Thursday, October 22, 2015

Practicing Happiness

It has come to my attention recently that I don’t know how to “be” happy. I mean, what kind of Pollyanna simpleton walks around just being happy? Life is harder and more complicated than that, and accepting otherwise is just plain naïve. It’s much safer and easier (and socially acceptable) to sabotage our thoughts, expect the worst and hope for the best.

But what if this just isn’t the case? What if today is what happiness looks like and we just don’t know how to enjoy it? What if being happy takes…practice?

I have just made two major life changes: job and marriage. I’ve moved overseas and back again, and in the midst of all that found a person for whom I feel profound and deep love. Now I get the opportunity to try something new, to grow, to do something I’ve always wanted but wasn’t sure how to go about it. Not only that, I’ve found an organization that lets me keep my toe in development work and is flexible with me and themselves.

I shudder in writing the above, because I fear I may sound like a braggart, because I fear I may lose it. On bad days, the soundtrack playing in the back of my mind is: I’ve gone from being my own woman with steady benefits and paycheck and taking life by the tail - to a consultant with little or no job security, relying on a man I hardly know, almost exactly back where I started. Worse – dumped by my old employer, stuck in the suburbs, with an SUV. Next to Costco.


So which is it? Both are technically true, but why do I feel more comfortable sharing the more negative story?

Brene Brown calls the idea of downplaying our happiness as Forboding Joy. In essence, happiness means being vulnerable and in order to avoid that, we downplay it. In her book, Daring Greatly, she writes:  “It’s easier to live disappointed than it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain.” So, while good things have happened, I focus on the down parts, in order to keep myself “grounded” or “not get ahead of myself” or [insert any other reason not to be happy]. That way, if it does work out, I’m supposed to be pleasantly surprised.

Moreover, let’s be honest, happy people are friggin’ obnoxious. When I was single, I hated being around what Bridget Jones called the ‘Smug Marrieds’. While I was happy for them, sometimes the jealousy, the loneliness, the wondering if it would ever happen for me - it physically hurt.  Their happiness literally made me miserable.

My husband and I have had long talks about how to be responsible in our love for each other and those in our lives, single or married. While not being held hostage to the naysayers, having been so long at the other end, we also don’t want to twist the knife. Those married folks with whom I could open up to were both genuine in their concern for me and made space in their lives for me.  We are committed to making space, committed to sharing, spreading around some of that love we took so long to find.

The thing about Forboding Joy is, I’m never as pleasantly surprised as I think I’m going to be. I end up just wandering around, picking at the scabs of old wounds or pushing at emotional bruises. I just ruin the experience by worrying my way through it.  And sometimes our happiness allows others to be happy themselves.

From here on out, I’m done not fully enjoying what I have the moment I have it. I’m going to practice being happy, and allow others to be happy (without judgement). I won’t always get it right. Perhaps this post is obnoxious, but that’ ok. I’m going to embrace good things right now, exactly because they might not come back.  I may look stupid but what if this is what happiness is? I’d be even dumber to miss it.  

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Have a Heart(land)

Last week I volunteered at Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank which serves 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. September is National Hunger Action Month, and all throughout Bremer Bank is matching every volunteer hour at Second Harvest with a $5 donation. Having spent my last two years thinking about and seeing hunger and poverty in Malawi, I thought it was a good opportunity to explore the same issues closer to home. Plus, they made it super easy to do.

Second Harvest (@2Harvest) is part of Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that helps feed people across the country. According to their website 1 in 7 Americans struggles with food insecurity. One in seven!

I’ve learned a lot about “food insecurity” in developing countries, but it never really occurred to me that the same terminology would be applicable so close to home.  From what I remember in my grad school days, food insecurity revolves around three things: access, availability and uptake. That is: is there food nearby? Is it affordable? Is your body getting what it needs? 

In Malawi, our program explored this through periodic surveys covering the three aspects. How far do you need to walk to find food? What could you afford? Were there enough calories available? The local staple was nsima and relish with every meal, so we also asked if they were getting enough dietary diversity (a fancy way of saying “balanced diet”).

In the United States, the three aspects still hold. Getting enough calories is less of an issue, but given the overabundance of cheap, sugar-filled calories, finding a healthy and nutritional balance remains a struggle. According to the latest 2014 Food Hunger Survey, 81% of clients in the Second Harvest service area choose inexpensive, unhealthy food.

Hunger is at once an uncomplicated and complicated issue. It’s relatively easy to improve access and availability – that’s what food banks like Second Harvest try to do. It’s harder to teach about what to eat. Adding to that, it also impacts so many other things: if you are food insecure, how do you have enough energy to learn? To work? To borrow a development phrase, this is called poverty ratcheting. Not having one puts you at risk for the other, which knocks you down another step, and then another, etc.

I enjoyed my afternoon re-packaging excess tortillas and sorting through boxes of semi-expired goods from local grocery stores (it is seriously fascinating to see what things get donated. Easter Eggs! Gluten free matzo balls!). It also helped that I randomly ran into my friend Curt, who was also there to volunteer. It felt good to spend time thinking of others, learning something new and putting myself to service.

It’s sexy to think about helping others in far off places. It’s easy to think about a poor hungry Ethiopian child with flies about her nose, but that is not necessarily the reality. It has been somewhat difficult during my return to reconcile the image of this land of abundance with one that perhaps has more in common with Malawi than it would like to admit.  Returning home, I feel more strongly than ever that “making a difference” isn’t something that is done to Another in a Far Off Place, but to each other, as we live our lives, every single day.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Plight of the Intern

Recently, an intern from New Zealand caused an internet stir when he quit his unpaid UN internship in Geneva, Switzerland, after being outed for living in a tent outside of town. In his statement, he admitted he couldn’t afford to support himself for the six month stint. Despite being asked during interviews if he could, he wasn’t honest about it because he felt he’d be passed over for previous internships because of it.

Having lived in Geneva for six months on an unpaid internship myself, I’ve got some insights on this.

By whatever miracle, early in my development career, I found myself an unpaid internship in Geneva with a non-profit organization that followed the United Nations conventions. (I would’ve killed for an internship at the actual United Nations like this guy, but I digress.) I researched the crap out of places to stay, ending up the first two weeks in a hostel that I knew I couldn’t afford for more than a few weeks, waiting for space in another place that was so popular, it had a waiting list.

Eventually, I moved to Mandat International Rappard House, a beautiful old house on the outskirts of town that had room rates based on the economic situation of your country. Nationals from developed countries paid more, those from developing countries paid less. While I would’ve loved the lower rate, overall it seemed fair. I got to mix and mingle with folks from all over the world, building a vibrant communal support system. And what a community! We had debated over breakfast every morning, and discussed our days while cooking pasta in the evenings. I loved it there, and am even still in touch with a few.

Then, my supervisor travelled to the Gambia for a month and offered to let me house-sit. All of a sudden, I had my own flat in downtown Geneva for free! That single gesture of trust and understanding saved me a ton of cash. My friends and I subsisted on UN happy hour fare, partied in squatter housing, nursed drinks at the Alahambar and made pasta dishes on tiny hot plates across the city. In the end, I was able to live in Geneva for less than I thought.

I don’t know this guy’s situation. However, I do know a few things:
  • It takes time to get where you want to be. If I had quit in the first two weeks, I would’ve missed some wonderful opportunities both to meet new people and work on my career. I couldn’t have foreseen that my boss would travel and like me enough to let me house-sit, but I took a leap of faith anyway and toughed it out.
  • Geneva is well-known to be an expensive place. Within the UN community, I believe that nearly everyone knows (or has been!) an unpaid intern. Sympathy was on his side! Resources abound for those coming in to do short or long term stints.
  • Interns aren’t the only ones who have it rough. I feel like not only did he gave up too quickly, but for a bourgeois cause. If interns have it rough, what about the number of other immigrants who fight for the right to live and work in Switzerland on a daily basis?
  • From most accounts, it appeared he made conscious a choice to go it alone, refusing family and other support to live in a tent. Yes, not everyone has the luxury of being able to rely on family, but what a wonderful gift when you do. It was his choice to refuse those gifts.
  • No matter where you go, you retain the capacity to network and problem-solve. The best thing I did while in Geneva was as let go of certainty and learned to rely on my community. It led me down some amazing paths I would’ve never seen. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

All the Small Things

It's been awhile - and for good reason: my husband and I moved back to America at the end of June. We left behind so many wonderful people and experiences, I'm having a hard time processing, believing it was even real. Such are the throes of culture shock, I guess. 

This is also the exact best time to keep writing. 

One of the things I love asking people is what they miss - either where there coming from or going to. There are big ones of course (friends! family!) but today I find myself ruminating on the small things:

The small things I enjoy about returning to America:
  • Being able to wear high-heeled shoes, and not wonder a) how I’m going to navigate a rocky (or gravel) road or b) if my heels are going to sink into the grass at any point during the day.
  • Ice cream, Dairy Queen or otherwise, and the subsequent takeover of the Caramel and Sea Salt flavor. 
  • Caribou coffee shops – being able to get coffee to go and/or just sit in a cozy coffee shop and chill out with the free, fast, wi-fi.
  • Free, fast, wi-fi.
  • Hot water, anytime.
  • Being able to call anyone in the US at any time. Including my sister and my best friend, whom I missed texting.
  • My beautiful Raleigh road bike. Love. Swoon. Love, love, love.
  • Showing my legs in public. Legs! Everywhere! And mine aren’t even the worst.
  • Target. This could also go on the worst list, but I’m still only three weeks out.
  • The softest bedsheets I have ever felt in my life.

The small things I miss about Malawi;
  • WhatsApp. Man, that thing was amazing.
  • Having a routine. This will change, as I get more into a routine here, but I wow. I do miss that structure right now. 
  • Running into the same great people at the same events/places all over town. I felt like I had a handle on all the activities that were going on in a given weekend.
  • Community.
  • Getting excited about finding asparagus (or insert other hard to get item) in the grocery store.
  • The hustle and the open air awesomeness of the used clothing market.
  • My Rav4.
  • Game night.
  • Dare I admit it, Porcupine Ridge.

I know that many of the small things from Malawi will eventually find there way here. We've already talked about instituting a game night, for example. However, one of the neat things about blogging is capturing the in-between times. I am in the tweeniest of in-between times right now, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other until things feel "normal" again. 

Until then, I'm writing a lot of lists. 

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Billboards of Lilongwe

One of the things I'll miss about Lilongwe are the random billboards. I know good money went into putting these up. However, until someone shows me a direct link between seeing a billboard and behavior change, I'm going to find them inadvertently amusing...

Stop your cars! Have responsible mining! Also, check out the token woman in the business room. Why does she look like the maid?

This one is not so bad, really. It's true, young girls need to speak up. But I would've preferred the message to be one about stopping abuse, rather than stopping the silence around abuse. It just makes it seem more like their problem because they are not speaking out.

My absolute favorite, on my way to work. It helped, because otherwise I would've engaged in money laundering and terrorist financing that could've tarnished my image. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Adventures in Road Traffic

Early on, I bypassed some bureaucracy by dropping my quest to get a Malawian driver’s license and choosing to drive on an AAA approved International one. I figured I had successfully escaped having to spend time at the Road Traffic Authority (aka, the DMV).  Alas, I was wrong.

Dead wrong.

Turns out, the bureaucracy gods are a fickle bunch. As of June 1, anyone wanting to conduct business regarding their vehicle first must get a Traffic Registration card. As I am leaving June 30th, I wanted to sell my car. Luckily, the purchaser clued me into this little debacle, and readily prepped me: Five lines, three hours. She even helpfully got the application form for me, taking care of line #1.

I arrived at Road Traffic early (though not as early as I wanted because - guess what? - There are two road traffic offices. *facepalm*). From that moment on, it was as if the universe swallowed me up and I was required to spend all the time I would’ve spent at the DMV over the past two years in the course of two days. Arg.

The first line, Biometrics, took me 2.5 hours. Not so bad; I finished my book. The clinical label turned out to be nothing more than a glamour shot and a finger print session. This was important, as they took your fingerprint at every other subsequent queue.  I heard that one devout 85 year old Muslim man was convinced the finger print machine didn’t work on him because he’d spent his whole life washing his hands before and after prayers five times a day.  Turns out, the system was just down.

The next line, Enrollment, was another hour.  By this time, I was noticing a curious event. Prints were scanned, but only at the window.  Those of us waiting in line were just that: waiters. Many of these patient folks next to me were just place holders for the more affluent! (and better prepared) who were called in at the last minute to take their place in line and swipe their prints. How naïve I was, waiting in line for my own self! I had failed the most basic line-hack.

Finally stepping to the window, I watched in agony as the registrar glanced out at me and then turned to help two MP’s who were next to her behind the glass. When she was finished, she stepped away into the back room, only to return 10 minutes later.


Too far in to abandon my quest, I moved to the third line: Payment. By this point, I was a little batty. After two years in Malawi, I thought I’d finally learned to stop asking why, but at this point I was near hollering:  WHY COULDN’T WE HAVE DONE THIS ALL IN ONE LINE? Credit card kiosks are still new here, so cash payments had to be made at the approved government bank teller window…around the corner. Then you had to take the evidence of payment to the final line to collect your card.

After a little over four hours total, I had received a receipt stating I had paid. Unfortunately, having little fortitude to handle any more lines or human contact, I conceded defeat. I vowed to return the next day for the fourth and final queue: pick up.

Day two was the absolute worst. The queue itself didn’t seem so long. However, I failed to discount cultural differences in personal space. Meaning, the distance of the line is not necessarily directly correlated with the amount of people. Place said line in a 10x15 foot room with no air conditioning with only two of the five windows processing cards and you have my idea of hell. I had thought of sending someone to stand in my place, but by this time I figured I might as well have the whole horrible experience. It’s a wonder I never learn.

I stood in line behind a nice lady with a red dress (Martha) and a young man (Marcus). The process was going like this: one had to show their receipt at the window, get your prints verified, and then go wait outside while they printed your card. When it was ready, they yelled out your name and handed it back through the queue, effectively negating the point of taking your finger prints. Hilarious.  

Two hours later, when there was twenty-five people ahead of me, the system went down. Then they ran out of cards.  After a while it was tough to know what exactly the problem was, as everything being shouted was in Chichewa.  The one thing I did know was I was hungry, thirsty and had to go to the bathroom all at once. My tongue began to feel thick and my head ached.

Around hour three, a savior emerged. A new window opened right in front of me, Martha and Marcus. Upon a few words from Martha, he quietly processed our fingerprints and we shoved our way back out the door to the sidewalk. Triumphant, exhausted, dehydrated, we split some tangerines from a roadside vendor and waited for our names to be called. Two days, 6.5 hours later, I had my card.

I’m still not sure if I accomplished anything, but as it turns out, there is a direct correlation between the degree of difficulty and feeling pride. Many people decry African bureaucracy and claim that standing in line is a Malawian past-time. But Malawians aren’t any different than Americans when it comes to queueing and let’s face it, DMV’s are suck holes anywhere on earth. Some people were angry, some were patient. Some cheated the system, others waited for their appointed turn. In the end, I think it ws a fitting way to leave Malawi: on its own terms. I sold my car, transferred the title, and feel like I have paid my bureaucratic dues. 

Time to go home.  

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Honor Among Thieves: A Review

Third in a series (including one prequel) by blogger and development professional, J., Honor Among Thieves, more than any of the others, delves into the day to day life of the development industry. The protagonist, Mary-Anne, has found her way from the horn of Africa to World Aid Corps (WAC) headquarters in Washington DC, as director of global programs. She’s left to the wolves of political whimsy as WAC fights to distinguish itself from a sea of bigger development organizations.

The Shangri-La of funding, $500,000 of unrestricted, private money waltzes through their door in the form of Gary, outdoor clothing entrepreneur, with a desire to “do good in Cambodia”. As a result, Mary-Anne gets told by her boss Jillian to hop on a plane and work with the curmudgeonly Cambodian country manager, Patty, to come up with something. But, midway through program design, the donor decides that all the money should go only to water projects. Marie-Anne and Patty have, of course, designed a livelihoods program. Cue drama.  

This might not come off as a nail-biter for non-development readers, but as far as a true-to-life telling of the development rat race, this book nails it. J. does a great job wiggling his finger in the soft grey middle where we most live. Which is better – create a program that speaks to people’s needs, or get the funding that keeps the organization going that can do other impactful programs? Design a water program, but have other initiatives around it? Fight the battle or win the war? There are no simple answers. Explaining this book to a few friends over dinner one night, one of them exploded “That exact same thing happened to me!” So clearly, J. knows his material.

J. does excellent work portraying everyone as rounded out human beings, with families and decisions and motivations far beyond the work of the work. Each character brings with them a new conundrum, a new avenue of exploration into what ‘doing good’ actually means. My favorite is Trevor, fresh out of undergrad and ready to save the world. J., uses him as a vehicle to answer some of the more basic questions about the development industrial machine. (But there’s so much need! Why doesn’t someone just do something?). Starting his own non-profit, he finds, it isn’t as easy as it seems.

While more true to life, this book also loses some of the tittering decadence from the pre-quel (Marie-Ahhne, Jean-Philippe whispered) that made it such an entertaining read.  I wanted someone to hate. I wanted a place to hang my hat and yell with moral superiority: YOU HAVE CHLAMYDIA YOU IDIOT! Mary Anne should’ve told that crappy Todd that if he’d done his job in the beginning, he could’ve wooed the donor away from water, and this story could’ve been written entirely from the arms of Jean-Philippe.

In the end, I’m not sure if the true-to-life mundaneness overshadows the bones of what makes a good story. This first novel was entertaining in a dashing, bold, even corny kind of way. To be a true homerun, this third novel needs bolder statements, darker lines, bigger dichotomies and a stronger narrative arc than just “Mary-Anne grows up in development”.

This may be exactly the point: development is one big grey area. It’s still a great book, but the big reveal comes in such a non-exciting way that it feels buried, ambiguous, almost after-the-fact. Even if it might not ever happen in real life, I wanted Patty and Mary-Anne to gloat, for Jillian to get her public come-uppance and for Todd to become addicted to opium and fall into a river of crocodiles. 

That is, perhaps, for next time. 

 Views are my own and I was not compensated for this review.