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.

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