Pages

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

At 30

For a while, there was one moment in my life that I pinpointed as the happiest. I was a senior in high school, driving home from a party with a couple of my best friends. We were listening to Comptine d'un autre été from the Amélie soundtrack, and as we drove, I could see the moon through the sunroof, disappearing and reappearing from the trees above. I felt enshrouded in friendship and deeply content.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I was driving back from Baltimore to DC on a sunny day, feeling content, when I flashed back to that earlier drive, that formerly happiest moment. "Wow," I thought. "I had no idea then how much better it would get."

I had had many happiest moments between those two, but I wasn't thinking of any in particular. I wasn't at a particular pinnacle - I was still flopping around and applying to jobs. The party the night before and the brunch that morning had been fun, but not life-changing - so why was I so happy?

On one level, it was just the basic pleasure of adulthood (a Bloody Mary, yelling above the music as I was introduced to new people). But underneath that was the even greater pleasure of autonomy. The realization, as I drove, that I was steering the ship that had brought me to this moment.

+

The story of my 20s has been the story of learning how to choose.

In my senior year of college, while I was writing my thesis and trying not to think about what I would do after graduation, my procrastination method of choice was to read Mormon mommy blogs, which were in their heyday at the time. (Because everything on the Internet exists forever, it was this article that led me to my favorites.)

The bloggers' lives seemed... easy. Not just because they didn't need to write a thesis or find a job, but because their belief system made clear which path they should value and pursue - marriage and motherhood. They didn't really have to choose. There was a clear metric by which they could succeed. I didn't actually want to get married or have kids right out of college, and I knew intellectually that a life with fewer choices was not something to envy - but I was jealous of what seemed like a simpler path.

I hated choosing. In my senior year of high school, I agonized over where to go to college - to the point that I stood at the post office on the day of the deadline with two envelopes in hand. There was a ton of tears and suffering for everyone around me. (I remember sobbing to my college counselor: "this is going to affect who I marry!") My life up till then had been all possibility and few real choices. It was the first time I could see the paths branching ahead of me and realized going down one meant losing all the possibilities of the others.

In my early 20s, as I worked at my first real job and jetted between DC and North Africa and found my first real hobbies and worried about what I should do for grad school, there was a trail of bread crumbs. A sermon from Reverend Hardies at All Souls Unitarian about choice - the first time I'd heard a religious leader speak about "choice" without meaning "abortion." A poster I bought with the Harry Potter quote "It is our choices that define us far more than our abilities." A spirituality retreat at my alma mater where a nun spoke about developing our "choicefulness."

In 2015, I decorated a card every day and I applied to PhD programs. The cards came to include a number of pep talks and mantras as I worked through that overwhelming process. One of my favorites read "learn to let the future excite and not terrify you," which felt like a tall order at the time. How could I choose one out of so many possible paths?

And then I got rejected from most of the programs I applied to. It felt like my most spectacular failure to date. But while disappointing, it was also a turning point. I had tried something and it hadn't worked - but life had gone on and now I had an opportunity to try something new. The future started to excite me a little more and terrify me a little less.

+

Since then, I choose to defer grad school and instead headed to southern Turkey to work on democracy programs in Syria, while my boyfriend started law school in Cambridge. I chose to pursue a Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and to spend a summer interning in agricultural development in Bangladesh. I chose to get excited about living in Cleveland but to go on an adventure in Liberia first.

And along the way, I have become more choiceful. I have developed a much greater ability to check with my gut on what I want to do. I have learned that if something is not the right fit, I can backtrack and pivot - decisions are rarely final. And I have realized that none of the paths branching in front of me is necessarily better or worse than the others - each offers its own adventure. (I mean, I'm sure one of the million paths leads to a Nobel Prize and another leads to destitution, but you know what I mean.)

It has helped that as you get older, the paths naturally get winnowed down. And decisions still stress me out, probably more than most people. (Just ask any of the ten people with whom I consulted about whether to evacuate Liberia during the pandemic.) But alongside the stress, there is the thrill of charting my own course. And so far, life keeps getting better and better. It keeps rolling right on.

I think back on all the experiences I've had over the last ten years - things I couldn't have imagined at 20 - and I get excited about all the future happenings I can't imagine today, all the different twists and turns my path may take, all the different experiences my life can expand to include. 

Steering this ship feels scary at times. But - much more than Bloody Marys or international travel - it is also far more fulfilling than I had imagined.  

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Record scratch


A week ago, I was flying high. I was coming up on two months in Liberia and feeling settled, challenged, and happy. On one of our weekly Skype calls, my dad asked me about the highs and the lows... and it was hard to think of serious lows. Sure, there were annoyances and frustrations. My air conditioner broke in the middle of the night, leaving me panting in front of an open window, and stayed broke for a week. The washing machine once took four hours to finish a load of my laundry... and then broke for a week. ATMs sometimes ran out of cash. Work had its tough moments, as I navigated a new environment and tried to learn enough Stata to avoid being found out as the imposter I am.  

But overall, if I had written this a week ago, it would have been a chirpy update about how well things were going. I faced a steep learning curve at work, but it was a curve I wanted to be on. The challenging work was balanced out by lazy Sundays reading on the beach. In lieu of a one-bedroom apartment, I had opted for a room in a shared apartment rented out by a church, the Monrovia Christian Fellowship, and what it lacked in luxury it made up for in community. 

There were seven other people living here and, as introverted as I am, I found I really enjoyed having folks to chat with while I was cooking or to drink Club Beers with while sitting on the porch. It was a nice group of people who were all excited about exploring Liberia. We walked to the market in Central Monrovia and saw the chimpanzees at Monkey Island and had plans to spend a weekend in the surf town of Robertsport. Coronavirus was a frequent topic of conversation, but it was mostly humming in the background, like the weather.

Last weekend I joined a group for a trip to Mt. Nimba, the tallest peak in Liberia, which sits at the border with Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. It was carved up for mining and the nearest town is still basically run by ArcelorMittal. For our meals, we drove up to a guarded gate, walked through rows of identical shipping containers housing miners, and ate in a company canteen. It felt very post-apocalyptic and I joked that I wouldn't be surprised if we came down from the mountain and found that civilization had ended.

Of course, you know how this story ends, because you're living some version of it too. In the course of a six-hour car ride on our way back from Nimba, as I bumped over a dirt road in the back of a 4x4, the ground shifted beneath us. We read news that Liberia had had its first case. President Weah addressed the nation. We learned that Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc, the two major international airlines connecting Liberia to Europe and onwards, were suspending their flights. The Peace Corps announced its decision to evacuate volunteers worldwide (there went one roommate). And the Netherlands and Sweden strongly advised students abroad to come home (there went four more). 

To be clear, most of those falling dominoes were connected to the global state of affairs, not specifically to the situation in Liberia. Liberia still has just three cases (all of them named-and-shamed in press releases), but the government has taken the ebola experience to heart and is taking it incredibly seriously. Liberia has closed schools, churches, restaurants, and beaches and will soon suspend the remaining West African flights, from what I understand. Many motorcycle and taxi drivers are wearing face masks, there are hand-washing stations outside most buildings, and someone takes your temperature before you enter the grocery store. 

As I watched all my roommates leave the country, I felt a bit like a person in a disaster movie who stands still and watches everyone running as the Godzilla slowly comes into view. It felt a bit like I should start running too. For now, my organization has advised us to stay in place, since there isn't really a safe place to travel right now. In terms of current case incidence, if not in terms of health system capacity, we're better off in Africa than in the United States or Europe. We of course had the individual choice to go home - a decision I had to make quickly because flights were shutting down fast. I opted to stay here. I hope I did the right thing, especially since I won't be able to leave, at least not easily, if I need to. The Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory that the State Department just issued made me particularly nervous.

In the course of the last week, I went from living with seven other people to living alone in the church. I went from working with a fun bunch of colleagues to working at home by myself. I went from hustling to launch a survey to having fieldwork postponed indefinitely. I went from weekly beach trips to looking forlornly at the beach from my balcony. In other words, I feel like the rug got pulled out from under me - just as I was beginning to really thrive in Monrovia, the kaleidoscope twisted and everything is different (how many more metaphors can I mix here?)

And you want to hear a bad joke? I decided to pursue jobs abroad in part because Austin was going to be working long hours as a first-year Big Law associate and so I wouldn't get to see much of him anyway. Now we're both sitting alone in apartments across an ocean from each other. If I was home, right now we could be playing one of the four different versions we own of the board game Pandemic. 

Though of course, all of this - my interrupted adventure abroad and the one-person pity party I've been throwing for it - pales in comparison to the terrifying slow-motion tragedy that is this pandemic. Every now and then I hit the panic button and worry about the health of my friends and family or (more trivially) that I won't be able to leave the country to come home for my friends' weddings in August and September. I read the articles about how long this could last and I worry that I won't be able to come home for another 18 months, a Rip Van Winkle reemerging after all my friends and family have long forgotten me.

On the bright side - in some ways being abroad has me well-prepared for this. After all, I chose to be socially distanced from my friends and family for a while. I already have a solid routine of online workout classes, a regular Skype habit, and a full queue on Overdrive for two libraries. In some ways this is a win for me, since my faraway friends are even more invested in keeping in touch than they were before. I've already done virtual happy hour and long-distance barre class and am looking forward to even more catch-ups going forward. I'm trying to focus on the good. Normally I love hanging out at home but feel guilty about not venturing out and exploring; now I have an opportunity to indulge in all my favorite introvert activities guilt-free.

I recently read The Dutch House and was indulging in my hobby of reading book reviews after finishing the book. One of them included a wonderful quote from Ann Patchett, on how all of her books are variations on the same story: "You're in one family, and all of a sudden, you're in another family and it's not your choice and you can't get out." 

I've thought of that often over the past few days. I thought I was in one story and now I'm in another. I went from "intrepid female traveller explores a new country" to "lonely girl waits out a global pandemic, one that could end civilization as we know it, on the other side of the world from everyone she loves." None of us are in the story we wanted to be in right now. I'm hoping that by taking this seriously we can write a better ending. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Arriving

My ninth-grade trip to France with my French class was transformative in many ways, but there's one moment that, 16 years later, stands out more than any other. We arrived in Lille and were distributed to our host families and, once at the Bénys' house, I took a shower in a light-filled bathroom. Once the rituals of arrival were over and the shower was complete and I was out of reasons to delay, I knew I needed to go downstairs and greet my host family and begin the awkward task of integrating into their lives for a week. I so vividly remember the feeling of taking a deep breath and making the plunge - the seemingly insignificant act of walking down the stairs somehow more daunting than the entire trip across the ocean.
 
I've arrived and taken that plunge in many other places since then. In Turkey, after my internship in Palestine in 2012, I woke up in the hostel in Sultanahmet, where I'd arrived a few days before the friend I was going to go WWOOFing with. I realized I was in a new country, on my own, where almost no one knew exactly where I was. It was equally terrifying and thrilling to feel untethered, like there was no ground underneath me.
 
In Tunisia, where I first traveled for work in 2013, I remember getting into the hotel in the early evening and staying in my room for the rest of the night and, somewhat inexplicably, crying. My mom had sent me with a "Fearless" chocolate bar and a lovely note referencing my own fearlessness. But at that moment, I didn't feel fearless. I felt terrified. I was scared to go out and explore and ashamed to feel that way, because just six months before I had traveled around the world, and I'd spent plenty of times in Middle Eastern countries before, and shouldn't I be an expert at this by now and ready to plunge into life in Tunis?
 
In Bangladesh, where I traveled for an internship in 2018, I arrived in the middle of a downpour and was struck with an overwhelming sense of "what on earth am I doing here, in a country where I know literally no one?" I got to my guesthouse and slept on and off for hours and hours – partly because I was exhausted from travel and partly because I was disoriented and couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t be. In my grey semi-wakefulness, I read the news about Anthony Bourdain and cried. In a weird way, I felt blessed that his death surfaced so much online writing about his life – about the enthusiasm he brought to the places he traveled and the food he ate – right at the beginning of my own travels. It felt like he was a guardian angel of my adventure, and I offered up a silent prayer to him when, two weeks later, I spent Ramadan in a rural village and ate cow brain at a baby blessing ceremony and knew this adventure would be a good one.
 
This time, arriving in Liberia, I reminded myself to be patient. By now I’ve learned that just because I've done it before doesn't make entering a new place, even one ostensibly similar to other places I've traveled, any easier. (And of course, now I’m in a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before.) This time I’m blessed with plenty of time to move slowly and ease my way in, to trust that I don’t need to master Monrovia immediately, to know I’m not a failure if I’m not out exploring every minute of every day. What a gift it will be to watch this new country slowly unfurl itself in front of me.