Thursday, August 27, 2009

Missing Pieces

I should have my own TV show. All of those sturdy, sausage-fingered nannies in sensible shoes out there raking it in by offering stern disciplinary advice to frayed parents have nothing on my "nannying as vacation and vocation" approach. I will put this plan into action once I get caught up on sleep and do not look like I've been dragged through the apocalypse backwards. The sun finally set on ten days of leader orientation, or "stress camp", as I came to call it, and though I miss my raucous community of fellow itinerant sado-masochists, I am nearly weeping with gratitude for having the next week to relish life without the responsibility for the safety and sustenance of thirteen young adults stalking my dreams. In comparison, helping out with the two blond bundles of California sass that are my niece and nephew feels like a much tidier handful.

Yesterday, I was putting together a wooden puzzle with Kate (the aforementioned female bundle), who was associating each painted piece with where someone that she knew lived or "growed up". "Where do you live, Aunt Jewie?" (Note: This is the latest incarnation of my first name, and infinitely preferable to the perjorative "Auntie Dirty".) "Whelp, that's a good question", I replied. If a two year-old can arch a brow, then arch she did. Her look clearly implied that "Where do you live?" does not, in fact, constitute a good question, nor was my glib answer satisfactory. "I don't really live anywhere, Kate. I move around a lot and just... stay with people sometimes. Like when I come to see you." Likely more bored than mollified, she returned to her puzzle. I tried not to take it personally that she didn't ask me where I "growed up". Once bitten, twice shy, and I suspect I may not qualify for her "growed up" classification anyhow. Meanwhile, the auto-complete in my brain clicked in. When I'm not "in the field", I trade childcare for warm meals and a bed. When I'm working, the responsibilities are strikingly similar, the meals aren't always warm, sometimes the "bed" is a patch of dirt, and the remuneration slight enough to pale in comparison to the sloppy kisses I get from my diaper-wearing kin. The dart of longing this loosed in my gut to have my own meals, my own bed, and perhaps even my own diaper-wearing offspring was disconcerting.

Despite this, the last ten-days of logistical preparation and skill-sharpening reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the semester to come. I am committed to doing this thing the best way I know how, and I'm feeling a tentative rush of confidence in my newest co-leader- a "salt of the earth" former wrestling coach from Maine, whose work ethic and sense of discipline may have me looking like a bon bon-scarfing Peg Bundy by comparison. Still, there are only so many variables within one's mortal grasp, even for a dynamic duo such as ours. As we hunched over our student files one night, trading the remarkable and/or relevant tidbits as they were excavated, we were sobered by the preponderance of students in our batch of thirteen who are or recently have been under a physician's care for everything from substance abuse to psychotic episodes. Even for someone who has navigated the waters of therapeutic healing work (and perhaps especially so), this is edgy territory.

I have never been medicated for anything more dramatic than a stomach bug, and the ever-increasing presence of high-powered pharmaceuticals in the personal med kits of my students is alarming. More alarming still is the undeniable reality that this cross-section of American adolescents is by no means outside the norm. In today's classrooms, of you can name it, you can medicate it, and it seems this is ultimately preferable to trying to analyze the complex cocktail of causation (unequal parts diet, peer influence, mass media, family genetics and dynamics, and a host of other mystery ingredients) provoking the behavior. I feel confident in my ability to work with people, but medication also has a voice, personality, and needs of its own. This weighs heavier on me than the blood ties that bind me to the swelling ranks of my nieces and nephews. They are mercurial and sweetly mad and right where they should be for the four-and-under crowd. But why should I think that in ten weeks with near-strangers, I might succeed in doing with my "soft skills", my example, and my keen travel sense what parents and doctors have surrendered to big pharma? This, too, draws another dart of longing from the quiver, not so much for the meal and the bed, but for the safety from harm they represent-not just for myself, but for my students as well.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Magpie on the Rocks

I fell asleep on a pile of rocks. After six and a half days of non-stop planning and preparing for the upcoming semester in India, I sought the lowest point on the rustic campus where our collective of trip leaders is plotting the resounding success of semesters abroad in five countries just to remind myself that the top (i.e. my head) is not the only place to be. I nestled myself into a depression in the dry creek bed, and slowly felt the details reeling through my mind stutter into silence. The blissful broad touch pressure of water-softened stones between my shoulder blades and at the base of my spine relocated the locus of my awareness from September 6th (the first day I will meet my young charges) and beyond to about 6pm this evening. Yes, it did happen to be 2:58pm at the time, but what can I say, my thoughts never stray far from dinner. At least I finally landed on the right day.

Though I am returning to this place and this particular job for the second time, I find myself on unfamiliar terrain. The experience of re-visiting familiar places and challenges, rather than constantly seeking out new situations to bumble my way through feels oddly exhilarating, though not quite as relaxed as I’d fantasized. It turns out that when fate hands you a second chance, it can actually mean more work. With the smeary goggles of ignorance whisked away, you see all of the places where your uncertainty had you waltzing off a cliff, and become tantalized by the prospect of doing things more efficiently, with less pain and a smidge less drama. So you create new templates, you flag the dead ends, and you walk the cobblestone streets in your itchy town crier uniform cautioning all of your colleagues to beware the pitfalls of semesters past. I am developing a bit of a complex around being the voice of “Well, what we did last semester was…”, and suspect I may be gagged and shoved into a utility closet at some point . So be it. I am finally a veteran something. I am soaking in the exotic thrill of the novice know-it-all, because I know this job is not a resting place for me. At the end of the semester, I will once again begin casting about for the move that makes the most sense. I will be tired, wrung-out, and utterly aware that my health, my remaining professional objectives, and my more domestically-oriented yearnings will no longer stand for the cold shoulder they’ve been getting for the last year and a half.

When I was living in the quaint hamlet of Charlottesville, still giving the “normal” life the old college try, I went to visit a shaman. When you are me, and living in a college town in the south east with actual furniture and a mailbox, this is what you do, just to remember who you are. If you are wondering what this has to do with sleeping on rocks or the illicit thrills of being a know-it-all, bear with me.
The shaman actually looked more like a kindly pharmacist or kindergarten teacher, complete with orthopedic shoes and bedazzled reading glasses on a silk cord around her sweetly wattled neck. Her house smelled like grilled cheese sandwiches and vanilla spice potpourri. I went to see her because she was a fellow practitioner of the healing arts (though perhaps a shade fruitier than my own repertoire), and was willing to trade a session with me for an experience of her own work, which involved guiding me through a “shamanic journey” in order to encounter some of my animal spirit guides . Apparently we each have our own loyal astral menagerie, just waiting to offer helpful hints, sound sartorial advice, and insight into our essential nature. Long story short, I’ve got a magpie in my belfry. According to the shaman, it was VERY excited to meet me, and anxious to be getting about our business. The magpie is an unrepentant generalist and scavenger. It collects experiences, drawing strength from change, though home and family remain central values. I must admit to some disappointment that my spiritual sidekick wasn’t something a bit more… charismatic- a jaguar perhaps, or even a vaguely menacing ocelot.

I did, however, get a big boost from the magpie message. No need to lock it down as a doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief. It’s simply my nature to let way lead on to way and walk through doors as they open. Phew, finally validation, and I wasn’t about to turn my nose up at it because it wore feathers. I hope this doesn’t mean that I will spend more time bumbling than contributing in a substantial way, but I suspect that the world that awaits on the other side of all of those doors won’t have CNN (or even Regis and Kelly) dialing me up for my expert commentary on anything much. So here in the halcyon days of 20/20 hindsight, I’m keeping my cell phone charged and my sound bites poised and ready. Ask me about the best momo in Mcleod Ganj, or the typical reaction of a college student when the first bout of Delhi belly comes a’calling. That’s what I do.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Generation Me?

I was browsing the "Buy 2, Get 2 Free" table at Barnes and Noble the other day, and amidst the Dale Carnegies and Marilu Henners, I came across a book called Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled-and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Ah, perhaps here was the Hammurabi's Code of young adult education- a primer for making sense of the passionate and paradoxical people-in-progress with whom I've been so deeply involved these past two semesters. I felt very drawn to this book, and to these adjectives. They've come up a lot in the last year. They came up again last week when I found myself sprawled on my parents plush couch bellowing "MA! Did you get me some peaches? And stamps??!!" It turns out that "Generation Me" includes everyone between the ages of seven and thirty-six- the children of the seventies, eighties and nineties. We of the infinite potential, the astounding privilege, and the limitless choices (unless, of course, you are not also privileged by socioeconomic status,nationality,ethinicity, gender or geography- then, perhaps, you are a member of "Generation What About Me?").

So here I am, exactly where I've long suspected myself to be- a senior member of "Generation Me", hoping that my current job is not simply an exercise in the blind leading the blind. Because yes, I do behave as though I am entitled to inspiring work, beautiful vistas, fulfilling relationships, and inner peace, with relatively little compromise necessary on my part. I absorb the images of adventure and freedom obligingly manufactured for me (by the media and my own rabid imagination), and assume that I will somehow be able to have every ounce of that, plus the financial security and deeply committed relationships that generations before me had to earn through sacrifice and tough choices.

I was raised with more love and acceptance than many people get in a lifetime, and though my lifestyle choices often leave my family baffled and anxious, I never doubt that I have a place amongst their raucous, mostly right-wing number. Despite this, my membership in "Generation Me" is not simply a by-product of chronology. I have made a lifetime practice of asking myself "Who am I, and what do I want to be?" In my defense, "and how can I help" is also part of that equation, and so I continue to try to find ways to help others engage these questions for themselves. An addict doesn't like to drink alone. My family and friends have never questioned my right to live this way, or the validity of the choices these questions inspire.

I'm lucky, and I wonder if this is also a perk of "seniority"- being the product of a fairly "traditional" household, where love and encouragement were well-tempered by discipline and responsibility. Many of the students I work with have never been given models or tools for discipline, consistency, and integrity. Instead, they've been given permissiveness, and volumes of self-help jargon to justify flexible morality. Oh, God, I just said "flexible morality". Somewhere, my mother is offering a grateful novena to Rush Limbaugh. Really, though, what tugs me towards this type of work is the fact that many people go their entire lives without asking themselves (or being asked) "Who are you and what do you really care about? Who do you want to be?" I was thinking of this the other day, as I was cinching and stuffing my supplies for the next four months into two carry-ons (my mantra has regressed from "Om" to "I will NOT check baggage for a domestic flight"). It felt like trying to coax a wild boar into a cat carrier. "C'mon, you're an itty bitty kitty cat, aren't you? Get IN!!"

Lots of us get this type of message growing up and into adulthood, that we need to shape ourselves to fit a certain mold or set of expectations. I am not so attached to my wild boar/kitty cat metaphor that I felt guilty sashaying onto my Delta flight with no checked baggage, but I am driven by the image of young, round dreamers like myself being notched into wildly inappropriate square holes. Besides which, if I ever reproduce, I wouldn't feel all that great about leaving my offspring to fend for themselves in a world run by people who don't know who they are.

And so, though I sometimes feel like the industry which currently employs me is more about "transformational tourism" than the inner journey, to say nothing of selfless service, these misgivings haven't yet outweighed my compulsion to be on the front lines when those questions get answered.

P.S. Re: Am I Just the Relish?- My Dad does have a good memory when it comes to many things (not related to my current job, the reasons I don't want to be a tenured college professor, or what constitutes one serving size). O.k., Dad?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Am I Just the Relish?

I was out to dinner with my parents and brother last night at a foodie restaurant in Front Royal, VA, and my dad asked me what it is I am doing this fall. I nearly choked on my oven roasted lamb shank. Not only have I been doing this work for the last year of my life, but I have been rigorously and diligently documenting it in a series of exhaustive updates. I have written approximately eighty pages worth of descriptions, antecdotes, and travelogue-type verbal snapshots to date since my first sweltering days in Delhi last Septmeber. I reminded my father of this. "Juls, you write about bus rides and kids puking, and some girl thinking she was pregnant. And didn't you go to some Satchinandy ashram place?" My dad is a brilliant lawyer and astute businessman, but for some reason he often talks like Gomer Pyle and has a memory like a worm-eaten sieve, so I rolled my eyes at my brother and mother for the expected sympathetic titters. Only they, too, were looking at me in sheepish expectation.

"Mom, do you know what I do?"
"Well" she grimaced "I know it's something about understanding the culture, right? And sustainability? Seems like you use that word a lot."
My brother was able to elucidate a bit more, chiming in with something about "semester abroad" and "leadership", and truth be told this is pretty close to the mark, but I still felt uncomfortable with the description, like I was wearing a too-tight woolen waistcoat inside out with nothing underneath.

I looked down at my risotto speckled dinner napkin and felt like a teenager with a wierd hobby like Cheeto sculpture or mortuary design, overwhelmed by the task of defending my bizarre preoccupation in front of their parents' bridge club. When we got home from the restaurant, I had a startlingly beautiful email from my old Peace Corps buddy Dee, describing her experience as the director of the Health Volunteer program for Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia. No doubt what her job is, no sirree, and no question that she is out there kicking ass and being a shiny (not to mention articulate) beacon of inspired leadership for legions of service-minded American youth. Dee used to be a smoker. If she still was, I might feel a little bit better about this email. Yes, I would grab that shred of superiority and wear it like a bubble flip wig at a drag show. She sends me dear, empathic emails and we swap stories of the rigors of being available to cross-sections of "Generation Me" 24 hours a day. It is sweet of her to equate the relatively benign crises of late assignments and long-distance break-ups I usually intervene with to the "village in dire need of clean drinking water"-type conundrums her volunteers present.

"Could you just wrap it up in a nutshell, Juls?" my dad pleaded for the umpteenth time, and I tried to synthesize the catchy logos and testimonials spattered across the websites of my employing organizations. "Dad, I lead American college students on transformative learning semesters in India." Simple. I felt a surge of optimism that my jazzy sound bite, plus the filet and three microbrews he'd consumed would short circuit his cross-examination. No dice. "But what does babysitting a bunch of snot-nosed college kids have to do with education?" (For my dad, anyone under the age of twenty-six qualifies as "snot-nosed".) I am perturbed by this question not only because of the possibility it presents that my documentation skills may be far less pentrating than I'd imagined, but the niggling uncertainties it spotlights in my own understanding of my work.

I am trivializing and making light of what I do because I don't entirely understand it. It's like throwing a bunch of bizarre ingredients like pickle relish and cotton candy into a mason jar, shaking it really hard, and getting Coq au Vin. It's alchemy. It works, but I don't know how, and I don't know how much of it is due to or in spite of the role I play. More likely than not, I'm the pickle relish, the students are the cotton candy, India is the jar, and Fate is the hand shaking the jar. What if I'm no more than a random ingredient, and the magic that occurs has nothing to do with any skill or proficiency on my part? For some reason (maybe for the reason that I'm thirty-four and seriously wondering what it is, exactly, that I'm really good at, and how in that hell can I use that to do some good in the world)I need to know the answer to this question. Maybe that's why, despite my lingering fatigue and dislike of Excel budget sheets, I am once again about to work way too hard for way too little money at the expense of my sanity and intestinal health. Or maybe I just want to go to Rajasthan?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Hello from my homeland and the bowels of August, which are not nearly so sluggish and steamy as August bowels in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia can often be. I am wrapping up the summer months at my folks’ place, where the squirrels are just plain-assed crazy. They are constantly trying to perform routine maintenance on the undercarriage of my mom’s car (she claims they’re gnawing through her fuel lines, but I swear I saw one cleaning her brake pads), and trying to open the back door using momentum and mammalian gumption. What inspires them to attempt these awesome feats, which are so clearly quite outside the realm of plausible squirreldom? What sheer determination and willful ignorance propels them? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but these bushy-tailed kamikazes are my current personal metaphor of choice, as I, too, am once again attempting something which may simply be against Nature’s plan.
The last couple of months have been quite a revelatory roller coaster, and no one was more surprised by this than me. Actually, I had envisioned returning to the U.S. with a crystalline vision for a more domesticated future, which would most certainly NOT involve another gut churning semester in the trenches of experiential education in India. But then I ate some sushi- o.k. a lot of sushi. I took a really hot shower and slept like a grizzly in mid-winter. I went for blissfully anonymous walks on country roads without seeing a soul and lapped up the ridiculous beauty of the Blue Ridge, hugging me from three hundred and sixty degrees. This all took about seventy-two hours, and by the end of it, I was scrolling through websites and shooting off emails to land my next semester abroad.
What can I say, I just need to do it this one last time, and then I’m done, really. I can quit any time I want. It’s just that I feel like I’m only beginning to get what this whole line of work is about, and maybe with two semesters behind me I might be able to do more good than harm. Not that I feel badly about the way I discharged my duties over the last year, though there are a few rock bottom moments (yes, I did contemplate duct tape and a fire hose as acceptable methods for encouraging compliance). I am well aware that my experiences have been of enormous benefit to me in terms of character and professional development, leadership skills, and MacGyveresque techniques for maintaining personal hygiene “in the field”, and feel the need for just one more semester to extend the benefit of my existential bumps and bruises to others. I was once told by a hardened yet dashing veteran of experiential education in India that, out of three semesters, I might expect to have one that is truly great. Not to pin this on him, but that’s the gamble I’m taking.
My reinvigorated enthusiasm quickly yielded results, and I landed a job leading students on a service-oriented trip around the world- beginning in Guatemala, continuing on to India, and finishing in Uganda. I packed off to Berkeley to shepherd my young niece, Kate, through the rude shock of baby number two hitting the scene, confident that my life, at least through December, was completely mapped out. For a girl whose biggest concession to long-term planning involves shopping for a week’s worth of groceries at once, this was big stuff. Berkeley was wonderful, and though Kate’s favorite word seems to be “No”, she sounds like Yoda on helium when she says it, so I remain her helpless devotee. I have a new baby nephew, and I’m pretty sure he loves me best of all of his homeless big-haired aunties, so I headed back east for more family bonding (and birthing- oh, Lily, you have my heart in the palm of your wrinkly newborn hand) riding high on a wave of optimism. Then, I turned, thirty-four and got fired.
I have good reason to believe that my termination was not due to my advancing years, though the unfortunate timing of the event did almost send me to CVS for some very expensive eye cream and a Whitman’s Sampler. No, it’s just that a hefty chunk of the students who had signed up for the trip dropped out due to the utter crappiness of the present economy. Make no mistake, I am a person upon whom the blessings of a loving family and non-subsistence related concerns have been amply showered, but finding myself on an extended “visit” with my parents, no job on the horizon, on the eve of my “not in my early thirties anymore” birthday was quite a jolt. Fortunately, after two interminable weeks of negotiating and agonizing, I decided to go back to northern India for one last hurrah in “transformative education”. It wasn’t what I had originally envisioned, but it’s what popped up on the Universe’s shiny silver platter, so off I go once more. I head back to Calistoga in a couple of weeks for leader training, and to make nice with my future co-leader, who will hopefully possess all of the good humor and none of the Hepatitis of my former partner. I was hoping to do a great deal more couch-surfing in the northeast than I was able to, but I have high hopes for early December. In the mean time, I will simply cyber stalk you all on Facebook (a cruel, but infinitely diverting mistress) to fill the gaping holes in my knowledge of your daily adventures. I’ll be in the U.S. until the first week in September, and will try to catch up with most of you in some (undoubtedly inadequate) form before then.