Take me down to Paradox City

Let’s make something very clear before I get on my virtual soapbox: I am well aware that I am inches away from hitting the proverbial wall. I have a one-way ticket on the Compassion Fatigue Express which is heading into the abyss faster than a speeding bullet. Remember that scene from “She’s Having a Baby,” when Kevin Bacon suddenly envisions himself strapped into a rapidly accelerating caboose that ends in a mess of screams and fire? Yeah, it’s kind of like that. Next stop? Burnout-ville. Population: Me.

I have a propensity for being slightly overdramatic so all of this should be taken with a wee grain of salt. That being said, lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m running in circles, as if I’m pushing on a door when it says “pull” or rowing a canoe north through rapids that are clearly flowing south. At some point, it just makes you want to sit down and scream in frustration and anger and pain. I listen to stories all day long that would make even the most stoic of characters question their own faith in humanity, that make you wonder how it’s possible for anyone to survive so much hate and destruction. It makes you wonder how some people can face the present with a past that is so heavy and so dark. And, not surprisingly, some days it just proves to be a little too much. Some days you trip on a rock and kind of just lay there for awhile with your face sideways in the mud wondering if you can, or should even bother, getting back up.

Yesterday on the ride back from the camp, I couldn’t stop thinking about what one of my clients had said earlier that afternoon during one of our groups. This client attributed all of the wars, all of the dying and the killings, to an absence of love: “People in Congo have simply forgotten how to love one another,” she said, “It wasn’t always that way, but now neighbors kill neighbors, friends kill friends…even family. There is no love.” There was a heaviness in the way she said it, as if the capacity to love and respect human life was both the simplest and the most complicated, inexplicable things in the world. And at that very moment, and for reasons I will get to in a bit, those two contradictory statements made sense: It is both. It is easy and Impossible, all at the same time. It’s a paradox, just like everything else is here.

My heart is tired in a way I never expected. It’s not the stories or the terror, or the trauma or the pain. It’s not the sense of grief and sadness and immense loss I hear every day at camp. It just isn’t. Instead it’s something more nuanced, shaded a bit from the obvious, something that kind of whacks you up side the head every once and awhile to make you examine who you are or who it is you think you should be. It is the paradox that evil, darkness and despair, exist at the same time as goodness, hope, and light. One cannot survive without the other and we’re all stuck in a tug-of-war as this ying & yang flips back and forth, and back over again. So how do you reconcile the fact that this is maybe the way it has to be? How do you accept that sometimes s**t has to hit the fan before you can get to the core of what really matters?

At that same group in camp yesterday, I listened to story after story of war and gang rape by rogue soldiers, husbands who had been murdered and children who in the panic of fleeing were lost in a sea of people never to be seen again. I hear these stories and I want to scream out and curse God for allowing it all to happen — I want to throw things through glass and crawl out of my own skin because I simply cannot comprehend how any one human being could be so cruel to another. I don’t understand how anyone is meant to survive such a life that has seen so much suffering and so much loss. And yet at the same time I feel as if this has to be the end of all things, I also see unmistakable signs of hope and strength that for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t exist at all. These women share stories in languages I do not speak and with an intensity I don’t even pretend I will ever be able to truly grasp. They speak of things none of us in our wildest nightmares could ever imagine, about things you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. But despite this, I can’t help but seeing strength and healing — it’s visceral, and I don’t need to speak Kiswahili to put the pieces back together.

The process is heartbreakingly lovely and powerful, watching as a near electrical spark pulls people together spreading love and support, and the long-awaited sense of peace. But it also scares me in a way I can’t quite articulate. Sometimes I find myself feeling like I’ve been dropped into some kind of fractured, alternative universe; I have these moments every once in awhile where I just don’t get it. The world abandoned you…how do you still have the will to continue to live, how do you still believe when you of all people, should have no faith left in humanity at all?

My feelings around all of this are equally complicated, and I have a love/hate relationship with my work sometimes when I start to question what it is I’m doing here and what kind of “help” I’m actually offering these people. The red devil on one shoulder tells me that help is a childish notion in the face of this mountain of human damage and utter psychological carnage. While on the other shoulder, the angel in white continues to jump up and down shouting positive affirmations and turning my head to see the faces of healing and peace that I know do actually exist and that I have contributed to. I don’t expect I’ll ever NOT feel conflicted about everything — If and when I do reach that point, I hope that will be the moment I realize it’s time to pack up and leave.

So it’s all a paradox. It’s all good and evil. And as most paradoxes go, it is an endless stream of questions that will never have sufficient answers. The best I will ever get are glimpses into that unknown part of life none of us will ever quite understand.

I happened upon one of those flashes yesterday, coming back from the camp. It was intimate and strange, and I am pretty sure I am the only one noticed as I sat there trying to sort out all of these thoughts in my head about good, evil, healing, love, and otherwise. In a cosmic twist of chance, at precisely the same wrinkle in time I sat there thinking about all of this, we passed a familiar face on the road. A man. In a truck. For a moment we caught each other’s eyes and smiled sad, knowing smiles. As the Land Cruiser slowed down to pass, I watched our hands go up in a stalled wave, frozen in some kind of silent understanding or acknowledgement about what it means to be present in this world. We sat there like that, me staring out the back of the Cruiser and him standing by his truck, for a long time, long after we had we had pulled away, watching one another as we became smaller and smaller dots on the horizon. All I could do was cry.

Never let me go

I wrote an entire post last Wednesday about death that in the end I didn’t publish because I just didn’t finish it in time to go to camp the next morning. I had been to the funeral of a colleague’s husband that day and had spent a good portion of the six hours I was at the service contemplating how we all pay respect to our dead. As I sat there, hundreds of people streamed in and out of the family home to give their final send-off to a man I barely knew. The Pentecostal choir stood in the shade and sang hauntingly beautiful African hymns for hours, while the men sat under the awnings praying and bowing their heads solemnly in respect. The women, all dressed in beautiful shades of chitenje sat separately, some on the front porch and others in the house, as the widow lay next to the coffin of her dead husband, wailing with grief and emotion. All the preaching was in Chichewa and I found my mind drifting from observation to observation as the day went on.

What I thought about the most was how up front dying is in this country. Death does not tread lightly here in the seemingly idealistic landscapes of Southeastern Africa. It is frequent and obtuse. It is ugly and sudden. It is often the abrupt end of conditions or diseases otherwise treatable or preventable in the “developed world”. And sometimes, death is just the cruel result of accidental circumstances – the harsh reality of living in a place where being in the wrong place at the wrong time is more commonplace than it is exceptional. How easy it is for us to forget the latter; how blasé we have all become about the truly precious gift of life…

On Thursday morning, in a sad and awful twist of irony, after all these contemplations of what mourning and death are in this country, and after boldly faffing around on my computer and spouting out judgment calls I had no business making about what dying really “means” here, the universe put me back in my place. It sat me right down opened a scary, dark door and demanded that I look at the face of death without any mask or any cover. Tell me then, it said as it ripped the illusionary veil of ignorance from my face, what exactly is it that you see?

I see a sharp, blind-sided road with seven-foot embankments on both sides, that directly bi-sects a primary school. I see a crowd of people off to the left, and more off to the right. I see a pick-up truck stopped in the middle of this scene, it’s driver on the phone, his face pale with shock and agony. I see a mother with a baby tied to her back sink down on her knees and scream a sound more guttural than anything I have ever heard in my life. And I see the little body of a child that one could have mistaken for being peacefully curled up and fast asleep were it not for the bright red pool slowly spreading out from under her precious little body onto the dirt road below.

Death is a condition of life no matter where any of us are from. But it hovers low and close here, and strikes unrepentantly when we all least expect it. It’s like that everywhere, I suppose, but somehow here it feels different – rawer, and more callously guileless in some way, as if to purposely keep everyone on their toes lest we all forget that it is fate, rather than freewill, that pushes us along in this life.

I have never been one for religion or prayer, but that day, as I held the hand of the driver as he cried and tenderly touched the small, cool hands of this little girl, I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed for hope, and for light, and for healing. But mostly I prayed that somewhere, somehow, there would be a chance for forgiveness – that the family would find it in their hearts to forgive this man for a terrible accident, and that in turn, this man would be able to forgive himself for an awful and tragically unavoidable twist of fate.

I have no better understanding of death now than I did 5 days ago. If anything, I understand it less. It seems grossly unfair and heartbreakingly arbitrary, as if the mere act of opening your eyes in the morning and walking out the front door is like playing an inevitable game of Russian roulette with your life. Maybe it just seems worse coming from a place where we put all of these medical, safety, and emergency infrastructures in place to ostensibly “protect” us from ourselves. Maybe all that really does in the end is leave us horribly unprepared when it all desperately unravels.

So go home, everyone, and look at your life. And more than anything appreciate who it is you have in this life with you because all of it is as fragile as porcelain and so irrefutably precious. At the end of all things, the people you love in this life are the only true measure of anything that really matters. Never, ever, let them go.

Disillusioned Youth 2.0

When I was in college, I worked for the university newspaper, a small, chaotic operation cleverly named “The Loyolan” after, well, the university. Although I held several positions there over the course of my college career, my most favorite and coveted job was that of “Perspectives Editor” aka, Op-ed editor, which I had my senior year at school. I loved working at that paper – the crazy deadlines, the sense of perpetual mania, the eternal search for a better edge, a better story (not to mention the promise of dinner from Beach Pizza every Tuesday deadline night) – that job was my life for a good part of my college existence. And I’m not gonna lie – what made it particularly endearing was the fact that once a week I got to spout off my own personal opinions to the world in an editorial column, a piece whose only purpose in life was to rant, rave, and generally point out the glaring ridiculousness of whatever was happening in local or campus-wide news, or just simply to bitch about something worth bitching about. The column was called “Disillusioned Youth” and disillusioned it was indeed.

That editorial lived the good life until May 2002 when my professional student life came to an end and I entered the world as a qualified, knowledgeable, and responsible adult. I use those terms loosely. For those of you not familiar with the narrator at the age of 21, I can pretty much assure you that she fit none of the above-mentioned requirements. Manic, beer loving, I-have-a-degree-in-English-and-am-totally-unmarketable-in-my-home-country? Now we’re getting somewhere…

For reasons I will get to in a minute, I’ve been thinking about that column a lot lately, and internally reflecting a bit about who I was at that age and what I, presumably, had so much to journalistically fuss about. I attribute this current pontification to the present circumstances of my social circle in Lilongwe, namely the fact that I am fairly sure that half the people I now spend a significant amount of time with may or may not have been born in the year 1986. So far as I recall, this was a pretty good year. I was in Mrs. Bradley’s second grade class. I excelled at swimming lessons at the Oak Park pool. I developed a distinct and unrepentant obsession with “Little House on the Prairie” and an undying hatred for flowery, puffy, or overtly girly dresses. Overall, the late 80s had a lot going for them, even if we all do lament the whole crimped hair, shiny bubble skirt, tapered jeans with double socks thing.

But here’s the thing about being born in 1986: It makes those of us born in or around 1980 look like Bea Arthur from the “Golden Girls”. And you know how much I love me some Bea Arthur, I’m just saying – six years can oscillate between being a blip in the grand string of time or an epic eternity depending on how the cookie crumbles on any given day.

Truth be told, for those of us who are from the U.S. and did the whole American college thing, there isn’t really that great a divide between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-eight. Our formative early adult experiences were pretty much etched in the same Bud Light soaked stone – whether it be 1998 or 2005, the propensity for ridiculousness knows no age and I am pretty sure the game of “asshole” hasn’t changed it’s rules since about 1972.

But the thing about this whole seemingly minor age differential is that it does, on occasion, bring up the fact that we’re all looking at the world from slightly different points on the horizon. The late 70s, early 80s crew are a little closer to that spot where the sun meets the hills, where as the rest of those crazy kiddos are looking a little bit farther up at the big, blue, wide-opened sky. Most of us, most of the time, don’t give two thoughts to any of this but every so often the difference between blue sky and shades of the setting sun makes an appearance – it’s those times that make me step back and look at the horizon twice.

I had a conversation the other day with one of these ‘86ers. We were on our way down to Blantyre, driving down the only highway that runs the length of the country. As we passed through village after village, we started talking about village life and more specifically, about what it would be like to live amongst the people in those tiny little towns and start a grassroots program from the bottom up – wondering and thinking how amazing and powerful it would be to just show up in a village and live there and make something incredible happen at the most basic, clearest level of need. It was a simple statement, a straightforward observation and we chatted a little while about what that would be like and how it really would be development work at its very core. The discussion drifted and ebbed, a new song came on the stereo, and off we went to continue our meanderings down the dusty, pot-holed highway.

That’s the moment. There’s your difference. That seemingly miniscule conversation is the distinction between a time as long or as short as six years. What I heard in that brief chat, what got sifted through all of those words, was this immense sense of hope and enthusiasm, and the thought that tangible hands-on impact was wrapped up in the very idea of adventure itself. What did my internal monologue have to contribute to this discussion? Little more than the sound of an old, ticking grandfather clock and the recognition that that bold piece of my formerly twenty-two year old spirit has kind of checked out. It’s left its grubby, beloved knapsack at the trail’s edge, traded in its hiking boots for heels, and has lazily walked away into the city sunset. At twenty-two, I would have looked out that window and said the same thing. At twenty-eight I look out the window and I think that living in the village would send me to levels of insanity I can’t even properly describe in words. 

My initial thought is to be sad about this, and to want to mourn a bit for the pieces of myself that I’ve outgrown whether by the force of time or as a matter of choice. But I think that’s not the way to go in this case, despite the fact that it feels natural to pine for younger times or at the very least, to feel a bit anxious about the reality of being on the rapidly diving bell curve toward the age of thirty. But that just sort of misses the point of all of it, don’t ya’ think?

The person I was at twenty-two and the person I appear to be at twenty-eight still share a continued capacity to be open to possibility, chaos, and change, only these days that capacity is dotted with end-line asterisks like the need for running water, sleeping arrangements that do not involve dodgy hostel dorm beds, and the promise of a consistent Internet connection. But that’s the way it’s actually meant to be – from individuals just out of university to those of us a little farther down the line and those farther down still, each of us is exactly where she or he is supposed to be right now. If I was still cool with living out in the bush and frolicking around the world with nothing more than a backpack at this age I probably wouldn’t be doing the work I now do. Is that a matter of age? Or experience? Or both? Yes and no. Here, in this random hodgepodge of development and aid workers, there is an unintentional momentum moving everyone forward. Along the way, we pick things up, we let them fall away, and we grow – older, occasionally fatter, but hopefully wiser – as we trudge along this continuum. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of the kindergarten buddy system – hold the hand of the person next to you, pull each other through the valleys, push one another up toward the roads, follow someone down through the hills, and walk with your buddy up to that point where we will all inevitably have to split up and go our own separate ways.

I look back on the days of “disillusioned youth” and realize that it wasn’t disillusionment I was trying to capture at all. It was hope, and a sense that the world was movable even when it looks as if it tipped right over on its side. And I see that now in the faces of those friends at the very beginning of that chain. They’re in the trenches, running through the muck, smiling through mud-caked faces, and laughing through the early beginnings of something pretty amazing.

So does that make me old? Magic 8-Ball says, “Ask again later.” Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the 1986 crew before I pass into unremarkable old age. Case in point? Jorts. That’s right, I said, “jorts” — jean shorts. Confused? Baffled? Mildly horrified that you might have to attend an entire party themed in this manner at some point in the not so distant future? Yeah. Me too.

Uphill mud

Work on the international development scene moves slowly. Painfully. Dreadfully. Slower-than-mud-uphill-in-a-downpour SLOWLY. For the most part, I can testify from experience that a lot of this isn’t a whole lot different than working in nonprofit in the U.S. — There is never enough money, never enough time, and everyone could use about twice the number of staff to accomplish everything that needs to get done. It’s easy to let all of these crushing, unrelenting challenges throw you into a bit of daily spin cycle, one that oscillates between wanting to routinely punch walls and/or people in the face or the moments of near hysterical euphoria when something actually gets done. Those moments, where you really get to see a tangible end result for someone are like contemporary, enigmatic miracles. I would put it akin perhaps to witnessing the birth of your first child — an overwhelming expansion of awe, love, and gratitude made more intense by the very fact that you know moments like this in life are unique. They are special. And they are limited. They don’t happen everyday.

And that is the problem: They don’t happen everyday. In fact, sometimes they don’t happen at all.

Life for refugees in a refugee camp is a combination of bustling activity and the sheer freezing of time. People come, people go. Life happens, life stops. Wake, eat, sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Apart from the infinite seepage of days one into another, the other constant presence in camp is the sense that nothing ever actually gets accomplished. From refugees, to the implementing organizations, and back again, there is this tiring feeling that the search for help is just a fuzzy run through one big labyrinth that loops over and over again with no beginning and no end. Earlier I said that international development runs at a snails pace — here, from where I am standing at the moment, it doesn’t actually move at all. Here, it feels more like running through quicksand. Maybe even running backwards through quicksand, or doing the moonwalk through mud. Here, I sometimes get the feeling that if you were to just stop on that patch of unstable earth, it might actually swallow you whole, suck you under, and spit you out somewhere in China during the Middle Ages. How’s that for a commentary on the modern bureaucracy of international aid.

There is no possible way for any of us to truly envision what kind of nightmares force people to flee their homes and become refugees — husbands running with wives, with babies on their backs hand-in-hand in the middle of the night from a life that at one time was fruitful, peaceful and above all, happy. Think about this — I mean really, REALLY think about it. What kind of horror would it take for you to make the decision, sometimes in only a matter of minutes, to leave everything you owned, even people you loved, behind without any hope of return? And then, once you’ve lived through the seemingly unthinkable, and often, the unlivable, you find yourself marooned in a foreign land without papers, without money, without explanation, dazed and scared, unsure what the future will bring but knowing that the past is full of demons and monsters so evil you are scared to close your eyes at night for fear of what the dark may bring. So here you are, in this place you are now to call “home” — maybe you’ve been here for years at this point. And all around you, there are these groups that advertise how they are supposed to be helping you but when you reach out for assistance they tell you “no.” Not enough resources. Not enough people. Too busy. Too burned out. You said the wrong thing, now you don’t get help. You made too many waves, now you don’t get help. Come back later. Or don’t come back at all. Ask another agency. Ask another case worker. Go ask Alice. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

As aid workers, as agencies, we are all guilty. We are all accountable. No one gets to skirt responsibility or close their eyes to the blatant reality that a lot of the time, the only thing those of us in the field are doing really well is failing to do anything at all. We act as if we are all righteous and wise, sometimes behind the backs of others, sometimes to one another’s faces, when in reality, our systems are broken. The wheels churn, spit out screws, and make ear-cringing screeches and pops as metal grinds against metal. For all the good intentions the world has had for helping people forced to flee their home countries, there are some 10,000 refugees idling at a camp in the highlands of Malawi just waiting. In camps all over Africa, there are hundreds of thousands, if not MILLIONS, of displaced people simply WAITING. For what? For someone, anyone, to give them answers to prayers and simple questions alike. In any case, nothing is clear, not even to those of us who are supposed to provide a response. We tell people to walk towards these doors for assistance and when they get there they find that they’ve been padlocked. Or torn down. Or maybe those doors never actually existed at all. Pepani. Sorry. Better luck during your next 7 years in this camp, or at the next one you flee to when the civil war starts again. And again. And again.

Welcome to Frustration Nation. All of that said, when you as the humanitarian worker are not having one of those weeks where everything you hear makes you want to cry, when the operational meetings you have make you so viscerally angry you have to sit on your hands for fear that you may jump across the table and throw rabbit punches at the person sitting smugly in front of you, or when you just feel like you are a wee burned out in general, there are those moments where all of the bullshit and the murkiness suddenly vanish and the horizon looks calm and level, just as it should. You help someone heal. A child gives you a hug. You watch as someone climbs into the truck that is about to take them to the plane that is going to deliver them to their new life. These enmeshed dreams of hope you start having for your clients really do happen, even if they don’t happen often enough.

In spite of all of the uncertainty and despair, there is a vivacious, booming pulse of survival running through the camp even if it’s not always evident, and even when the systems ostensibly set up to help seem to do nothing but drag everyone down. No one seems to give up and even though the drive to move onto better circumstances often turns ugly and desperate because of the perpetual despair and all of those dead-end doors, there is something sad and wondrousabout watching it all unfold. It’s like embers of a fire as close to burning out as they are to starting a whole new flame — the human spirit never dies without fighting the good fight, even if it means running blindly through the night and through a maze with no outlets. You just can’t kill hope.

But “hope” is a charged word, one that we associate with all things positive and shinny. It is warm rather than cold. It is sunny, rather than dark. Here, however, hope sometimes looks more like a solar eclipse than the bright beating sun. Sometimes it feels like it too.

So this girl walks into a bar

Only in this case, it was a BP gas station somewhere outside of Davenport, Iowa at approximately 3:30 on Thursday afternoon. Keep in mind that some hours earlier I was in Chicago, living it up at the apartment of my friend’s aunt who lives on the 60th floor of a beautiful apartment building overlooking the lake. Now I am sitting at a gas pump, looking around and slowly realizing that I may have just driven straight into the twilight zone.

The gas station itself is placed strategically at the tip of this giant open parking lot which at one point in history, evidently served a purpose greater than just providing fuel to incoming travelers. Beyond the gas pumps and building, and across a vast empty parking lot is this old rundown 50s style diner — it’s one of those generic-looking vintage remakes that’s paneled in stainless steel and has a tall sign that must have once lit up to say, “DINER” in bright electric red letters. From the looks of it, this place hasn’t been open in quite awhile. Nor has “Mom’s Restaurant,” the ‘home cooking’ joint nestled to the left of the relic diner and to the far back of the BP. On the opposite side of the gas station and basically surrounding the entire perimeter of this asphalt desert there is nothing but dry corn fields for miles, upon miles, upon miles. The land is paper flat — it’s painfully flat, it’s the kind of flat that makes you feel like you are going to suffocate from boredom or isolation or abandonment or all of those things people like me, who have never lived in the plains or the flatlands, think about when they look at pictures of the midwest. Or, you know, when they are standing at a gas pump, idly pumping gas watching as a standard issue green and yellow John Deere tractor slowly drives past them from right to left, on the frontage road just beyond the edge of the rest area. 

No kidding. You can’t make this stuff up.

So I am standing there, pumping my gas, watching this tractor drive by and thinking to myself, “huh. Iowa.” Said tractor finally passes so I turn around to face the direction of the deserted parking lot in front of the deserted diner and note with some curiosity that there is a man with a giant cowboy hat and wranglers on, standing in the middle of this parking lot next to a giant red truck with a giant red horse trailer attached to the hitch in the same bright Americana Chevy red. Oh, and he is also holding the reins to a giant horse that he is now walking in circles around the parking lot. Dude walking a horse. In the parking lot. Off the highway. I am repeating the earlier thought in my mind about Iowa and making a mental note that this gas station scene is getting odder by the minute.

And then I walk inside. The gas station building itself is dead quiet, I mean there is NO music playing, there are no other customers, it is silent like crickets chirping in distance silent. So I use the restroom (painted neon green, by the way) and then go up to the cashier to pay for the bottle of water I have picked up on the way back from the bathroom. I didn’t even know there was a cashier around (note earlier statement regarding weird silence) and yet, as I walk up, I realize that there are in fact two cashiers sitting behind the register — an older south Asian man and woman who I presume to be husband and wife — who are just sitting there staring blankly straight ahead until I walk up and pay.  The wife then mumbles some sort of “thank you have a good afternoon” in this tired, bored sort of way before she returns to her post of sitting behind the counter and zoning out into space. It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen. Silence. Staring. Blankness. Iowa.

Clearly the only thing left to do was to continue to drive west toward the inevitable border of Nebraska and beyond. In between the perplexing gas station experience and York, Nebraska where I am right now, there was, in fact, a whole lot of driving (over 6 hours), lots of corn fields (miles and miles) and approximately 5 episodes of “This American Life,” the National Public Radio show that I manage to find applicable to all social conversations and that for the last two days has been molding my perceptions of the world outside my car windows into these lovely and amazing anecdotes of underbellied American culture. (To be honest, I am not quite so sure this is a good thing — the thoughts in my head are starting to take on a very Ira Glass-eque tone. I am getting into the habit of pairing dramatic theme music with my inner monologues. I could very well be a spitting vocal image of David Sedaris by the time I get to California, awkward nasal whine included). 

Today’s theme, in keeping with the “This American Life” tradition of picking themes, was something along the lines of juxtaposition, i.e., the silent couple placed in front of the backdrop of corn fields, tractors, and cowboys with horses. Or the desolate, dusty brown streets and buildings of downtown York, Nebraska partnered with the sounds of Mariachi music whizzing by in raised trucks and men speaking Spanish outside the local bar. Even I represent to myself a sense of unexpectedness here — the Massachusetts license plates, my giant purple Nicole Richie sunglasses, just me in general being in a wee bit of town like this and gawking at people like I have been suddenly cut and pasted into a bad Thomas Kincaid replica (although, is there really any other kind of T.Kaid print? Seriously).

It’s just a passing observation from a very small and fast-moving lens, but I like the idea that the heartland of America is perhaps a lot closer to being truly representative of us as an “American” people than most of the public and the media give it due credit for. I like the notion that little towns like this are sorting through a kind of multiple personality disorder in terms of traditional cultures of many backgrounds coexisting, mixing, melding, blending, etc. in a variety of ways. I wondered today as I walked out of that gas station about the lives of that couple and how, when and why it came to be that they ended up living in Iowa. I wondered what they thought of it. I thought the same thing when I eavesdropped on the Latino guys chatting on the sidewalk, and then I pondered similarly, what the white policeman who pulled me over for having a broken headlight thought about the Latino guys, if he thought about them at all. And what does he think of his life here in this small town in the middle of America, if he thinks of these things at all? And then I thought, what do I think of ME in this town in this diner in this STATE?!?!?

“…And then I thought…maybe I’ll eat dinner”   — Mike Birbiglia, Comedian. “This American Life,” episode #361: ‘Fear of Sleep’

Postcards from Elyria, Ohio

Editor’s note:  In the spring of 2009, I had just recently returned from 4 months in Malawi, Africa, where I had been working at a refugee camp as a social worker. I had just broken up with my long-term boyfriend and was back in the states for a six week “vacation” that involved graduating from my master’s program at Boston College and moving everything I owned back to Northern California before returning to Malawi to continue my job near the country’s capital. It was a time in my life of great heartbreak but also enormous opportunity, like I had just been given a great big gift I didn’t even know was needed or even possible. Thanks for revisiting these growing pains and adventures with me. 

So I had this whole panic attack last week about the over-abundance of choices in Boston and how the sheer number of alternatives for food, transportation, consumer products and life in general in the big city, sort of freaked me out and was causing me to tailspin a little. Ok, a LOT.

Well, as I have been reminded of in the last 24 hours, the phenomenon of options or variety is something that may very well be unique to metropolitan America. As I write, I am hanging out somewhere off of Interstate-80 in a little gem called Elyria, OH. This is the first official stop on the cross country road journey from Boston to Rosa (the first un-official check point was NYC yesterday but given that they have fancy beer and Chinatown, I am not sure it counts). The fascinating thing about this place, other than the fact that the Holiday Inn has free wirelessInternet and a functioning treadmill, is that I have actually been here before SEVEN YEARS earlier with Lindsay Buckles when the two of us drove a U-Haul from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco after we both graduated from college. I also have a distinct memory of why we got off at this exit — like yesterday, it was the end of a long day. It was getting dark. The prospect of driving all the way to our intended destination in Toledo looked grim and overwhelming. And thus, Elyria, OH and a meal at Bennigan’s beckoned.

The Bennigan’s is, unfortunately, now closed but everything else in this Interstate jewel of an exit is exactly the same. There are the token three hotels: The Holiday Inn, the Econo Lodge, and the Best Western. Likewise, there are your standard gas stations like Shell, BP and Chevron. And let’s not forget the all-American food choices — everything from McDonald’s and Taco Bell to a bitchin’ Red Lobster and middle America’s favorite, The Cracker Barrel. I haven’t even gotten to the “shopping” scene…WalMart. Oy.
So I think I have to take this moment to clarify and maybe even apologize for my last post — my feelings on being overwhelmed by the big city were indeed, truthful. Being in New York later that week was also pretty overstimulating. But I think those reactions and the sense of panic is applicable only to those remote bubbles of city life — being out in what will become an increasingly rural landscape after Chicago today is reminding me that the rest of this country isn’t “city”. It’s cookie-cutter America where you can count on a finite number of things being available to you when you pull off the highway. Hell, you can PREDICT with accuracy what will and will not be at your next stop just by looking down the interstate and guessing from the colors of the giant signs and billboards lining your way down consumerism alley. Ronald McDonald red does not mess around.

And you know what? I find some comfort in that predictability, which makes me a GIANT hypocrite based on what I was freaking out about last week. Although I am horrified by big business and the crushing effect it has on our small towns and developing countries beyond our borders, there is something sickeningly comforting about driving through four states and knowing that no matter where you are, you are capable of finding something familiar even if it is anApplebee’s or a drive-through Starbucks.

There is also this disturbing thought floating through my head that this is perhaps the structure I was craving last week while in Boston — predictability? The absence of surprises? The need for some sort of uniformity to set my head straight? I am really hoping that is not the case — I don’t think it is but I suspect there is a balance somewhere in between everything and I hope that equilibrium is to be found somewhere on the West Coast.

Still, I’m not gonna lie. I drove off that exit last night and I got a little nostalgic. Maybe it was the familiarity of a place I had been a long long time ago with a different person, at a different age. Maybe it was just the thrill of recognizing where I was. Or perhaps it was just the immense relief of pulling in somewhere and being totally anonymous in a familiar setting that hasn’t changed at all, even though I have. Whatever it was, it made me smile a bit while I drove around in awe of all those great big box stores and predictable fast food restaurants. And, yes, I am sort of disappointed in myself for embracing a lot of those things I typically hate, but I am also delighted to have wireless Internet and a king-sized bed with free cable and a mini-gym. I also just realized I don’t have any socks with me but GOOD NEWS!! There is a Target right around the corner.

So, that is the latest pontification from somewhere in semi-middle America. Other fleeting notes I have just in terms of this East/West roadtrip in comparison to the 2002 version? The roads are markedly worse — more construction and less smooth asphalt. Is that just in my head? I don’t recall having to stop so damn much. More food for thought: Cell phone coverage is only slightly more reliable — What the hell, Verizon? Finally, I think total gas cost is going to be about the same as it did when we drove a friggin’ U-Haul seven years ago which kind of chaps my ass a bit. I drive a Honda Civic and she sure as s**t doesn’t eat as much gas as that thing did. Bugger.

Anyway, the next stop is Chicago which I am sure I won’t have anything to complain about (sad for you guys) since I am staying in a beautiful house with my beautiful friend’s beautiful aunt and plan on going out to eat beautiful food and have beautiful drinks later tonight. I know you’re all immensely disappointed but fear not: There is nothing but big sky and corn fields after that stop, ladies and gentlemen. My next post is coming to you from somewhere in Iowa/Nebraska/Wyoming and I suspect it may not be pretty. You can be sure the wheels will come off if I manage to find the mini-Dutch town in Nebraska that Lindsay and I stumbled onto the last time I drove out that way — not kidding, about the existence of said town or my reaction to it.

Peace out, people. Time to continue west.

Africa is a bemusement park

I have been back in the States approximately 8 days now and things here…well, they are weird. On a superficial level, yeah, this place is a worm-hole. The very idea of microbrew beer on tap (or any beer on tap, period), cheese that does not taste like plastic, cars that drive on the “right” side of the road, and the sheer manic pace of people/cars/things/life is freaking me out a bit. Not only that, but I have done very little else but talk about my experiences in Africa for the past eight days — I talk with family, I talk with friends, I just spent TWO WHOLE DAYS talking, talking, talking to students, teachers, faculty and staff at BC about Africa, and refugees and my job and culture shock, REVERSE culture shock, blah blah blah blah blah.I talked to a friggin’ policeman on the street the other day in Brookline about Africa — I talked to half a bar in Portsmouth on Tuesday night, and then later chatted to half the population in a diner in Dover, NH about Africa while showing a friend pictures of my life there. Sweet baby jesus on a bicycle!!! Can we all just take a moment to SHUT UP about all of this?!?!!? 

I’m sorry, if it sounded rude, it was. It may have even been intentionally rude, I’m not gonna lie. Being back in the U.S. is stressing me out on a variety of different levels, all of them intensely personal and somewhat complicated in a way that I have not had to deal with in over four months. Life in Malawi is seemingly so much more straight-forward than things here mostly because there are just fewer options in almost every aspect of life. In anything from transportation (the roads run north/south and east/west. Going to the lake? Go north and turn right. End of story.) to food (there is no such thing as blue cheese dressing or real cream cheese, or coffee in a ‘to-go’ container! — the sooner you accept this and move on with your life, the better things will be). We all just work with what we have there and things seem to move along just fine.

In the absence of choice, something in your brain changes and slows down. The filter through which I look at things right now while wandering around Boston and trying to tie up my life here, is somewhat black and white, and I feel intensely ill-prepared to deal with the constant stimulation of being in a city, or being back in an environment where people know me in an entirely different context. Not only that, but I am struggling with the feeling of walking around in a sea of people who all look like me but who have absolutely no friggin’ clue about what is happening in the rest of the world. It makes me feel intensely bitter and frightened in a way that I don’t feel back in Malawi…

Which goes back to this whole idea of feeling really burned out about talking about my experiences. They aren’t just experiences. This wasn’t just a trip. This is my life. This is what I have chosen to do with myself and where I have made a home. So to come back and be thrown into this space where people want to hear all about everything and want to hear all about me, although endearing, is terribly overwhelming and feels somewhat disingenuous. I feel that on some level that I am sort of cheating the people I work with out of some kind of human legitimacy, or that I am betraying this work that I hold very sacred by throwing things onto a powerpoint presentation and chatting the BC faculty up — all while holding a extra-large nonfat mocha latte in a to-go cup in my hand. My brain is not up to that speed. I can’t do all of these things at once and feel flippant about my behavior and my words — it stresses me out and for lack of a better description, makes me feel kind of bad. 

So without REALLY knowing how or what I need to do to make myself feel better, I am just trying to make small decisions that have some impact in the present. Case in point:  After oscillating back and forth about actually attending my graduate school graduation ceremony, I decided yesterday at the bequest of my other Global Practice Social Work ladies, that I need to attend. In the face of a lot of other difficult things happening in my life right now, I am going to to give myself the chance to be a bit selfish and self-indulgent and walk onto that stage, grab a diploma and be proud of myself for getting through three long years of studying and the last four months of working abroad. I am patting myself on my back, brushin’ that dirt off my shoulders as Jay-Z would say (and yes, I really did just quote Jay-Z). And I’m doing it while holding a latte, talking on my cell phone and flipping my hair around in truly indulgent Americana style. 

Take that, reverse culture shock. 

P.S. I realize the above post did nothing to actually address the discombobulatedness that I’m feeling right now but hey, I did manage to gain a fancy acronym at the end of my name which must give me some sort of legitimacy, right? — Katherine Meagan Demitz, MSW. Holla’.

Circle of Friends

Last night was my last evening in Malawi for seven weeks. And although I am returning to the very same country in a little less than two months, some of the ‘goodbyes’ I said yesterday were ‘forever’ goodbyes – there are friends I left last night and this morning that I quite likely, will never see again and that is weighing heavily on me today as I sit on a plane and head west.

I took a long walk early this morning around Lilongwe, thinking about the reality of giving someone a hug, looking into their eyes and realizing that they are about to disappear from your present life…or that you are about to vanish from theirs. I have had to leave a lot of places and have left many, many friends behind, but this morning feels different. It feels sad, and lonely, and in some ways, a little bit unfair. And the question of the day is, why, of all moments in time, leaving people behind should be so difficult, particularly since I am not actually leaving Malawi forever this time around…

Between meandering through Lilongwe, packing my things, sending farewell messages and trying to hold it together long enough to get on the plane I am on right now, I sort of figured something out about this whole ‘saying goodbye’ thing. Like I said, this isn’t my first time around the block with all of this but I think that is precisely WHY watching people move in and out of my life at this stage is such a slippery, sad feeling. It occurred to me today, somewhere between the capital city roundabout and town, that as we get older, that beautiful, naïve, youthful optimism about the wide-openness of the future settles a bit, and age and experience inevitably temper that sense that anything is possible. The once novel idea that we never really have to let anything or anyone go, starts to fade as life sort of proves that fate often has other ideas. Living in Latin America at 23 years old I would have thrown my hands up to the sky and shouted with certainty that my friends and I would hold onto each other forever, that we would travel and meet up in exotic places, and that there were indeed no obstacles to those goals.

To a certain extent this is true – there are those people who you can and must hold close to you long after you depart or they take off from a particular junction in your life. I have those friends – I cherish those individuals beyond all reasonable comprehension. But there are always other people in your life who despite playing important roles in your everyday experiences and being the powerful, colorful backgrounds of your stories and memories, inevitably fade away or flit out of your life without warning or control.

I don’t mean to say that getting older kills off that wonderful joy and anticipation of what lies ahead, because I don’t think it does. (I certainly look at my future right now and although it freaks me out a little bit, it does so in that great, butterflies-in-the-stomach way that only having no earthly idea what you’re doing can). Nor do I want imply that I haven’t made absolutely amazing lifelong friends over the past four months, because I have, way beyond my wildest expectations and much to my immense joy and surprise. But this is precisely why moving on from a place, a home, or a tight-knit community often just blatantly sucks – my friendships and my experiences from this winter and spring are why I am struggling so badly with heading back to the states right now.

The circumstances of living abroad as an expat tend to perpetuate the development of fast, intense friendships. For me, moving to Malawi hasn’t just been about finding a niche in my professional life, it has been about finding a community and a home where I feel like me for the first time in a long, long time. I have fallen madly and deeply in love with my friends here, not in a romantic way, but in the way you love your family, or your childhood friends who know everything about you from the time you were 8 years old. I have fallen in love in that way that makes your heart want to explode and break at the same time when you think about what your world is going to look like without them in the not so distant future – Avik Maitra, you know who you are.

What I am trying to say, sitting on this plane, writing a letter to the world and thinking about how ironic it is that I will be saying goodbyes all over again next week in Boston, is that in committing my future to one more year in Malawi, I have committed myself to one more year of amazing friendships, of falling in love with the people in my community over and over again, and to having another 12 months of incomparable and unfathomable experiences. But this means, too, that I have also agreed to open myself up to an endless stream of goodbyes, some of which I anticipate are going to make my world seem empty for a long, long time. It’s a spiral, cyclical existence, one that would be impossible to cope with if we didn’t build strong relationships with those around us. I don’t think that any one of us who chooses this future goes in thinking she can do it all on her own.

So, with a twinge of sorrow and a bit of sad acceptance, (and just a smidge of sentimentality, let’s face it), my final thought is this: the very existence of true friendship and community forces the existence of ‘forever’ goodbyes – none of us can really say for sure what the future holds, or who will enter or leave our lives at any given time. And as much as the leaving part is painful and hurts to even think about, maybe it is also a good reminder that each of us needs to embrace who and what we have in the present and take those wonderful experiences and people for what they are worth right now.

The last few months have been a great gift in my life, one that would not have been the same without those individuals who shared it with me, even if only for a moment. A million thank you’s to my friends, past, present, and forever…