Thursday, November 21, 2013

Things that I have done today that are outside my comfort zone

  • Doing one activity-based budget and one budget for a no-cost extension  
  • Buying screws and plastic anchors to adhere my Ikea coat rack on the wall  
  • Using Chipotle hacks to maximize my burrito size (for someone who orders the exact same thing every time, this qualifies as daring)   
  • Writing a silly blog post about my everyday life

This post started with complaining over text message about how harrrrd everything is. I spent all day at work doing stuff that I sort of but don't totally understand how to do, and a huge volume of it all at once, and worked late into the evening at it. On the way home, I stopped at the hardware store for supplies for my “put furniture in the house and also have a place to put your clothes” efforts, which I swore I'd finish by the end of November and have therefore been consuming decent chunks of my evenings and weekends. Between a busy week at work and trying to get the apartment together in the evenings, I’m tired.

Austin and I were talking the other night about how adulthood seems to be a succession of doing things for the first time and figuring them out – which can feel like a constant uphill slog – and that hit me again in line while texting at Chipotle. And then the phrase "outside my comfort zone" popped into my head. 

Because really, that's exactly what all this harrrrrd adulting stuff is. Everyone, especially inspiration-minded twenty-something bloggers, loves talking about how important it is to push yourself outside your comfort zone, how that’s where the growth and magic happen. And I totally believe that. I even decided “grow in place” would be my phrase for 2013. 

“Leaving your comfort zone” usually conjures images of quit-your-job-and-buy-a-one-way-ticket travel, or getting comfortable with public speaking and blind dates, or various other colorful, random hijinks. I’ve been thinking of “growing in place” as the fun extracurricular activities that complement my day job – growing my first garden, looking for challenging extracurricular activities, maybe trying roller derby if I can get up the nerve for it.

But today I realized that the sometimes-mundane stuff of daily life can be just as life-enriching as the sexier stuff that populate everyone’s “25 by 25” lists, mine included. My work isn’t always thrilling, but it’s often challenging, falling into that sweet spot of being not-impossible but still a little outside the realm of what’s easy for me, and I’m growing as a professional as a result. As much as I wish I could have spent my November evenings on underwater basket weaving instead of constructing Ikea furniture and scouring Craigslist for a couch, I’ve been learning new things and getting a little more competent every day. (I had no idea until recently that you can have a bed with just a mattress, a box spring and a frame.) And “working hard” is outside everyone’s comfort zone – no matter how many hours we’re used to working, we’d probably all rather be watching Netflix. 

So this lovely, Pinteresty idea of “outside your comfort zone,” in practice, often feels like being stressed and confused and frustrated with tasks that seem mundane. Within the comfort zone of working and living in DC, there are plenty of opportunities to learn and grow on an everyday basis, not just when I decide to check off a bucket list item. 

 So here’s to being stretched, challenged, and sometimes a little overwhelmed in daily life.  That just might be where the magic happens.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Career Advice from Gertrude Bell

I just wrapped up what may be the first biography I’ve ever read for fun – I usually stick to literature and travel anthologies – on the life of Gertrude Bell, the lady traveler and TE Lawrence counterpart who helped form British policy during WWI and shape modern Iraq. It wasn’t perfect; the author mostly communicated Gertrude’s assessments on the Middle East of that era without a particularly critical eye or much historical analysis about how the stage was set for Iraq’s future conflicts.

But I see why people read biographies now. It was fascinating to read about her exploits and to glean some lessons for future exploits of my own. So below, my top career advice from that most daring of Victorian lady adventurers.

1. Most of what Gertrude chose to do (with the exception of some misadventures) was genuinely fun for her. Whether she was on an archaeological dig or traveling through the desert, her letters home consistently say that she’s having the time of her life, that it’s all quite a lark. She didn’t travel because she wanted awesome pictures for her blog – though she did clearly enjoy the attention it earned her at parties. Nor did she take herself too seriously – when she becomes the first female staff officer in the history of British military intelligence, she considers it quite “comic.”

Lesson: What’s fun need not correspond to what’s prestigious, just to challenging work that you get a kick out of on one level or another. There’s no point in seeking after achievements that don’t genuinely make you happy along the way.

2. The most valuable knowledge comes from people. Gertrude was able to supply relevant knowledge to the British government—and to contribute to mapping the tribes and debating whether to orchestrate an Arab revolt in the Cairo office—because of the relationships she had developed with various tribal sheikhs during her travels. And she had the ear of the British government in the first place because she had friends and society connections in the foreign ministry. She was well-read and well-educated—she read Hebrew for a fun break while studying Arabic —but her real knowledge came from her relationships.

Lesson: Ironically enough, this WWI-era story reinforced to me the importance of networking. This is something I’m definitely still working on. Book-learning suits me, and like most type-A folks, I hated group projects in school, but the working world is kind of like one giant group project.

3. She had doubts. In retrospect, her life looks perfectly designed, her mountaineering in Europe equipping her with skills to caravan through the desert, which equipped her with the knowledge to help shape British strategy in the Middle East during and after the war. During a risky trip to Hayyil, where she was held captive by the Rashid family, Gertrude frequently fretted that it was all an expensive and exhausting waste of time – but it was on that trip that she gained some of her most valuable insights into the region.

Lesson: You can be uncertain about what you’re doing with your career and your life, and it can still turn out awesome. You don’t have to know exactly where you want to end up as long as you’re moving in the direction of what fascinates you.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Letter from Mauritania: The Boats

I’m in the midst of ten days in what I’ve heard even Mauritanians refer to as the “least well-known country in Africa,” a country that is best known as one of the last vestiges of old-school slavery. I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the Middle East and Nouakchott is unlike any place I’d ever been. Well, some things are the same – the fierce craving it gives me for shawarma and Coke, the way religion permeates everyday life, the fact that I can understand more of Hassaniya Arabic than I expected. But it looks just about completely different. Nouakchott has only a handful of paved roads; compared to the near-constant risk of death by Cairo traffic, your biggest transit risk here is getting your car stuck in a sand dune. It’s a capital without a real history, a post-independence construct. And like my hometown of Washington, DC, almost no one is actually from here. But more than all that, Mauritania is located at the transition between North Africa and, umm, Africa Africa, and that’s reflected in its demographics and culture.
The result is fascinating – it’s kind of like a West African version of Sudan. There are three major ethnic groups: White Moors, or bidan, who have traditionally dominated the socioeconomic hierarchy; Black Moors or Haratines, whose ancestors were enslaved by the White Moors; and black Africans, who were never enslaved and who have some cultural and linguistic similarities with West African groups like the Pulaar, Soninke and Wolof. But I am not at all qualified to talk about the racial and cultural complexities of a country I’ve been in for four days, so I’ll leave it there and refer any interested readers to a good CNN piece on the subject.

One of Nouakchott’s main attractions is the port de pêche, where the fishing boats come in every afternoon with their catches. It was a fascinating place. Men, mostly Wolof and Fula, dressed in full-body waders (?), were hauling the boats onto shore for the night, singing as they worked to keep moving in the same rhythm. Kids frolicked in the waves and waved around handfuls of fish; women gathered in small groups and hawked fish in the beach market. In conclusion: I made some poor sartorial choices and now most of my clothes smell like fish guts.

Thus far, my big (and embarrassingly obvious) takeaway is that the world is huge and almost totally unknown to me. In all my travels, I’ve never had quite that reaction before. After all, I’d given a fair bit of thought to the Middle East before studying abroad in Egypt, and the Palestinian question is constantly on the global stage, even if it’s hard to imagine the details of life under occupation without experiencing it. There are plenty of developing countries that come onto our radar because they supply handicrafts to our favorite fair-trade store or because they experience awful conflicts that we feel guilty for not understanding better or doing more to stop (if only we had shared the Kony 2012 video!) or for probably abetting due to our cell phone purchases.
But Mauritania is a country that I (and most other westerners) basically never think about – and yet there are 3 million people here, living out their lives in what really does feel like a corner of the world. It’s not that they live in unimaginable poverty or anything (though Mauritania is one of the world’s least-developed countries), just that it’s not a place I’d ever really bothered to imagine until recently, and yet here it is.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Last Year in Jerusalem

(As part of this not-traveling blog, I’ll do the occasional travel retrospective to record what I didn’t have the time to when I was abroad – and this is an obvious place to start.)

This time last (liturgical) year I was in Jerusalem for Easter, on a day off from my internship in the West Bank, and it was awesome. I’m not a particularly religious person, but Catholicism was a major part of my education and upbringing. The Bible is the source of some of my favorite images and lines of poetry, and I like the Mass, with all its rituals and incantations, as an opportunity for reflection and meditation. So it was a rare opportunity to go stumbling around all through all that religious history, to see the settings of the stories and parables from the sprawling literary work that is the Bible.
The Garden Tomb, believed by many Protestants to be the burial site of Jesus; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Much of my Easter was spent exploring around the city to see what I stumbled upon. After stopping by an English-language service (an evangelical flavor, hands raised in praise) at the Garden Tomb, we went to the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the temporary resting place of Jesus. Inside the Greek Orthodox held sway for the time, celebrating Palm Sunday – men in long black garments, circling the tomb, carrying palms and banners; chanting, incense. 

I’d been in Jerusalem a couple of times before, but the one major religious sight remaining was the Dome of the Rock. It can be tricky to visit, as it’s closed off to non-Muslims on Fridays and during prayer times, and this was our last chance, so we were thrilled to be admitted in a brief window before prayers began. And it delighted my ecumenical little heart to finally make it there on Easter. (And, of course, it was tremendously unfair that I could experience Al-Aqsa on a weekend jaunt, while many of my Palestinian colleagues and students had lived not more than an hour or so away for their entire lives and been prevented from visiting.)

Following Al-Aqsa, I started wandering and ended up following the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus took to the cross, at least according to tradition. It was pretty cool to be walking that route on Easter – though sometimes it’s hard to let the history of a place sink into you as a tourist, because with the souvenir stalls and the guidebooks it can start to seem like it was all placed there for your entertainment.

From there, I stumbled into a Franciscan church in the middle of an Easter service. Finally: these were my people. I was surprised by that reaction, as the particularities of denomination have never been important to me. But in Jerusalem—bursting with every sect of every religion, all of them jousting for control of the various sites; a place where (according to my Lonely Planet), a priest sweeping the wrong tile could be descended upon by rival priests for fear of readjusting the status quo, the agreement by which the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and the Armenian Apostolics would control in perpetuity the same areas of the church they did at the time of the Ottoman decree—it’s easy to adopt the same mentality. You can be as picky as you like when choosing from such a lavish religious buffet. In my head, all of the various Christian denominations were like so many rival college teams.

The Garden of Gethsemane; on the Mount of Olives.
I wandered into the Church of St. Anne and paid brief homage to my patron saint while listening to a Spanish choir take advantage of the church acoustics. From there, I hiked towards the Mount of Olives and was taken by surprise to find the Garden of Gethsemane, the setting of one of my favorite verses. And then up to the Mount of Olives and its crowded cemeteries – because, according to Jewish tradition, it will be the first place the Messiah will walk and those will be the first people to be raised from the dead.

More than the sights, I loved the people-watching – of observing (or, more accurately, bumping into/pushing/jostling), in a pseudo-anthropological fashion, the throngs who’d come from all over the world to this holiest of cities on the holiest of days: sturdy American Protestants; Egyptian Christians, with visors and hard geems; and the regular, everyday flow of Muslims through the narrow streets of the old city. There’s something so powerful about all those people, all believing strongly in something, disagreeing on minor to major details – from who was the last and greatest prophet to whether the Messiah has arrived yet to whether that wafer really is Jesus – making their pilgrimages from near and far, as people have been doing for centuries.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Living with Certainty

I’ve been back from seven months of traveling for about seven months now and working at one organization for about six of them – so this has inadvertently become a not-traveling blog. 18 months after graduating college, I finally got a job that is a dream-job-at-this-stage-in-my-career, and I have a space of my own, and things are really, genuinely good.
Back in sophomore year of college, when I was looking for summer internships for the first time and feeling anxious, I decided that a basic tenet of adult life was learning to live with uncertainty. And for so long, not knowing whether and when I’d be employed and how things would all work out, that was my refrain. There was a period there where I wasn’t sure what country I’d be in next. (Though, you know, I usually had a pretty good idea. I was never really a proper backpacker drifting in and out of hostels and countries.)
As stressful as it was, there’s adrenaline and rawness to searching for a job – a feeling of living right on the edge of your version of the known world. There’s a sense of endless possibility, even if it’s clouded by anxiety – every time you see a promising listing on Idealist and get your hopes up, you’re trying on a different life.
Now that I’ve attained the holy grail of my post-collegiate life (a real, live 9-to-5 – be still my heart!) (I’m not being sarcastic; I am genuinely thrilled by this) things have switched up, and I’ve found that I have to learn to live with stability, with certainty. With living my daily life as it is instead of always looking for, trying to conjure up, what’s next. It’s weird to be looking down an indefinite span of days that will all be roughly similar, without the natural rhythms of the academic year to provide purpose and punctuation, rising and falling action. It’s also scary, in a way – you got what you wanted; is it living up to what you imagined it would be? And it’s given me the mental space to step back from the short-term pursuit of employment to consider the bigger questions about where my career and life are headed, and that’s a bit daunting, too.
None of that is to say that I would switch places with my unemployed self (at least the unemployed self who’d returned to America). But I’m afraid that certainty will make it easy to become stagnant, and I’ll find myself looking up from my desk in five years and wondering where the time went. So I’ve resolved to use my rootedness for pursuits that were harder to pursue when I was itinerant or devoting all my free mental space to finding a job, to invest in the daily life I worked to achieve, to stay aware and awake, to grow in place.