Friday, June 13, 2014

It's Beginning to Register

I recently moved back to my beloved New Orleans, after another two years in Africa, and a lovely 12-month stint enjoying the quirky, grittiness of Charm City. While I can’t say that I had ever really committed a considerable amount of time dreaming about my life trajectory, I guess I’m also surprised to see where I am at the ripe old age of 35. The longer I’m back in the states, the longer I recognize that my life choices haven’t necessarily meshed with society’s view of where I need to be. I’m working at an incredible school, with unbelievably dedicated staff and amazing leadership. Yet, when I glance around, most educators are a decade younger and securely exploring their mid-20’s. It makes me beg the question, “What the f#$k have I been doing with my life?” After six months of unemployment and lounging on my parent’s couch in my snuggy, waiting out the winter months in hopes of the perfect job, I found that “putting my time in” in seemingly soul-destroying, emotionally-draining posts like South Sudan got me no closer to my dream job at all. I found myself amongst the many middle management, high-aspiring, discouraged, over-educated 30 something’s patiently awaiting for the light bulb moment when the debt, the sacrifice, and the poor quality of life and self-care made it all worthwhile. I’m not sure it ever will. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time in Africa. I feel so lucky to have been exposed to that world, and to have witnessed the struggles and resilience of that continent. But I was tired. And ready to come home. My work in Baltimore was a great segue back into the domestic arena—it allowed me to stay connected to the global community by working with refugees from all over the world, yet my day-to-day left me feeling under-utilized with the skills I had acquired overseas, and resentful for the poor pay. So, yes. I seem to have found the perfect fit back here in the Big Easy. I’ve returned to a city that has always felt like home; I’ve reconnected with dear friends and made some new ones; I’ve easily bounced back into the spontaneous, laid-back culture of afternoon beers and late-night, sweaty music spots and weekend festivals. But as I unpack my two suitcases of clothes and dust off my African knick-knacks, I have to wonder...are my choices really valued in the same way as my other friends and family who have taken much more traditional, conventional paths?

The other day, I jokingly posted on Facebook that I was going to pull a Carrie Bradshaw. You know the episode…she goes to yet another baby shower for a friend, and someone walks off with her $500 Manolo Blahniks, only to be criticized by the mom-to-be for spending so much on shoes. She calculates how much she’s spent in the past decade on weddings, bachelorette weekends, baby showers, housewarmings, etc, and is ultimately reimbursed for her stolen pumps only when she registers for them. I can feel her pain. After being overseas and transient for the better part of a decade, I can comfortably fit most life belongings in my little Toyota Yaris Hatchback. And yes, this was an active choice. I’m not complaining. But as I unpack my little life in New Orleans and attempt to make roots for the first time since my early 20’s, I have to wonder how I’m viewed by others. Unattached and awesome at 35? Or pathetically still searching for happiness and fulfillment in all the wrong places? I guess I haven’t really answered that question myself yet, although I do know that I’m not actively turning away from things like love and commitment and a fulfilling and worthwhile way to spend my working days. I simply keep looking for new experiences to allow me to have those moments when I feel that I’m exactly where I need to be. And New Orleans feels like that place.
Did I want to be married with children, with a house in the suburbs? I’m not really sure, but that reality seems further and further away as I get closer to 40. And I’m ok with that, too. For now, I’m perfectly content being an auntie, and seeing my friends’ children in spurts and having the freedom to give them back at the end of the day. Do I wish I was farther along in my career? Um, yes. I most certainly do. But again, maybe this was the path I was intended to take. Maybe I needed to experience a lot of different things until I ended up at my little red schoolhouse in the French Quarter. I guess I’ll never know. But I do know that I’d love some matching plates, and some stemless wineglasses, and perhaps even a matching set of towels and a Dustbuster. Does our society not allow me to celebrate anything I’ve accomplished in my adulthood, simply because I’m unable to check off the boxes that historically link us to feeling accomplished and complete? I am not married. I am childless. I do not own a home. I don’t even really own my car. My most valued possession is a five year old poodle named Ruby. And yet, I have two Master’s degrees, have lived, worked, and travelled in parts of the world most people have only seen on the news or National Geographic. I have effectively “put my time in”, only to come home to a society that is I struggle to relate to on most levels. And to a society that more importantly does not celebrate nor seem to value any of the choices I’ve made as an independent, strong woman. Someone recently told me that my freedom comes at a price to those that love and care about me. Maybe this is true, yet I can’t imagine doing any of it differently. And I really would love a set of matching dishes.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Year Sans Afrique

It’s incredible to imagine that I have been away from the continent of Africa for a year already. Some days, I feel like I just left. So many things about that place had become so familiar, and in many ways, yes. I miss it dearly. The travel bug has not left me completely, but it has certainly taken a snooze. I have mostly been amazed by how quickly the time has passed, and while reflecting back on this calendar year, it appears in my trusty little Moleskine planner that I did not achieve much at all, I do feel like my journey has continued and I am in a much different space than I was last September. As far as achieving the basic goals of my return to the U.S., I’d say I’m faring pretty well. I am healthy. I am healthy. I am healthy. I have spent an incredible amount of time with family and friends. I am gainfully employed again after six months spent in my slanket, watching countless episodes of Game of Thrones, Dexter, and Downton Abbey. I feel more balanced than I’ve felt in years.

I have shared immeasurable giggles with my nieces and nephew. I have hugged them, shared meals with them and enjoyed fresh air with them. I have tucked them into bed after movie night and seen school recitals. I have swung in the park and glued Rudolph noses on reindeer; I have cut the crusts off sandwiches and shared my fashion opinions. I have given creative license to Halloween costumes and snuggled into the couch reading books. I have even made it to a few birthday parties. It has been glorious, and I am so grateful that I had that time to get to know the hilarious little people Ella, Caitlin, Jesse, Ansley, Josh, and Avery are becoming. It’s pure magic.

I’m incredibly grateful for the patience and support of my parents, treading cautiously when my mom suggested things like, “Are you planning on getting out of your pajamas today?” or, “You went to TJ Maxx again?”…knowing me well enough at this point to give me the space and time I needed to process and not pressure me into decision-making, life choices, or adult-like responsibilities like rent and taking daily showers. They listened to countless hours of job-hunting frustration, shared advice about marketing my skills and networking, and sympathized when I didn’t hear back from potential employers. They helped me mend a broken heart. They never gave up on me. We cooked. We weekend movie-matinee-ed. We drank a lot of coffee. I was happy to be home to celebrate the 60th birthday of my beautiful mother, and spend random weekday mornings meeting my Pop-Pop for breakfast at his favorite half-way point diner. It was my first birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas I had been home for in almost a decade. I traveled and traveled, reconnecting with great friends, seeing new parts of this amazing country, giggling over old times, meeting children and spouses and family pets. I costumed and glittered and shimmied my way through the streets of New Orleans for my first Mardi Gras in three years. I was able to attend numerous weddings in a calendar year—another thing I have not accomplished since I was probably 25. Incredible stuff, this reconnecting with people you really care about. Truly, a gift.

My family will tell you, this past year was not all sunshine and rainbows. I had some very low days. Very, very low days. I questioned my decision to leave humanitarian work and Africa. I underestimated the time, effort, and complexity of the domestic job market, and felt completely defeated that after years of difficult placements and overly-challenging jobs, I could not secure a gig. I worried that I’d settle for something just to have a job, a function again, only to hate it (and myself) for not doing what I love. I constantly ping-ponged over the cities I would consider laying down some roots. I hated myself for fumbling through another failed relationship, and the loneliness that resulted when I compared myself to my happily-married peers. I wondered why after all the changes I had made, all the risks I had taken, I still woke up every morning feeling like everything was wrong. Everything.

And then suddenly, miraculously, things changed. I was offered a job in Baltimore doing work with refugee youth, which despite the day-to-day insanity of it, I love. It’s certainly not boring; I’m learning new things every day, and I’m surrounded by people from all over the world who have overcome incredible struggles to be here. It is humbling and inspiring on a daily basis, and I love that I have something to give back. I have wonderful friends that fill my social calendar with BBQs, cultural events, quirky Baltimore city festivals and creative outlets. I have recovered from my break-up and come out stronger and more self-aware on the other side, and have allowed myself to open up to someone and something new. I am two hours from most of my family. I am a phone call away from my siblings. I drive home every day at a reasonable hour in my little Yaris hatchback and eat delicious food and visit with friends and watch TV when I want and don’t need to check in with 20 housemates if they need the car. Life is good, just like the bumper stickers say. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Seeds of Doubt

I submitted my resignation from South Sudan about a month ago. The initial signs of relief and confidence after finally making a decision are slowly deteriorating into an anxiety-filled space of uncertainty, doubt, and a heavy-handed dose of second-guessing. It’s no secret that this post has not been the best fit for me; from a professional standpoint I never really felt competent and effective in my position. While I learned a great deal, I’m not convinced it’s something I’d chalk up as a professional success, although in many other (and probably much more important) measures of life experience, I could not have learned more—about myself, the world, and the people that make it a complicated and beautiful place. So, how are these old creeping feelings of fear and doubt resurfacing?

The long and short of it is, while I recognize that this is probably for the best, I’ll always wonder about the alternative.  I’m afraid this choice is short-sighted from a career-standpoint—that I’ll beat myself up for not sticking it out, enduring my final six months, staying with an organization that I could have continued building a career with. The easy answer is that I couldhavewouldhaveshouldhave, but the more important question I’d have to ask myself is why? Are the arguments compelling me to leave more important than the ones questioning my ability to stay? When I fast-forward to unemployment, relocating to a new city, starting my life again somewhere new, paying off student loans, finding an affordable apartment , do the opportunities replace the nagging doubts I feel about leaving, even though I’ve determined I’d probably be better-suited elsewhere? I told myself months ago that no job is worth unhappiness, or lack of fulfillment, or a non-existence of work/life balance, or consistent health problems, or, or, or,…so why the self-doubt?

I’m terrified that leaving South Sudan will disrupt a relationship that has the potential to bring me lasting comfort, understanding, companionship and unwavering acceptance….that my premature departure will be interpreted as lack of commitment, and I’ll create unnecessary distance with someone that understands me for all that I am and most importantly for all that I am not and seems to love me anyway; that we won’t be able to get back to where we are, to a space that works for us…and the distance will become too hard and in the end, destroy us.

I’m afraid I won’t be relatable to any of my friends or family back home—that our familiar reference points will be replaced by play dates and mortgages versus pit latrines and malaria, that I’ll have no ability to understand or share in the lives of the people I care about. That after a few weeks of creature comforts and relishing in the little things that make life enjoyable (fresh food, freedom of movement, the family dog, home-cooked dinners), that people will return to their own schedules, lives, priorities, and I’ll feel lost, incredibly lonely, misguided and misunderstood. I worry that after all these years of transience, I’ll spend time with my brother and sister’s kids and witness my friends as parents, and I’ll crave a family of my own, too. That I’ll realize this is the life I’ve wanted all along and it feels too late, that I’ve missed the boat, gotten it all wrong. That I missed years with my family that I’ll never have back. That my work didn’t mean anything. I fear boredom, the mundane, a lack of purpose. I’m terrified I won’t find another job that allows me to give back, feel committed, feel alive. I have feelings of abandonment-that I’m leaving my project prematurely and that the impact of my time here will not only feel inadequate, but completely worthless. I’m afraid that life will never feel so extreme again. I’m troubled that I’ll never be surrounded by people that understand me so well, and have a similar sense of purpose again. I’m afraid that the happiness I imagine when I think about returning home won’t turn out to be happiness at all. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Wait is Over

My year anniversary in South Sudan passed unremarkably, although notably on Mardi Gras Day, of which this irony was not lost on me (and required some serious rechanneling of mental energy not to be consumed by it). For months, I’ve been setting soft deadlines for myself to get through the next snippet of time, the next R&R, the next reprieve from the continued stress that has become the norm here. What I’ve realized recently is that while I may be adapting and adjusting to maintaining some sort of functionality here, the mindset of waiting just doesn’t offer me any comfort or respite from my current life circumstances. Waiting to have more energy to exercise, feel healthier, less exhausted, waiting to drink less and sleep more. None of these things are going to miraculously change in the coming days, weeks or months, so I either need to embrace them, accept them and learn how to manage, or walk away from this place.

And while things are challenging-relentlessly so at times-I am trying to shift my paradigm and recognize and appreciate what I do have here, acknowledge that in some bizarre, fucked up way, I am lucky to be here. I have amazing colleagues-supportive, understanding, patient colleagues that fill my days with hilarity and drama and are able to relate to me in every way imaginable. I have a handful of wonderful friends that provide respite from work and can commiserate over my questions and what choices lay ahead. I have a job that forces me to problem solve, initiate, interact with a variety of different kooky characters, force myself to try and offer up my best self—my most patient and calm and understanding self—and maybe, just maybe, possibly, make a difference in the lives of some people. I need to look at South Sudan as the opportunity many of my peers will never have—the possibility to grow in impossible ways, to discover strength I didn’t know I had, to witness a pocket of the world undergoing incredible hardship and facing unbelievable challenges.

I need to stop mourning the loss of watching my nieces and nephew grow. I need to stop picturing what I’d be doing if I was living in some other city, some other job, stop glancing at the calendar and imagining myself at Jazzfest or the Thanksgiving table or my niece’s birthday party. I need to accept the life choices I’ve made and allow myself to be fully engaged in them—not just focus on the next post, the next trip home, the next job, but really force myself to be here, really be here and take it for what it is. I have to let go of the notions of what path my life could have taken had I done things differently a decade ago, or five years ago, or five months ago. In the simplest of terms, I need to be present. Live fully. And for the love of God, stop questioning myself.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

With Thanks

When I reflect on my past nine months in Juba, I have a lot to be thankful for. I am grateful to be in a setting where I’m consistently tested, challenged, and forced to grow—that my work doesn’t lend itself to stagnancy, laziness or complacency. I wake up every morning with the opportunity to present my best self, my most giving, accepting, kind self, or the alternative of allowing my worst self to rear its grotesquely ugly head. I probably see more of the worst days than I care to admit, but there’s something about the vulnerability, the exposure, the rawness—of feeling such extremes with such consistency—that it feels like a gift somehow, an opportunity to become a better person. I’m grateful for the passage of time in healing old wounds and allowing myself forgiveness. I am thankful for the patience of our national staff, who after all they’ve experienced and witnessed and suffered through, have the ability to accept the shortcomings of their khawaja office mates and gracefully manage my ever-changing moods. I am grateful for my colleagues and housemates who have become my proxy family—and like most families—we have grown to appreciate and accept the flaws and weaknesses in one another, as much as we enjoy and welcome the good. Regardless of our individual stresses and differences of opinion, we set aside our own needs to offer up generosity, compassion, and understanding time and time again. I’m appreciative for the inexhaustible support of my parents—their loyalty in remaining engaged in my life given other obligations and the challenges of time and distance; without them, I would not be capable of sustaining this lifestyle. I am thankful for the friends that despite the years of absence in their worlds are committed to staying a part of mine. I have reconnected with friends I assumed were gone from my life this year, and am amazed by the significance they continue to hold, and the acknowledgement that those complex, complicated pieces of our stories haven’t been minimized by time or life experience. I am forever grateful for these people to remind me of who I was, and how they’ve contributed to the woman that I now am. I even hesitate to say I’m thankful for the modern technologies of Facebook and Skype-without which I would not be able to watch my nieces grow or hear my mother’s laugh. I feel blessed to have been born an American woman, born into privilege that I have in no way earned but benefit from no matter where I am on the globe. It is thanks to this privilege that I’ve been granted the opportunities I have, and been witness to a side of the human condition I never dreamed imaginable. It’s through this lens that I try to be mindful to never take things for granted. I’m appreciative to observe this period of South Sudanese history and participate in the transition of a new nation. I’m grateful to have seen new corners of the world this year, the opportunity to be reminded why the world is such a complex, incredibly beautiful place. I’m thankful for the unexpected joys that arise in the most hectic of days; I’m encouraged with the possibility of new friendships and the meaning they hold. I am thankful that my nieces and nephew have all been born in good health, and their mothers continue to have the strength and dedication to nourish them into beautiful little human beings. I am opening myself up to the possibility of something new—giving myself over to the space of not knowing and believing in myself enough to give myself completely. I am thankful for the daily brilliance of the Juba sunset. I am blessed that my family stays strong in mind and body, and that regardless of how much time has passed, home will always be home.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Merging of Worlds

I should have known that Istanbul was a magical place, after hearing from absolutely everyone what an incredible city it was. Doesn’t take much to drink the Kool-Aid in a place like this. But more than its unique reputation of being the perfect blend of contemporary and tradition, Europe and Asia, Islam and Christianity—Istanbul was precisely everything I needed it to be—a completely different world from anything I’d ever experienced, with little to no agenda guiding my days. And nights filled with sleep—glorious, uninterrupted, deep, magnificent sleep. For a directionally challenged, single white female, Istanbul was the perfect backdrop to reconnect with my nomadic, traveling self. The constant flattery from men half my size was comical, with endearing comments like “Your eyes are doing crazy things to my head,” and “You are strong woman, like German!” I oddly welcomed the engagement, if nothing else to have a seemingly informative conversation about Turkish culture and their undying commitment to blue eyed women travelling alone. I find Turks to be honest, humorous, incredibly hard working, and eager to please. The narrow streets are filled with short, round men with tobacco-stained teeth sipping apple tea, with equally round women donning head scarves ushering small children down the sidewalk. Fat street cats harassing restaurant goers, young boys with insanely hip hairdos, the smell of apple tobacco wafting from hookahs. Istanbul is a beautiful place.

My days usually began with a vague idea of what I’d like to do (after a breakfast of olives, cheese, and homemade jams), but basically led to a lot of wandering, random encounters, assistance on public transportation, standing in long lines for seemingly critical historical landmarks (the Blue Mosque actually blew me away, even though the smell of tourists’ feet was particularly distracting), and fumbling through conversations with people who speak little to no English. Spent hours looking for the Grand Bazaar, only to find it’s closed on Sundays; hopped on and off the tram, only to find out I was not even travelling in the right direction; arrived at the hamam with no bathing suit, where a very large Turkish woman in a red lace bra gave me the scrub down of my life, a slap on the cheek, called me Lady Gaga, and our cackles echoed from every tile in the place. I met some wonderful people—shared meals and honest conversation, giggled over my own insecurity and cultural faux-pas, and learned about the culture over countless beers with strangers. Each afternoon, the city came alive with call to prayer, echoing from mosques from the seven hills, with minarets poking through the skyline, and it was something that always forced me to take pause and recognize where I was. Along the same street, you are passing a woman in full burqa, a young girl in the latest styles with sexy boots and tight jeans, an old man puffing apple tobacco from a nargileh, a young business man draining a draft beer. It is tolerance; it is Istanbul both old and new, in its most beautiful forms.

There were many moments in the past few days where I found myself wishing I had someone to experience these misadventures with, yet I recognize that if I hadn’t been alone, my experience would have been completely different; the perspective would have shifted to something shared, not completely mine, consumed by my own thoughts and observations and impressions. What I love about travelling solo, and always fail to remember it until I’m doing it again, is how it connects us as humans on a very basic level; it reminds me of the good in people, the commonality of humor and kindness that makes us who we are. And it’s refreshing and world-opening and somehow life giving—that I’m leaving here feeling this distinct possibility of something new—that the energy in my world is finally starting to shift. I feel ready to get back to Juba and appreciate what I have there, focus on making things better for myself, hopefully starting with a plate of baklava on my lap.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The more things change, the more they stay the same

It’s a rainy Sunday in the field. I just woke up in my tent, am sipping Nescafe, and sitting here preparing for a donor visit, wondering how so much time has passed without writing. Much of me knows that while writing has always been therapeutic for me, lately I just haven’t had the energy to put down in words what has been going on. I’m feeling a bit misguided and flustered, to be honest. I’ve been travelling a lot. In the past two months, I’ve flown across the pond twice—once for home leave to visit family and friends, and most recently, for a health conference at headquarters.

Both visits have been timely, in that work has felt consistently overwhelming and stressful, relentlessly exhausting, and six months into my time in Juba, most days I feel like I’m still trying to find my feet, and while I feel I’ve built up some confidence with work, I often feel like most days are spent trying to keep myself afloat. I still find myself navigating the social scene here, and still have days of loneliness, lack of fulfillment, undeniable fatigue. And while I don’t know that I’ve found a healthy routine or manageable way to pass through the weeks, time is somehow flying by at record speed. It’s incredible to compare my time here to the six months I spent in Tanzania, and how my experience unfolded in such a distinctly different way. I want to love Juba, I really do. I see other expats thriving in this environment and I wonder what it is I’m missing, or doing wrong, or lacking in my own, freakishly bizarre existence here, and I can’t seem to put my finger on it. I enjoy my work; I love my colleagues; I feel inspired by the country and the people that have struggled for decades to be where they are. But most days, I just wonder where I would be if I had made different choices, and wondering how much longer I can maintain this lifestyle.

The irony is that I’ve been doing this long enough that when I’m home, I also don’t feel like I “fit” there anymore. The creature comforts of home feel somehow too accessible, too easy. My siblings and friends are parents and home owners and measure the happiness and success of their worlds in such different ways than I do. And while it was amazing to reconnect with friends and have treasured time with family, I found myself oddly craving aspects of my strange world across the sea. Home felt simultaneously bizarre and familiar, and in the time it takes me to readjust to being there, I’m back in Africa again. Seeing my family and friends was rejuvenating in a way that only being around people that know you well can be—their support and understanding, their patience, thoughtfulness, acknowledgement of my quirks and need for space. And while I cherished that time with them, I accept in myself that a world surrounded by my own kids and 9-5 job is unlikely and simply not part of who I am or what I want right now…and I found that conclusion to be strange, and slightly contradictory to what I expected to feel.

Being home also made me realize that as much as my life seems to be changing—yes, I’ve moved to a number of different countries on the continent of Africa in recent years—that overall, my life feels static, stagnant, perhaps even a bit stale. That while my lifestyle lends itself to steep learning curves and new experiences, that not much feels all that different than it did. And yet my friends and family are finding great partners, getting married, having babies, and I sadly find myself resentful of that—that I’m still alone and can’t figure out just what I’m doing wrong. I discovered that an ex of mine just recently got married and is having a baby, yet I haven’t been in a relationship that has lasted longer than a few months in years. Years, people. I don’t want to feel bitterness towards people I care about because they’ve been able to find companionship and I haven’t. It feels horrible, and I find myself retreating from those relationships because I am envious of what they have. And so it seems that I don’t want life at home and I don’t want life here. So, I’m basically humming a tune in my head, days away from my 33rd birthday, singing, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with…me.”