The North Wind Calling

November 15, 2016 marked two years ‘post service’.

When I was 9 years old I got my ears pierced for the second time. My uncle Rudy is a man who thinks he’s hilarious, and when I was little it was 50/50 as to whether I agreed. After I got my second ear piercings I remember going to see them for a visit and my Uncle making such a big deal out of my earrings, asking how life was ‘post piercing.’ I rolled my eyes in the way only a 9 year old can and said things were just the same. Now I find myself back in a post-something phase. We have them so frequently. Post-college, post-breakup, post-giant life event. Well, now I’m post-Peace Corps. Quite past it, in fact.

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Boreas, the Greek God of the North Wind, Winter, and father to a bunch of horses. Because Ancient Greece.

I called my sister the other day, panicking about life and adulthood. I’m lucky to have her around to understand when I get to that place, and she coined a cute name for the illness she and I have. “We’re circus folk,” she said. I call it my ‘Gypsy soul,’ but it amounts to about the same thing. When the North Wind blows just right I can feel it and every bone in my body is ready to leave. When things get rough or complicated I have the impulse of a startled cat. When things are stable (read: boring) I feel like a caged bird. It’s like a sickness. Sometimes it has nothing to do with my surroundings and more to do with an urge to see everything.

There was a small seed of that in me before Peace Corps, and then I embarked on this grand adventure and it sprouted into a tree. I’m basically Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know I wanted an adventure until I went on one, and then I came home and settled down for a while and now I want to go back out and find Smaug again.

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Let’s be real, I would want to meet anything with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch…

But you can’t just go fight dragons whenever you please. Apparently that’s some rule to growing up and ‘settling down.’ In order to better prepare for all of the larger, long term things I want in life I have to establish myself in a place. Because I want kid(s) and a life partner and a career I can’t leave whenever I please. I always knew this might happen one day, but I didn’t expect it to be so hard. I’ve spent most of my life wandering like a nomad and, while I certainly see the benefit of hearth and home, sometimes I wonder if maybe I’m not built quite like that.

I have a great apartment in Portland, a city in which I chose to live. There’s rain and autumn and really good coffee here. (Thanks, America.) I live with my partner and our 2 cats, all of whom I love wholly. We have a plant I haven’t killed yet. I have a job doing really hard but ultimately really rewarding work at a Domestic Violence Intervention Agency. I’m well established in my field and getting more contacts all the time, setting myself up for a good life in a good career doing good work. I’m contributing to society in a way that makes me able to sleep at night but still pay my bills. Sure, things get stressful at work and houses are better than apartments, but nothing about my life is bad. In fact it’s all rather great. So why would anyone want anything different? How could anyone ask for more?

Some people see this impulse as running away. Some people see it as flighty and immature. Some people live their whole lives like this and never really have anything of substance. I would love to find a way to live the balance. To place more value on experiences than things. But the experiences themselves come at a cost, both fiscally and otherwise. Eventually you have to sit still and that, in turn, becomes a compromise. You have to decide what pieces you keep and what you leave behind and then you have to learn how to live with those decisions.

Ultimately I think I’ve set myself up with enough fail safes to keep me grounded. I have a partner who understands that sometimes I just need to go away. I am able to leave and have my mini-adventures and then come back to my home. If I can find a way to infuse more into my life, I will, but for starting out I think I’ve done pretty ok.

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Crayons and Desperation: A Substitute Teacher’s Story

Bill Nye does not approve of my science skills

Bill Nye does not approve of my science skills

Every day I get up at 5:45a so that I can be to school by 7:30a. I spend all day at school and then I go immediately to my second job at an after school program. I’m there until 7p or so and then I come home, eat, lesson plan, and sleep like a coma patient.

I’m subbing around the district and I’ve landed myself in two long term sub gigs over the past month. I was at one middle school for two weeks teaching sixth grade science (what?) and was immediately passed on to a different middle school to teach special ed on a long term assignment (again, what?).

I come in to these schools and these classrooms which have had no teachers and little attention. The first job I took hadn’t had a teacher all year after over a month of classes. This second job started the year with a teacher they had to let go and the classroom had since devolved into general chaos and mayhem, frequently enduring multiple subs in one day of instruction when no official sub could be found.

I walk in to these situations and I clean up the scattered pieces of wasted potential and try to salvage some part of these children’s education for the time I’m there. The lack of order, the perpetual change, the constant unknown can damage a full year of their somewhat limited time in school and without the proper building blocks that educational hiccup can transfer to the rest of their careers.

Throughout all of these schools and jobs and classrooms I seem to find myself acquiring children. If I’m in a school longer than two days I have at least a few kids that won’t leave my side and will consequently defend me to the death. Some need a safe place to hide during lunch so they don’t get into fights and get suspended again. Some have never had someone tell them how much they believe in them. Some simply have nowhere else to go.

At my tutoring job tonight we picked up a new student, a talkative middle schooler who walked in and made herself right at home. She finished her homework and then sat down to stay for a while. I work well after the children go home and I usually do so in blessed silence after a full day of hearing “TEACHER! MS. H! I NEED HELP! I HAVE A QUESTION! HE PUSHED ME! SHE LOOKED AT ME FUNNY!” And so on, but tonight there seemed to be something more important than resting my eardrums. The desperation with which she stayed and yearned for someone to listen to her made me sad. I found out through her incessant talking that she actually lives in the church which houses my program. When I asked a few more questions her situation became a little more clear. It seems her and her parents, sister, and grandparents rent a room from the church. Just one.

Last school year I worked at an elementary school where I taught Reading Intervention, a program which takes small groups of children with the lowest reading levels and provides them with additional support in an attempt to bring them to grade level standards. Every day I walked into that classroom to the smell of crayons and desperation. My middle school career has been sadly similar. The crayons turned to dry-erase markers and the desperation has gone from an odor to a stench.

I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ‘bad’ child, just sad children, lonely children, bored children, afraid children, and a mix of everything in between. I find myself wishing there were a way to save every one of them and needing to temper that desire with the knowledge that there’s, honestly, very little I can do. It doesn’t stop me trying, but it’s something I feel like more of us should realize.

Life Lessons Post Peace Corps

Sometimes life happens. It never warns you it’s going to, it just sort of springs out of a dark alley and decks you in the face. Hard. But that’s sort of what life is for. Without it aren’t we just… dead?

In his element

In his element

I’ve been really content to whine for the last week about life happening. Well. It hasn’t been a constant whine, but there was some serious malcontent and more than a few tears. My partner in crime and life had a serious accident with a table saw and nearly amputated the tip of his finger. I’ve been told I ought to preface this story with his occupation in order to maximize the depth and intensity of this particular injury: Pianist. Maybe that contextualizes how detrimental the loss of a digit can be.

Spoiler: He’s ok and he will be able to keep the whole finger with some serious physical therapy and perhaps a bone surgery. He’s not out of the woods yet, but there’s definitely a trail now. So take a breath so you can focus on the point here.

His accident precludes him from returning to the graduate program in which he is enrolled for the fall semester; because how can you study an art you can’t actually practice? He is also a composer and a vocalist, but if he can’t play his own stuff there is an issue. Without his return to school we can’t raise what we need to move out of the in-law studio attached to his mother’s house and down to our very own apartment in LA.

Cue the whine.

The man nearly lost his finger tip, seriously derailed his dream, and I’m sad because we have to postpone our move?

So here’s where the perspective kicks in. And all told, it’s a damn shame it took me as long as it did to find it. He still has his hand. He is alive. I have all of my digits. I live in America. There will be no lapse in jobs for me. We are together with no lack of momentum and there doesn’t look to be anything changing about any of that.

I thought I was better prepared for the hiccups in life because I spent so long focusing in Indonesia on keeping my head in the right place. Sure, this isn’t me complaining because that coffee shop just never gets my order right, but there’s still a lot to be thankful for and I’m sorry to say I couldn’t see any of that for a minute.

Can you find Ash? Hint: He's underneath Maple.

Can you find Ash? Hint: He’s underneath Maple.

Of course, the flip side to that coin is that everyone must be allowed their moment to mourn. When I didn’t get into Yale for grad school I called home crying and my step-dad told me he understood my disappointment and that I was welcome and justified in crying for the day. But that’s it. The next day, he told me, he expected me to be up and ready to figure out what my Plan B was. It’s a piece of advice I’ve taken to heart. So, I took my mandated day (ok…maybe two or three) and I cried about it and now it’s time to move on.

Now it’s time to figure out how to live in the moment while planning for the future instead of getting through today just to see tomorrow. We decided to adopt two lovely kittens and redecorate the Studio. I am studying up for a few exams I need for teachery things and he is catching up on some non-finger slicing work. We have three months at least and four at most until we re-orient on the next southerly step and instead of marking the days off on my comic book calendar I’ve decided to find the awesome in being here. Because life happens and perspective is key.

And there’s cheese here, so it can’t be all that bad.

There and Back Again

It would seem to be time to post a little update of sorts. I’m back in America but this journey looks like it will never really be over.

I came home in a blur of emotion and plane tickets at the end of November. I didn’t have the heart to post after that for fear it would be too fresh. And also because my life wasn’t quite together yet. Things were floating in this amorphous mass of humanity and I wanted things to settle a bit so I could get my head moving in a direction to which I was more accustomed.

Hiking with my two favorite people at Pinnacles National Park

Hiking with my two favorite people at Pinnacles National Park

Family really close at hand...

Family really close at hand…

So here I am. I’ve been back in the good old US of A for 69 days. 2 months.

I spent the first few weeks eating everything I could get my hands on and settling in to speaking English all the time. I remembered what it was like to have my family at hand and to walk around freely. I lasted maybe three weeks before I started panicking because I didn’t have a job or any monetary prospects, so at about three weeks and one day I was employed. I’m now working two part time jobs while I save money to move to LA in the fall. I’m a few steps away from having my teaching credential so that I can drop the part time office job and fill my days with substitute teaching gigs. I just cut all my hair off, went clothes shopping, and bought my first car; I’m basically a happy American girl.

I shaved most of my head. Take that, world.

I shaved most of my head. Take that, world.

But what happened? Was it all some dream?

Well, no. I walk out of the bathroom most days amazed that hot water just comes out of the sink. I have a hot shower every morning. Can I truly express to you the magic and solace in a hot shower? In the regularity and dependability of that sanctuary? Probably not. People complain about their coffees having the wrong taste or their plans not going just so and I laugh. Quietly and to myself so I don’t sound like one of those people, but I laugh. I am constantly trying to check my privilege as I settle back into a life of shiny toys and instant gratification; a world of fast internet and amazing chocolate; a world of cute boots and snuggly dogs; a world of plenty. I don’t want to forget that I learned what it was like to live without any of that. I found my creature comforts and lived better than many when I was in Indonesia, but I saw the inside of a life few have the pleasure to view. And it changed me. And I’m thrilled about that.

So here I sit, writing about my life with my hazelnut latte and a bagel, huddled against a cold I had forgotten existed, and I tell you that it was real. My rabbit hole lead me here and reminds me every day to be grateful. To be brave. To be strong. And to be me; glorious, quirky, crazy me.

Creative Destruction

This is Felix. See that bag, there? It's full of tricks.

This is Felix. See that bag, there? It’s full of tricks.

I have a great many marketable skills at my disposal. I’m a good electrician, I can cook pretty well, I can sing on key, and I go big. Alright, so maybe that last isn’t really marketable, but my point is that I have developed a bag of tricks, so to speak. I keep adding to the bag as I get older, and now is no exception.

I have become quite gifted at the art of burning things down when I have decided it’s time to build something new. Well, folks, the time is nigh.

I’m coming home.

I’ve known for a while that this was an eventuality I was wrestling towards. It has honestly been one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I’ve come at it from places of guilt, of anger, of determination, and now of pride. It has slowly come to my attention over the last few months that I have not been happy here. Not just an inkling of displeasure but a genuine discomfort. Rule one is that if you are not happy you are the only person who can act to rectify that situation. So, I did. I acted. I changed the way I went to class, I added activities with local youth outside of school, I altered my workout regimen, I went through and systematically sorted through to try and squash this bug. But it didn’t die. I would leave my house in the morning and dread the ride to school. I would try and let off steam but the catcalls and comments would make me boil over. I was having arguments in my head before they could even became a reality. And finally the only thing I could see left to change was my environs.

No, but really. How could you not love this place?

No, but really. How could you not love this place?

I must take this moment to make it perfectly clear that I do, despite its quarks and irksome details, love Indonesia. I love it like the super annoying kid sibling that kicks you and laughs at your pain. Sometimes I want to strangle it, but even in those moments I have this deep and pure love for this country and its peoples. I have, generally, never been so completely welcomed by a group of complete strangers. My host mother took me into her home and treated me like her own child. My two best friends at school led me by the arm and made me feel included and welcome. My students grew to respect and love me as a mentor and teacher.

Despite all these wonderful and inspiring parts of my service, there is a darker side. I’m a big fan of lists and order. In any decision process you can generally pin me down and have me admit I made a pro/con list. I even broke up with a boy that way. And now, it seems, this list has come back to solve another relationship riddled with irreconcilable differences. There are a myriad things on the pros side of my list. As I mentioned, my students, my host family, my sheer will and pride, etc. However, on the cons side there were a few things and then this glaring singularity. It was this seemingly infinitely small thing but it was infinitely dense and could not be overcome. I no longer felt that the benefits outweighed the unwanted attention and outright sexual harassment to which I was being exposed.

Many of you may not know about this part. I’ve hinted at certain instances here and there but I try to keep it light in the blogosphere. This is not light. This is the heaviest of singularities. New universe, status. Peace Corps Indonesia is still considered an ‘adolescent’ program. We are no longer shiny and new with extra money at our disposal, but we’re still not a mature program with clean procedures and lines in place. To their credit, the staff have been working tirelessly to put these procedures in motion, however, one must consider the constant turnover in American staff (there are only ever three in country and they are required to change every 5 years or so) and the green nature of the program and, consequently, its local staff. We are only 5 years old. You can’t grow a program specific to a country in 5 years. You can have a damn good start, but it’s not a lego set with pre-printed instructions. It’s an ikea bookshelf with extra dowels leftover and directions in Swedish. So, with each group they listen to our feedback. They ask us questions and try to mold the program accordingly. Each individual’s needs will, of course, be different, and so unfortunately there is a requirement that they cater to the masses. In short: they’re trying to figure it out. Everything they learned from my experience will be applied to future groups and, indeed, already has been in some cases. I was able to help facilitate an open forum for communication about unwanted attention and sexual harassment in further trainings. They reached out to me and other volunteers to assist them in creating new sessions to ensure the continuation of important information to the volunteers to keep them safer and healthier. We are taking steps to arm every volunteer with the tools they will need to deal with the inevitabilities of these wretched events.

But that wasn’t enough to keep me here. Someone put it to my nerdy self in terms of physics. An object in motion requires very little energy to keep it in motion. It requires a great expenditure of energy, however, to stop an object already in motion. The easiest course might have been to continue my service and see it through to its terminus. The cons of such an action, however, were heavier than the pros, though the latter list was bursting. It was no longer a question of could I complete my service, but should I. And maybe that voice screaming at me to suck it up and carry on was coming from a place of hubris and folly.

My wonderful Ibu Haji Esin. I couldn't have done it without her.

My wonderful Ibu Haji Esin. I couldn’t have done it without her.

So. I made a tough call. I spent the last week in a living hell. I said goodbye to sobbing students and cried along with them as they told me how much I had changed their lives. I hugged my Ibu for the last time (for the foreseeable future) today. That woman who stood with me through everything and yelled at people on my behalf. I am leaving friends that I will keep for my lifetime to fend for themselves. I’m leaving my new home behind. This is not easy. But I’ve never been afraid of the tough choices before, and I certainly will not stand down now.

Expectations’ End

This is absolutely what I expected.

This is absolutely what I expected.

When you go in for the initial interview with the recruitment officer for the Peace Corps they ask you a ton of personal questions you don’t expect. They also give you some quick little tips and tricks about Peace Corps. The biggest thing they try to hammer home is not to bring any expectations to the table. Of course, at this point, you’ve already broken that rule by walking into the interview expecting it to be like a normal job interview. I took the advice as best I could and I thought, “Good, I’m all set. I have zero expectations! I’ve got this!” But expectations are not a thing you just cut out of your system. Humans, by nature, seek patterns and demand categorization. We expect. Once we got into Pre-Service Training (PST) they continued to harp on the concept of leaving all expectations behind. This isn’t the service you think you’re going to have.

Before I knew anything else about Peace Corps I expected it was an agency that sent people to remote places to dig ditches and collect rainwater. I was so wrong. I expected the process to be efficient. So wrong. I expected to be in a tiny village living in a lean-to. So wrong. I expected not to have internet. So wrong. I expected to have a relatively easy time doing my job. So wrong. There were so many little expectations I didn’t even realize I had and, almost without fail, each has been tossed on the ground and trampled by reality.

This isn't my house, but it's close enough to reality.

This isn’t my house, but it’s close enough to reality.

I seldom feel like I’m in the Peace Corps. I live in a decently nice house, I have electricity almost all the time, the well water isn’t safe to drink but that’s ok, I have internet in my room, and I have my iPhone with a data plan. I can’t say I expected any of that. I honestly think I expected to be in a mud hut on the plains of Africa. Instead I am living on the most populous island in the world in a fairly large little town with many modern conveniences. This, of course, varies from country to country and even from village to village in Indonesia. Many of my friends have to ride some distance for internet or even to withdraw money from an ATM. Maybe they didn’t expect that either.

Now, though, is the time to parse reality from expectations. There are many things I never expected. I never expected to be so happy when I first convinced my Ibu to hug me. I never expected to love riding my bike. I never expected to want to punch people in the face for saying hi too much. I never expected to become the woman I am today.

Learn from it, bruh.

Learn from it, bruh.

As I’m sure many of you have gleaned, things can be difficult here. Street harassment and catcalls, truancy and absence at school, living and functioning in equatorial heat, sharing your room with small creatures. Instead of focusing, however, on how things should be or could be it seems important to take a step back and acknowledge this is how they are. There’s an adage from I have no idea where that says, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” Things are as they are, for now at least. To steal and adapt the words of Rafiki, you either learn from it or run from it. You adapt to the situations as they are and gently set down the baggage you carried for how things are expected to go. This is not America. This is not California.

So instead of focusing on the things that can weigh me down, I choose to focus on all of the wonderfully surprising things I did not expect. I have found myself in a family here. My host mother now refers to me as “Sayang” or “Dear” because she’s adopted me as her own. I escape to a deserted beach and drink straight from fresh coconuts for fun. I have adorable kittens aplenty with which to play. My students make me happier than anything else here. On vacation I can go to Bali or, better yet, deserted islands.

It’s well past time to accept what is and cherish the little things I find here, because before I know it these 7 months will be gone and so will I.

What he said.

What he said.

No Place Like Home

These are just the book boxes. Don't carry more than one at once...

These are just the book boxes. Don’t carry more than one at once…

I’ve moved around a lot in my life. After I moved out of my parents’ house I went full nomad and by the time I headed out here I had moving down to a science. All of my belongings could fit into 6 banker’s boxes, 4 of which were full of books. My parents moved after I was already in college, so I have technically never even lived in their house. What I mean to say is, there’s no one building that I would point at and say “I grew up there.” I have memories strewn across the country like a very comforting trail of breadcrumbs. I have had my little hiding places in various houses, apartments, trailers, theatres, and rose gardens. I call Santa Cruz my home town because it feels small and comfortable and safe, but after I moved out I made San Francisco my home. I chose it. I built my life there. I made the decisions and picked out the apartments and made things happen for me. I explored the new nooks and crannies and I made it mine. That place became a part of me.

But I don’t miss it that much anymore.

When I first moved to Indonesia, I would open google maps on my computer and it would pop up immediately to San Francisco, centered on my old house. I would navigate away from that image as quickly as possible because it hurt. I would look at my little peninsula on that screen and feel a visceral pain that would grab my gut and not let go. I couldn’t tell you if it was the people or the streets or the food or what I missed most about it. Maybe it was the combination of all the those pieces which made a whole. The City has a pulse, a life, a soul. I missed everything about it and I thought to myself, “Is this what home is?”

Art!

Art!

I know everyone says that home is where the heart is, and hell, there’s a song about leaving your heart in San Francisco. There’s even a giant piece of art to commemorate said hit. But then I was sitting in bed earlier today and I realized; I can look at a map of San Francisco now. That sharp edge is gone.

With all my moving, I made a personal philosophy some time back: It takes two years to really get settled in a new place. After about six months you’ve stopped focusing on what your new location is not and have turned your attention instead onto what it is. At the end of year one you’ve stopped missing it with the all-consuming sense you once had, you’ve made some friends, and you’re really getting your feet wet. Some time in the middle of year two you make real routines and lasting connections, and understand the flow of your new surroundings. By the end of year two you’re all settled into your new place and it’s as if you were never anywhere else. For this reason I usually moved into a new apartment and neighborhood after one year. I liked to keep things fresh.

Here I am, one year five and a half months into service and, for some reason, I’m surprised that I still manage to fit into my original hypothesis. I’m not comfortable here, per se, but the part where that burning longing ebbs holds true.

The closest thing to home I'll get for now.

The closest thing to home I’ll get for now.

So, to answer my own question, I’m going to have to say: Yes. That is what home is. But a part of me used to think you could only have one home at a time. That because San Francisco was my home, Santa Cruz or my grandmother’s house could no longer be my home, but I was sorely mistaken. The rose garden in Raleigh, my parents’ house in Santa Cruz, my grandmother’s house, and the entirety of San Francisco are still my home. And when I get back I have the opportunity to make a whole new home. Life is moving forward at a million miles an hour, even in this place where time stands still, and to focus so much on what I had seems frivolous and a little foolish. I loved my life there. I learned so much. And now I am here, in Indonesia, learning more. Later I will be in LA, learning yet more. After that… who knows?