The past year I’ve been thinking a lot about space.
I started with a poem – a spoken word that circled the social media circuit a few years ago. Here it is. “Shrinking woman” by Lily Myers at Barnard College.
The reduction of space. The conditioning of gender to space – I had thought about this when it came to men. The space they take up and don’t realize they have taken – the manspreading, mansplaining, etc. Not until that poem had I thought about this habit in women. Yes, we police ourselves. But the idea of space – the occupation of it – seemed different to me.
Do I as a woman have a right to space? To speak up, to interrupt? To square off an area for me, and protect it? To have what might be mine?
Space also has come up in the past year in my faith. Some talk about this space in terms of life margins, but the idea is – does God have the space in my life to speak to me? Is there room in the margin of my life for something that I haven’t placed there? I can tell you, if my life were a Word Document, those margins would be tight. Extra space in life is completely taken by everything I have placed there. Work, the work I do outside of work, friends, family, commuting, scheming on how to save money, spending it on too many drinks, it goes on. For Advent this year I decided to do a social media fast because I wanted to see if the space it created could be a place for me to attentively listen for God’s voice – a voice that is often hard to hear in a crowded room.
Sometimes I realize that my brain doesn’t have space for anything – it’s entirely filled up. My mental pathways have been wired over the past 10 years to skip between topics every 30 seconds – working on all things and nothing at the same time. Sure, I’ve got the world at my fingertips, but I can barely remember my search term most of the time. The space I gained from my brief social media fast was startling. On the train, for instance, if I wanted to zone out and check my phone, it resulted in connecting with a friend or reading a New Yorker article. Things that actually edified my life.
I started to think that perhaps I might have a right to that space. Could I, a female from the Midwest who believes in God, POSSIBLY be allowed, knowing I am innately privileged as a cis-white first worlder, and knowing that I am a sinner, to have space? Does my mind have a right to hear itself, and to hear God too. Of course, the idea scares me. What will God say? But then again I think that when we are conditioned to live in the space left for us – to minimize, to reduce, and to accommodate – that it’s hard to think that there is a God that could, in infinite power, permit us to ask to just be a whole person. In terms of fractions, could I be permitted to be one, instead of a half? My experience is that it feels like the privilege men enjoy is to think, in terms of fractions, if men + women = 2, men = 1 and women = 1, but really men take up 1 and 1/2. And that the reality of taking that space is normal. Women get by on the half that’s leftover. In the poem, her father grows rotund while her mother shrinks.
This can easily be related to space in the brain. Tasked with the mental load and emotional labor of most households, in addition to the mental and emotional load of a job, it’s hard for women to have any extra space in the brain. Space for God to speak, or self-reflection, or creativity. If we want to have it, we have to defend it and protect it. Just to have what seems to be, in terms of the fraction, the 1.
When I start to unpack it, it makes me so angry. Perhaps the analogy of space is a good one because it is so visceral and physical. And it’s a statement of power.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Especially from those of a different reality than me.
It’s been over a year since I wrote my last blog post. I took a hiatus because for some reason life in the States seems a little too close to people to write about on a blog. No distance to save me from facing the people reading my thoughts! Fortunately, I’m abroad again, so tonight I thought I would write some things out.
Also, graduate school. Lots of papers in that thing.
ON LANGUAGE. God, the ever-plaguing separator of those getting a joke from those not getting a joke. I am working this summer in Kinshasa, DRC. I wanted to work in a French-speaking country this summer. I want to learn French. I want to learn French. I am trying SO HARD to learn French.
A few things about this:
- I, unfortunately, am not someone that language comes to easily. I hear a word and it falls right out of my head. I have tried to pretend for most of my life that I am not this person, but it’s not the case. I am this person.
- I am reminded once again of something I wrote about when returning from Ethiopia. The pantomime of listening that lacks full understanding. I spend half of my day trying to understand things being said around me, and the other half pretending that I did understand, trying to avoid being called out as a fake or asked a specific question.
- To not speak a language is such a burden – on me, but more than ever on me it is a burden on others. Conversations must be changed, jokes must be explained, meetings translated, other people not able to express themselves as acutely or nuanced as they would like. This is the worst part. It makes me want to leave the conversation just for the sake of those in it – they can have a better one without me. There’s no real win in language-learning. To stay in a conversation not understood is exhausting, and to leave a conversation for the sake of others is alienating. Eventually perhaps the win will be in tipping the scales ever so slowly towards understanding. And maybe then I will get the joke?? I WANT TO GET THE JOKE!!!
Totally, TOTALLY unrelated to this.
ON THOUGHTS. Many of you perhaps know this, but in 2007, I lost one of my best friends, Josh, to a motorcycle accident. We were both in 12th grade, about to graduate high school. It was four days after we went to prom together. It was absolutely terrible.
One of my favorite movies around that time, and one I still really appreciate, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The one with Jim Carey and Kate Winslet. It’s been a very long time since I’ve watched it, so here in Kinshasa last week I decided to plug in my external hard drive and give it a go. Only when I started in on the first scene did I realize, acutely, the last time I watched that movie. It was with Josh.
The last time I had watched it was in 12th grade. Josh came over to my parent’s house after work on night, probably a Saturday. I remember asking him if he had ever seen the movie, and telling him about how amazing it was – about memory and so on and so forth. We watched it and he kept falling asleep. I was so mad because I wanted him to see it!! I kept waking him up to watch it. It’s a rare memory that I still have of Josh – as hard as I try to keep a hold of them, most of them are gone. It’s almost ten years later.
I realized this fact at the beginning of the movie, but it wasn’t until the end that I connected that memory with the movie itself. If you haven’t seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s about memory. The struggle of a man to hold onto his memories, to hide them, to keep them. And no matter how hard he tries to hide them away, deep away, in the folds of his mind, they still slip somehow below it and fade.
For ten years I have tried to keep the memories of Josh. To hide them. To keep them. I bring him up often to the surface – when I am with anyone who knew him especially, which is rare these days. I rehash the memories in my mind. Try to keep them fresh. But it’s inevitable – my brain is filling itself with other memories, and my old memories slip away. I lose many of them, and his are included.
Oh, I mourn the loss of these moments. These memories. I try to grip them between my fingers, tugging them towards me. The problem is though that I no longer even remember myself at that time. And it’s only ten years later. Who was I then and how did I see these moments? What were my thoughts? I see myself from outside of the moment – a third person spectator. One step removed, I have already lost the memory. Sometimes, as exciting and exhilarating as life is and the experience of new things, I don’t know if there is enough room in my brain to hold all of life. I can barely hold what I have now.
Where I lived in the Peace Corps was a city called Dilla, located in the Gedeo Zone, within a region called SNNPR (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region). In Photo 1 from the link, you can see that Dilla is located at the top of what looks kind of like a peninsula, in a part of SNNPR that juts into another region, called Oromia. To the southwest and southeast, a distinctive regional jurisdiction line borders the city.
5 kilometers from Dilla to the west and just over the Oromia border is a smaller town called Abaya, found on a big lake. In late 2011, a malaria epidemic hit Abaya. Weekly cases of malaria tripled from 80 in July, 2010 to approx. 300 in July, 2011 (Photo 2, link). The Ministry of Health took on a campaign in partnership with NGOs C-Change and the President’s Malaria Initiative to distribute bed nets to families in affected areas. Army members were dispatched to help with the efficient distribution.
In Photo 3, you can see in blue all areas targeted for distribution (and, I believe, IRS). To the upper right corner of the map you can see where it says, “Dilla.” Most likely, members of the Abaya Village went to the larger Dilla University Hospital for malaria treatment, due to proximity.
However, despite also being affected by the epidemic, Dilla was not included in any intervention for bed net distribution because the technical border around Dilla was in SNNPR, not Oromia. Given budget constraints, Oromia had been picked for malaria funding because it had the highest incidence of malaria, and SNNPR had not been picked. So while Dilla was extremely susceptible to the disease, with malaria ranking number two on reported morbidity among adults at the health clinic, the Malaria Office at the Dilla Town Health Office (where I worked) could not get a single distribution of nets.
The situation was extremely frustrating. Even after the epidemic, our Malaria Office could still only get enough IRS to cover two areas of town during malaria season. So, they would wait until the numbers of those sick spiked, and then hit the two areas with the highest incident rates.
This is a great example of yet another instance when boundary lines and politics create funding allocations that, in the end, affect hundreds of lives.
*Photo 2 and 3 are from a preliminary report in my possession on the Abaya Malaria Epidemic from the Ethiopian Ministry of Health.
As many of you may know, I have for a time taken up a position in what they call the “private sector.” I won’t name this place specifically on this public forum, but if you are my facebook friend, then you probably know where it is. Suffice it to say that it is a mid-size financial firm that deals with car dealers.
I got back from Ethiopia December 22nd, and on March 3rd walked right into my cubicle.
To be honest, this is the first “real” non-non-profit job I have ever had. My first real for-profit job. A significant part of my position is working with car dealers over the phone, and one time I told them to email me at “.org” instead of “.com”. This is how used I am to the non-profit sector.
It’s a culture shock in of itself, being back in Corporate America. I barely had a grip on purchasing a cell phone (without a contract), and all of a sudden my vocabulary changed 100% eight hours a day to leases, payoffs, inspections, consignment; insurance yadayada.
This is difficult when it has been hard for me to get a handle on speaking correct English again, as well as the definitions of words that define the way we do business in the States. In Ethiopia, there are no contracts or bills. And to be honest, I kind of forgot about them.
For example, I remember at the beginning of this job, I was staring at a screen with a senior employee who was helping me to figure out a transaction history.
She kept saying, “When it says, ‘billed’ it means that we sent the customer a bill, and when it says, ‘payment’ it means that the customer paid us.”
I couldn’t get it. Like seriously couldn’t get it. I almost started crying. I had forgotten the definition of “billed.” I kept thinking, how do I know that the customer didn’t send the money into us, and that was the bill? I just had literally (LITERALLY) forgotten what that word meant. The whole process of ‘billing’ for something had become estranged to me, living in a world where the only transactions happen when you hand someone money and they hand something back to you. Except for at the end of a meal, for two years in Ethiopia I had never been billed for anything. I had forgotten the meaning.
This is my new adventure. Into Corporate America. Where phrases like “reach out to you,” “loop you in,” touch base,” “regards,” and “please advise” are traded like candy . The “capacity-buildings” and “sustainability” of my days gone by are long gone.
I feel the need when telling people where I am working to add a byline of, “it’s temporary” or “I’m REALLY going to graduate school in the Fall,” etc. It’s like I need to explain why I am working for the man, like I’m a sell-out. I don’t know why I have this reaction. Private corporations do most of the ‘living and breathing and dying in this town,’ as George Bailey would say. (Welllll….some of the big ones are doing more of the living and some of the small ones are doing more of the dying these days, but that’s another post.) In a strange way, this process of learning to find a passion in the habit of the work and not the progression towards a cause is actually a very healthy process. It’s a different type of discipline with a different type of satisfaction. Maybe that sounds incredibly naive to write, but it’s a natural discovery when switching industries.
I’m very happy to have a job right now, and I’m thankful for the experience. I’ll write more about this adventure here.
– livin life and chugging away trying to make those benjamins!
I am woman, hear me roar!
…at least until 6pm.
Tonight I really feel like in Ethiopia. After work, after changing my clothes, I met up with a friend right as the sun hit the horizon, and went to grab something small for dinner, conversation, and a beer or two. I wore a small patterned scarf from the market in Dilla wrapped around my head like a headband. Good conversation amidst semi-loud background music, and all of a sudden I was in Dilla with Tesfa or Logan. Talking, What will the future bring? What do we want from life? How does the place that we are in currently affect the future? These are the same conversations that I had with my best friend in Ethiopia, Tesfaneh (Tesfa), almost every other night as we ate dinner together.
I came home and my parents were watching a PBS documentary about Israel, detailing “stelae” with the written inscriptions of the past. This made me think of the hundreds of stelae (rock statues) scattering the fields of Tuttu Fella and Tututi south of Dilla on the way to my friend Lisa’s town, Yirga Cheffe. Of the Machiti rock carvings of cows out in the flatlands outside Dilla on the way to Lake Abaya, in the Great Rift Valley. These carvings are thousands of years old, yet you can walk there with friends in an hour and a half and hop down into a crevice to see them.
Now I am going to bed, wearing what we called in Peace Corps a shitti (really), but what my Tesfa always said was called a drea (I think) or simply, pa-ja-mas. What I am wearing is three meters of fabric, sewn on either side, with holes left open for two arms, and a crescent cut into the top for a head. This is what most Ethiopian house moms or servants wear everyday, tucking the edges into their underwear if it is too long. Maybe in the United States I could add a belt and wear it as a beach cover-up or “african” dress, but Ethiopia has cemented me and I will never consider it more than a nightgown or house clothes. For this I am glad, because it is it’s suited purpose.
I miss Dilla a lot. And my friends. And the sun coming up every day at 6:30 and setting the same. And the green trees and flowers and the fruit. The daily bustle of neighbors and friends greeting each other and the tomatoes at 6 birr a 1/2 kilo on the side of the road. My little kitchen where Nahom and I would cook together on the nights I didn’t meet Tesfa or Logan at the food-house (migib-bet). But this is what it is to come home, away from home. This is what it is to travel. The ever wanderlust.
The missing of a place while at the same time being in the place you missed. The motivation to wander on even so.
The needing and discovery of a new destination, and the realization that it doesn’t fill the longing for another, and so on and so on it goes. A collection of friends and memories that can never be how they once were, yet are considered just the same.
Now I want to write a post about finishing the Peace Corps.
Do you know the scene with Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle when she’s talking to Amy Adams in the bathroom and brings up her nail polish? “It’s like that perfume that you love and you can’t stop smelling even when there’s something sour in it. Can’t get enough of it,” she says. Leaving Ethiopia was like that for me, but in reverse. Leaving a place that you love so intensely but with a bitterness that makes you leave it. Something sweet with that edge of bitter.
I can’t tell you the number of times that I cried in the last three months that I was in Ethiopia. Half of these were because I was sad to leave and half of these were because of the difficulties that Ethiopia seemed to give me in the end to make me leave – almost like the labor that forces a child to exit the womb.
I remember SOBBING one night at a dance club after the end of the Tigray Trek in northern Ethiopia. It was like every time that I drank any wine at all I instantly starting tearfully imparting my wisdom onto anyone in a younger group than mine. “Look for the JOYYY,” I told Alonee. “TREASURE EVERY MOMENT,” I told Stephanie. Lauren asked me if I had been drinking (she’s in my same group and had me pegged at that point). Lots of crying, those days.
And after all of the anticipation and waiting and shedding of my possessions and parting gifts and goodbyes and transportation and gongings and airports…here I am. In the same house where I wrote my first posts about the Peace Corps now almost two and a half years ago. So momentous, it seemed at that time.
There’s a lot of talk of “reverse culture shock” and how to deal with this when leaving the Peace Corps. Reverse culture shock refers to the act of reentering a culture that you once knew but took pains to leave behind in order to assimilate to another. By the end of Peace Corps, there were parts of my mannerisms and thoughts that were distinctly Ethiopian. Reentering life in America meant seeing America and our culture in a new light…not necessary a positive or negative one, but a different hue than the one I was used to before. Everything is colored differently, and I think this coloring makes surroundings and friendships and people look totally different. Things must be renamed that used to have names, and this takes time.
Reverse culture shock seems like some sort of psychological hooey, and I thought this until I realized that I felt (and still feel) terribly lost. In a way that I still can’t describe because I haven’t learned it’s new name yet. I called fellow PCVs from my group, and they said the same thing.
I’ve had some time to think about this, and while I still cannot name it, I can determine some aspects of this feeling and what might cause it. This is one. I remember having a lengthy conversation with my friend Lisa while in Peace Corps about how Volunteers are frequently writing the story of everything going on around them. Because of unavoidable barriers like being new to a culture and not totally having a grasp on the language, I found that all of the constant noise enveloping me at all times when walking around Dilla was actually more of an acute silence. I felt like I was walking around in a silent picture, filled with smiles, anger, excitement, and caricatures of all of scenes going on around me. I observed them, and found joy in writing my own script for the conversations being had. These were clued from nonverbal communication and the back-catalog of my neighborhood players. I was never invisible when walking around Dilla, but I was also distinctly absent in anything going on around me, because I could never understand everything that was going on around me.
At the time, I remember saying to Lisa that I was excited to go back to a place where I understood everything, where the main language was English and where certain cultural aspects were more known to me. It hasn’t been until recently that I have discovered that this is actually one of the more overwhelming and difficult aspects to me back here in the States. Not only do I completely understand everything that is happening around me, everything that I say is also understood by everyone around me as well. There is no secrecy or privacy to my presence, despite the fact that I may not be noticed. If I say something to a friend, everyone will hear it. If someone says something across the room, I too will know it. The world that once was silent yet detailed and nuanced is all of a sudden loud and completely plain. Flat.
I’m still sorting through coming home. I miss my Ethiopian friends and PCV friends terribly. But I also do not want to forget that feeling I felt at the end of my service, telling me that it was time to move on to something else. In the documentary, “The September Issue,” Vogue’s legendary Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour reflects on when she will decide that her long and incredible tenure at Vogue is done. She references something her father said before retiring – that he found himself getting too angry all of the time. She said she finds herself often getting angry, and when this anger seems to be eclipsing her, that it would be time to leave. I felt this way about Peace Corps. Even when undeserved, I was getting angry all of the time. It was time to leave. But you know, I miss my Dilla home a lot. Part of me feels missing. It’s an intense love edged in a bitter flavor. I have to be careful to remember that. I want to keep my entire experience, in all of it’s honesty, because that is the most beautiful part about it.
As I think about these things, I will write more of what I think might be relevant to put on this blog. This online journal of mine has been around for now a solid five years. Looking back through it, I’m sad that I haven’t written more, but I also cannot believe where the last five years has taken me. Cambridge, Panama, Minnesota, Tennessee, India, Ethiopia; Spain. In each of those places to new places about myself. I am in awe at the provision of God through these different times in life. I am nothing if not driven to constantly challenge myself, but to become a better person in the process takes relevance of mind during the whirlwind demonstrated in this blog. I hope that I can prioritize this as I process these past two years.
Ethiopia, always on my mind.
So, yes, you may have guessed it. I am finished with Peace Corps and back in the USA! I completed my service (with appropriately sappy Facebook statuses) on December 2nd, 2014.
In this picture, you can see the beautiful dress that my coworkers bought for me from the market and gave to me before I left Dilla.
One of the hardest transitions of my entire Peace Corps service was not leaving Ethiopia, but actually leaving my town of two years, Dilla. Besides the obvious emotional toll, you are also trying to clean out your house and pack all of your things. Give “mestowishas” or “things to remember you by” to friends, as is expected in Ethiopian culture, and take pictures of people and things you fear you will never see again. And this is the problem with Peace Corps, there are people that were a part of my daily life who brought daily joy to me that I seriously never know if I will ever see or talk to again. I don’t even know their names. Dilla is changing and developing so quickly that there are many places etched in my memory that may have to stay there forever because they could already be torn down.
This reality is a little hard to deal with, because my approach to goodbyes is usually more of a “see you later.” And most of the time, I do see that person later. I am one of those people who usually does stay in touch, or at least I put a lot of effort into trying to. But with these goodbyes, they were literally that. A goodbye. Saying hello to Dilla was hard enough, with all of the new things and people, but saying goodbye was almost unbearable.
After I left Dilla, I went to Addis to do some out-processing. Spent time with Peace Corps friends, visited my host family in Boru.
After “gonging out” as a Peace Corps Volunteer, friends Shanthi, Andrea, Corey, Sarah, Cassie and I headed up to the “Danakil Depression” also known as the hottest place on earth! Here you drive into the blazing heat of the desert and visit the nomadic salt caravaners of the Afar Tribe, the salt lake where they mine the salt, sulfur pits with brilliant colors, and after a night hike, one of only three active volcanoes in the entire world.
We took the trip with “EthioTours and Travel.” The $600 price tag is pretty steep considering that I know how much they spent since I have lived in the country for two years – the mattresses were old and basically non-existent, sleeping bags were just a flannel plastic type non-blanket that didn’t zip, the traditional Ethiopian meal didn’t even include three cups of coffee!, and any drink except for water was on our own bill. These things were really not acceptable for the amount of money charged.
With that said, however, the trip was amazing. It was beautiful and I really enjoyed our driver and his hard work. The SUVs were a little cramped, but better than a public bus! There really is no way you could do this trip on your own without a tour.
And, foreigners, the $600 can be lowered with a little haggling! Don’t be afraid to bargain.
Here are some pictures from this trip – my last few days in Ethiopia. Warning that none of these from here on out are edited.
Our Danakil trip lasted from December 4th – December 8th, and after arriving back in Addis on December 9th, I left that night for good (well, at least for now). It was really a surreal experience, sitting in the Addis Ababa airport for the last time. My taxi driver and good friend, Nesru, drove us. When I boarded the plane, that’s all I could really do.
I had a night flight to Madrid, where one of my friends Stephanie (from when we were kids!) and Victoria (who I met in Ethiopia!) were waiting to meet me!
I spent a week in Madrid, with day trips to the beautiful Toledo and nearby Alicante, where Don Quixote was dreamed into reality. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Steph, eating olives, drinking red wine, and enjoying the beautiful buildings and night life of Madrid. I even was able to meet up with some long lost friends from Ethiopia…I’m not going to lie, I ate Ethiopian food twice that first week haha! Here are some pictures from the trip.
After spending a week in Madrid, I left for a quick visit to Grenoble and Lyon, in the French Alps. My best friend from from Peace Corps, Andrea, is dating a Frenchman named Jean from a city that has four names that I can’t remember. Jean graciously allowed me to tag along for Andrea’s first five days of her month-visit to spend time with his family! Everything was so beautiful and every morning that I woke up and looked out the window, there were the majestic Alps looking back at me. The best part of this trip, however, was getting to know Jean and his family. Thank you so much Jean for such a wonderful time and so much love to your wonderful family!
After a quick stop back in Madrid to pick up my bags and spend the day with friends Gayle, Victoria, John, Christian, et. all, I got on yet another red-eye and started my lonnnnngggg journey back home. Flight to Istanbul – 11 hour layover. Flight leaving Istanbul delayed 2 hours. Flight arrives in Chicago, but I missed my connected to Columbus. Thank god for friends Shannon and Victoria who picked me up and let me stay the night with them, because the next available flight to Columbus was the next morning!
Eventually, though, on December 23rd, I made it home. 🙂
Yipppeee!!! So emotional! I couldn’t help but feel that my long journey home from Spain was symbolic for my entire Peace Corps journey. More about thoughts on this and reflections at a later date. Also, above are the signs that my mom, sister and father had for me at the airport haha. They even had a song – it’s all an inside joke referencing this movie was love with Danny Kaye called, “The Court Jester.”
For now, I will leave you with a short list of things that I either forgot America had or that surprised me/excited/annoyed me in that first week home:
1. Light switches with a little switch and not a whole pad that you just push the top or the bottom on.
2. An actual knob to push down to “flush” the toilet. In Ethiopia and Europe, where there is a toilet it’s normally a button on the top of the tank.
3. American plugs!! Even when I first got back I automatically went to get my adapter to plug something in. Nope, here the wall is your friend! Almost terrifying?
4. Why is American money so long?
5. Self check-out.
6. And even to this day I’m still a little afraid to drink straight from the tap!
7. The arbitrary rules governing where you can cross the street and when. Also, I forgot about parking meters! I met a friend downtown and put money in the meter, only to forget an instant later. I had a ticket when I got out. Wah wehhh..
8. Last, but not least, tips! It seems like an absurd amount to tip 20%. In fact, when I was visiting friends in Nashville I GROSSLY undertipped a waitress. She was obviously angry. I had to ask to add money. It’s not like I can’t figure out what 20% is (…) but it’s that in my mind I just add a little to 10% subconsciously like how it is in Ethiopia or Europe and just put that without realizing it. SO MANY RULES!!
Thanks for reading through to the end, and thank you all so much for the support and friendship you have offered me through the adventure of my last two years in the Peace Corps. As many happy pictures as I post, it was almost every day extremely hard. But, in every day there is joy, and when you hold onto that, you are left with wonderful memories. Words for all of us, eh?