All posts tagged: Paradoxes

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Field notes from Colombia: Courage

I routinely inhabit the space between courage and paralyzing fear. It is in conversations with other professionals who work in conflict zones, tinged with bravado and a veneer of fearlessness, that I realize just how extensive my own list of fears is. Between July 2009 and July 2010, I boarded 43 flights in and out of conflict-affected areas, rendering my carbon footprint equivalent to the size of an elephant’s paw (if not a whole elephant). I stared at the wing to assess the stability of each and every one of those flights almost the entire time, as though staring at the wing could prevent pilot error or the twists of fate that result in plane crashes. More than once, I have considered that I have too many fears, that I scare too easily and too often, to remain in my chosen line of work. *** “You are going to die.” That is the face of a threat: chillingly concise. Sometimes it arrives via text message and sometimes it is on a flyer slipped under your …

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Field notes from Colombia: Trauma and stories

From the spaces in between: between sunshine and rain, between trauma and dreams, outside of Bogotá, Colombia There is a rhythm to the stories that come into my life through my work here in Colombia. The nature of my research is such that I am steeped in inquiry every day, putting the accents on Cómo’s and Por qué’s. There is repetition to this process: I ask questions, I record the responses, I transcribe the responses from my notebook to my computer, I code the data, and then I repeat this loop with each different interviewee and his or her story. Trauma is a constant companion on this story-sharing journey. The individuals who offer responses to my questions often have to revisit their individual or collective trauma, which I then revisit myself when I become acquainted with their story anew by copying it from my notebook to my computer and from there into spreadsheets and flipcharts. Though I prefer to keep the specific subject of my research private until the completion of this stage of field …

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Field notes from Colombia: The honesty of street art

Out of the approximately 271 times I have nearly been run over by traffic here in Colombia, my standing in the street to photograph graffiti accounted for at least 200. My fascination with street art stems from my impression of it as an honest medium of expression: It cannot easily be directed or manipulated by anyone other than the artist herself. For similar reasons, it cannot easily be censored or controlled. Street art tells truths — multiple, often contradicting truths, layered under fish faces or bright colors. In a country that is navigating multiple narratives of conflict and injustice, and the budding inklings of collective memory, even the street art needs the veiled layers. Tell a truth too clearly and you will be painted over. When I left the house this Saturday morning, Bogotá was still asleep, save for its soldiers, who lined the streets more thickly than usual. It is Colombia’s Independence Day and I decided to celebrate by joining Christian on a walking tour of Bogota’s street art. Christian, a street artist himself, …

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The rituals of a return to the field

When I returned to the United States for my graduate degree, I promised I would stay put for a little bit. I declared this the ‘age of (semi-) permanence‘ and even purchased a bookshelf or three to anchor myself in Boston. I put nails in the wall and unpacked every box and suitcase and bought polka-dotted wine glasses at the nearby Goodwill store and went through the rituals of nesting with gusto. In early January I wrote: “But I am learning permanence now, if you will, and part of that requires making peace with the part of me that will always, always want to be the girl who goes.” In the months that have passed since then, I have made peace with the fact that the girl who longs to stay and the girl who wishes to go inhabit the same body. There is a part of me that feels like my happiest, most alive, most invigorated self ‘in the field’, doing the work I love, asking the questions that drive me. And there is …

Boston bombings and the hierarchy of suffering

When I was an undergraduate, some of my peers engaged in a sport that can only be described as competitive under-sleeping. “I only slept five hours last night,” one would say. “Oh! You must be so well-rested. I slept for two hours.” “One hour and twenty minutes!” “I slept negative 17 minutes last night.” Everything was an arms race: Who studied the most and who studied the least? Who slept the most and the least? How long could one go without food or a bathroom break? Depending on whom you asked, the extremes of these spectrums would be points of pride. Boston became the closest point I would recognize as home on a United States map. Shortly after the completion of my studies, I left the US to work in conflict and post-conflict areas with women affected by war. Five years after that first graduation, I have returned to Boston to make it a home anew — to make it a site of learning, growth, and community. I am no stranger to violence. I have …

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Brave new year

In the summer of 2012, Susannah Conway published her first book titled This I Know: Notes on Unravelling the Heart. In this memoir, Susannah charts the journey of her grief after her partner’s sudden death, as well as shares her creative process and the ways in which it facilitated her recovery. The book is close to my heart and has jarred me awake in many ways — not least of which is through its title. When I think about how I would end a sentence that started with “This I know:”, I can rarely get past the colon. This is, presumably, not because of a lack of wisdom; rather, it stems from shyness to unabashedly lay claim to knowledge. As the second semester of graduate school is beginning, one of its primary themes has been the need to tell a compelling story — and to put our full weight behind it. And yet, the more immersed I become in knowledge, the less confident I am of my grip on it. Over time, I have grown …

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Thoughts from the girl who goes: On place, planes, permanence

If there were assigned roles to airport farewells, I would lay claim to the part of the girl who is tearing up on the walkway to the gate. I have been that girl time and time again, wearing every article of clothing that did not fit in checked baggage and carrying on my shoulders every book and memory with which I could not part. Despite the moving walkway sweat and sniffles, and much like a high school student auditioning for a play, I have thought that the parts in the drama of airport farewells are unequal: It has always been easier to be the girl who goes, than the person who is left behind. “I am sick of watching your backside fade into the distance,” I was once told. I have been privileged to always leave one home in search of another, one project in anticipation of the next, to depart from one community with the knowledge that I am en route to the next one that will host me. And every time, the person …

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Beginner’s mind

I am not sure at which stage of life it became shameful to be a beginner. We were born beginners at crawling. We spat up our creamed food, leaving our mark on the walls. Beginners at talking, reading, learning. Embracers of firsts. Then at some point, some firsts developed a speed of their own. The first girl to have kissed a boy in her middle school class. First boy to fall in love. First to know what heartbreak is. First smoker, first to marry, first to be divorced. First to know grief, first to know wealth. We choose our firsts — or stumble into them, or life puts them in our paths. We lay claim to the life experience of knowing; we become experts of grief, specialists of love, chain smokers. We leave beginners behind. When I arrived in Khartoum, I never would have imagined that it would bring the perfect muffin into my life. I had picked muffins to be my “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like“, thus fixating over the just-right overflowing and crusty …

The middle of the story

Sometimes you have to start at the middle of the story. And that middle of the story has me squeezed somewhere between Heavenly Jade and Aquatastic, Edwardian Lace and Peachy Kiss. I weigh how a Dew Drop trim would look on a Water Sprout wall. These are the Home Depot dilemmas I live with now. I was a snob when it came to these questions. I thought they existed just on Pinterest, that real couples do not have a 15-minute conversation in front of a “hue specialist” about whether Contemplation would look too dark on a cloudy day. Real couples do not debate whether Peacock Feather or Mermaid Treasure would go better with the kitchen cabinets. Or, at least, non-Pinterest humans would pause to ask themselves why Edwardian Lace refers to a wall color and not lingerie. Why they would ever want to live inside Peachy Kiss. The colors start to blend in, as do the roads on the map. After three years of working in conflict and post-conflict communities, the wiring of my mind …

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November 17

[inspired by Kim, Dominique, and my father, always.] Decades ago “We are not armed. We are not armed. We are not armed. […] Brothers, brothers, brothers-soldiers, you will not raise your guns. You will not shoot to kill your brothers. [audible tanks rolling up to the gate] Brothers soldiers, brothers soldiers, how is this possible! How is it possible that you would shoot your brothers! How would you allow Greek blood to be spilled. [begins to recite Greek national anthem]” In the beginning of November 1973, a civil resistance movement gained momentum against the military junta that had ruled Greece since 1967. On November 14, 1973, students locked themselves in the Polytechnic University of Athens to protest against the censorship and restrictions of freedom and civil liberties that had occurred during the dictatorship. The students set up an independent radio station and began to broadcast non-violent messages of civil resistance. The clip translated above was the last broadcast before this happened: In the clip of the student begging soldiers not to fire, one can hear …