Friday, December 20, 2013

Turkey: Hour 1

When Lauren and I arrived in Istanbul, we had little to no idea of where we were going.  We knew the right metro stop to get off on—a woefully scant bit of knowledge towards arriving safely at our destination. We climbed out of the metro station, jet-lagged, disoriented, and quite suddenly in Turkey.  The thing was—I had forgotten to print off the map from the metro to their home—and our phones were useless until we found wifi.  Somehow, our combined logic led us to a not entirely incorrect decision (and I vouch for our combined not -altogether -ridiculous –and- mostly- sound-  logic leading us into  good places and situations for the rest of the trip).  We thought: MapàIphoneàwifiàcoffee shop?-->safety.  Had I been a vagabond traveler hundreds of years ago, and not a spoiled westerner with a tiny annoying robot that fits in my pocket and tells me what to do, the scene would have looked quite different.  I imagine we would have wandered around donned in worn brown travelers cloaks, offering silver pieces to kind locals, in exchange for valuable information such as, “where be thy abode of so and so? I beg thee!”  We also may have said things like, “We are weary and have eaten naught but a stray donkey on our travels!” Also, we would have been 20 years older and wiser than when we had left wherever we were coming from.   Instead, we are annoying, bumbling Americans a mere 24 hours older than when we had left (and not much wiser to show for those hours) who spill into coffee shops with hideously large high-tech backpacks and use up the wifi in exchange for a paltry order of tea and coffee.  And know no Turkish.  The area we were in was very metropolitan and had a serious dearth of sky-flung mosques and whirling dervishes.  We were in quite possibly the Turkish equivalent of Robert street in West St. Paul.  Not a bad place, to be fair, but not the sort of place that puts one at ease.  It was perhaps partly this that led to the horrible and wonderful thing that happened next.  

But wait!  First!  We found a map!  And it utterly befuddled us.  L.auren and I, although equipped with some meager life-preserving logic, are not true Renaissance women in the sense of cartography.  Neither together, nor apart, are we accomplished beings when it comes to maps, directions, and generally getting places.  A mere spoke in the wheels, as they say!  For, we outsourced our problem to a delightful young man in America, who somehow found us a better map from thousands of miles away which my robot phone then showed me.  We both felt impending victory fresh on our tongues! Speaking of which, I also couldn’t quite feel my tongue at this point, owing to my first powerful cup of Turkish coffee!  So it was with heavy tongues and light hearts that we fumbled our way through paying our bill (and googling tip culture in Turkey of course).  The dark glance of our waiter couldn’t get us down!  We were in Turkey! We were really here! We were doing it!  And no, we didn’t know how to say “thank you” or anything of significance, but at least we were going to do one small valuable thing correctly—that is find the place we needed in order to sleep instead of god knows what on the busy night alleys of Istanbul! We got up to leave, which actually is harder than it appears when you have a large backpack with dangly straps and sleeping bags hanging off of it, and somehow in the midst of this action, something terrible happened.  Something exploded on the ground next to me!  Had I been shot?  Where was i?  No, a shot it was not, what it was was my tiny Turkish coffee cup exploding into a million pieces after I swept it off the table accidentally.  Now, I’ve never seen anything explode quite like this before, so it must have been the particular angle of impact, for this tiny cup made the most extraordinarily loud and flagrant spectacle of flying glass I have ever seen.  It took me a second or two of shock to realize the truth, and then once the glass had settled, I did, I looked around to see aghast and angry Turkish people all glaring at Lauren and I with our big stupid backpacks and clumsy glass-exploding tendencies.  The couple next to us disdainfully brushed shards of glass off their sleeves.  No one said nary a word.  And here’s where my logic failed me.  For a moment, I bent down, hastily, with the ludicrous idea of helping pick up the grenade coffee cup I had just set off---millions of tiny pieces of glass.  Then, a second later, I realized that a bleeding American would quite possibly accelerate the hostility even more. So, I mumbled a few unhelpful things in English and then “okay, we’re going to go now” when I realized that I didn’t know how to say sorry in Turkish.  And so we stepped gingerly over the glass disaster and ran out of the coffee shop. 

It was only later that Lauren and I realized what I should have done, perhaps not culturally appropriate, but still a better situation.   When the unfortunate glass explosion occurred, instead of the mumbling and running, I should have yelled “Mazel Tov!” and gone about my business.  So, that’s not even  remotely close to the tradition of glass breaking at Jewish weddings, but it would at least have distracted and redirected things.

I realize this isn't a great stand-alone blog post, and that I got too carried away with one stupid embarrassing thing that happened to us on our first day, but unfortunately it's just what came out when I started writing.  There were totally other things in Istanbul too besides the exploding glass, and I'll get around to them soon!

Mazel Tov,
Ilse


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The real reason I'm going to Turkey today?

Is because I thought it would be funny to be in Turkey for Thanksgiving.  Now, I give you permission to opt out of reading at this point, since this blog after is all is being written by someone who makes grandiose decisions based off of mediocre puns.

Lets lay those doubts to bed!  To give further evidence of my robust mental faculties, I offer up this anecdote: I gave myself 20 minutes this morning to pack for the trip!  That's actually a lot more than 5 minutes!  I also used the following logic in deciding what shoes to bring: 1 pair of boots that are too big + 1 pair of running shoes that are too small, together equal 1 well fitted pair of shoes.  The real joke there is going to be on my feet!

So, the last 10 months I have been living rather peacefully in the Twin Cities.  I've had many blogpost ideas cross my mind, but they all lacked the visceral nature of my posts from Uganda.  Simply put, I haven't been living in a hut, going slowly insane, and getting into the sort of bizarre cross-cultural situations that are fun to write about.  I'm hoping that this ill-planned trip to Turkey/Europe will launch some more story-telling, for I certainly expect to find myself knee-deep in confusion by tomorrow.

My plan?  Istanbul--->Bucharest, Romania--->Prague, Czech Republic--->Copenhagen, Denmark-->Leiden, Holland-->Back home.

Join me as I fumble my way across some wondrous locations!

Love and Letchuga,
Ilse


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Salsa

Today for food I ate a large container of pumpkin soup and 1/2 pound of salsa.  Like, I mostly just spooned salsa into my mouth.  I'm gaining what I imagine to be a very strange reputation at work. I know it was a 1/2 pound because that was the amount I ordered at the mexican supermarket.  And then I ate all of it. 

At work, I also helped a little girl make a life plan for how she would achieve her long-term goal of learning how to play the keyboard. The last step of her plan was "By age 12 I will know how to play the keyboard."  I find it slightly alarming that she's already 11 and a half.  Is this a realistic goal?  Where can I find a keyboard? 

Then after some more serious things, I biked home in 10 degree weather in funny clothing.

Once I was home, I bought a small stuffed animal cat for my friend so it would magically ship to him.  I did this over the internet.

Now I'm just finishing up this blog about salsa.  That's why I started writing this certain blog, because I was thinking about how much salsa I ate and how sick I feel now. 

I hope tomorrow is as good as today!



Friday, September 20, 2013

Bow Hunting skills, Computer Hacking Skills

I’m so amazed with people who have skills.  Turns out most people I know have useful skills.  People can do extraordinary things such as fix bikes, write programs, be doctors, fill out forms, do taxes, be accountants, teach students all day, plan weddings, bake cakes, give CPR, cross-country ski, braid their hair, put on nice outfits, paint pretty pictures, fix broken shit, make toothpaste, write grants, coach soccer, drive buses, make documents look nice, use excel, engineer things, play bizarre instruments, make nice speeches, go to grad school, buy houses,  talk to other adults, sew shit, organize their rooms, put on eyeliner, make pottery… HOLY CRAP!! I am absolutely wide-eyed with wonder at how many skills people have. 
I have very soft skills.  That’s a really nice way to say that I can’t do anything practical.  On the other hand, I excel at things like day-dreaming, making up stories, and generally being kind to people.    I am exceptional in vague qualities such as listening, relating, musing, imagining, and dreaming.  I have no idea how I have gotten through life on these skills alone. I think it’s mostly because the majority of my time up until several years ago has been spent in school.  I am a good student; school is where I shine the most.  I get to spend almost all my time reading, listening, thinking, and then making shit up.  It was great for me.  It was a sanctuary in which I needed very little practical skills.  I feel like a fish out of water now, even in a world that ‘celebrates soft skills.’  As it turns out, today’s most lauded ‘soft skills’ include being able to do all sorts of mysterious stuff to computers and ipads, and these skills I certainly don’t have.  I have the sort of soft skills that would have been recognized in rural England in the 1700s.  It’s to the point where the word ‘soft’ doesn’t even accurately describe what skills I do have.  Perhaps ‘fluffy’ would do the trick.  I honestly have no idea why anyone would ever hire me.  I should probably be arrested for being a generally unhelpful citizen.   

I’m trying, pretty fiercely, these days to acquire some useful skills.  It’s really cool to be able to tell someone that you know how to play the violin, how to do math, or how to bake chocolate chip cookies.  I’m totally perplexed throughout my bike maintenance classes, but still trying.  I have multiple seizures whenever I have to do budgeting stuff for my job .  I can’t get by on my good looks and fluffy skills alone.  When people in my line of work start getting all technical with me, I black out.  I don’t even know how to interact with my people my age.  Technical this, finance that, programulate programualte, and all I can say for myself is that I’m really great at listening to music and taking the bus.  Hey! That actually might be a skill. 


All to say, that I apologize if I drive you nuts over my lack of practical skills.  I may not be able to get from point A to point B easily, and I may not know exactly what you are talking about or how you know the things you do, but I deeply admire your abilities and focus in all these mysterious details and agonizingly complex logistics of life.  And, I’m really trying. 

Napoleon Dynamite had it right.  It's sexy to have skills. Thank you all for your work! 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hogwashery


There are all these articles circulating about the mild panic that descends on a woman in her mid to late twenties.  Regarding? Oh the usual things.  Being single and childless.  Having nothin’ to say for yourself, I guess.  Hogwash, I say!  Utter hogwash.  If you are feeling these twinges, then you will most likely end up hitting these milestones. 

I haven’t felt even the slightest degree of panic about these supposed gaps in my life.  In fact, my panic usually descends when one of these much-lauded milestones seems to move even several millimeters closer to future life reality.  I will go out of my way, at this point, to guarantee that I will not get married and have babies.  I won’t go as far to presume that this will never change about me, but from where I stand now, this is how I feel. 

We are all different, you see.  Some of us aspire to entirely different milestones than the usual cultural or biological ones.  That’s the whole reason why articles about that, while intended to be enlightening, totally irritate me.  It frames everything around the same traditions that I wish to flagrantly disregard.  It’s like a vehement atheist who can only frame his or her belief system around the absence of a god, rather than revealing more meaningful glimpses into their spirituality that have nothing to do with the concept of a god at all.

I don’t really see these oh-I’m so untraditional and 27 and unmarried and without career or children but starting to get nervous when people talk about it and probably want to do these things anyway so I’m not a failure as a woman- articles as feminist at all. They just further validate that our role as women, at the end of the day, really IS to be a mother and a wife.  Or have a successful career.  Basically to have something culturally-validated to say about themselves.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.  But for the love of Thor and Odin, frame yourself in a context that uniquely fits you. Comparison to others is the most abstract thing a person can do and also the most hurtful.  Reading articles like that simply makes a young woman compare herself to millions of faceless young women, rather than looking within herself to see how much she has grown as an individual over the years, and smile over the infinities of tiny and meaningful moments she has had with herself and others. 

Right, so the fact that I sacrifice a goat to the gods of fortune every morning I wake up and am marvelously unmarried and without small children who belong to me, is perfect for me.  The fact that my milestones are seemingly small, innocuous, or bizarre when compared to tangible things like using my ovaries and paying lots of money to become really territorial with one person, doesn’t matter.  I hope to always celebrate the happiness’s of others, in whatever form they may come in.  Celebrating the marriage of two different couples this summer were the highlights of the season for me, because it was right for them and it made them happy.  What also makes me happy? That these same blissfully-wedded friends appreciate and are also engladdened at the events and things in my life that make me happy. 

We are who we are who we are.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

So much depends upon a red wheel barrow




This last weekend, I reached a personal milestone.  I biked for more than 100 miles!  I spent the weekend on a bike tour with Cycles for Change, in which we all raised at least $200 to support the community programs, and then enjoyed three days of biking through the rolling yellow hills of western Wisconsin, touring farms, and making fresh food.  It was, without a doubt, the most beautiful scenery I have ever experienced on bike.  Both the gateway trail and the farm country of Wisconsin were stunning.  We even came across this red barn with this famous poem written on it....Tis needless to say that I have been bitten by the bike touring bug.  I’m already planning a trip that I had initially wanted to do this last summer but was overall way too soon for me between getting back from Peace Corps, settling in, and all that.  Next summer, I’m going to bike between LA and San Francisco-hopefully in about 2 weeks, and visit my two brothers who live in those respective locations.  I’m going to call it the Big Brother Bike Tour 2014.  It gives me almost a year to figure out all the logistics, and possibly get another bike that’s better for touring.  The first step starts tomorrow, as I begin my month-long basic bike maintenance course at Cycles for Change.  Perhaps a breeze for many, things that involve using my hands in artful and practical ways are nothing short of terrifying for me.  I have atrocious fine motor skills and am flagrantly stupid at anything practical.  It will be a challenge.


There was a teenager on the bike tour who was surprised that I was 26.  She told me that I didn’t seem that old because I was so approachable and didn’t talk about things like business and work and money and houses.  That was about as much validation as I could ever desire.  And, seeking validation is okay, too.  At the end of the day, I feel like we are all just peeking from behind our hands at our peers, our eyes wide and urgent with the question, “Am I okay?  Do you like me?  Am I okay?”  So, thanks for that, Moira.  You are more than okay in my books.

Not entirely related but I’ve been thinking a lot about the values we are indoctrinated in as children and adolescents!  (It is the start of the school year, after all).  It’s amazing.  We find ourselves believing all sorts of negative things about ‘alternative’ lifestyles.  Like, orgies are bad, polyamory is bad, being gay is bad, drugs are bad, homelessness is bad, vulgarity is bad…truly the most gratifying part of ‘growing up’ has been the slow unveiling surrounding these cultural values we have. To reveal?  Nothing is bad.  This was further cemented over a beer with old friends yesterday when we came to the conclusion what life is all about: 
 "It's all about doing weird things and not calling them weird"

As a further extension of a previous blog post where I ranted and raved about beautiful imperfections and quirks, I’d like to say again that what makes you different or unseemly or edgy or crusty or dirty or weird is also probably what makes you excellent and okay.




Saturday, August 24, 2013



Her goal in life, of course, was to open herself up to the universe.  Her life, ideally an enfolding process, where she starts out like a tough impenetrable little nut and unfolds slowly towards the ideal surface area to volume ratio.  A heavenly shape.  Where she absorbs as much of the universe as possible while at the same time secreting her own inner radiance outwards from herself.  She gauges herself to be somewhere in between a peanut and universal love right now.  Perhaps roughly the shape of a cut-out doll.  Still not completely expansive, or even realistic.  Flat, after all.  She is mimicking her end goal.  But, it’s not real yet.  It’s a sad, simpering version of the loving universal being she so longs to be.  She’s a flimsy thing that young girls cut out from plastic books, play with vividly for 2 weeks, and then accidentally throw away in the recycling along with cheerio boxes. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

You were right about the stars.

It’s perhaps no great secret that I wasn’t at my best while in Uganda.  Physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, I was struggling.  It was easily the hardest and lowest two years of my life. 

That’s not to say that my experience wasn’t worthy or even positive.  I had many wonderful days, I formed more than a few lasting relationships with both Ugandans and with fellow volunteers.  I plodded forward with several good projects in my community.  I made some delicious food.  I went on a few wonderful vacations.  I enjoyed sunrises, sunsets, the warm laughter of neighbors, and I marveled at the culture and traditions around me.  I spent nearly every day besides my best friend.   I learned, I smiled like a goof, and I drank delicious warm Congolese beer with priests.  I watched giraffes lope over hills and I ate ripe fruit off of the trees in my yard.  I lived simply and thoughtfully. 

I tried to focus on these positive things, especially when talking to loved ones and on my blog.  I made fierce efforts to recount funny, awkward stories instead of writing in hopeless, bleak sentences about enduring another day spent hiding in my house. 

Recently another Ugandan RPCV came to visit me, and we inevitably found ourselves talking about Uganda.  It was where we had met and become friends, so of course we did.  Partway into our conversation, I started panicking.  Feelings resurfaced, and my body became tense.  I don’t think either of us had spoken so candidly to other volunteers about our experiences, since leaving.  At least not beyond the funny surface stories, and the safe memories about volunteer conferences or parties.  That rush of anxiety and panic was not an uncommon sensation to me while in the Peace Corps.  In many ways, that was a large part of my experience.  Like many volunteers, I experienced great anxiety, stress, and sometimes depression while in Uganda.  The days didn’t pass.  The sun was always out.  There were so many days to pass. 

 

I was absolutely a shell of myself for most of my time in Uganda.  Early on, I started numbing my feelings, emotions, and reactions.  I felt neither the exhilarating highs nor the paralyzing downs in the way that I normally would.  I became a stilted, abbreviated, stunted version of myself, and existed almost entirely in a shade that blocked out both the sun and the night.  I looked forward to little.  I, inadvertently, staved off the friendly advances of other volunteers, and missed out on many friendships.  I was antisocial, clammed up, and far too even-keeled.  Those of you who know me, will perhaps know me as a person of extremes.  I’m easy to read and can vary from exuberant social butterfly to moody introvert.  I was neither of those things in Uganda.  I was moderate, stagnant, mild, dulled.  I had none of my normal extremes; neither vibrancy nor even morose introspection.  I shut myself off.  I was no longer a life force. 

All this to say that I’m happy now.  Sure, it may be the long summer days and nights, the time spent with friends and family, but it’s more than that.  I feel like myself again.  I feel bolder, stronger, more prone to emotions, weirder, more extreme.  I feel unapologetically and uniquely myself.  I feel excited about doing things and about seeing people.  I cherish the few moments a week I spend alone with myself doing nothing, but I also relish the bizarre and busy lifestyle that I keep up.  I make mistakes and then I laugh or cry about them.  They become part of me.  I become more and more me every day. 

I have seen two friends get married in the last month. I have sat on prickly grass and picnic tables and listened to music under a summer night sky.  I have won a t-shirt at a German drinking establishment for polishing off 3 boots of beers with friends.  I have consistently gotten less than 8 hours of sleep a night  for months.  I have ridden my bike all the way to Minneapolis just to get a drink with an old friend and then biked back.  I’ve been hung-over, full, excited, annoyed, exhausted, exhilarated, and loved.  I have spent time with brothers, best friends, family. 

I feel wild.  Thank you, everyone, for your love, laughter, and companionship. 

 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Calling all writers!

Dear friends,

I have a terrifically simple idea that is making me stupidly excited.  I'm now four years gone from my thesis writing; a frenzied semester of coffee shops, writer meet-ups, and frantic scribbling.  I'm happy to be where I am in my life now, but I really miss having a community of writers around me to  inspire, challenge, edit, talk books, and drink coffee/wine with.  I miss the coffee house culture, the long evenings spent with laptops touching back to back and postal service playing in the background for inspiration (I'm thinking of you, Sarah N. and Travis V!). 

I'm lucky to have several friends with whom I have writerly exchanges over email, sometimes with longer gaps in between stories sent.  They don't live in the Twin Cities however, and I regret not being able to interact with them face to face.  Their support is sometimes the only force propelling me forward and causing me to challenge myself. 

My idea is to form a Twin Cities micro-community of writer-friends who do exactly that: support and challenge each other.  It's really powerful to physically sit next to a like-minded friend who is doing exactly what you are doing; yanking words, sentences, and images from their brains into typed or written word.  Feeling that energy and focus can often make one more productive than if they were writing alone. 

A beatboxing artist told me yesterday that the key to mastering any art (or at least improving at it) is repetition.  He was returning from the restroom and I noticed that he was beatboxing under his breath as he walked back to the classroom.  He lives his art right up to the very mundane moments of life.  It's become part of his stride, his breath, his daily patterns.   Right, I've heard that, and I know it, but it still stuck with me.  Of course.  Of course it's hard to just sit down and write randomly in the middle of the week and expect good results and easy flow.  It's something that requires practice, repetition, consistency. 

I propose the start of Writerday.  It's a day of the week, like any other.  It's a day started or ended with a few hours of solid focus, creativity, and of course, writing.  Hopefully around a coffee table, grassy knoll, or bar with other like-minded friends.  I'm thinking that the best day for Writerday would be Saturday.  Perhaps starting in the late morning and lasting for several hours, or however long it takes to get some writing out.  I want to make it consistent and around the same time every week so that I gain some muscle memory whenever I sit down with a computer or notepad on that day.  Writerday does not have to be an all-day affair.  Saturday will still also be heard and respected, and indulged in.  I just want to start that day off every week with a specific mindset and focus and community that supports and challenges me to simply write more.  It would also be a great way to get out on a Saturday and see more of the cities, take walks, eat delicious food, and see each other.

Any interest or feedback? Is Saturday a good day for this?

Love and Lunch,
Ilse

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dear America


Dear America,

 6 months back as your resident, as a pedestrian to your streets, an observer to your rituals, a face in your crowd, I have a lot of questions.  How is it that your history has been rewritten and immortalized in colorful school textbooks when its omissions scream silently from the sidelines?  How is it that a country like you can still have sidelines? 

We prize ourselves on liberty, justice, freedom, in a country where we imprison and alienate many.  Our prisons are overflowing.  Our schools are failing.  Our children are divided.  We have accomplished little on this day besides setting some things on fire.  We are on fire.  Dear America, killer of nations, imprisoner, slave-holder, rapist—your many ‘accomplishments’ belie the true nature of things.  A country of convenience, we have covered up a litany of crimes against humanity.   We have conveniently written entire communities out of our history.  It’s not convenient to remember these things.  We raise our white privileged children well.  They learn about Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, the first of many white men who take front and center in American history.  If you want to learn about African Americans, there is an alternative class you can take at university, but until then, you won’t see people of color as makers of history, as people who breathed life into communities, who struggled and saved and loved and cried tears into the rivers of the Midwest and the deltas of the south.  As people who lived.  As the Native American people who were clawed, murdered, and torn out of their native land.  America, we are liars.  History isn’t a book, or a page you can turn or rip out.   History is us, and is written into our daily interactions, into our income, into our relationships, and into our quality of life. 

I’m so goddamn ashamed of you, America.  Ashamed of me.  Our history is not a complicated one.  It’s main theme;  the othering and subjugation of others.  It’s the only story our America has.  Since the raising of the smoky and bloody star spangled banner to the fireworks and beer of yesterday, it’s our only story.  If we want to tell it the way we have, with only white Europeans starring front and center, then it will always be a story of murder and oppression.  Until we change the uniquely narrow view that we frame our world around, America will be a place purely framed off of acts of genocide and slavery. 

On the other hand, if we start America’s story thousands of years ago, we would have different sort of history altogether.  A tapestry of stories about a land inhabited and worshipped by thousands of families until. 

Until.  And that’s when our America comes in. 

If we aren’t careful, Americans, we will always be the bad news to come after ‘until.’  We will always provide the rupture, the tear, the trauma in others lives.  There’s nothing remotely impressive or noteworthy about July 4th.  For most people, it was just another day to watch family members die at the hands of white Europeans, and another day to lose their former freedom and life. 

These borders are carved in loss and violence.  What freedom we have is not shared by all. 

Instead of seeing every fourth of July as a day to wear patriotic colors and wave flags, lets try to make it a day of discussion and reflection.  It’s an easy day for complacence, but the only way things will ever get better for communities of color is if we shake off that complacence and stop teaching out of the same history books we all learned from.  We need a massive paradigm shift in the way we choose to remember our nation, and the way we choose to frame ourselves in the story.  We should all grow up feeling connected to America’s past, whether it’s our past as slavers and imperialists, or our past as native people.  It is what happened and it is what we as communities wrought upon others. We all have convenient stories of ancestors immigrating to America a hundred years ago, long after the civil war, long after slavery, long after the trail of tears…we all have safe dates.  Those dates don’t matter.  We aren’t exempt.  We are all implicit in the very fact that racism, oppression, and slavery still exist to this day.  We can’t say things are better or that there is freedom until it is that way for all people in America.  We can’t change the past.  We can however change the way we tell our story as Americans, as a start, in hopes that if we tell the true story it can help us move towards rewriting the part we are in now. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Infinite


We talk of cultures around the world, enviously, as if we have lost ours somewhere far in the past.  Not remembering, that to live is to have a culture.  We have our personal cultures and our family cultures and our national cultures.  I’m working on my own now.  I’m an intricate archeological dig of my past, my ancestors, my interests, my friends,  my peculiarities, my love, my hope, my present.  Every day I work to uncover more of myself until someday I will unfold completely into a heavenly shape with a divine ratio of surface area to volume.  Love in, love out. Love in, love out.   

I want to wrap myself, like a fat vine, around the experiences and living things around me.  I want to sit on a shady bench and observe what goes by for hours.  I’m hungry for friendship these days.  Like a satisfying growl in my stomach, I feel content with my friends.  I long for them, but I enjoy them when they are around, too.  I’m crazy about what they do and how they smile.  I’m here to exchange love with others and act like a complete doofus along the way.  I’m also here to be introspective, silent, watchful, at peace.  I’m here to make decisions that are neither good nor bad but strange and of my making, and see how the universe reacts.  I’m here to admire, dance, smile, and seek.  I’m here to dissolve boundaries and categories and expectations and color outside of the lines.  I have never understood the importance of adhering to these things.  Everyone gets around in their own way and sees different scenery along the way.  I want to hear about the stories that world has, the stories a single human holds within them, the sound of summer at night.  We have such rich cultures within us. 

I once formed a small but essential part of a dinosaur’s tail.  My atoms were there, and I facilitated the slow swinging, the sacred sense of balance that a tail provides.  A long-neck dinosaur, with its thick grace and large eyes.  I was there.  Everyone else was, too.  We were different but still us.  We’ve passed through so many forms of ourselves, so many different rearrangements of our molecules.  We have been here since there was a here.  We’ve been humble plants, elegant animals, sad humans.  We’ve been dirt and air-bound and eggplant.  We have such memories that it’s a blessing we can’t access all of them.  We are part of each other and inseparable from each other.  What a relief to remember on days of stagnant selfish  ipad isolation.  We are each other and we are ourselves.  I don’t have a good sense of balance now---I stumble clumsily throughout my life---but it’s a relief to realize that I once provided an essential element of balance in a single dinosaur’s life as it lumbered its large feet over dusty ground. 

 

You are infinite. 

Also, HAPPY PRIDE WEEKEND!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Break em' on down, these walls between us.

What’s going on in my brain right now:

  I spent a good two years forgetting about America and painting a brighter picture of it.  People are…better off in America. They go to school, they go to college, they have good jobs, they have stable families, they take care of each other.  I heard these same things echoed by my Ugandan friends, and it started to make sense.  I think I started to believe it, too.  That, compounded with the fact that I had spent the first 23 years of my life in very lucky circumstances, in progressive middle-class settings like academies, universities, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps. .  I grew in an extraordinarily stable, loving, supportive family.  I didn't confront anything particularly difficult, outside of school work, and my own emotional peculiarities.  God, I was lucky.  I’m still lucky.  We all create our own universes, and so mine in my adolescence, was not centered around the rest of the world, but the world that I saw and touched and interacted with every day.  I didn't see myself as lucky.  I saw myself as Ilse.  So, of course I remembered America as a blessed place.  I had been passed smoothly and comfortably through a great school system.  Most of my friends were college graduates, and no matter their difficulty with finding jobs after graduation, they were already better off them many other Americans our age. 

So, maybe I didn't forget about America.  I never knew America. 

Not all of America is lucky.  When I met a fellow American in Uganda, we had an instant bond, regardless of other dividing factors like race or beliefs.  We were American.  Bold, loud, progressive, adventurous.  I caught myself seeing all Americans as my compadres.  Living so far away from home bonded us to each other, simply because we reminded each other of our families and homes in Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California.  We all knew what Starbucks was.  How much traffic sucks.  How silly our politics are.  How great micro-brews are. 

How I never noticed, how I wasn't always hyper-aware of the divisions and inequalities is completely beyond me.  My brain was still developing, right?  It was just lucky again, to not be aware of this.  Many Americans, no matter how young, are constantly aware of racism, classism, inequality, prejudice, and bigotry because it comes to their front door. It stares them down on the street, it taps them on the shoulder, it pulls them over while all other cars continue.  It keeps them from jobs, from opportunities, from security, from stability.  I know of these things now from observation and from reading.  I don’t know these things from personal experience, and I probably never will.  I look Scandinavian. I am innocuous in a crowd.  I have few stereotypes going up against me, besides the one that has been built off of centuries of genocide and racism…I’m white.  I am part of a race known for its bigotry, rape, killing, racism, oppression, colonization…and above all, for being the luckiest people on earth. 

That stereotype is not misplaced, and it’s not ‘counter racism.’ I will never experience racism against me.    It  will never approach that which people of color deal with daily.  The racism we have in America is an established institution.  It’s as settled as the church.  It has seeped and steeped into all parts of our lives.  It’s air around us. 

The standard of living I looked back upon fondly from Uganda, was a standard of living experienced by other middle-class, often white young people.  Yes, most of these people go to college.  They are expected to.  It’s part of the culture.  Many of these people are also implicitly expected to specialize further and go to grad school and then be able to live comfortably for their lives.  Meanwhile, thousands of young people of color come from households where it’s not even an expectation to go to or finish high school.  Where getting your child to school every day is not realistic between the demands and challenges of the household and family.  Where rides in safe cars don’t materialize right at 7:30 am and 3:30 pm to shuttle you between school and home.  Where there is no safe home to return to. 

There is no great difference in the school-going culture I witnessed in my village in Uganda and the school-going culture experienced by low income families in America.  I remember thinking about how hard it was to get students to come to school reliably and attend my after-school programs in Uganda. Attendance was so low and so variable to many factors.  Transport was always an issue.  I thought that Americans never had issues with this…kids attended programs, and had rides, and supportive parents.  I now run a teen group after-school, and if I thought it would be as easy as congregating a group of soccer players  from the suburbs, I now know better.   If anything, low income families have much more to go up against in America, because they often don’t have the same security of family land and farming that Ugandans do, and also because Ugandans don’t have an entirely different and elitist and removed and prejudiced class of people to go up against. 

We can’t help what we are.  As Eckhart Tolle once said, 

"The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identifications. None of these is you." 

Right.  None of these IS you.  To forget that, is a huge mistake.  You can’t get swept up in waves of hatred for the group or race you belong to, because groups are made of individuals who are different and special.  But, and now I’m speaking to myself; you can’t be complacent.  It’s so easy to be complacent and take for granted your 4 cozy years at an ivy league college, your relatively easy entry into the workforce, your ease with and interest in writing and reading, your decision to get a masters in English literature, your access to a life devoid of the regular often-inescapable problems experienced by most other humans, your ability to buy food and coffee and wine, your consistently functioning car, your stable family life, your healthy body, your healthy mind…

I recently read the Princeton commencement speech given by a former professor turned federal chairman Ben Bernanke and it was great because it wasn’t an “Oh- the places you’ll go!” sort of speech, but rather a valuable look at the sheer luck of the graduates.  He gives 10 commandments/bits of advice for the graduates, and while some of them are humorous, I found two in particular to be incredibly valuable. 

    3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate--these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

4. Who is worthy of admiration? The admonition from Luke--which is shared by most ethical and philosophical traditions, by the way--helps with this question as well. Those most worthy of admiration are those who have made the best use of their advantages or, alternatively, coped most courageously with their adversities. I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect--and help, if necessary--than many people who are superficially more successful. They're more fun to have a beer with, too. That's all that I know about sociology.

In all honesty, no college grad anywhere wants to here this when they have spent 4 years busting their asses writing philosophy papers and reading British Literature.  They feel on top of the world and quite possibly proud that they managed to graduate with relatively good grades considering all the binge drinking they did on Thursday nights.  I’m assuming that the large crowd of robed (and some hungover) Princeton grads possibly zoned out during this speech.  I had no idea what my commencement speaker was on about during my graduation. 

But- what a remarkable message to pass on.  He did cover some of the more typical graduate points earlier in the speech when he spoke about the uncertainty of the future and the difficulty of life as a 22 year old entering the world—but then this!  That these graduates, along with many others around the country and world, are goddamn stupid lucky.  That in their bright, young, fresh luck, they must take on the responsibility of helping others, of looking beyond their narrow lives to the rest of the world.  That they must share their bright spark of luck with the rest of the world. 

And then—my favorite part, that while it is indeed admirable to graduate with honors from an ivy league university—a venerable old institution-- that it is far more admirable to live amongst adversity and carve out a life from hard work, perseverance, and sheer hope.  With no degrees, connections, and wealth to help out along the way.  !

This isn’t to belittle the great academic undertakings and successes that many Americans have.  It is to understand that not all Americans are fortunate enough, or can realistically be expected to have these same enriching and privileged experiences.  That perhaps your great skill with writing is more a testament to your background—the encouragement given by parents, the enrichment classes, the leisure time to read, the ability to go to college—and that a single mom moving to a new neighborhood so that her young son can attend a better public school is above and beyond a greater accomplishment. 

In my teen group, we recently did a training on resume-building.  I brought my resume as an example, resplendent with honors, extracurricular activities, volunteering, altogether too many “corps” experiences. Itzel, a 16 year old girl, has only been in America for a year. She spent most of her life living with her grandmother in Mexico.  We went around the room, highlighting what we could each put on our resumes.  Some of the teens had impressive sports experience, a few had volunteered, several were in clubs or student government at school.  Itzel had nothing on her resume, besides the teen group that she was currently participating in.  She wants to apply to Cub Foods soon and is worried her resume won’t be good enough. She tells me that she loves our group because she gets the chance to use her English, that at her high school no one talks to her.  The other teens in our group barely talk to her, but it’s still a great opportunity for her.  Itzel wants to be a nurse, and during a recent career- finder exercise, found that she would be well-suited to be a nurse-midwife.  Being a midwife pays an average salary of 80,000 dollars a year. It also requires post graduate education.  Itzel wanted to know what that meant, and we told her that it meant additional schooling after graduating from college.  Itzel would make an exceptional nurse.  She loves children; yesterday we volunteered to make dinner and play with younger kids, and she was wonderful with the small kids.  She is smart, responsible, dependable, and calming.  No one deserves a brighter, better future than her.  I’m so afraid that her heavily accented English, her lack of ‘extracurricular/clubs/sports’ (our peculiar obsession in America…how we can ask even more of our kids beyond just showing up to class) will keep her from even being considered at colleges and jobs.  What I can do?  I plan to connect her with a volunteering/internship opportunity at a hospital if I can, and also meet up with her this summer to play soccer so that she can try out next fall at her high school.  She likes soccer. 

What we can do as lucky young people, is help other young people who have to jump through about 10,000 more hoops, cut down 6,00 more barriers, and answer 2,000 more questions to be able to do the things that we see as ‘routine’ and ‘expected’ such as get into college and get a job worthy of us. 
Great examples of this?  My parents, for one.  What they do with the majority of their time is exactly this.  They empower people from all walks of life to take care of themselves and their families. They connect people to resources.  The most admirable thing is that they look neither down nor up at people, they simply look at them. 

The people I work with are really excellent; most of them are people of color which enables them to work even better with the participants in our agency.  They connect families with resources, offer counseling, help youth see college as a possibility instead of a mirage, provide kids with role models and mentors.  With their life experience, perseverance, and perspective, I often feel like a lame duck in comparison.  Like many in the states, their road to success has been all up-hill, and rather than sitting where they are now and just admiring the view, they have already begun to share their knowledge, education, and love with their communities.  They are front-line workers and embody my vision of social workers and community builders. 

Like the Tolle quote from before,   it doesn't and shouldn't matter what we do or what we do well or what we look like or what we know or what we believe.  That’s not us as individuals.  If being a wall street banker or politician is what you do, it doesn't mean you are petty or smarmy or elitist.  It also doesn't signify intelligence, or betterness.  If we raise our children to be bankers, writers, professors, lawyers, doctors, we have to go the extra mile and also raise them to see these careers and lives as privileged, and lucky.  We need them to grow as critical thinkers who view a college education as a gift and a conscious choice, not as a baseline expectation or a norm.  That people who don’t have the choice or the chance to do or experience what we do (college, peace corps!, sports teams), are probably more fun to have a beer with and are entirely as worthy as we are. That it’s important to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life, not just other hyper-educated individuals.  Furthermore, that even as a’ lucky person’, you shouldn't yourself be expected to follow this well-cut path to further education and privilege.  Just as it is an uphill battle and a huge achievement for someone coming from a poor family to be the first to go to college,   it is also difficult for someone from a privileged background to settle for less  than is expected, in terms of education, career, life style, etc.  It’s fine whichever way you choose…whether you strive to be a lawyer or a struggle at being a barista.  Can we just throw our uniquely discriminatory view of ‘laziness’ out the window for good and deeply admire all people who have  to cut against the grain of their backgrounds, circumstances, and realities to simply live? 




.  


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shock me shock me shock me with your devious behavior


I’ll simply never remember a human for how normal they are.  I will remember you for each and every one of your specifics, particulars, oddities, strangenesses,and uniqueness; the ways that you bring a different (and more awkward) light to the world.   I love my siblings for their erratic, odd behavior.  I like that Neil develops accents when drinking, but mostly I love that he also develops accents when sober.  I love that Erin sings Les Miserables when drunk and that she makes weird spinach smoothies.  I love that Leif says only awkward things.  I love that my dad speaks in Spanish to everyone he meets  and the way my mom shrieks when she is happy. 

I won’t remember Kristin for being a logical, capable person and great teacher.  I’ll remember her for drunk-cleaning our house every time we have a party, microwaving a cake in a coffee mug, and for blasting music and displaying road rage every time she drives in her car.  I certainly know that Liz is an excellent Event Planner, but I’ll mostly just think of her dancing to wii Michael Jackson and trying for at least a half hour to set fire to alcohol in our kitchen. 

I love the way my coworkers Yer shouts(instead of speaking) when she is excited.  I love how Tom dances to express his excitement and walks slower than Ugandans.  I love how my grandma Carol points out all the sights in St. Paul whenever I am in the car with her. I love how my grandpa Walter gives  me “high-fivers”.  I love how my grandma Marge is the slowest eater in the world because she is too busy talking and listening.  I love how my grandpa John  makes off-color jokes at family gatherings. 

I love how Nikki hugs people in a very specific way and the way her hair makes a halo around her head when it’s in a ponytail.  I love when Joe organizes everything on a table just so.  I love how Lauren gets into a good conversation or argument and also how damn picky she is about food.  I love the way Russ always sounds like a professor, and his floppy hair.  I love how Tess focuses on someone so entirely when she is talking to them and how she is the biggest gossip I know.  I love how Kirk and Mark fart, eat, and make huge messes whenever they were with me in Uganda, and how some of my greatest memories are when they were around.  I love how Max comes off as so argumentative but is also probably the most generous person I know.  I love Father LIno’s laugh and the way he is never on time.  I love Eunice’s sassiness.   I love that Andrea and I have gotten into trouble together before.    

I love how nervous Faith gets at parties and how she can spend an entire weekend drawing 1 cartoon.  I love the way Geoff verbally abuses his friends but then can wax nostalgic all night over them..  I flat out love Beth’s smile and weird ways of making income.  I love that Levy brought me 3 pies once.  I love Rach’s expressive voice and colorful language, and  tendency to fall asleep anywhere.  I love Lizzie’s raspy, loud voice and leather jackets.  I love that Steele is always hungry and can't help making a dirty joke even as a mature graduate student.  I love that Alex loses money playing poker with his friends and is otherwise always in a chemistry lab. I love that Vincenzo is so cranky and particular. I love when Maddie gets overwhelmed and starts knocking over chairs. I love how much Kari weirdly loves ducks.  I love Cooper’s ample bosom and baby-making laughter.  I love Jess’s  seductive dance moves.  I love Fran’s obsession with her animals.  I love Erik’s split personality between social-dancing-marvel and grumpy-introverted-cave-dweller.  I love Frank’s weird comments and obsession with rabies.  I love Andrew’s unique vision of family.   


The fact that you may be a lawyer, teacher, unemployed,  a barista, or a good mother make up probably 0.2% of the reason why I like you.  I like you because you are a goofball, because you make excellent and weird mistakes, because you are bizarre.  I’m 99% sure that we aren't here on earth to work and be serious.

  I like you and admire you because you are silly and shocking and embarrassing. 

Thank you for your work.

PS GO MINNESOTA!!! I'll be at the capitol tonight for the bill signing ceremony and party.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On being like Michael Jackson, part two

Sometimes all I want to do is shake my sweet thang.  I'm the sort of runner who awkwardly dances while running, I'm the sort of girl subtly keepin' a sick beat at the bus stop with a understated two-step and perceptible gyrations.  In the shower I belt out Les Miserables (and would be a walk-in for Eponine or basically any character if auditions were held in my shower), then jive to daft punk throughout my entire rushed morning.  I've got music veritably spilling out of me and I always have at least one soundtrack going on-- sometimes daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally.  If you knew me in the summer of 2010, I was basically always groovin' to "Dance Yrself Clean" by LCD SoundSystem as I limped/grooved/walked down the fresh sidewalks of Madison.  It becomes more than a soundtrack- more like a life style. All the lyrics become internalized, personal, meaningful.  This last week, my soundtrack has been "Foxy Lady"- which really puts the fox in my trot.  It also unfortunately has cast me as the aforementioned foxy lady.  Not sure where this particular song will lead me but based on my "Dance Yrself Clean" summer when I came into my own as a hair-flipping marvel on the dance floor with moves I didn't even know myself capable of- then watch out, and take cover, residents of South Saint Paul. 

I take a lot of inspiration from different sources.  MJ, himself.  From my roommate who has been known and witnessed to dance to MJ dance wii when into her cups, and who moreover has so amazingly mastered all of wii dances moves, that she should probably start charging people to watch her.  More groove per square inch than most people'll ever have.  I'm also inspired by my father who is well-renowned to put the "Ding!" in Wedding with his awe-inspiring crowd-drawing wedding reception dance moves, and has more than once, according to witnesses, ended in attempting splits ala' John Travolta. Admittedly, this propensity to be a serial wedding-solo-dance-marvel was confusing and sort of embarrassing when we'd hear reports from our friends at school such as, "Man, I heard your old man tore up the dance floor and brought down the house last weekend at so and so's wedding."  Hmmm.  Not sure how to take that as a 14 year old.  I hope I can appreciate it more, now. 

Anyway, I think dancing is the way I balance myself out.  It's like a necessary chemical reaction results in it.  This is all to say that I'd rather be dancing somewhere.

Other thoughts: It seems sorely inadequate to have 1 earth day a year.  It's like all other days are slotted for human-centered dominance and destruction. Every day should be earth day!!! We should love the earth every day and consider it as a factor in our decisions.  Using a reusable starbucks cup once a year-though admirable- should be more of a constant mindset.  As should carpooling!  We live in a nation of near-empty cars, where in other countries you don't leave unless you are over-capacity and are touching a goat.  We need to be more welcoming to inconvenience and to delayed gratification.  I hate writing all this, because it's soap-boxy and everyone knows all this but it's hard to change because it's so engrained in our culture.  I much prefer writing about dancing.  To make this easier:  So, the Earth is the belle of the ball, the prettiest damn girl at the dance with many eager partners waiting their turn.  Not just humans.  Also trees, goats, bears, flowers, wind, etc.  We wait in line to dance with Mother Earth and once it's our turn, we dance together with the earth, or we should, moving as a team, conscious of the other, trying not to step on feet.  Instead, something has gone terribly wrong.  While all the other flora and fauna continue to wait in line to dance with mother earth, the human species has gotten drunk on punch, has cut in to dance with earth, and now is grinding on her and fist-pumping.  Where's the love and balance in grinding?  It's just gross. 

We need to remember how to coexist in all ways, but not least, at the most elemental level.  We need to relearn how to be part of the earth- not apart from the earth.  We are, after all, just another grouping of weird animals that happens to currently live here.

to over-twerk the dance metaphor, I end with these words from "The Dirty Projectors:"

There is an answer
I haven't found it
But I'll keep dancing till I do




Friday, April 19, 2013

It's not easy being Michael Jackson

I had a two day financial literacy training this week, and don't let the 'literacy' bit have you fooled like it did me, because the training should have just been called "Financial Finances Financing."  Not surprisingly, I pulled one of my regular tricks out of my sleeve, and appeared to slide into a state of enlightened meditation, when it reality I became catatonic and blacked out due to necessity.  As I have recently discovered, I share many bizarre characteristics with Michael Jackson (arrest thy judgement!) outside of an uncanny sense of rhythm and style.  We both happen to share a previously unknown personality (neurological disorder??) where we become severely affected by high levels of stimulation.  We are both "Highly Sensitive People," which means we are both shy and weirdly extroverted, creative, and easily freaked out by strobe lights (except when performing?!).  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prescriptions-life/200907/was-michael-jackson-highly-sensitive-personhsp-are-you  or http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-barry-kaufman/creative-people_b_829563.html  Ah, tis so perilous to be a brilliant artist, you see!  The dark lives we lead.

While this condition led Michael Jackson down the gold-paved road of crotch-grabbing and stardom, it has led me to black out when confronted with financial concepts, and to feel panicked in Byerlys.  This actually cracks me up because the personality type defines me pretty much to a T.  But it's not like I can use this as an excuse for atrocious behavior in respectable workshops? "Oh, I'm sorry. You see- I'm a highly sensitive person.  Do you have a quiet, dark, moody room where I can retreat to for a half hour and listen to Enya?"  I think I have Ilse-seizures 20 times a day when I get into crazy stressful situations like when my phone rings at the same time that I receive a new email! Or when I hear a siren!  Or when I'm in a bright room full of people talking!

It's not easy.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

America, the lonely

Sometimes all I notice here is the loneliness.  Surely not only a Midwestern phenomenon, but perhaps partly prompted by our icy politeness.  We only go so far in our gestures towards others.  For talkative men on buses, we content our psyches by smiling and looking away, we may ignore teenagers as they walk boldly up sidewalks with big energy and big pants.  We talk to coworkers and inquire into their lives outside of work but never expect our personal lives to share space.  We create walls and borders and boundaries and categorize each other to our heart's content, without truly considering the heart of the matter.  We hesitate and stall and avoid inviting others into our circles of connection; we are each our own icy bubble of own-ness, of me-ness, of not-you-ness.  Sharing a meal with strangers, is, at this stage, unshakably inappropriate.  We care about each other in a political, legal way, and definitively dodge the more personal.  We log-on when seeking that oh so necessary element of human experience---because we can safely log-off afterwards.

I tend towards introversion, and I love the lazy safe space I create around myself when I'm alone-- I love having myself for company.  I can spin stories slowly in my mind as I walk along the street, I talk to myself in low-tones about the people I see, I babble and dance to music.  This is something I love.  I also love and crave the magical moments of human connection and engagement.  My favorite day last week?  Walking to work from the dentist- my tooth throbbing like a sweet secret inside my mouth, the day cold yet shining with sun, and while crossing a street and feeling the warmth on my face, and passing a man as he walks the other way, we both stop and smile at each other-- the smile like a natural extension of the sun on our faces, creating the squint in our eyes, and he says, "love that smile," and then my smile grows more than I thought possible.  My favorite days having nothing to do with work goals met or exercise or tasks but this one bright moment of human acknowledgement.  This bright moment in the sun doesn't always pan out exactly like this-- I've had unexpected conversations on public buses turn from warmth into disgust into "i hope he doesn't get off on my stop" but it's still there that unexpected sharing of intimacy.  I want to be a collector of these moments, a cataloger of the rare self-changing times when we recognize each other and exchange human warmth or curiosity throughout our busy days.  I want to be able to draw out examples and episodes and rare feelings to show others, to share with others, to give examples for myself on how to live more like a person and less like a facebook account.

I hate those walls we have.  Strongest around class, income level, race, culture, they block us off from each other and define us strictly.  We are categorized by the facts of our physical appearance.  We are a melting pot of slow-cooked tension and fear.  That essential ingredient of life-- a sense of belonging- in America comes at such a cost.  Tribeless, some of us, and so we cling to our strictly defined echelon and only color within those lines- because it gives us a semblance of tribe, and we use the rest of our energy towards painting everyone else in a few bold strokes of color.  I haven't been here for long and know little, but it seems like we live on one of the loneliest places in the universe.  From an early age, we are eager to leave and experience the world- if we are so fortunate to have these dreams- and we are always leaving, planning, scheming, to get somewhere else where people seem to live more.  Where those human moments come daily.  I was acknowledged and engaged in so many interactions in Uganda that I became sick of it.  To leave my house somedays was harder than I'd like to admit.  I was tired of long-winded, perfectly obvious greetings, that would waste my time and decrease the amount of daylight that I had to get to the market and back.  I was so sick of being special, white, foreign, rich, different, alien.  Because, I didn't see myself that way.  (Who does?) I wanted to blend into the red dirt roads and cassava fields like everyone else.  I felt cursed to be this privileged visitor that would never integrate anywhere in the world besides a suburb.  Those walls, existed even there.  But now, I miss the greetings, the acknowledgement, the curiosity, the joy, the sense that time wasn't an issue.  In America, we are fueled by our silence and privacy and singular possession of time.  We are seen by each other as different/strange/unlike us/privileged/impoverished/ignorant/alien.  That's not different.  What is different is that the walls are just too high and solid to see over.  We can't shout greetings through the cracks and holes and spaces.  We can't connect.  We see each other as alien creatures traveling on the same planet as US.  There is still US and THEM more than we'd like to admit. 

Cursed by luck or cursed by unluckiness in our birth.  Unforgivable, any way that you look at it.  We never will look or be seen the way that we view ourselves.  So few people will see through the cracks and openings to acknowledge each other.  So few people try.  I've never fully noticed any of this until now.  Because I was lucky enough to go to college, because I was lucky enough to stave off two years of my adult life by living abroad, I've been sweetly ignorant and blind to what America feels like.  America sounds like a million keyboards typing out individual messages to far-off receivers.  It smells like condemned brightly-painted restaurants that still smell like the Asian food they once sold.  It tastes like the individual chemicals and preservatives that make up our meals.  It looks like the Mall of America on a busy day as individual dodge each other in the hard bright pathways on their frantic routes to specific stores.  It feels like the long waiting to see your lover again, when you know in your heart that it will never happen.  It's a waiting.  A waiting amidst the tightly screwed time conscious movements and routines of our busy daily lives, as we move, and plan, and work, and sweat, and talk, and worry, we are all of us just waiting for that one bright moment when someone looks us in the eyes and recognizes us.  America, the lonely. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

I wandered lonely as a cloud

I can't deliver the amount of gravity and drama that the title of this blog imparts, but that's okay, because I only put it up because I like it a lot. 

I've been BUSY.  Like the sort of busy where I wake up extra early in the morning to cook a family-sized meal that will serve as lunch and dinner for the day.  Because I haven't found any other time during the week to cook food.  Wow, talk about a far cry from Uganda, where I basically opened my own home cooking network, mud-stove style.  Broadcasted via the Coconut Telegraph. 

I've been doing some serious musing, between all the soccer games, late nights, and cooking, and it's just waiting to spill out in word-form.  Soon enough.  Today at Easter, both of my lovely grandpas told me separately how much they enjoy my writing and encouraged me to write short stories again (it's been awhile), and that of course makes a big impact.  I probably will start attempting writing short stories again.  There's so many stories inside of us.  It's just taking the time to draw them out. 

My teen club starts this week and I also start teaching an adult ELL class.  That's some serious business goin' on.  And that's all great and all, but I also need to carve out a nice sunny piece of green grass on which to lie, day-dream, stare at clouds, and tell myself stories throughout my week.  I need to make it a priority throughout my weeks, in general.  I want to feel like there is something more meaningful connecting together my days and experiences besides a night of sleep.  And, that's where creative expression and imagination come in.  Right?  I need that sunny piece of grass.  In more ways than one.  (Lock it up, MN). 

This is an IOU of a good, long, belly-laughing blog.

To come!

Until then,
Ilse

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Wait, so when's recess?

Guess what I did today?  I made two double-sided stapled copies of a 29 page document by pressing a few buttons on my computer at work.  Not bad.  I've always been very tentative around technology, and tend to approach it with much consternation.  I am exactly the sort of person who has used a computer my entire life and still doesn't know what an 'operating system' is, or moreover what operating system I use.  I discovered recently that I have to constantly 'update' my computer to keep it operating, to the dismay of Tom.  Although I grew up grasping the concept of why television and movies are generally pleasing to me, I can still not operate a television to this day.  I am the worst kind of consumer possible.  I consume, I use, I take for granted, but I don't know what I am using.  Or why, really.

So, I was really proud today when I made some pretty legit copies all by myself.  I've also been impressed with my general ability to adapt to a workplace that has working computers, fancy desktop phones that hold calls, and online email/calender systems.  I haven't even mentioned the functioning refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee machines.  Well, now it's mentioned.  I mean, I've been working with dust, goats, and schools that don't have walls for the past two years.  My "workplace" was falling apart village schools with stray farm animals that you have to literally avoid as you walk around (as in--oops, I'll take a sharper left here to avoid stepping on this chicken), with Africa-bake oven classrooms with cow-shit mud floors and a tin roofs to create oven-like conditions when inside during the middle of the day.  I've worked with no water on the site, or sketchy water that the principals send small children to fetch from the local creek, I've dealt with sexism, repression, absent teachers, drunk teachers, pregnant students, corruption, curious students, collapsing latrines, lightning strikes, land disputes, distrust of education, tribalism, wet season, white ant season, grass hopper season, an extraordinary LACK of work and productivity and on the other hand, a joyous abundance of human contact and face to face time.  I've been lucky. 

Now cut forward to today.  This week was probably the first solid week I've ever spent in an American office setting.  It's like the twilight zone, but with cubicles.  All of these reasonable adult humans tucked neatly into a small space by means of strategically placed half-walls and desks.  And it's like a parallel-universe with all sorts of spooky unspoken rules going on.  Not the same rules as in regular life.  It's weird.  I keep on looking around, during specific periods of the day when my energy is both boundless and fragile from spending several hours staring at my computer and fidgeting in my too-comfortable bouncy chair, to see if anyone else is also clearly struggling.  When is recess?  When is the time when we all sigh, push back our chairs, turn our eyes away from the screen, shake out our stiff limbs, and run to line up at the door for recess?  No one's eyes ever meet mine.  I guess the -it's-recess-time-right?- vibes aren't universal.  And, I'm not talking about getting up to get coffee or pee or go home for the day or take a half-hour unpaid lunch break, because those things aren't really fun.  They are just another responsible working adult thing to do.

I think my problem is, is that I've gotten too used to an eternal recess.  For the last few years, I've mostly played.  I worked a little, too.  But it was never a separate thing that I went to do every day for 8 hours.  It was something that I would trip upon, while shooting the breeze with teachers, or when playing with students.  Work was something that happened, suddenly and miraculously, when I was doing something else.  When something productive clicked or just happened.  When a decision or idea was formed between two people.  When stories were shared, opinions voiced, smiles exchanged.  Work was being with people. Work was just a part of life, interwoven within the daily interactions and patterns of life.  It was farming, it was teaching, it was talking, it was learning, it was playing.  It's not as if there is anything fundamentally right or correct about this way of life.  It was just a radically different concept of 'work' and productivity.

I'm glad I'm working here now.  It's a wonderful job with a lot of creativity, self-motivation, and collaboration involved.  It's a job where I'll be able to work with international teens and teach them real-life important things like how to use condoms and how to make friends across gang-lines.  It's my dream place to work.  And, I'm glad I've started now rather than later, because it's only going to get harder to reenter the American workplace.  But, it still ain't easy.  Not just my specific situation.  More broadly, I've been musing over how unrealistic and silly American work culture is.

Silliness?  Besides not having recess every few hours, or just not being like recess in general, we live in a culture we have to sit in an office for 8-9 hours to get about 2-3 hours of work done.  It sucks because it's just a standard now.  It's not like you can say, "oh, hey boss.  I know I'm paid by the hour, but I just finished everything I needed to today within 14 minutes of arriving, and I'd rather not spend the next 8 hours pretending to do work while I read my friend's blogs and refresh my email."  Such silliness.  Do we really need to comb our hair and leave our homes every day just to go check our email for 8 hours somewhere else?  We all sit at desks in front of our computers, because it's what we do, and we sit there until it's 5 pm and then we leave and probably go sit on our computers at home.

A huge bit of silliness?  Email culture.  And, this coming from a serious lover of emails.  I love receiving electronic mail, almost as much as I love receiving real mail.  It's that someone invested several minutes into crafting something personal for you.  Or for everyone in the office.  It's exciting.  But, really, do we need to email each other about something when we are within talking distance?  Or walking distance?  It seems like nothing is truly official until it has been emailed.  And, I get that that's just the world now.  But it seems really silly.  Especially when I walk by the person who I have just emailed on my way to the coffee machine.

One of the biggest drags about Uganda was the amount of time and consideration that went into meeting someone.  Emailing is a bi-annual occasion for lucky villagers, phones often were out of network, out of batteries, or out of airtime, and more often than not I just had to make the trip to find the person I was seeking.  I would ride or walk many kilometers just to confirm something with a teacher or ask someone a question.  Sometimes I would find that even after all of my sweating, walking, and riding, that the person wasn't there.  It was so tenuous.  But, all the same, nearly every day I walked in journey of a person.  It was never a quick visit.  It usually would include sitting down, drinking tea with the host, greeting all of the family, talking about America, etc etc.  But it made those long journeys worth it.

I think I'll still take the ease of emailing over the exhaustion of work in Uganda, but sometimes it seems like sitting at a computer and emailing is equally as exhausting as biking in a rain storm over muddy roads to tell a headteacher something vaguely important. 

There's also the fact that on Friday night, I'm already slightly nervous at how little time I have before Monday morning.  Are two paltry days truly enough time for us to forget all the hours we spent restless at our desks?  Is it enough time to remember how beautiful the world is right before dusk, how content you can feel on a lazy Sunday, how right it feels to drink tea and read a book, and how essential being with the people you love is?  I don't know.  I'm leaning towards Friday- the entire day- being part of the weekend.  I'm also leaning towards doing your job but not overdoing it.  To free time---which should really not be called 'free' because it makes all the rest of your time sound like serving a sentence---and plenty of it.  All of our time should be ours.  It's the only real currency we have as humans.  And I say this while at the same time fully realizing that in two short days I'll be back at my desk, refreshing my email and making lists of things-to-do-when-there-really-isn't-anything-to-do. 

I think part of the problem with us is that need to have a recess, as a special event separate from the rest of life.  A better mindset is that all of life should be a recess, with a bit of work mixed in.  But, that's where we come in.  Even if we are strapped like untrustable patients to the chairs in our cubicles for those 8 hours, we can still make our life a recess.  My friend Kristin wrote a blog recently about DIY, not just as a hipster fad at craftiness, but as a more personal motto.  http://krads-outsidethelines.blogspot.com/2013/02/diy-yourself-valentines-day.html  .  Make things happen, instead of waiting for them to happen.  Instead of bemoaning your fate, spring to action and create the opportunity.  Same with everything, right?  There's no reason why we can't make our lives more playful and bearable, even if none of us can really escape our cultural standards and norms.  There's no reason why our work, why our profession, needs to come to define us and close us in as people.  We aren't pictures to be colored in.  We don't have to live, breathe, and obsess over what we have to do 30-40 hours a week.  It's a conscious choice, like anything is.  The choice being whether to let those hours of sitting and waiting come to define and limit you.  At the best, those hours of work, besides testing your patience and imagination, could seriously work in the opposite direction.  There are flashes of brilliance, moments of connection, when you feel as though you are there for a reason.  And the end of the day, you gotta make your own recess. 

No one can ever be 'above' culture.  I can't expect to waltz back into America, accept all of the endearing "welcome back's" and then spend the rest of my days resting on my laurels of alternative living.  What did I expect?  Exceptions to be made for 25 years olds who march to a different beat, who jive with a different life style?  That's also silly, because all of us march to our own beats and all of us probably feel like we don't fit into all the norms of our culture.  I don't know one person who enjoys paying bills or filling out paperwork.  And there are plenty of people in America who have lived elsewhere or who have different views on how to live life.  You can't rise above the culture, simply because you ARE a product of the culture.  And, you are living in it.  Whether you like it or not.  Work culture here does seem batshit ridiculous to me, but I can rest assured that I'm not the only one who thinks so.  After a talk with my roommates, I realized that what I experienced with bewilderment at my work are actually par for the course.  And probably not many people get off on sitting at desks for hours on end.  It's just something you might have to do for a while, and put up with. Life is an insane seesaw ride, and sometimes you'll be sitting at desks, and other times you'll be riding donkeys.  Or something. 

I sense that I am still taking a very defensive stance towards America.  Like, "back off, old Abe*, I'm going to keep on doing things my way." or "screw off, Ben Franklin.  Early to bed and late to rise and a penny lost is a penny not to worry about."  And what?  Become a streetwalker in South Saint Paul?  Just so that I don't have to work 9-5 and be in an office and generally have a more flexible recess-like existence? Well, news flash, Ilse-- you don't need to be a prostitute to be on the playground.

...and since I always elect to end on a particularly wise note...


*I'm not really sure if 'Old Abe' refers to Abraham Lincoln or a famous eagle.  Either way, I have no problem with him. 


Love and Ludicrosity,
Ilse