Monday, November 23, 2015

Pie in the Sky, For Some of Us

Months ago, when I was still in Morocco, I had a "pie-in-the-sky" conversation with my friend Fatima. Or at least, I tried to.

"If you could change anything about our town, what would you change?" I asked her. (In hindsight, I'm rather proud of that sentence structure. It took me many moons to learn "if" statements in Darija!)

She gave me a blank look.

I tried to give her an example. "Me, I would build a library. A giant library, in our rural town where kids tell me they don't like reading because there's nothing good to read. I would put in comfy chairs and all my favorite books, and I'd have storytime every single week."

She gave me another blank look. "We can't build a library."

"Well, not right now, we can't," I agreed. "But if I didn't have to worry about time or money or anything else, I would build a library. What would you do?"

It took a while, but I finally coaxed an answer out of her. She didn't part with it lightly, as though she'd only barely let herself think this thought, as though she'd never expected to say it out loud. "I'd have a wedding salon," she said. She told me that she'd learn to do wedding henna and hair and maybe even sell fancy wedding dresses.

"That's a great idea!" I told her.

She shrugged. "It won't happen."

I started pressing her further: why not? Who says? What would it take? Have you heard of microloans for women?

She was already shaking her head, sadly. "You don't understand."

She was right. I grew up in a family, in a town, in a country, where I was taught to dream. I was taught that I should go after my dreams, and that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. If I wanted to start a wedding business, it'd take me a few months to figure out the logistics, but you can bet I would figure them out and I would have my business.

Fatima didn't grow up the way I did. Her family pulled her out of school in high school, because her brothers said she'd learned everything a girl needed to know. She is one of the quickest learners I've ever met, one of the first to recognize someone else's need and go meet it, and she's been raised to think her life begins and ends in the town in which she was born. I loved - I still love - that little town, but my heart grieves for Fatima, and for all the girls whose dreams are so buried that they don't even know how to access them.

This week, Fatima has been on my mind. Because of the attacks in Paris and Mali and Lebanon and elsewhere, because of my current students, because of Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the many people in my life who encouraged me to dream. I'm thankful for anyone, anywhere, who is using the events of the past few weeks to fuel not violence but passion. For those who see needs in the world and meet them, for those who fight for others' right to dream, for those who speak against the darkness that sometimes seems so all-encompassing.

Fatima told me a few weeks later that I was the first person to ever ask her something like that, and she told me shyly that she couldn't get my question out of her head. As far as I know, she hasn't started a wedding salon. For all I know, she never will. But I'd be willing to bet that when Fatima has a daughter, that daughter will graduate from high school. She might go to college. She might start a wedding salon, or go to med school, or go to the moon.

Whose dreams have you encouraged today?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Lights, Sirens, and Bending Over

I rode in an ambulance for the first time a few weeks ago. 

It was my clinical ride-along for the EMT class I’m taking, and it was amazing. A lot of the details can’t be shared on a blog, not unless I want to get sued. A lot of my feelings don’t belong on a public blog, not when I’ve fought hard to keep from teenage-angst-ifying it. Suffice it to say, it’s been a rough few months since the Peace Corps sent me home, and I’ve spent a lot of that time feeling pretty lost. This ambulance shift wasn’t a magic cure by any means, but it was a pretty incredible (if very LONG)  night.

Perhaps the best moment came at about 3 pm. It’d been a slow afternoon, which is odd for a Saturday in Reno. I’d had plenty of time to study, and our calls had been rather few and far between.

Then dispatch hailed us. Priority 1 patient, we were told. Which means Hurry.

So we did. Lights and siren and all. Racing down the highway, cars pulling out of our way, people staring as we passed.

That part was pretty cool. But you know what was cooler? The fact that someone called us because she needed medical care, and we could go. Just like that. Minutes after her call, we were on scene, with oxygen and IVs and heart monitors and a vehicle that could transport her to the hospital if she needed.

I’ve never really thought before about how amazing that is.

Then, a week ago, I had to get my appendix out. It was pretty strange, one of those moments you never think will happen to you. And after stalling an embarrassingly long period of time because, well, I’m me, I went to the ER. Five minutes later, a nurse was examining me. Fifteen minutes later, they were scanning me, and first thing the next morning, I was in surgery. It’s pretty astounding, especially when I think that I was sent home from Morocco a few months ago partially because I lived too far from medical care.

There are a lot of things wrong with the US health care system, but you gotta admit, lights and sirens and available ERs and immediate surgery… it’s really cool. And amidst all my groaning about bed rest (ugh!) and the bills that I’m sure are coming, it’s good to remember that. Every time bending over makes me wince, I remember, and I’m thankful.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Grief and Thankfulness: When Peace Corps Sent Me Home

Last Tuesday, I got a phone call from the Peace Corps medical staff in Morocco. The moment the doctor said hello, I knew what she was calling about. It was her voice, the kind of voice my mom always used when she had bad news. Full of apology and regret.

Sure enough. Peace Corps had decided to medically separate me, which in PC jargon means that they'd decided I have a medical condition (asthma) that cannot sufficiently be addressed in Morocco, that staying for another year poses harm to my health, and that they are sending me home. Now.

I was actually prepared for this. They first mentioned it last fall, then more strongly a month ago. I went through an appeal process, tried to keep hoping I'd be allowed to stay. But I'm a realist, and I knew. I'd started making lists in my head: reasons I was happy to go home, reasons I wouldn't miss Morocco, people I needed to tell, items I needed to pack. I'd begun designing contingency plans: this person might be able to help take over this class, that person could help me finish that competition, I needed to print these documents in order for this counterpart to successfully continue with that project. I reminded myself how unhappy I was in Morocco in the beginning, how much medical issues have frustrated and inconvenienced and sometimes scared me this year, how nice it was to be home for Christmas and how it could be nice to be home again. Plans, logic, lists. Using reason to counter emotion. It usually works.

Not this time. I was not at all prepared for the wave of emotion that swamped me, for the tears that started to spill almost immediately. I was embarrassed to be crying on the phone, embarrassed to find myself tearing up again later when I told my sitemate, embarrassed by how easily and often I choked up over the next few days. 

It took almost a week to realize: I'd had this reaction only three times in my life, each time when a friend passed away. This was grief. Hovering in the periphery of my consciousness constantly, jumping in during logical moments (breaking the news to friends, receiving the official exit paperwork, saying goodbye to my host family) and during odd ones (getting cat-called, taking a bucket bath, hurrying home to get out of sandstorm, lying on my roof under the stars.) Big moments and little, the grief hit me again and again, leaving me emotionally raw for days on end. 

As you can imagine, this was not quite the frame of mind I'd wanted for my last few days in my town. I was busy and stressed, trying to do in four days what I could have used two weeks to do well. I was irritable and tired and always on the verge of tears. I found myself wishing I could just leave. Get out of that weird half-existence and just go.

Then, on Saturday, my two best friends in site came over to spend the day with me. They helped me pack a little, but mostly we just hung out. Played Settlers of Catan and talked about life and made pizza and laughed. A lot. At the flour dusting my shirt when I mixed dough too enthusiastically, at our half-hearted plans to hide me where Peace Corps couldn't find me and thus couldn't send me home, at the squeal one of them emitted when I asked if she wanted to keep my exercise ball. We reminisced about the year and all the good times we've had, and one of them told me she's changed a lot this year and it's because of me.

That was the beginning, but it wasn't the end. The tears and the grief were pushed away by a new feeling: thankfulness. When other volunteers stepped up to agree to continue the programs I've worked so hard on, when I met a young university graduate who was looking to gain experience and was thrilled to take over my English classes, when friends set their plans aside to make time for me before I left. When mere acquaintances reached out with words of comfort, and students without two dirhams to rub together gave me gifts, and I paged back through my journal and remembered the good moments this year. When I filled out my "Description of Service" form and realized just how much I have accomplished. 

That, I think, is the key to making sense of this. I'm still grieving, still angry and frustrated and wanting to rail at the injustice of it. But none of those emotions are productive and none were contributing to making my last days in Morocco happy ones. So instead of focusing on what I'm losing and what I won't get to do, I'm doing my best to focus on what I gained and what I did. What I learned. Who I met and will never forget. Because, in spite of everything, this year has held more goods than bads, and for that, I am so very thankful.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

When It Feels Like Home To Me

When I walk down to souq first thing Sunday morning and am greeted by sellers who know me by name. The spice seller tells me I'm probably out of garlic, which I am, and tells me a joke as he sells me some. The butcher waves, and the candyman with his little cart of nuts and Bonbas gives me a shy smile and a quiet "Good morning." The vegetable vendor peels an orange and hands me half with a wink, and juice runs down my chin as I bite into it. We chat as I pick out cucumbers and squash, beans and potatoes, tomatoes that are going out of season but aren't gone yet.

Fruits and vegetables at souq.

My friend the spice salesman. He asked me to take this picture!
When I bike past the hanut and see my little host sister buying milk in little plastic bags. She flags me down with a delighted grin, because it's been six weeks since we saw each other. I have errands to run and so much work to do, but she begs to run errands with me and I can't say no; I've missed her too. She hums cheerful tunes and finds reasons to hold my hand or bump my shoulder as we walk around town. I'm grateful for her help as we carry everything home. Her reward is a cup of hot chocolate, and my reward is her wide-eyed look and subsequent smile as she tastes her first sip. Cultural exchange, it's called.

When my neighbor sees me arrive and shows up half an hour later with a plate of food. When the young women who are partnering with me on a girls leadership camp stop me in the street, spending fifteen minutes asking about my health, my house post-flood, the health of my family in America whom they've never met before we finally meander onto the topic of the camp that starts in four days. When little kids accost me when I walk out my door, not to throw rocks or beg for money as they did when I first arrived but to invite me to play soccer, show off how clean and happy is the puppy we rescued together six months ago, beg me to resume ballet classes daba daba. When I get six invitations to lunch in one day, and I repay them in chocolate chip cookies.

When I have a free half our before class my first day back, and one of my students invites me on a walk into the desert. We "happen upon" her family, who pat the dirt and invite me for tea. The youngest daughter introduces her friends, 10-year-old Fatima and 11-year-old Ilham, and the four of us lie on our backs to search for airplanes in the sky and dream about where they could take us.

When I go for a walk or drive outside the town and see the desert in full bloom. Hills awash with color, blanketed in purple and yellow wildflowers offset by plants that no one can tell me the names of. The oasis, with palm trees as far as the eye can see, and the sand dunes, cold to the touch. And above them all, the hills that are almost mountains, their jagged rocks thrust into the sky in a Lion-King-esque architecture. 

When friend after friend greets me in the street on my first day back: my landlord, who tells me he paid my electric bill while I was gone so they wouldn't shut off my electricity. The man who works for the electric company, who tells me the same thing even though he just overheard my first conversation. The mechanic who fills my bicycle tires, the youth center director, the chief of police. Students from camp last November who speak to me in English because exams are getting close and they want to practice. Ladies from the women's center, who kiss me three times and hug me and pull me back to get a good look at me and then tell me I'm looking nice and fat today. Taxi drivers and furniture salesmen. People I play soccer with, go to karate with, buy food from, met once at a party. I don't even remember all their names, but they greet me with wide smiles and seem genuinely pleased that I've returned. 

When night falls and I'm cozy in my little house. When I take my fuzzy blanket and curl up in my hammock on the roof.  The sky is indescribably expansive, and little worries fade away in the face of its immensity. Who am I to worry? When the cool night air brushes my cheek and a lone meteor shoots across the sky and I rock gently, thanking God for bringing me back here.

When the bus rounds the corner and I see the lights of my town in the distance. When I expect to feel lonely and sad and anxious about going home to my empty house and dealing with lack of water and intermittent electricity and life in another language, but I don't. When I see the lights in the distance and a little spark flares inside me, because it actually feels like home.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Burnout and How To Fix It

When the medical officer from DC called the day before I was due to fly back to Morocco after Christmas, she didn't beat around the bush. I want to be honest, she told me. We're not willing to have you return yet. We're concerned about your health, and we're not sure Morocco is the best place for you.

Then she asked me, "Is your goal to return to Morocco?"

Then she added, we want you to be prepared for the possibility that you might not be allowed to go back.

I hesitated. I'd forgotten how lovely it was to catch a cold and have access to hot showers and instant soup and cable TV, oh my! A job speaking English, with higher pay. A life closer to my family, in a country where I don't constantly feel off balance. A tap that constantly has water, knowing I'll have electricity when I wake up, not having people leer at me everywhere I go, not having trouble breathing on a fairly constant basis. This year has been a tough one, medically and emotionally and everything-else-ly. And on top of everything external, I've been battling my own expectations. Various incidents left me jaded and bitter about the people I was trying to help, more and more sure that there were too many problems for me to fix. Too many problems for us to fix, for America to fix, and why are we doing it anyway? Grassroots change is the best kind, and I'm not doing enough  to make a difference, and I don't speak the language/know the culture/understand the problems well enough to address anything anyway, and especially not in only two years. Why should I stay? What was the point of going back for another year of frustration and disappointment?

And yet. I have an outdoor leadership program that just got final approval and will start the moment I get back. A counterpart who is so excited about teaching first aid, and another who has spent a month meticulously planning the lesson she and I will co-teach on Leave No Trace. Five ballet classes who groaned when I told them I was going home for Christmas, and a three-year-old student who has spent six months just learning to march but has had a grin on her face the whole way. Family after family who feed me. A girls leadership camp in the works, a writing class I finally have students for, an all-men soccer game that, after three months, has finally stopped trying to convince me not to play with them. A karate class that after six months still draws an audience of wide-eyed little girls. I have friends who've asked after me constantly since I left, in three different languages. I have a town that has just learned my name, just started to trust me, just started to trust that females can take care of themselves and white foreigners might actually keep their word when they say they will.

What about them?

I spent today wandering around the national monuments in D.C., and with every stop, I could feel something growing inside me. Resolve. Desire. Determination, pushing away the burnout. I wandered the memorials, ate a hot dog, went ice-skating, chatted with a wide-eyed three-year-old ice skating near me. I saw the Washington Monument, towering over the DC horizon. The Gettysburg Address etched on the wall beside Lincoln. The place where Dr. King stood when he had a Dream. And the resolve grew.

I may disagree with some American politicians and policies. With some laws and procedures, some biases and prejudices and ignorances. I may disagree with some Americans.

But I agree with America. With Washington's leadership, Lincoln's honesty, King's passion. With Jefferson's intellectual curiosity and Kennedy's approachability and Reagan's willingness to admit mistakes. I agree with the WWII nurse in the statue, looking to the sky in a symbol of hope. I agree with the promise to remember the names inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial, the three ethnicities in the Three Soldiers Statue, the free expression of the Sculpture Garden. 

I agree with the quote I found today:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work...Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.  Think big.

Daniel Burnham

"Is your goal to return to Morocco?"


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Storms, Not Just Physical

There's a quiz on the Internet that gives you twelve minutes to type in the names of all 197 countries in the world. I discovered it back in April, tried once or twice, and forgot about it.

In the last few weeks, though, I've been playing it more and more. Once a day, maybe more. I couldn't figure out why it held such pull for me, but I memorized the countries in Oceania as I navigated the process of setting up my work schedule and classes, and then the power struggles and confrontations that resulted. I worked on the Caribbean during a bacterial infection, the flu, a knee injury, and asthma that just kept getting worse, but I stopped after Ferguson and Eric Garner because I wasn't really in the mood to think too much about the Americas. I began memorizing all the African countries and their location on a map as my town received three days of the heaviest rain I've ever seen, but I had to finish that process out of site when the rains worsened and roads flooded and they told me that if I wanted to make it home for Christmas, I needed to be in the next taxi. I stopped taking the quiz for a few days, but as the floods in southern Morocco spread and homes were lost and people killed, as roads were blocked and I found I couldn't have gotten back to my town even if I wanted, as tendrils of guilt crept in because I was safe and warm while my friends were dealing with I didn't even know what...well, that was when I started playing three or four times a day.

My obsession with this quiz still didn't seem all that strange to me, though. Not until the day I got the news that some colleagues of mine, people I knew decently well, and liked and respected immensely, had been killed in Afghanistan. I mourned them that night, both the expats and the Afghans killed in those many attacks, and it was the most heartsick and angry and bitter that I've been in a long time. The following morning, I was on Facebook reading some of the tributes there, and I started to tear up again. Two seconds later, Facebook was gone and my twelve minutes had begun.

Not the most normal reaction, I know. But in the midst of everything, it felt good to have one activity that placed all the control in my hands. Where only I could make my score increase, and only my follies caused harm to me. In that game, Morocco was a blank shape, not the site of floods and danger and friends who weren't answering phone calls. Afghanistan and America were just words. The map showed no injustices, no deaths, no fear. The world was, truly, black and white, and it was lovely.

When I realized the extent of my escapism, I shut off my computer. Because I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn't hide from the world. That I would mourn and I would celebrate and I wouldn't give in to the desire to stop caring. Because I can't help, can't solve anything, if I pretend it doesn't exist. And most of all, because I owe it to my friends down south and my friends in Kabul and the friends I've lost to keep going even when it's hard. To tell them that their lives matter, regardless of who they are or or where they are or how many others seem to have forgotten them. To tell them that I won't take for granted the fact that I'm still here. To promise them that even on the days when rainstorms or sandstorms or political storms or emotional storms make me want to hide inside my house, I won't. Because storms are precisely the moments when I most need to keep fighting.

These rivers aren't normally here...

Nor is this lake.

This is the view from my roof during a sandstorm. I don't take many pictures of these storms because, well, it hurts to be out in them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

When Carnivals Are Capacity Building

We're walking to dinner when we crest a hill and find a carnival, its glowing lights bright and inviting and eerily reflected in the water of the Atlantic that sits behind it. Fatima* looks at me, and in her eyes is the same combination of fascination and curiosity and pure joy that has characterized her reaction to everything we've learned this week. 

"I've never been to a carnival before," she says, and though I hear the wistfulness and the request in her voice, she doesn't ask the question.

"Let's go, then," I say, and her face lights up.

For three days now, Fatima's face has been a study in emotions. Pure delight when she walked into a hotel room for the first time in her life, the first time she went wading in the ocean, the first time she tasted filofel. Embarrassment and shyness as our professional development program began, as she introduced herself to other attendees and compared her education, language skills, village roots to their accomplishments, as she looked around the room and found herself lacking. But then came determination, desire, a genuine desire to learn. She took copious notes on every presentation. She applied herself to every exercise, eyebrows furrowed, the concentration coming off her in waves. She made her first budget, wrote her first list of goals and objectives, took a tiny element of our program and, based on a need she sees, made it an integral part. She stood before the group and gave a presentation for the first time in her life.

That emotion? When she sat down? That was pride.

It's fascination on her face now as we wander among the bright lights and happily screaming children for a few minutes before choosing a ride: the Bouncing Rabbit. Fatima grins at me with a childlike joy as we start to move, turning rapidly to delighted squeals as the car lifts us to a height with staggering views and drops us with stomach-clenching speed.

As we leave the carnival, Fatima's eyes are shining.

We're back on the sidewalk again when she turns to me.

"I want to do this program with you," she says, "to learn everything there is to learn. And then? I want to do this for a program. I want to bring girls from towns like ours on trips. So they can see." She falls silent for a moment, looking out at the water. "I want them to see how big the world can be."

Carnivals. Joy in simple pleasures. Public speaking. Pride in a job well done. Inspiration and intimidation from others. Determination to improve. Dreaming.

This is capacity building. 

*name changed