Archive for January, 2014

Courage

January 25, 2014

For all the twenty plus years that I’ve been a “getaway” parent to students at the United World College of the American West – a two year international school drawing 16-19 year old students from nearly 80 countries to live and learn together – I’ve admired the courage of these young people. As much as many teens want to escape from parental supervision, it is still a major step to travel half way around the world, to live and study in a very different cultural environment.

I’m reminded of my own small venture into a similar unknown. I was sixteen, and had succeeded in finding and being accepted into an international summer work camp organized by the Mennonites. At the time I was living in Paris. The work camp was located in Vienna. My parents decided to make a vacation of driving me to the reunion point. They did not calculate travel time very well – or rather, they did not allow for my father’s insistence on frequent photography stops, as we made our way across France and into Switzerland.

When it became clear there was no way we could arrive in Vienna on time, my mother reluctantly agreed that I should take a train the rest of the way. My father coached me most thoroughly on how to say “I do not speak German, but I understand a little. Speak slowly please.” Trouble is, he taught me so well that my flawless pronunciation contradicted my statement, and the people I encountered generally responded with a flood of information, of which I was only able to glean that they thought I expressed myself very well indeed.

Despite the communication challenges, I made it from the railway station across Vienna to the church our group was to restore. In the end, we were moved out to the country to work on a farm/guest retreat – eighteen of us living over a chicken coup, cutting hay with hand scythes, bringing in firewood, installing a septic system, working very hard but also having a great time. We were from eight different countries, as disparate as Sweden and Turkey. I was the only American. Over the course of the summer we created evenings with a meal – improvised from our very limited diet of potatoes and tinned meat – and entertainment typical of our homes. I made sloppy joes from the tinned meat, and taught square dancing. Oh, and I appalled the Germans and the French by serving a desert of apple pie a la mode. Pie, yes OK. Ice cream, yes OK. But together? AAARRRRGGGGHHH.

For twenty years I’ve observed how variously the United World College (UWC) students do or do not adapt to the adventure they have undertaken. Most do surprisingly well. The most common pattern has been two students per year from a nation, so that there are four “country mates” at a time. Occasionally there will be a single student and not one every year. One of my early getaways was from Korea, the first to come here from that nation, and the only one for several years. She found it hard to adjust until she met a local family who had adopted a Korean baby. Spending time with them helped her feel more comfortable.

An Ethiopian getaway I had several years ago admitted that she was very nervous coming to the USA. She had heard enough stories about prejudice against blacks to fear for her safety off campus. It is my habit to research the food of the countries from which my getaways come. I’ve learned to cook Burmese, Senegalese, Korean, and Malay in addition to the more common Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Indian and Thai with which I’ve long been familiar. I was able to find teff flour in Albuquerque at an international food market, and the first time Bereket came to the house I tried my hand at making a traditional bread for her. It was less than a smashing success, but she later shared with the general college population that my effort stood out in her mind as a sign of welcome and an indication that her fears were unfounded.

Lately the number of Chinese students has risen substantially – there is a contingent from the mainland as well as from Hong Kong. They are even offering classes in Chinese to the local community this spring. The dynamics on campus are changing, as the size of different cultural groups shifts – but that is a topic for a different essay.

The students at UWC do have a framework of support, not just from country mates, but from the fact of being in a school program. How much more courage it takes to come to the US to escape intolerable living conditions in one’s home country. How much courage it takes to put oneself into a position of dependence on the kindness and support of strangers. How much courage it takes to not only travel half way around the world for one’s one survival, but to bring along the aspirations and dependency of one’s entire family. To live each day with the knowledge that the future of the next generation in one’s family depends on one’s effective exercise of wit and charm, to create a life in a land far from home.

My father was an immigrant to the US 85 years ago, as was my mother’s father twenty years before that. From the stories I heard as a child, I know it was not easy for either of them, but it seems that the environment into which they came was more hospitable than the one new arrivals and asylum seekers face now. At the turn of the 20th century, the US was truly a nation of immigrants, of refugees from famine, from pogroms, from oppressive regimes. I may be wrong, but I think our immigration laws were less punitive then – and the communities of immigrants created more of a home away from home for subsequent arrivals. My grandfather talked about families who knew of and expected his arrival. My father had a harder time – he developed spinal meningitis on the trip over, and was taken off the boat into hospital, not expected to live. He did survive, eventually found his way to upstate New York to work on a dairy farm, became an agricultural expert, and finally an employee of the government, and an economic officer in the diplomatic corps.

Now the process of making one’s way through the complexities of immigration status seems dependent on a good attorney – and the money to pay for one. Without papers one cannot easily work and earn money. Without money one cannot easily obtain papers. To knowingly put oneself in this Catch-22 situation, with the hope that a way can be found through the maze, takes an awesome amount of determination and courage. I am privileged to know several people who are finding their way through the thickets – a young woman from Burma, my former getaways from Senegal and Nigeria, my new friend from Cameroon. Their lives and their challenges remind me to be grateful for what my grandfather and my father achieved – and I am encouraged, as well, to do my part to “pay it forward” as a way of expressing my admiration for their courage. They believe their lives will be better as they become able to live and work here legally. I know this country will be better for their presence and participation among us.

Energized for the Best

January 18, 2014

I’ve never engaged in the forced gaiety others seem to think necessary for New Years – have instead always enjoyed a few simple, symbolic activities like having pickled herring and some sort of sweet pastry to give zest and pleasure to the upcoming year. Whether alone at midnight, or with company on New Year’s Day, I’ve kept that tradition – inherited from my maternal grandfather – going for a very long time. Sometimes I’ve lit sparklers at midnight – but not this year, since I was tired and went to sleep early.

What seems to be already markedly different for me in this new year is its energy level – both demanded and being met. I seem to be coming out of a longish period of – not retirement, but a withdrawing from interpersonal engagement, a period of living in a somewhat more distant and reflective way. Friends say that I have been so busy and active that no one would perceive me as withdrawing, but to me it has felt that way. Especially as I contrast the past eighteen months with both my new job, which is pushing me into a great deal of one-to-one interaction, and with being drawn into a more active socializing via two Cameroonians, newly made friends.

I’m fixing a west African dish for supper for them/us tonight. It’s one I learned years ago when two freshly graduated students from the United World College, one Senegalese, the other Nigerian, lived with me for a summer. There are of course regional and tribal differences across the very large continent of Africa, but overall, my experience of Africans is of a warmly engaged, very active presence – two days without a phone call is rare. It can feel intrusive when one is accustomed to a more formal and distanced way of being, but it is also energizing. Radically opposite to the reserve of most Asian cultural norms, with which I am more familiar.

The UWC girls were challenged, adjusting to living in my rural home. I feel as though I have close neighbors – I can see houses in several directions out my windows. They felt as though they were in the middle of nowhere, because for them a neighbor is someone living so close by that you hear their voices throughout the day – almost as though they are part of your immediate family. To compensate for the quiet I so enjoy, they played music – loudly – until they saw my car coming up the drive. I would hear the music suddenly turned off and smile to myself. Different strokes for different folks, indeed.

+++++++

It’s several days since I began this essay. The dinner on New Year’s Day was full of lively talk, appreciation for a meal “from home” with every bit of the food scarfed down. The energy level in my small house rose dramatically, seeming to be almost too charged to be contained. Such a change from its usual status as a quiet retreat.

And that has been my experience each time, since, that one of the men has been out for a visit. I’m learning (in French) about a lifestyle very different from my own, about the way old cultural customs (reading the color of the kidneys of a freshly killed rooster to determine the chances for success of a marriage) are blended with modern life. Before you question the role of the rooster in planning a relationship, consider what outside omens you look to, for guidance in decisions. Astrology? The I Ching? What page your Bible happens to fall open to?

We all seek reassurance that actions we are taking are “for the best.” We enjoy reminders of the familiar when we are surrounded by what is strange and new. As I am adventuring into new territory with my job, I see myself mentally tying aspects back to prior experiences. Coming away from my first home interview with a cliet I was happy, relaxed, feeling I had made a difference – yes, this is what I used to value when I worked as a case manager in the past, this is the reward for dealing with the excruciating, dictatorial, last minute and excessively thoughtless mandates of the State. Working with people, connecting with people, helping people is the thanks for coping with a computer data system designed by urban techies with no regard to efficiency, the limits of Internet connectivity in rural “frontier” areas, or the limits of patience of “normal” human beings.

So far, it is for the best that I continue to work long and demanding days, and late into the night hours. It is for the best, I trust, that I am simultaneously using French daily and regaining my ability to speak it without thinking, and to catch myself thinking in French as I drive through miles of open grasslands, seeing an occasional herd of antelope, and many hawks, but nary a truck or car.

Out on the Plains of new Mexico

Out on the Plains of new Mexico

And it is apparently also for the best that I am being swept up into the energetic and warmly embracing family of Cameroonians I’ve so recently met.

Accustomed to considering why things happen the way they do, questioning what I should learn from various events, I am instead, in this new year, being rushed along on a tide of activity with only the ability to hang on for the ride. I will see what it is all for, when I find out where it is that I am destined to fetch up. A new year, a new job, a renewed language, all combine to present me with a new way of experiencing my life.

It just occurred to me that there is a belief – Asian I think or perhaps New Age – in the relevance of seven year cycles in our lives. No wonder mine has taken such a different and interesting turn, at ten times seven!

In Another Language

January 12, 2014

Do you speak more than one language fluently?

How are you different to yourself or to others, according to the language you are using? How does the difference in world view embodied in a language reveal a difference in its speakers? What depth of knowledge, of concept and perception of the world is lost when a language dies for want of speakers?

Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I was fully bilingual, speaking, thinking, dreaming in French as readily as I do in English. After forty years of living in the Southwest, with rare occasion to use French, and then only for a few hours at a time, I felt that I was losing more than the ability to speak French. I was losing aspects of my identity, personality, self.

Some traits are obvious – I use my hands much more when I speak French. These past thirty years have steadily diminished both my gestures and the mobility of my face (as evidenced by videos), with my communication limited to English. What else about myself is disappearing? Am I less flirtatious? More reserved? Living more through my mind and less through my emotions?

Or are those changes the result of growing older, of my life experiences, of my spiritual practice – and would exist irrespective of the language I speak?

In the way of events in my life now, once I’d framed up an inquiry, the means to explore the answer presented itself. I’ve been introduced to a Cameroonian who has been pursuing graduate studies at a nearby university. He is fluently bilingual, and offers me the opportunity to resurrect my French. I’ve been pleased to discover that my language skill still exists, relatively intact, beneath the surface of my daily life and that, as I use it regularly, my fluency is returning. My pronunciation, however, definitely needs practice.

What else is or needs changing as a result of using a second language? Can I separate shifts in attitude or emotion that originate within me based on language, from those resulting from the topics of discussion?  What is the effect of conversing with an African, rather than a Frenchman, or a bilingual American?

A good friend with whom I discussed the effects of language on perception, told me of how his relationship with an acquaintance changed as a result of a change in use of language. The interaction of the two men had been conducted in a mixture of fractured Thai and equally limited English. Despite the limitations, they had begun to build a friendship. Then the American was observed by the Thai, chatting easily with a group of other English speakers – and “the friendship was not the same afterwards. He saw me differently, and seemed not to be able to be comfortable with me in the same way as before.”

Do I see myself differently, when I speak French? I’ve been remembering events from my earlier life that I’ve not thought of in a long time. An evening at a club on the Left Bank in Paris, during my junior year of high school (American School of Paris) to which I was invited by the son of a friend of my mother’s. Hugh had just returned from a semester in the US, and ostensibly was introduced to me by our mothers, so that he could practice his English. He already had plans for the evening, and agreed to include me. On the way to the Sorbonne, by metro, he suddenly asked what part of the US I was from. When I said Washington DC his next question was, “Is that considered the South?”

He was subtly trying to determine if I’d have a problem spending the evening with his friends – African students at the Sorbonne. I did not. We collected his two French-speaking friends from Dahomey (now Benin), and went on to visit a Nigerian who has in hospital. There we acquired a fifth member of the group, a visitor who spoke virtually no French. As the only person fluent in both languages, I became the interpreter for the evening, which meant that I danced with one or the other of the men from Dahomey who argued for each African nation developing itself economically, then with the Nigerian visitor whose view was that a Pan African approach to growth was essential to the emergence of the continent as a presence in the world. About every third or fourth dance, Hugh would escort me and – in English – check to see if I was enjoying myself, and if I minded talking so much politics.

I mostly remember the oddity of being – with Hugh – virtually the only white face in the club, which was a hangout for all the Africans living in Paris. I remember enjoying the dancing, and the adventure associated with being out with “older” guys (they were in their mid-twenties) and experiencing an evening so distinctly different from the norm of my life.

My first “true love” happened in French. I dated Patrick throughout my senior year, left him behind when I graduated and returned to the US to attend college, but never really left him behind. He visited me in Boston seven years later – and fifteen years after that came with his family to the US, and a visit at my home near Santa Fe. We still exchange greetings although we haven’t written letters or talked in a long time, partially because I “lost” my French, partially because I’ve found it challenging to translate some of my US, and particularly my rural Southwest, experiences into a language I know primarily as a fast-paced, urban expression.

In college, for about a year, I dated an African Olympic soccer star, coincidentally also from Dahomey. We spoke French when alone, but English in company. He led the college team to the championships, and would usually make one goal that was spectacularly “pour toi” – a solo, elaborate-footwork trip down the field showing off his skills. The rest of the game he was the consummate team player. He was also sadly troubled and displaced, enough to not return from a summer visit home between our sophomore and junior years. In this instance also, French was associated with experiences out of the norm of my life – even though I was minoring in the subject. Studying French literature and practicing translation of texts felt like part of my general academic life. Dancing the High Life, cheering at a soccer match off campus, trying to help my friend overcome the culture shock that was dampening his spirit – those were new and different challenges.

So am I finding that I’m more adventurous in French? Perhaps…

I certainly seem to be more frank. Because I do not have the fluency to mask my thoughts and feelings? Perhaps…

I notice, in the recounting, that the significant experiences being brought to mind by my use of French are all about interactions with the opposite sex! Hmmmm…..

To be continued.

Instead…

January 5, 2014

The adage that misery loves company bothers me. I’m all too aware of its accuracy, seeing it manifest in my recent work days as an easing of tension when I discovered that others are having the same problems with computer malfunctions that I have been experiencing. I’m glad for the reduced anxiety that accompanies not being the only one facing this problem, but embarrassed, nay ashamed of feeling relief that the problem is widespread. There is nothing appealing to me about knowing other people are facing challenges!

In my defense, I can also attest to feeling elated when a co-worker “got” a concept she’d been struggling with, thereby joining the company of those of us who were trying to help her understand and apply it. She was happy with her success, but she admitted some of her happiness was relief at no longer being alone in her lack of understanding.

One of the pleasures of my new employment is that the company ethos is very positive and supportive, the antithesis of “misery loves company.” Carping, impatience, brusqueness are not acceptable despite highly stressful work circumstances that have had some of my managers putting in 65 hour weeks for the past six months. The consequence is that all of us slightly befuddled, confused, easily overwhelmed “newbies” are quickly learning to express our uncertainties in the form of positive questions. By seeking guidance it turns out that we have also been identifying glitches in the data systems with which we are expected to work, becoming part of the solution and, in the process, feeling better about ourselves.

I come from a prior work environment which was very different. Above me (fortunately in another office in another city) the ethos was one of jealous attention to any perk awarded to someone else; a pervasive fear of being randomly called on the carpet for perceived faults never previously identified; a daily manifestation of what I recall being told is a military belief that the way to deal with recruits is to keep them complaining. “If they’re distracted with complaints, they won’t notice how miserable they are.”

Within my own domain, I tried to set a different tone, one of teamwork and all of us pulling together to meet the expectations of my out-of-town supervisors. For the most part I was successful, less so in my last few years when tensions associated with the many changes in health care translated to increasingly frequent “audit” visits by staff from the main office. They rarely found problems. They did leave behind the unpleasant taste of their “gotcha” approach to our work.

Sadly, when a serious problem was uncovered and I took responsibility for not having detected it myself, those who initiated it chose to deny culpability and were resentful of being expected to pitch in and make the necessary corrections. Our office did get things put right, but the atmosphere had become one of misery, loving company, dragging everyone down to the lowest unhappy level. Finding myself not strong enough to boost the prevailing mood up again, I resigned.

My new employer is advertising supervisory vacancies, and several people have encouraged me to apply. I have no intention of doing so. If possible, I never again want to be responsible for anyone’s work product other than my own. Twenty years of ‘growing’ employees, helping workers uncover and develop their potential, seeing them move out and up to better paying positions – I’ve served my time as an administrator. I do not believe, now, that just because I have a skill I must use it. Instead, I think I’ve earned the right to only do work I enjoy, which translates to only being responsible for my own work outcomes.

Yes, I mentioned helping teach a co-worker; I’m still oriented to bringing everyone’s skill and success levels up and doing all that I can to reverse misery loving company. I choose to do so voluntarily, not as part of the responsibilities of a defined supervisory position.

What is it about having a responsibility that converts a satisfying “want to” into a burdensome “have to” activity? Is the mechanism the same, when an acquaintance expects you to provide a form of support that you might willingly offer, but which you mind – maybe even resent – having to provide in response to the imposed expectation? What causes the same action to be, in one case a gift, in another an onerous duty?

Perception, a label, a naming of the action, an attachment to the idea of freedom of choice – any or all of these can and do change how we feel about what we are doing. Seeing others “similarly situated” changes an experience of vulnerability to one of “I’m not alone” and we feel better.

The challenge, as I see it, is to shift one’s perception away from “alone with this problem” without needing to find others who are similarly unhappy. I expect of myself that I will minimize occasions where I am manifesting the true – but very negative – “misery loves company” adage. I expect, instead, that I will remain sufficiently focused on the inner spiritual joy I know to be my true Self, that I will not feel alone with any problem. I expect to practice my daily contemplation, to stop and “check in” many times during the demanding and busy days ahead, so that I function in a space of shared pleasure, shared accomplishment, shared cooperation, banishing misery not just from my own space, but from the space and lives of those around me.

Joy loves company. Joy expands. The Soul is a joyful entity. I am Soul. Therefore I AM – joy.


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