Video Skype, Adventures and Our Friend Maya

Monday, we had a long video Skype chat with our super hip friend, Maya Stein. For those of you unfamiliar with Maya, she is a feral writer, poet, chef, diorama artist and lip sync maven. She has traveled across the country doing feral writing workshops…and she is constantly dreaming up new crazy things to do.

Conversations with her always make me want to go out and spray paint our truck…make our front yard a giant diorama…pack Tina and the kids up and travel around the country in an RV. There is an undercurrent of “What’s next?” with her that is contagious.

The conversation came around to the paradox of how to live the wild life while also recording it. There is something about being in the middle of a grand adventure that makes it hard to record. It is often hard to get enough distance from the middle to actually write anything that communicates what is going on.  You know how it feels to be the one on the vacation with the camera and having to decide all the time if you actually want to participate in the activity, be in the moment, enjoy the scenery…or take pictures of it? It always feels that way for me, except that, on the bigger adventures, I’m also not completely understanding what I’m looking at anyway. So, I wait for the story to unfold a little. Wanting to capture the whole of it, rather than the snapshots.

But then, when do you stop the adventure and take time to record it…in whatever way you choose to record such things. It is a little disorienting to come off of something life-changing and stay still long enough to let it soak in and become something to tell. But being slow and solitary, there is not much to tell about.

It’s an addiction, being the adventurer…being the one in the peer group who is unpredictable. As much as I am loath to admit it, I like that I am introduced now as “the one who just returned from Haiti.” I like how that defines me instantly. And I would be lying if I did not admit that I’m not crazy about the fact that it is wearing off, and now I am just me again…writing.

It is a quieter life…but the truth is, I really love it when I manage to pour out a single sentence or paragraph that truly tells where I am or describes what I experienced. I love watching the story emerge in words. I dig how my life now is reflecting some of what I learned back to me, and that, the more I write, the more I understand of my experience there. When I am actually writing, it is like the whole experience is happening all over again, but with context this time. And that is kind of cool.

Maya is in the planning stages of her next big thing. I can’t wait to see how it organizes and becomes something bold and epic. And we will follow her along in her adventure…or hear about it afterwards…and delight in the unexpected bits that always accompany an out-of-the-ordinary experience.

And, in the recesses of my brain, I will be putting the pieces together of my own next adventure. I’m thinking it might include passports.

Swimming in Haiti

I wrote this as I sat in the restaurant in the Kinam Hotel…downtown Petionville.  The heat, lord the heat…my primary occupation was to find a way to escape it.

Submersion

The woman meeting me for lunch today was late.

But the larger faux pas was mine.

I leaned my chair further back from the table

Until it pushed against the railing

At the edge

Of a balcony,

Overlooking a crystal clear

Sparkling

Pool.

And the day smothered me

In heavy blankets of heat,

Just like every day in Haiti.

 

I removed the linen napkin,

Placed deftly onto my lap

By someone who apparently had not noticed

That I had lost interest in lunch.

I just wanted a closer look,

Just a little closer

To the vacant

Glistening

Pool.

How cool it must be in there.

And clean.

And familiar.

It was the familiarity that moved me,

Of course.

So suddenly common

Amidst so much uncommon.

 

Without missing a beat of the siren’s song

Of water lapping on tile,

I slipped out of my sandals

Onto the railing

And leapt into the water below.

So that, when my lunch companion finally joined me,

Late,

My carefully chosen ensemble

Was drenched

And single beads of water slipped over my brow

And into my hairline

Following the line down my neck

And tracing my spine.

 

I shook her hand as she apologized and sat down.

Wishing I had acted on the impulse

Instead of imagining it

As I had

So vividly

That I could taste the chlorine in the sweat

That ran a river

Down my face.

I Quit My Job

That looks funny even written on the page like that. It’s all big up there in the headline and all. But there it is in black and white. And its true.

Thing is, I had a great job. I made pretty good money, good benefits. I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule. We officed in a sweet, funky house in a cool area of town. I worked in jeans unless I had a client meeting (and I even wore my pajamas to one of those…different story). My peers and clients respected me and appreciated what I did. I was valued as a crucial part of the work we did. AND I write this knowing that my two past bosses will be reading this (Hi, Shelly and Monica! Um, just kidding about the pajamas). So, unless my check to them has not quite made it in the mail, you will not even hear any rebuttal from them in the comments.

But I quit anyway. And it was a LOT harder than I thought. And it still is.

I am a writer and have always wanted to write more than the copy I was producing for our clients. But at the end of the day, and on the weekends, my writing muscles were totally burnt. I had no more juice for my own writing. I could not for the life of me figure out how to solve this problem. A series of events last year made quitting the only logical solution. Since then, I have seen and written about things that blow my mind. Traveling has given me perspective on my own culture that I feel I understand more about it and can write to that. I was offered an incredible contract opportunity, working for an NGO in Haiti that I would not have been available to only months before. And I am in the middle of writing a book that is burning through me faster than I can write it down.

But every time someone offers me a job…every time someone asks me what I am going to be doing now that I am back from Haiti…and even when people offer me contract copywriting gigs, I stumble over myself trying to decide, all over again, if I have made the right decision. I usually end up asking my partner Tina to answer the question for me. Seriously…I ask someone else to answer the question for me. I can’t believe I’m telling you that.

So, this baffled me until I read an article yesterday in the Harvard Business Review (cause I am smart like that…and also someone linked to it on Twitter). You can click on the picture to get to it your own self…

 

I read the Harvard Business Review...

Oh yes, Daniel Gulati. Strumming my pain with your finger, singing my life with your words…

It is a quick and enjoyable read, so I encourage you to pop on over for a few minutes. But if that just feels exhausting…all that clicking around, here are the high points, with notes about exactly how perfectly they fit me…just for fun.

  1. We have been conditioned, like rats in the famous Skinner experiment, with variable scheduled “recognition and reward” pellets. Check – I not only lived for these, I helped my managers tell me what I needed to hear “Aw, don’t say ‘hey, you did great!’ say something like ‘Your writing really made that cheese sandwich sound more delectable than humanly possible! How ever did you do that?'” Then I would return, happy, to my corner of the cage to gnaw on my paws.
  2. Social media has made your successes and failures more visible than ever. Which is apparently scary. Oh yeah, baby. So easy to say you are a writer…if only you were not so busy with work and kids and housework and Facebook. Telling people I am taking time off to write means I have to produce something. And if I don’t produce something worth reading, everyone will know. Oh god, I’m freaking myself out.
  3. We suffer from premature optimization (come on…who named that?). This means that, instead of looking for the biggest mountain possible, we just climb the closest one to us…usually at work. “I will totally get to writing that Great American Novel after I finish this wicked client project on how to make employees work harder with fewer resources. I am going to make those instructional videos sing!” Yeah, enough said on that.

The thing is that I LOVED that job while I loved it. When it stretched me and kept me learning and growing. I have friends there now that love it and I can’t blame them. It was and is a great place to grow. But I stayed a lot longer than I should have. Long past I was done.

I have had a lot of support in making the decisions I have made over the past year. And, sometimes that support has looked like “Don’t be an idiot. Go for it.” But the whole path toward doing the unthinkable started because a part of me started to want to do something really big and a little scary, and I allowed myself to consider it.

I’d love to hear what the big and scary thing is that you want to do and if any of this resonates for you. Don’t worry. No one is sending this to your boss.

Xo,

Kim

What You Don’t See

This is a picture I took on a beach in Haiti.

Just out of frame and to my left, is a man trying to sell cheap, plastic souvenirs to tourists. The only non-white people on the beach are the people who are serving drinks or selling things. The beach is attached to a hotel and from the lobby blares loud club music mixed with the sounds of an announcer for a soccer game playing on TV. The tree in front of me is hiding a dock where workers from a small island just off the coast are transported back and forth to their jobs on the mainland. The boats are always full to groaning with day workers who are terrified of the ocean waters.

Words Fail Me

“Are these from Africa?

The woman in the frame store jolted me out of my own little world with that question. I had gone back to Haiti and a little tented art shop near the top of the IDP camp. My hands ran over the framed pictures marveling at how different they looked in frames. In the artist’s tent the pictures on raw canvas are pinned to rope and wood wherever there is space. I had chosen the ones I wanted to buy more than a month before I made the purchase. I finally bought two, one folk art painting of kids playing in the camp, and a larger black and white one, a loose interpretation of Fet Gede (a voodoo celebration I had witnessed). I was wondering if I had made a mistake in framing them after all. Did the frames box in the life of them? Did I like them better frayed around the edges and hung with small wires from rope?

“Pardon?”

“Your pictures. Are they from Africa?”

“Oh. No. They’re from Haiti. I knew the artists.”

“Why were you in Haiti?” (Always the next question.)

But my mind had stopped again on “I knew the artists.” I did know them. They made me a gift of a third painting before I left as a thank you for always bringing people by to see their shop. It seems my mind is always overloaded when the subject of my past three months comes up. Like every conversation opens a tiny hole through which tidal waves of words push to move through.

“I was working with a nonprofit down there for three months.”

“Wow. I have a friend who just got back from Columbia. She said it is awful down there. Truly awful. I imagine Haiti is the same way, with all the earthquakes and hurricanes they have experienced.” And I start to nod my head in agreement. These are such simple quick conversations, I never really want to go into it with people I meet like this. I never feel able to go into it anyway. Besides, she is actually very sweet and is not really looking for deeper information, just being friendly. But then she says the thing that cuts me so deep I have no idea how to respond.

“What is happening down in Haiti is not the work of our Lord; it is the work of the devil for sure. Makes me wonder what is going on down there for them to deserve that.” And, I know she is not really wondering at all. I know she has decided that this nation has brought this upon themselves with their “ungodly” behavior. I have heard this before, unfortunately.

I stumble through some bits of information about slave debt and the monumental task of financing infrastructure under the burden of those conditions. I tell her that the entire world was appalled by their revolt at the time so finding support was impossible. But this rings as hollow in my ears as it must ring in hers.

The truth is closer to a conversation I had with a well-studied international aid worker and friend in Haiti soon after I arrived. He told me there were so many versions of the “truth” in Haiti that there was no sense in placing much stock in any of them, that all we can do is move forward.  But, when I am in back in the car, I cry. My failure to illuminate even a single aspect of Haiti’s worthiness and beauty to this misguided woman is becoming too familiar. And this time the failure comes too close on heels of seeing the faces of friends in the paintings and the memory of sitting on a small hill above the artist’s makeshift gallery watching them paint. I have failed my artist friends and Haiti. I sink into a funk that has become familiar to me ever since I returned home. I just don’t have the words, and that stings.

I met a woman once while working on a documentary shoot above the camp who told me about the days after the earthquake. She told me story after story. She told them to me as if they came unbidden. Like she had to tell them over and over. As if the telling would bring some sense to the world. As I drove home I remembered her story of the singing.

The dust had not even settled in Port au Prince. Aftershocks and trembles were still so common that people refused to sleep inside the buildings, afraid they too would become trapped or worse. Wails punctuated the shouting of people who were finding bodies. Unstable buildings still crashed along every street and in every neighborhood, keeping people wary of even the slightest crack around them. And there was weeping…always weeping. As she became accustomed to those noises, she began to hear singing. She followed the sound, looking for the source of the music. Eventually, she realized that it surrounded her. The people were singing. They were singing hymns. Pouring love, faith and prayers into valleys and hills surrounding Port au Prince. Thousands of voices, singing together. That moment gave her peace and hope. These people were not overcome. They still loved. They still believed. They still had faith.

Maybe I should have told her that story, instead of bringing up slave debts and old policies from governments long ago. That story does not contain the whole truth of Haiti, not by a long shot, but I have yet to find anything that comes as close as one simple story at a time.

Was I Ever Really There?

I didn’t want a going away party when I left Haiti. I got sick the day before I left and used that as an excuse to avoid the fuss-making over my leaving. I ended up going out for a drink with some friends and then catching the tail end of a larger party that was apparently also meant to be a farewell to me.

The next day I crammed my morning so full that my office goodbye was nothing more than a fly by of waving arms, air kisses and brief hugs. I am not even entirely sure that everyone there knew I was actually flying home that day and not returning.

And I did this all as if I were the only one to consider.

I did not give the friends I had made there a chance to really look me in the eye and tell me goodbye. I did not let it settle in to the people I worked with that I would no longer be a part of their work lives. I did not give anyone a real chance to have closure with me. It felt clean and tidy at the time. Today it feels selfish.

Working on a three-month assignment in a country as intense as Haiti is really such a strange beast, after all. It is such a short time, as it turns out. Enough time to learn that what you had originally thought you would do was not doable after all. Enough time to determine the best path forward, which is always a looser, more organic-to-the-culture approach. But not enough time to get anything like that going. Not enough time to see anything more than the flickering of success somewhere far on the horizon. Not enough time to have something to hold in your hands to show what your time meant there.

But the hardest thing about three months in that kind of situation is about relationships. I lived in close quarters with some great people there. Every day we would either be in each other’s rooms or we’d have only our tarped walls separating us, which encouraged constant conversation. I had many more friends to whom I sent demanding emails all the time for them to “Get on Skype” so we could chat…or “don’t even think about going somewhere without me this weekend.” I knew more about the habits and needs of everyone there than I know about any of my very close friends here. And every day, we’d share the frustrations of the day, the weirdness everything going on around us and whine about stuff that would not be worth whining about back home, but which gave us something safe to bitch about in a place where none of us really felt we had the right.

I have been home now for a month and a half, and I have been completely disappeared from that place in a way you can only understand if you have been there to see it happen. No one emails me. No one asks me questions or looks for counsel on what I know. Short term volunteers must flow through there now who have never and will never hear of me. The international staff that was there when I was closed the gap around the void I left, before I even got back home. To a newcomer there, I never was.

And I know this with certainty, because I was part of that gap closing in the past. My hands too drew the curtains behind those departing for home. It becomes so routine that the day someone has left, it is as if they were never there. There are occasional mentions in the context of conversations, but nothing much more than that. I never called or wrote either. And I understood it then every bit as much as I understand it now, which is to say…not at all.

Except to say that, in an environment like that, it is hard to become attached and lose people all the time. And it is not just the mushy and emotionally expressive ones who suffer those losses. Even the solid ones who do not show it feel the chipping away until they cloister themselves away to avoid as much of the attachment as possible.

The strange and unfamiliar sadness I feel over this is so complex that it is difficult to explain and I don’t process emotional things as clearly as I used to before Haiti. But, if I were to try, it might look like peering through a foggy train window toward a spot on the horizon that you can’t quite see, but know is there all the same.

xo,

Kimberley

Fort

Some days, I wish my kids were very small

Like today.

Because today I want to do things that grownups just don’t do.

Like build a fort.

With blankets and chairs.

I would put it against the wall so that I could have pillows to lean on.

Only they would be beasts I had tamed.

And have little pin lights hanging from the chair backs.

But then again

The kids would want to play their games

And make it too much like a movie they saw

Or a campout

Or the jungle.

My tent would be in the middle of a crazy network of caves and tunnels.

And there would be no maps

Because the openings keeps shifting

And the tunnels move.

And, only I can find the way in

Because I am magic.

But I would bring a friend.

One friend.

Because she gets me

Even when I don’t.

She will say

“Oh, perhaps we shall have some tea then!”

When the roof starts to sag and I can’t figure it out.

Or

“Look! A new door! I wonder where that goes?!”

Because she knows that adventure

will get me all excited again.

And maybe I would have to get new chairs

And blankets

Because maybe that corner of the living room would always be a tent

In a cave

At the end of a wild trek through mysterious tunnels.