Monday, June 12, 2017

The end of the beginning

From top to bottom: Tunisia, Mauritania, Turkey/Syria, DC

"It was strange how you could be something and then not be that something so easily." (source)

This past year has been full of transitions. This was largely thanks to my very gradual "move to Boston for graduate school" plan (enroll in one school in Boston, defer for a year, move out of our DC apartment and home to the MD suburbs, move boyfriend to Boston, visit a few times, get accepted in and enroll in a different school, move to Boston and start graduate school). Austin and I moved from living out our lives together every day to staying connected by text and sometimes-spotty Skype connection. I started taking on more responsibility in my job and working on Syria.

All this transition came to a head on May 19, when I left the job where I've been for almost five years. One day I was enmeshed in our operations in Syria and Tunisia and the next I had 0 responsibilities and no email access. It was the right time for me to move on - I'm ready to learn new skills and to consider my career and the world from new angles. But it still felt weird to suddenly extricate myself from a place that has been such a big part of my post-college life.

This job was my first out of college and the one that launched whatever career I am building towards. I've been in this job since I was 23 and along the way I grew up not only as a professional, but as a person. (I look at my fresh-out-of-college colleagues and simultaneously think that they're so young and am surprised to find that I'm not one of them anymore.) I learned how to do ace accounting with a liberal arts degree, how to goal-seek on a budget, how to choose the best focus group report names, how to find synonyms for "workshop" and "participant," how to play shuffleboard, how to properly balance your intake of shawarma and Nespresso to keep yourself going on an election observation mission all-nighter, how to stay cool when the air conditioning is broken and the Nouakchott forecast is 113 F and "dust," how (not) to navigate the Turkish highways on Google maps, how to cheat on team Fitbit challenges, and how to save face when staring down a displeased election observer. (I also learned how to write one good thing on a topic and then endlessly repurpose the language, so this post is borrowing heavily from the goodbye email I sent to my colleagues on my last day.) 

Four years after I wrote this post, I am indeed looking back and wondering where the time has gone. It's true that in some ways the days between then and now were similar. But there was also so much growth within that time period. During that time I worked on three country programs and moved up in the ranks from an intern to someone who is able to sign stuff and make decisions. Even though I've been in the same job for almost five years, my day-to-day work, the people I'm doing it with, and my surrounding life circumstances have changed - imperceptibly at times, but enough that it looks and feels totally different now than it did when I first started.

Back then, I described it as a "dream job for right now" and while some days and weeks (and maneuverings through the bureaucracy of a giant nonprofit) were less dreamy than others, it has been a true adventure. I started my job in the heady days following the Arab Spring when it seemed like democracy might finally be taking hold in the Middle East, and even as dictators have reasserted themselves and conflict has spread, I feel lucky to have played a small part in a pivotal period in the region's history. I feel lucky to have been able to travel abroad for work so early in my career. Above all, I feel lucky to have worked with and learned from so many inspiring people - especially so many strong women - around the world.

It's hard to talk about my job without sounding a bit like I'm about to go drink the Kool-Aid but man, there is nothing better than working alongside smart, dedicated people towards a big, idealistic goal. I feel lucky to have launched my career in such a special place and excited to see what's next.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What's up?

Of all the ways to ask someone how they are doing, my least favorite is "What's up?" Because the default response - at least my default response - is a hearty "Not too much!" Which is kind of a conversation ender (what do you talk about after you've declared that nothing very interesting is happening in your life?) and also often emphatically not the case. But it also feels weird to launch right into a detailed description of the many exciting things happening in your life as soon as you see someone.

So what's been up? Well, many exciting things have happened since I last wrote here.

+ Trump became president. Starting on kind of a bummer note, I know. I will hold back on sharing my full thoughts and feelings on this (like everyone else's, they could fill reams of blog posts and tweets). But in short, we spent Inauguration Day making signs for what ended up being a crazy-inspiring (and MASSIVE) Women's March on Saturday. The march gave me a burst of energy to resist and take action that has unfortunately abated somewhat since I've been traveling - I need to find ways to reengage. The insane new political reality has been a thread running through everything else that has happened this year. When I was in Turkey, the time difference meant that the crazy news would drop right as I was going to sleep or waking up, when my defenses were down. Once I was back in the DC office, I would check the TVs in the kitchen every day at 5 or 6 to see the latest Russia scoop revealed. And all throughout, I've been listening to political podcasts that become outdated in the hours between when they're recorded and when they're aired.

+ I cut my hair off. A pixie cut! It's the shortest I've ever gone and something I've been wanting to do for a while now. I don't get too squeamish about changing my hair (hair grows! the stakes are super low!) (though oddly I have never had it colored or even highlighted). I literally told my hairstylist that I wanted to look like Claire Underwood from House of Cards and she nailed it. I'm not sure the Claire Underwood is the exact right style for me, but I love having short hair. I especially love how easy it is to take care of (though the fact that it sticks up in 1,000 different directions when I sleep on it wet makes me a bit more careful in timing my showers.) I didn't really have an exit strategy when I cut it - my hair grows fast so I sort of thought I could snap my fingers and it would grow out - but I will probably keep it short long enough to play with a few different pixie cuts.

+ I worked in Turkey for a month, similar to what I did in the fall. This time around, I was helping out with public opinion research we conducted on sexual and gender-based violence in Syria. Working abroad is a very immersive experience and as always, I learned a ton - about Syria, about survey research, about violence against women, about working under pressure. This trip I visited Sanliurfa and Pamukkale for the first time, and hit Istanbul for the first time in five years. (My initial attitude was "been there, done that, can skip it" but as soon as I stepped off the subway I remembered how special that city is to me.) This was my fourth trip to Turkey and it's been fun to slowly chip away cities on the map of that diverse country.

+ I had a family reunion in Maui. It was my first time in Hawaii and needless to say, I loved it. The vacation snowballed until there were more than 20 people in our party, a web of parents and children and siblings and cousins and in-laws and friends where almost no one knew everyone but everyone knew someone. The group was divided among a few spots on the island - I stayed in the big house on the beach in Lahaina that served as the hub of activity for our crew. The week was the perfect blend of excursioning around the island and lounging on the beach and spending time with family. We drove the road to Hana, caught the very end of the whale-watching season, kayaked out to snorkel at a sea turtle cleaning station, went horseback-riding alongside the most stunning cliffs I have ever seen, enjoyed the Hawaii tourist ritual of a luau, ate breakfast on a coffee farm on the slopes of a volcano, and played with baby cousins on the beach. I also "learned how to surf" (because while my cousins were great teachers, you have to round up pretty far to call what I did surfing). (I fell off the surfboard but thankfully not the horse.) This vacation could be a giant blog post full of photos and Maui recommendations - but suffice it to say that an amazing time was had by all and I hope to be back someday.

+ I made a decision about graduate school. After hemming and hawing over how to move forward last year (not to mention with choosing a college and most other big decisions I've made), I was fairly decisive this time around. After thinking it over while traipsing around Pamukkale and pacing the beach in Maui and drifting in and out of consciousness on airplanes and talking to my parents and Austin, it's official - I'm headed to the Harvard Kennedy School in the fall! There were serious checkmarks in the "pro" columns for both schools I was considering, but for a variety of reasons, I'm confident that I'm landing in the right place for me.

+ I celebrated my 10-year high school reunion! We convened at a bar Friday night with just the class of 2007 and then went to the big shindig in the school gym on Saturday night for all the classes ending in 2s and 7s. It was equally fun chatting with girls I haven't seen in ten years, and getting ready and spending quality time with my BFFs who don't get together nearly often enough. Suffice it to say that we ended up skipping the pre-reunion liturgy (because Catholic school) to drink more champagne and perfect our "laughing while clinking glasses" pose. The only wrinkle in a magic weekend was the fact that we lost out on a free champagne bar (awarded to the class with the highest participation rate) to the class of 1972 (who comes to a 45-year reunion???). We'll beat those betches next time around. It is crazy that it's been ten years, but high school doesn't feel like "just yesterday" anymore - there has been a lot of growth and experience and good times in those years. I'm just glad that our bond is still strong.

+ I announced an end date and then left my job of 4.75 years. (Just three months shy of getting my five-year certificate). After lots of soul-searching and calendar-examining, I ultimately decided to leave a few months before grad school starts to have time to recharge and travel this summer. This was a big milestone for me and there are many more thoughts and feelings on this to come.

Suffice it to say that it's been a full and interesting year so far - one where my daily life has often looked totally different from one month to the next. What it all comes down to is - I am very blessed. With friends and family and opportunities of all kinds. I've been reminded often of a favorite quote from The Hours: "There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult." Life lately has been bursting open and giving me everything I've ever imagined (with the major exception of political leadership that is not bent on destroying the planet). I'm in a full, exciting, happy season of life right now and I'm very grateful for that.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Looking back on 2016

Common themes in my Instagram best nine of 2016 - water, mountains, sunsets, Austin. Sounds about right.

On January 1, 2016, I felt like I was getting on a train ride that I didn't know where it would take me. I knew there would be some serious ups and downs, but couldn't picture the destination. I knew I would be in grad school in a new-to-me part of the United States -- but there were a lot of details missing from that picture.

And it turned out that the train was a rollercoaster (how far can I stretch this metaphor??) Because like a rollercoaster, I ended up in much the same place that I started -- still in DC, still at my job -- but my insides feel all different after the ride.
To recap-- January saw me submitting my last few graduate applications, then I heard back from schools when I was in Tunisia in February and March, decided on Fletcher in April, gave my notice at work in May and then accepted their offer of a promotion and a new portfolio if I deferred for a year. Over a summer of weddings and travel, we packed up our DC apartment and in August, we moved Austin to Cambridge for law school while I moved in with my parents. From October to December, I worked in southern Turkey on our programs in Syria. 
All in all it was a very good year for me personally (as much as that feels out of step with the mood of the country and the horror of a Trump presidency sneaking in at the end). While there were highs and lows, they were all in the service of growth.

Lessons learned

+ that I can trust myself to do the right thing when the right moment comes. I didn't consciously reference my word very often, but it was humming in the background. What I am taking away from 2016 is a deeper well of trust in myself, in my ability to make decisions and to steer my own life.

+ that while you can't control how people respond to you, you can act in a way that you can be proud of. I, like everyone else, am constantly learning that I can't control everything - but I have a new appreciation for the fact that I can put my best foot forward and let my satisfaction come from the knowledge that I did my best.

+ there is no "ready" and no "perfect time." This is a theme that came up repeatedly in conversations with my friends and Austin. Life is always going to be crazy, and it is only going to get crazier as we accumulate responsibilities. The things any of us want to do are always going to be at least a bit inconvenient. There is no sense in waiting for a quieter time or a more opportune moment to dive in.


Professionally, this was a good and busy year for me. I got promoted to a position that, for the first time in my career, does not have the words "intern" or "assistant" in the title. I authored (or played a major role in) two public opinion research reports. I took the lead on two major proposals that landed us more money. And I spent nearly three months working abroad in Tunisia and Turkey, the most in any year since I started this job. Like everyone, I sometimes get bogged down in the day-to-day and so it's cool to look back and realize that I'm now doing things I've wanted to do since the beginning of my career.

This was one of the funnest years ever. We went to four of our best friends' weddings, nicely spaced throughout the summer, and had a blast. While I feel like I worked more than ever before, I also took more vacation time.

New countries visited --  British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Cyprus. The fun part about these is that I would not have guessed them at the beginning of the year. And between the Caribbean and Cyprus, I visited eight islands total.


With everything else going on this year, I didn't too much creatively. Ironically, I did more blogging and creating even while balancing the grad school application process last year than I did this year, when I was excited to have more time and bandwidth for that. I am resolving to get back into the habit of finding little pockets of time to be creative because as referenced above, I am never going to magically have more time.

More miles, fewer races. I was 2/2 for signing up for races (the DC Rock and Roll half marathon and the St. Michaels Running Festival) and then being out of town and not running them. As I've done the last three years, I tried and failed to run 365 miles-- but I did run more miles (about 180) than I had since I started keeping track, so that was a win.


So long to 2016! You were a trip. And with more travel and a move to Boston (for real this time!) on the horizon, 2017 promises to match it for adventure.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

26 favorite moments

In the midst of my belated end-of-year blogging, I remembered that my birthday was back in July and I had yet to publish my list of 26 favorite moments of 26. Compiling these is one of my favorite exercises each year. It's always interesting to see that some of the moments I thought would make the list - some of the flashy, big-headline, gotta-be-important moments - had faded into the background and quieter, sweeter memories had bubbled up in their place. 26 was a good one - full of a lot of growth and a lot of fun. (And no spoilers, but we're six months in and 27 just might top it.)

Drinking beer on the dock and reading Station Eleven in beautiful Northern Michigan.

A private ferris wheel ride in Newport Beach.

An extremely fancy sushi tasting in Newport Beach.

When Austin got startled by a sea lion and fell off his kayak in Newport Beach. 

Running across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge feeling strong. 

Walking on the beach in Mauritania feeling like I was on the edge of something big.

Submitting my second-to-last PhD application right before I got on a flight from Nouakchott to Paris and then the very last right before getting on the flight from Paris to DC and (most importantly) getting to watch in-flight movies guilt-free.

Watching home movies with my family on Christmas Eve. 

Finishing the daily card project strong... and realizing on January 1 that I did not have to make a card.

Trudging through the snow and listening to podcasts during #snowzilla.

Drinking at a wine bar, eating at Maketto, and brainstorming about the future on H Street.

Austin getting into Harvard Law and spending the weekend toasting him with visiting friends. 

Going to our favorite neighborhood Mexican place at midnight after Austin finished a long night on Trump (working to defeat Trump, that is).

Dinner clubs with my friends where we lingered after dinner with wine. 

Driving through the Tunisian countryside listening to Manazel (and many other songs, but that's the one I remember) on repeat.

Racing through a zombie book over solo dinners in Tunisia.

Learning about a full scholarship to graduate school (after a series of defeats on PhD programs) and laughing out loud to myself in my hotel room in Tunis.

The birthday/mini-bachelorette party/dinner party/night at Wonderland with my girlfriends before the first of us got married.

Submitting the first grant proposal that I drafted all by myself.

Getting wooed by my organization to defer grad school and stay for another year.

When the rain stopped and the clouds parted for Raf and Ashley's sunshiney wedding ceremony in Roanoke.

Every moment of being back in Vermont - especially driving up Route 7 to Vergennes, drinking on a dock by sparkly Lake Champlain, and learning that there was a Bloody Mary bar at the post-wedding brunch.

Singing along to Like a Prayer at the top of my lungs with my best high school and college friends... at three separate weddings.

When the lights dimmed and the opening bars of Hamilton played at the Richard Rodgers theater. (Not to call it too early but that could possibly be the top moment of my 20s.)

Listening to Mashrou' Leila play an old favorite, Fasateen, the day after the Orlando club shooting.

That first day in St. John's, jumping in the Jeep, driving on the left side of the road, and happening to plunk down at one of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
PS: 25 favorite moments are here and the original idea was borrowed from here.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

'twas the season

A busy couple of months mean I am behind on that sacred rite of the blogosphere-- a recap of the last year and some goal-setting for the next. But first, December deserves a post of its own. Because oh man, December, you were one of the crazier months in recent memory and a fitting end to a full year. One that was somehow both packed with work but also full of travel and time off. One that will forevermore be my benchmark of how much can happen in a month and a reminder that busyness has the magical property of making time stretch.

On December 1, I submitted my application to the Harvard Kennedy School, then took off for a lovely solo weekend in North Cyprus - one of the few places you can reach by a direct flight from Gaziantep. The next weekend, I spent 24 hours in Istanbul for a policy forum for work and a few days after that, flew back from Gaziantep to DC. Austin came to down for a few days, then I celebrated Christmas in southern California with my family, then flew back to DC for a packed workweek between Christmas and New Years, then flew up to Boston so Austin and I could drive out to the Cape to ring in the New Year with the Countdown Cod.  In total, I took 12 flights, one of which involved extended questioning by US Customs and Border Control and three of which landed me with an SSSS (Secondary Security Screening Selection) on my boarding pass and patdowns by TSA, thanks to extra scrutiny on travelers to southern Turkey.

This marks the third year that I've spent a good chunk of December abroad - Tunisia in 2014, Mauritania in 2015, Turkey in 2016. (And as crazy as that feels, it's even crazier that if I stick with the grad school plan, that won't be my life next year.) And all throughout the season, I felt the familiar tension between home & away, the desire to lean in to adventure at the same time that I crave a cozy nest. I was a little bummed that I didn't have a chance to keep up my own little Christmas traditions this year, though equally glad that I didn't wait until life was more stable to start those. In that spirit, I was totally delighted to buy a grocery store poinsettia to enjoy for all of five days in my apartment in Turkey.

One of these days, I will have a cozy December at home, full of Christmas shopping, cookie baking, and ugly sweater parties. But I believe that life is long and, as long as we don't get stuck, there is plenty of time for everything we want to do. The flipside of missing the lead-up to "Christmastime in the city" this year is that I got to spend a weekend in the rolling hills of North Cyprus and to do some truly cool stuff professionally. I am grateful for all of it.