On Coexistence and Feeling Pain

A few days ago I woke up to the familiar sound of a dog barking–a low, deep, rapid barking that sounded exactly like my dog Lucky’s bark back home.

With my eyes still closed, lying under my mosquito net, I was transported. I heard the sound of my dog’s barks, then felt the soft cotton sheet of my twin bed in the guest room where I slept for four months before service. I heard the low growling of the coffee maker coming from the kitchen and rolled over, deciding to sleep a little longer.

The next moment, the drip drip of the coffee maker gives way to a rooster crowing and men and women shouting to each other: “Vaovao!” they say. “What’s new today!” the ox carts rumble past, squishing over soft mud from last night’s rain.

In a single moment, the symphonic percussions in my ears pull me in two directions: one is a brick home in Memphis, Tennessee; the other is a ravinala hut  in the country-side in rural Madagascar. With my eyes still closed, I feel as if I’m floating, suspending between two coexisting realities, both already melded into my heart.


Two nights ago, my second niece was born: a girl. I took one look at the her picture over Facebook messenger and burst into tears. The pain of not being there a second time for the first year and a half of my new baby niece’s life was unbearable. I did not feel guilt but supreme sadness. And I cried.

In that moment, I wished I could be there to hold her and hug my family and kiss my stepsister and congratulate them on their beautiful, growing family. But I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to transport my family to my little grass hut and have everyone and everything I love for once, finally, be all in one place.

Yet when I closed my eyes and laid down on my soft foam mattress, smelled the clean air around me and felt the quiet of a dark, black neighborhood asleep under the stars, I felt a sense of peace and connection that calmed my fears, my painful longings, my anxiety and my guilt.

Guilt is like wet cement: once you get stuck in it, it becomes harder and harder to get out. I always ask myself why I chose to come here. What was it about “home” that I wanted to leave behind? What was I giving up?

In reality, I don’t think there was anything wrong with my home life. I loved my family and friends. That love never stopped being enough. I just started to need something else in my life. Maybe it has something to do with finding a way to feel safe and secure without the comfortable bubble of a familiar, easy life. I think my experience here is about finding ways to live out my values of human equality and equal opportunity and not be held back my the guilt and anxiety that tells me I need to keep myself “safe” and shouldn’t take risks–risks that could lead to embarrassment and failure, but also amazing results.  Maybe you can be wise and brave at the same time.

I heard a quote from Maya Angelou the other day: “do the best with what you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As a Peace Corps volunteer barely six months into service, I know about as much as a two year old. But I also know that growing up and learning is possible; I’ve done it before in my country, America. I learned some very hard lessons in some very painful ways. Now I’m doing it in Madagascar. And I’m no longer afraid of the pain. When I wept in my hut for sadness and loneliness, it might have been dramatic through someone else’s eyes, but for me it was what I needed to feel. I’m no longer afraid of feeling, because I think feeling is the most authentic way of being human. There are no distractions here to hide my discomfort, or sadness, or disappointment: no gyms or movie theatres or bars or restaurants or clubs or Netflix or ice cream parlors to numb the pain of another bad day, another disappointment. Most nights, it’s just me and my mosquito net.

This is how it needs to be. And as my little niece grows up in America, taking in all the sights and sounds of this crazy new, noisy world, so will I grow here in Madagascar, slowly crawling and then learning to walk and talk and decipher how to be in my reality. Home will never stop being a part of my reality. But I think now I just need to make more space in my heart for two existences.

The heart, I believe, is like a plant that can just grow and grow if we feed it well.

Here’s to nourishment.

 

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Three of my zandrys (little brothers) posing on sheep-grazing day. They are pictured in my yard.

 

 

 

What I missed: Travelling and Mental Illness

I cried all the way down the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps you could say I was overwhelmed by natural majesty. But what was probably closer to the truth was this: I had recently quit my job teaching English in Southeast Asia, ended a trans-continental relationship and moved back home, only to realize that everyone I knew had moved away in the five years that I had been gone. So I felt utterly alone as I traipsed down the narrow, winding pathways of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim Kaibab Trail. The tears fell in droves. I wiped snot away with my teeshirt sleeve. I had to stop at every corner and take a breath so that I could continue down alive. This wasn’t the Western adventure I had had in mind.

We were halfway into our week-long road trip west. Me, my older sister Emily and my dad Bill packed up Emily’s Honda civic to move her to her new tech job in San Francisco. None of us had been to the Grand Canyon before and I convinced the team to stop en route. I had visions of donkeys dancing in my head and was eager to spend the day sweating and struggling over cliffs and mountain peaks. When we got there, however, we spent a long time deciding on a plan of action, and I got frustrated. Emily’s dog was with us, and dogs are not allowed inside the Canyon (they’re allowed on the scenic trail up top but cannot go down into the crater). Poor guy. But I wasn’t about to let him ruin my Grand Canyon adventure.

In the midst of our planning and discussing, I took off, almost at a run, feeling like I would burst if I sat still a moment longer. I climbed down part of the outer rim and peered over the edge: fur trees, alabaster stone and birds flying high encompassed me. I breathed it all in. In my mind I went back in time to when I hiked Sde Boker by myself, in a similar situation, feeling so frustrated with life that I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to climb higher and higher until the world ended and I fell off the edge. Evidently, that feeling hasn’t gone away.

I’ve had depression all my life and I know how oppressive it feels. I know it gets worse in times of high stress or drastic change. Turns out, moving overseas and teaching ESL is both.

Have you ever met a lactose intolerant person who loves ice cream? That’s how I feel about travelling. It makes me nauseous, but I love it anyway. Yes, planning a trip can be stressful. Your plans don’t always work out as you’d hoped. It might rain. Your hotel might be completely booked, or worse, non-existent (shout out, Vietnam). Or you might end up shouting at your wonderful family because you had unrealistic expectations of how much hiking you could accomplish in half a day with a tiny dog and an aging father (sorry, Papa).

I lost it at the Grand Canyon because I hadn’t seen anything so beautiful since Myanmar–and I missed that time in my life. Suddenly I wanted freedom, to roam, unattached, transient and visible only to those whom I chose to allow in. I’ve been struggling with accepting the modicum of stability I have now at “home” in the United States.

Upon deciding to move home, I remember thinking that this would be a good idea because it would “stabilize” and “normalize” me. But I think I didn’t give myself enough credit. There is nothing abnormal about working overseas. It all depends on who you ask. As I get older, I realize: people are going to think what they’re going to think. Don’t live your life based on other people’s comments, and don’t apologize for being who you are. Travelling is not infantile, criminal or glamorous. It’s just living, a different way.

 

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Sticking (Or Playing With Words)

We stick together like glue,
We, who don’t know what to do.
We wander, or dance, in dimly lit halls,
Entranced in mirrors
Looking askance
articulating
expressionism
Acutely certain of myself.

Don’t think too hard–you’ll hurt yourself–
When you smile until your face cracks.
Forget the facts;
stretched like rubber bands,
truth dances on wire.
we stand, arms erect,
with fishing nets
below.

(Just let it fall
until you find
what you are looking for.)

To walk through the door
like we did before
when we were young
takes a monster’s courage.

Picture taken in the Angkor ruins, Siem Riep, Cambodia

Christmas In Vietnam

Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I’m really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven’t written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a “thing.” But it’s not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam’s HQ.

After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing “One Night in Bangkok” the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the “Museum of American War Crimes”), the former president of South Vietnam’s headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I’ve visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little “Italian” shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)

After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn’t get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren’t really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don’t need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for “groupies” by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of “Silent Night,” but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that’s fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the differences between us.” There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.


Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.