Friday, October 21, 2011

Defining moments

I just had a friend tease me about the stories that I tell connected to my adventures as a humanitarian aid worker. Specifically, she found it admirable that I still regularly take bucket showers when I am living in IPD or refugee camps and it is rare for me to have hot water when working in the field. To her, “bucket showers” was not even a term. I’m not sure it is either but it just feels right. I go to a well or a faucet, I gather water in buckets and then I go somewhere with those buckets and I take a shower. Bucket showers, right?

My experiences in the field have been exciting and monotonous, developmentally promotional and developmentally regressive, overwhelming and unremarkable. In other words it has been a life like any other. If I choose to start all the way at the beginning my memories are hazy and I don’t know what’s important. Once upon a time a girl was born. Is that the appropriate place to start or is that overdoing it? If not there then where? Without my childhood my adulthood may not make sense.

It is difficult to capture how the monotony and the extremes have impacted me. Defining moments that either broke my heart or filled me with joy are not truly known at the time they happen, they only became known with time, life and reflection. They things that have ended up getting ingrained into my defining narrative are not all exactly what I would have predicted. Had I known what was happening in the world as a small girl, or I had known what was to come, I would have borne the insults of childhood and my college years with more fortitude but at the time they felt monumental. The tragedy and the gift of living is that we cannot and will not know which will be our defining moments.

But then again, maybe all of this doesn’t matter and I am over thinking this. Maybe the unknown is the adventure and the monotonous is what we all relate to. Looking back I see many different versions of me, all me, and yet somehow not.

When I think of myself at the age of 12 I feel as if everything was scary and everyone around me was moving at a lightning speed pace towards adulthood and I was shaking in my boots. I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to play in forts build deep in the woods with my brother and Jeff and I wanted to ride skateboards behind bikes and play badminton late at night. I didn’t want to think about spin the bottle or tight rolling my faded Guess jeans. I was constantly afraid of being teased and I didn’t know how to make my hair feather like the cool kids. I was desperately distraught, almost constantly, and yet maybe that angst was good for me, giving me resilience and character and had things been too easy for me back then, then maybe I would have taken the wrong track and ended up pregnant and alone by age 20.

When I think of myself at the age of 14 I feel as if I was just the right age then. More able than I ever was before, or since. I loved my dog, I worshipped my father. I respected by brother’s fervor. I adored reading and I passionately played sports.

My twenties were a rollercoaster. I studied hard and I played hard and I loved my downtime with my college pals. I fell in love with a guy who walked into Rhetoric class one day and played his guitar and sang a song for an assignment and he loved me back. My only regret is that I was so wound up with anxiety and fear that I couldn't enjoy it completely. I got good grades and I studied abroad. I worked hard in restaurants and I was proud of my hard earned money. However, I never felt comfortable in my skin and I worried that although people saw me as grounded and centered, I was anything but and I would forever be a doubting, fretting woman, desperately afraid of letting go but wanting to appear empowered; a fake in feminist clothing.

Things got better in my thirties and now when people ask me why I do what I do, I say I have done it for two reasons. The first is I have decided not to live my life like an ostrich with its head in the sand. The world is a messed up place. War and hatred and racism and discrimination are everywhere like an airborne disease, stealing the souls of the innocent. Wars are started and no one is warned that children will definitely die and souls will forever be lost. If for no other reason, I hope that I am remembered for trying to ease the suffering. It is small but hopefully it is something. The second reason, and this might sound strange, but I know it like it was written in my DNA. The reason is simple: I was and always have been searching for one man. Maybe the Buddists are right and we are constantly reborn searching for our one true soul mate. Maybe in my last life my soul mate happened to have been a woman like me and thus I now feel so passionately about GLBT rights. Or, maybe a few lives before that I was a dog and my soul mate was a human and I was loyal to the bone and this human treated me right and I told myself that if the table was ever turned, I would be sure to always treat my animals, all animals with loving kindness and compassion. But this life was different. This life my soul mate happened to have been living on the continent of Africa and fortunately, due to a few small life choices, I ended up in Mamba Point on the right day at the right time and I met him.

When it comes to my international aid work, I feel like I only have scattered and unattached recollections: a long walk with nomadic Housa at the tail end of my stay in Yelwa; a small boy sweating in his school uniform hot with malaria fever in Foya; students vigilantly reading their torn and tattered school notebooks underneath a street light persisting in their refusal to accept farming in their small village as their predetermined destiny and that secondary school is only for the lucky few; mosquitoes and moths trying desperately to break the seal of many malaria bed nets; a goat being slaughtered facing Mecca; Housa/Kpelle/Madingo/Bassa/Shan/Thai/Burmese/Arabic being spoken all around me, both shielding me and excluding me from the nuances of everyday life; the taste of souya, mojinia and benniseed on the streets where the local language mixes with broken English in the service of guaranteeing themselves a paying customer.

These are the things I think of when I try to collect my stories into some sort of formable tale. But now what? What’s next? I fear I can’t do it. It’s simply too hard. How does one gather all their recollections up into one flowing story? It’s as if my memories are like a large disordered Japanese cartoon book and the child filling it all in didn’t stay within the lines and doesn’t understand the language. Maybe the key is to keep trying………………for now, I suppose I will.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dancing Peacocks, Red Dragons and Tuskless Elephants:

The work…
Sitting in the small room with no furniture and black and grey carpet on the ground, my feet bare and my chin resting on one knee, I was transfixed. It was, beautiful; at times tragic, at times tender, but constantly and unrelentingly beautiful. I could feel the connectedness of the participants in the room and could sense the change in everyone. I could feel warmth in space that had previously been neutral. It was a feeling of presence rather than absence and I knew it had worked. We had hoped to create an experiential space for feeling what it’s like to be in safe space where you are able to say anything and feel anything and it had worked. We all chose to participate and rather than facilitate a space of academic learning we had all created a space of emotional learning. This is, in my personal opinion, what it takes to truly be a great counselor. Not theory, not supposition, but the capacity to build a relationship and to sit, just sit, with intense emotions.
Interesting, and to the credit of my talented local trainers, it seemed that with time I became less and less noticeable. I, the tall, looming, foreigner with big feet and a strange name, had become background noise and with time it appeared participants tended to notice one thing about me when I spoke up – that they hadn’t noticed me earlier. I became recessive and long stretches of time would pass before anyone realized that I was there. Impact assessment interviews suggest the real meaning behind the work is simple: helping people realize every human being has dignity and value and that we are all human beings. A small group of HIV+ women here reminded of this simple truth and once again I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given to simply be with people and to see their burning capacity to be great. Although the experiential trainings I have facilitated here have been some of the most powerful experiences of my personal and professional life, I will stop there in my description of recent events because everything else belongs to the group and we all promised the important promise of confidentiality.

What I have been reflecting upon….
My time in the developing world always offers me one thing, intellectual refuge. I typically notice but don’t truly recognize how noisy my life in the developed world is. And, although in some ways I have no doubt that my life in Yangon and Fang and Gbarnga and Voinjama and Yelwa have actually been surrounded by more noise than I am surrounded by in Denver, I find I am still able to sit in almost total silence when I am away. Strange scents waft over me and new flavors dance on my tongue but the visual vistas seem to be more defined and my mind gets a little more free, my time a little less varied and unbroken. I realize when I am out of my home environment that it is important to take a break to roam and that it becomes evident that if I allow it to happen my mind making quick and clear connections and my imagination is unfettered and supple. I can stay with these thoughts for as long as I able and then I am back to my baseline way of being, slightly anxious, undoubtedly neurotic and slightly odd. My only hope is that I can hold on to some of this for a while because I have found that the fast paced American way makes it even more difficult for me to simply be and the minute I land my mind and my body just start to run.

Dream about californication…..

First imagine the beat that accompanies a well dressed, well rehearsed, lathered up lounge singer. The beat is smooth but slightly reminiscent of elevator music and every song, no matter what its original form, comes in long drawn out stanzas. Now stop and take a minute to place the following words on top of these loungy beats…………….

Beautiful girls. All over the world. I can get chasin my time would be wastin. They got nothing on you baby. You shouldn’t worry casue they got nothing on you baby. Nothing on you baby.
Loungy harp beat……………transition and then…Tic toc on the clock. Trying to get a little tispy tonight I’m going to fight until you see the sunlight. Tick toc on the clock the party don’t stop. Got a care in the world…Whoo whoo who ohhh


There it is. My attempt to capture one subtle aspect of what I love about this place is to describe the way they manage to make a lounge song out of every single hit that comes their way. Every time I show up it seems I have briefly forgotten this playful pastime, but the minute I walk into a coffee shop or shopping center the sounds coming out of the speakers quickly remind me where I am – lounge singer heaven.
My thinking about why this is so is as follows: Due to tight sanctions and economic oppression, the community at large has plenty of troubles to worry about and plenty of threats to keep them quiet and under wraps; but, this country is also a place that simply refuses to be oppressed and has the sneaky savvy and brains to make it happen and to laugh at those in charge may they be politicians, millionaires or superstars. In some ways this is a place frozen in time and one can glean from the 80s style fashion and punchy humor that they have been exposed to little that has unfolded with regards to pop culture over the last three decades in the rest of the world. With that noted, this place may actually be ahead of the curve with regards to fashion and style (given 80s is once again retro) and are able to pull out the true gems as they come along and hold onto them much longer than the fast passed easily bored masses in the West. They get access to things in slow sneaky ways and need to savor every moment they are doing something they shouldn’t be – which quickly adds up to just about anything. For example, it is illegal to gather in groups of more than 4 people and suicide is a crime punishable by death and if you leave the country and say something against the ruling party and then come back you get a free taxi ride to the nearest prison. So there it is – my analysis of fashion, music and style in a place I have come to love deeply and a place that constantly makes me smile.

Very soon I will post something a little more serious.

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