Living the questions, one moment at a time.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Preschool and Adulthood are Actually Kind of the Same Thing: An Analysis.

The idea of adjustment is discussed quite a bit in my field. (Does the fact that I just completed my first year of graduate school allow me to say I have a “field?” How grown up.) In international education, we usually talk about adjustment as related to adjusting to a new culture (whatever that actually means…sometimes I’m still not so sure. Spoiler alert: I’m not sure anyone is.) 

No, I haven’t been abroad recently (although that’s coming.) I have not undergone a life-altering tragedy in the last couple of years (although they sure nailed it with the saying “when it rains, it pours.”) 

I’ve realized that we are actually in a constant state of transition. A constant state of adjustment. Perhaps because of some of my past experiences, I always associate adjustment with some earth-shattering event that will change me forever, for better or worse. Sometimes, adjustment does stem from these types of events. Other times, we just find our perspectives and inner selves shifting ever so slightly over time. In hindsight, what seemed like small, everyday occurrences have in fact altered our core, often before we even realize it. Earth-shattering, but in a different kind of way. 

Graduate school for me has represented the latter. Perhaps because I was not prepared for the growth I would experience, I am finding my attempts at adjusting to be feeble and half-hearted at the moment. 

First, there is the academic growth; I went to school in August with a strong work ethic and an overwhelming desire to learn, but very little knowledge beyond my own cross-cultural experiences. I surprised myself consistently and became significantly more confident as a professional. However, even more notable for me was the personal growth. How do I function in groups? What are my deepest passions? Wow, I am passive in conflict and do not express my personal needs in a group setting like I should. Maybe I should work on that. 

Then there are the people. I am not oblivious to the fact that my classmates represent a very special bunch. Many of us are survivors - survivors of conflict, tragedy, personal disappointments, even war. But I have never met a more resilient group of human beings.They are pioneers in every sense of the word, and I have no doubt that I will be reading about many of them over my morning coffee one day. And then there are the two or three people that I did not necessarily expect to find, but am so very thankful I did - in this case, girls that remind me that sister-like bonds can be formed in the blink of an eye and change your life for the better. 

Taking all of this into account, these questions of adjustment arose: How am I going to integrate these new experiences and attitudes into my life? And what will those two or three life-changing friendships look like when we are three, six, nine time zones apart? 

I wrestled with these questions as I went about my week. So, what did my life look like over this now six-day adjustment period?  Well for one, I smushed a bug - it was that blood-splattering kind of smush when all I meant to do was gently brush it off my leg. (I still feel badly about that.) I was enlightened to the fact that the unsightly ring-like bruise around my ankle, which I was convinced represented the early stages of an exotic and potentially fatal illness, actually came from a three-legged race two weekends back. I rejected sunscreen and found myself with pink legs. (Guess my mantra “Italians don’t need sunscreen” didn’t ring true, although they will be tan by tomorrow.) My brother told me that there’s a petition to get the “Ignition” Remix to replace the national anthem. 

In short, I’ve just been living. But isn’t that what adjustment is? Isn’t it continuing to live your life with these newly integrated parts, like finding the space for new puzzle pieces? Isn’t it continuing to live with the questions that we still have, the questions that may take awhile to answer?

I’ve had enough experience with adjustment over the last few years to kind of know the drill. Little moments become magnified as we try to remember how to live in a different world. Sometimes, we don’t even remember what the world (or life for that matter) was like before. Very often, however, the world is kind of the same. We are the changed ones. 

I have always been a bit slow to adjust - it doesn’t usually stop me from taking healthy risks, but ultimately I am kind of like that shy preschooler that has to scope things out from the corner for the first couple of weeks. (Okay, I wasn’t like that preschooler. I was her. And still am.) Shy preschooler or not, I ultimately end up jumping in at the water table or in the sand box, fully engaged and ready to go. As scary and difficult as adjustment can be, I will take adjustment to stagnancy any day. I will take a beautiful friendship over the pain of separation, the excitement of using new skills in the field over my slight fears of being let go to do it all on my own (with encouragement and support, of course.) 

In short, while the bug won’t get another chance at life (again, I’m sorry), my pink legs and I have a long, open road in front of us. 

I’m ready.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Word Choice

Words matter.

We spend a whole lot of time here talking about this thing called cross-cultural communication. And it can get tricky. Take the word "couscous," for example. You know, the food. Well, imagine my shock when my friend tells me that in her language, "couscous" actually refers to a certain female body part. (I will keep said friend and her language anonymous.) Imagine if I had gone to her country and started shouting couscous. (Not sure why that would ever happen, but you never know.) I probably wouldn't be viewed as the best representative of the USA at that point.

See the problem? All jokes aside, words matter. We don't know how our speech will be interpreted at any given time. Words can really affect how we think of a situation. More specifically, words impact how we talk to ourselves and view our own decisions.

A little over a week ago, I was having a day - the kind of day that causes you to question your own sanity for a short time. Among a few larger issues, hormones and a stressful in-class project finally threw me over the edge. I thought I was pulling it together around lunchtime, but when I nearly walked into a moving car in the parking lot I knew it was time to make a move. After brewing in my thoughts for about an hour (sometimes a dangerous idea), I called my mom. I did not plan on crying, but the waterworks started in the middle of my second sentence (which inevitably happens when you call people you love to "chat" when you are already upset.) The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Me: I. just. want. to come. homeeeeeee.
Mom: Why can't you?
Me: *sniff* Because I caaaaan't.
Mom: You have a car!
Me: But it's only a two-day weekend!
Mom: So? That's two days.
Me: But that means I'm CRAZY.
Me: Coming home because I am upset is rash.
Mom: ....Rash?
Me: It means that I am upset enough to make decisions that involve driving for three hours and that is rash.
Mom: It's not rash, it's spontaneous.
Me: It's rash.
Mom: When do you ever even use that word?
Me: Now, I guess.
Mom: Well you could stay, or you could come home and have some wine, and sleep in your own bed. And we can have a family Revenge marathon.
Me: (still choked up) Okay. I think you're right.
Mom: Pack your bag. It's spontaneous!

(Yes, you read that right. It was the family viewing of "Revenge" that kind of sold me.)

Mom was right, as usual. Even the simple act of driving into Massachusetts provided the rush of encountering an old friend - I started to feel better.

I half wish this story had a more dramatic ending, but after a few glasses of wine, several pieces of my mom's Irish bread, and some advil, I was (almost) back to my old self.

This is a long story to simply illustrate a bad day. I could have said simply: "I had a bad day." But I told it to illustrate that:
1) I am not superhuman, contrary to popular belief. (Kidding.)
2) I don't always think about myself and my decisions in a gentle way.

While this whole episode seems kind of silly almost two weeks later, I have really been thinking about perspective. I kept calling my decision to take a weekend at home "rash" and "crazy." Part of this likely stemmed from my intense emotions in the moment, but part of it involves the words themselves.

In fact, because I have a strange ( or "unique"...see? Words!) fondness for dictionaries, I decided to look up the words rash and spontaneous. Here is what I found:

Spontaneous (adj) coming or resulting from a natural impulse or tendency; without effort or premeditation; natural and unconstrained; unplanned

Rash (adj) acting or tending to act too hastily or without due consideration; reckless, incautious, foolhardy

After reading these definitions, I realized that they really are two completely different words. And notice that the definition of spontaneous includes the word natural. I don't think this is an accident. As soon as I started to think about my trip home as "spontaneous," my whole view of my decision changed completely. Words can do that.

Sometimes, there are situations that even the "right" words absolutely cannot fix. I know this for a fact. Many of us face realities that seem overwhelming, and probably are. There are no words that can take away certain kinds of pain and sorrow. Several of my friends have spoken to me lately, whether directly or indirectly, about negative self-talk. It really does seem to be an issue for many of us (myself included.)

Self-care is becoming more important than ever. Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. Internship searches are in full swing here. Heck, life is in full swing. But then again, it always is. My very close friend and I have a new favorite saying: "Life is a giant detour." Sounds about right.

That's why I am choosing to be compassionate with myself. The first step is choosing the right words.

And I'll be sure not to say couscous.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Here, There, and Being Itchy: Grad School Beginnings.

How will I demonstrate humility this week?

A sticky-note containing this question has been facing me for the last three or four weeks. (Literally - it's stuck on my desk). This question came from a homily that I heard a few weeks back. The sermon came at an appropriate time, as evidenced by another point that stuck with me:

"When we are itchy, we scratch. When we scratch, we get at the source." 

A few years back, I had an epiphany. A mind-blowing revelation. I don't really like to take pictures. Actually, let me rephrase that. I love taking pictures - that's the problem. I realized that in the process of trying to pursue a perfect shot, I was missing out on what I was actually seeing. Don't get me wrong, photography is a beautiful art. But it's also important to see the real thing - to risk forgetting in the name of being fully present in the moment. (See this post from last year about my love/hate relationships with the "last look".)

This explains why I've been so slow on the grad school updates; in my effort to be present I have decided that, for the first month, I would concentrate solely on my adjustment. Sometimes, I have to stand back in order to process. So...this grad school thing? Here's where I come back to humility.

I am humbled each and every day.

I am humbled by the fact that I do not know even a speck of what there is to know. (Not that I ever thought I knew anything in the first place...not for a second). There are so many forces at work in the world, which lead me to even more questions. One of my professors summed it up well the other day: If you all don't leave with more questions than you arrived with, we haven't done our jobs.

Questions. A loaded word. Especially here.

I stepped into one of my classes, "Way of Council," for the very first time a few weeks back. Having gone to UMass, I thought I'd seen it all as far as nontraditional class experiences. But not even I could have been prepared for what the next three hours would bring. Apparently, the word "class" at SIT can be code for  "three-hour therapy session." In a class about active listening and creating healing through circle processes, our first go-around proved downright emotional. The question was: "What brought you here?" A question that, over the next forty-five minutes, would move three-quarters of my class to tears. (Myself included, but that's not entirely shocking).

Why was this question an emotional one? I am sure each person in the class could give you a different answer. But the truth is, the question "What brought you here?" is not just about the present.

What brought you here? This means that we all have a there.

But where/what is there?

Unfulfilling jobs. An undying passion. War. Poverty. Families left behind. A devoted spouse. The need to shake things up and create change.


Supportive parents. In my case, two of the most incredibly supportive parents. The second I told my mom last January that grad school was on my radar, she gave me a huge hug. Yes, Maria. This is for you.

And yes, I say parents with an s. Because even after his death, my dad supports me in more ways than I can count. In more ways than I can express in this space. And I'm trying my hardest to make him proud of me.

The "theres" in our lives, the questions, the people left behind, the can make all of us "itchy." We all get itchy sometimes. (I'm sure a few of my lovely friends will find a way to make this dirty, but bear with me.)  It's okay to be uncomfortable. With uneasiness comes exploration. Surprises. Further questions.

When we're itchy, we scratch and we get to the source. 

When I am uncomfortable, I stretch. When I stretch, I surprise myself.

Wow. How liberating it feels when I surprise myself. How freeing. How downright unbelievable.

How uncomfortable I felt on that first day walking into a pseudo-cafeteria to meet a hundred people, none of whom I had any connections to whatsoever. Uncomfortable, yes. But in the midst of that discomfort, I had no choice but to put myself out there.

The result? New friends from all over the United States and over a dozen countries. A few special people have already become beautiful additions to my life, and we are only in week five or six.

With all of these questions...questions about international education, questions about the current state of the world and questions about how the hell I can help when so many tragedies still happen each and every day. Heck, I'm even beginning to question my own interests! But, as I reflect on these questions (which, on occasion, include  questions about my own sanity), I begin to realize that I would much rather question than remain stagnant. Life is far too precious for that.

I'll take being itchy any day, as long as itchiness = growth. And I am already doing some serious evolving. right back, I have a mosquito bite to scratch.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On The Eve..

Today, I'm jittery. I have that I-can't-sit-in-this-house kind of feeling that only comes on the eve of a drastic change. 

Tomorrow morning, I leave for graduate school in Vermont. 

Am I anxious? Most definitely. I have little idea of what to expect. I know (roughly) of my living arrangements, and I know that there is a Dunkin Donuts two minutes away. Other than that, things are a little foggy. I will not know my class schedule for another week or so. Right now, I feel like I'm winging it.

And that's the difference. The difference is, I'm a little more okay with it. 

Rewind to September 2009. I honestly think I spent half of that summer in tears. Going away to college is, I think for everyone, that first terrifying milestone. Back then, "change," (or at least monumental changes, as opposed to the day-to-day), was an exception.

These days, change is the norm. 

In the last four years, I've lost a parent. I've lived in two different countries. I've undergone transformations that can only come with being catapulted into the unknown and surviving the experience. 

I am still a nervous person, and I'm not sure I can change that. But now, in 2013, I sweat a little less. My mom may not cry as heavily over our parting tomorrow. (Although I still expect her to be teary. After all, I am her only daughter and firstborn.) I guess she has grown, too. 

Looking back, I smile when I remember that this whole blog started as a journal of my time abroad. How funny that a series of classes I began the year before I left for Perugia would so drastically alter my planned trajectory. And how interesting that this altered course would bring me to this moment. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Poem

This poem was written by a man on the verge of losing his memory. I found it in a book, and it really struck a chord with me. 

Lost and Found
by David Hollies

The first few times
Being lost was frightening
Stark, pregnant
With the drama of change
Then, I didn’t know
That everywhere is nowhere
Like the feeling when a ocean wave
Boils you in the sand
But as time goes by
Each occurrence of lostness is quieter
Falling from notice
Like the sound of trains
When you live near the tracks
Until one day
When a friend asks
"How often do you get lost?"
And I strain to recall a single instance
It was then that I realized
Being lost only has meaning
When contrasted with
Knowing where you are

A presumption that slipped out of my life
As quietly as smoke up a chimney
For now I live in a less anchored place
Where being lost is irrelevant
For now, only when there is a need
Do I discover where I am
No alarm, no fear
Just an unconscious check-in
Like glancing in the rear-view mirror.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Deep Cuts

It was late afternoon, and I was bleeding.

Not many people can declare that they've been sliced on a horseshoe crab, but I can. I sighed as I reached into the first aid kit to pull out a Band-Aid - the first thing we all do when we have a cut.

My first grade campers just love Band-Aids. Although only about one in ten "injuries" at camp actually warrants one, the kids frequently point to a freckle or a bug bite before eyeing the green medical bag hopefully. Most children just like the way they look. But is this desire for a bandage based on a deeper need?

Young children are not the only ones obsessed with Band-Aids.

Bandages offer protection. Even if you don't actually need it, it's nice to just stick one on your arm or leg and go on your merry way. Of course, Band-Aids can prevent infections. Other times, however, we just don't want salt in the wounds...

But isn't a little salt water good for cuts?

Why do we try to "fix" everything? I will be the first to state that, because of my mothering personality, I feel no deeper hurt than the pain that comes with staring into someone's helpless eyes and acknowledging that I cannot help. I've looked into my own heart on occasion and had the same devastating realization. There was nothing left to do.

In the end, I had to let myself bleed out.

After all, blood involves the heart.

....And what happens when a Band-Aid isn't enough?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Why Showing Up is Everything

As of a few weeks ago, there is a spider plant residing on top of my bookcase. The plant sits in a small, clear jar wrapped with a navy blue ribbon. I already like this plant because I know I won't kill it - spider plants can thrive in a wide range of conditions. This particular plant is already a survivor. How do I know this?

Because of where it came from.

I won this plant at an auction. The auction was part of a fundraising night for my beloved seventh grade science teacher, Mr. Kittredge. Mr. K has been battling ALS for the past couple of years. Unfortunately, his condition continues to deteriorate; his current and former students are devastated. To say that Mr. K was a light for us during our seventh grade year would be an understatement. He completely and wholeheartedly embodied what it means for a teacher to "show up" for his or her students. Every day, we would enter the room and see his briefcase resting on the lab table. The briefcase was COVERED with stickers, and I enjoyed feasting my eyes on all of the colors. Mr. K's personality was as colorful as these stickers - he brought a sense of humor to the classroom that I have yet to experience again. During that painful year in my life during which my family experienced yet another cancer diagnosis, Mr. K. kept me laughing when going to school proved to be an emotional hurdle.

Mr. K always showed up for us. At the fundraiser, I was blessed to witness my town show up for him.   To watch my old teachers, classmates, and neighbors hugging and reminiscing.

And the spider plant? It is actually a part of the larger spider plant that Mr. K housed in his classroom for many years. I remember that very plant sitting on the windowsill above me almost a decade ago. Now, I will always have a part of it.

The idea of "showing up" has been a recurring theme in my life recently, even if only in a subtle way. I've been thinking a lot about the phrase, the essence of its meaning. In the past few years, I've slowly developed a mantra that has begun to govern how I live, and that is this: showing up is everything.

In early June, a close friend of our family performed in her spring dance recital. K is twelve, and I have known her since she was born. (There is actually a picture of me holding her on my couch in early 2001, feeding her a bottle.) At this particular recital, K danced in several numbers. I love dance, so I thoroughly enjoyed the entire show. However, I was sad when I couldn't immediately spot K in her dances. From a distance, it is quite literally impossible to find one girl out of a dozen preteen dancers, almost all of whom are white (since this is Sandwich, MA), of similar height, and wearing identical costumes and buns in their hair. In the last thirty to forty seconds of each dance, I could finally find K.

But that wasn't really the point.

The point was seeing her face when she spotted me in the hallway after the 2.5 hour show, a bouquet in hand. I engulfed her in a hug and was more than happy to "show up" for such a special girl. Because I love her.

Do I remember every performance of my childhood years? Every awards ceremony? Every concert and soccer game and speech presentation? Of course not. I do remember who came to support me. And that has made all the difference.

By "showing up," I don't only mean being present in a physical sense (although important.) To me, the phrase also means having a friend who will just sit and listen to you cry. It's sending a "good luck" card to a roommate before she takes her boards. I am so thankful for these types of friends. But some of the most painful moments in our lives (my life included) revolve around the devastating realization that someone did not show up for us when we needed the support. That really hurts.

I've spent a bit of time in survival mode, I'll admit. By "survival mode," I mean that during a time of intense emotional pain, I wasn't really showing up for anyone in particular. Including myself. I made my bed (usually), ate three meals a day (usually, although my appetite wasn't always there), and continued to receive high grades (because I still liked learning.) I was nice and polite to people.

But I was just getting by.

I wasn't going the extra mile to show just how deeply I cared for those I love. I didn't quite remember what I liked about myself, because I couldn't see through the persistent fog.

Over the last year and a half, I've been showing up again. I remember what it feels like to be alive, to not just go through life but to let life go through me. To let it engulf me and amaze me and throw me around a little. To let it present me with new friendships that I treasure. To be inspired and dream my own dreams.

(And I have to say, nothing quite says showing up for life like paying your first credit card bills.)

On that occasional day when I need to be reminded to show up, I'll take a look at that spider plant. It has been through a lot, as has my favorite science teacher. But they are powering through.

And so will I.