local month of Tagu. It is celebrated over a period of four to five days culminating in the Local New Year. The days are filled with loud music and truck loads of giddy young people tossing water and singing. The nights are filled with musical performances on stages that sprouted up like weeds overnight in the cracks of a sidewalk. In every neighborhood mandats or stages, with festive names, made from bamboo, wood and beautifully decorated paper mache and merrymaking and general gaiety are the main ticket items, day in and day out.

During the first two days of Thingyan, I saunter the streets of Y and got absolutely soaked by passing celebrators with buckets of water, modern day squirt guns and a keen eye for foreigners. On the third day I stayed in as I discovered I was quite sunburned on every patch of skin I missed applying sun screen to the day before and I was tired of being such an identifiable target. I also knew I would be out all day the following day as a group of my first training participants invited me to an event called Heaven and Hell which was an amusing surprise given I was at that time residing in a majority Buddhist country that finds the idea of heaven and hell to be a bit comical. The plan was they would pick me up at 7 am and we would be out all day dancing, singing and engaging in the collective merrymaking.
Around 6 pm I got the call. There had been a bombing and the location of the explosion was the very stage that we had planned to go to the following day.

According to the news media:
“three bomb blasts rocked a park in M's main city Y on Thursday as thousands of revellers celebrated an annual water festival, leaving nine people dead and at least 75 wounded, officials said. The blasts occurred near Kandawgyi Lake in the military-ruled country's commercial hub, where thousands of people had gathered for water-throwing festivities to mark the Buddhist New Year.

"Nine people were killed -- five men and four women," an official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that a fourth bomb was found and defused. State television gave a slightly different toll, saying eight people had died and 94 were injured. The blasts came as the country prepares for elections planned for this year that critics have dismissed as a sham.”

Over the course of the next few days the numbers varied greatly and reports of suggested perpetrators covered the whole continuum from hunches to conspiracy theories.

I missed the event and felt the heaviness of having planned to be in a place that happened to have been bombed 17 hours prior to my arrival but I also felt the hope and collective ability to adjust, regulate and normalize an existence that has rarely in its recent history been delivered to such an oppressed group of people.

“Hopenmar” – An environmentally friendly visit from twelve guys and a girl


I returned to the unspoken city 2 weeks ago. A few short hours after I arrived I was invited to the closing ceremony and celebratory dinner of a motivated group of young local and Chinese activists. The topic of their shared interest: the environment and global warming. All I have to say is that, “Hopenhagan, you should be ashamed.”

As soon as I arrive I discover two giddy groups of participants, one group local, one group Chinese. They were truly enjoying each other and excited about their shared vision – green living and sustainable green development. I observe playful yet serious dialogue, and it was clear they all have deep respect and admiration towards each others plight. While the Chinese activists struggle with an all powerful controlling administration that the world fears and obsesses about, they and their hosts quickly realized their struggle pales in comparison to the plight of the local activists in attendance. One Chinese activist takes care to express just that in his farewell speech. According to him, while it is frustrating to be living is such a controlled country; at least the rules and regulations are clear and transparent. In this place, it’s an altogether different game and a much more confusing existence. Nothing is clear and the word transparency is only spoken in whispers.

For those of you who haven’t heard me say it a hundred times already, it is important to note it has been very hot here; and, when I say hot I mean it has been 100 degrees plus every stinkin day. One Chinese participant also made note of the heat during his speech but he added one important fact to his observation: “The weather here is very warm, but the people are warm too.” If you asked me, I would say the people of this place may be the warmest people on the face of the planet but, that’s just me and although I have visited many places, I haven’t quite visited them all.

By the end of the event I realize that I (an American who has been indoctrinated with fears of pending Chinese takeover of the planet and some underlying stereotypical beliefs that environmental concerns take a back seat to currency control and exports and falls just ahead of human rights concerns in China) have fallen victim to a tremendous amount of misinformation. The reality is China is as diverse as a New York City subway and if this passionate young group of students represents even a small part of their rather large Republic. We my friends, are greatly mistaken.

The accomplishments and concluding thoughts of this youth initiative focused on global warming thought up by and accomplished by two groups of what many in the west would all assume to be disempowered and uninformed group of civilians, blew the events in Copenhagen a few short months ago out of the water; and, if Obama were smart, he would come here and meet with this group and learn a few lessons on international engagement and strategic green development.

I will end this train of thought with another quote, this time it was from one of the local participants to the China team which happened to be made up of a dozen men and one lone woman: “As we are living under the same Sun and walking on the same Land, we are together in our heart to act for our environment. We love you, brothers and sister.”

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